Calamity Jane never acted like a pious woman. She was gritty, dressed like a man, swore like a sailor, and wielded her weapons recklessly. Her reputation became downright legendary, but her wild life in the Wild West led her straight to an end so brutal—it’s unforgettable.
1. She Had A Rough Upbringing
Like most of her life, Calamity Jane’s beginnings are shrouded in mystery and scream of tragedy. Born Martha Canary on May 1, 1852, her home life was turbulent from the get-go.
Her father Robert had a penchant for gambling, while her mother Charlotte’s history is almost unknown. Their lives were unimaginably hard—but little did they know, the worst was yet to come.
2. She Endured A Terrible Loss
In 1865, Martha and her family uprooted themselves, moving from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. Trundling along in a wagon train, disaster struck when Martha’s mother fell gravely ill. In fact, she was so sick, she could hardly draw a breath.
Martha and her siblings watched in horror as Charlotte succumbed to pneumonia before their very eyes. But this was only their first taste of loss.
3. She Couldn’t Catch A Break
Despite their crushing grief, Martha and her family forged on, settling in Salt Lake City in 1866. Her father had mighty goals and began farming 40 acres of land—but within a year, fate dealt Martha another cruel blow.
Her father also passed, leaving all six children orphaned and horribly alone. As the eldest, Martha had no choice but to shoulder the largest burden imaginable.
4. She Became Their Leader
Now, at the time of her father’s demise, Martha was only 14 years old—a startlingly young age to be the new head of the household. With five younger siblings looking to her to take the reins, she became responsible for their lives and well-being. To put food on the table, Martha needed to find work—but this led her down a dark path.
5. She Sold Herself
Growing up at the speed of light, Martha took on a shocking number of occupations: dishwasher, waitress, cook, nurse, ox-team driver, and dance hall nurse. In 1874, she claimed to be working as a scout at Fort Russell. But that wasn’t all.
Perhaps most infamously, she began selling her own body for money. It was a time of endless toiling and hard work. And yet, unbeknownst to Martha, a world of adventure lay at her fingertips.
6. She Had A Dirty Mouth
During these years, Martha began to gain a scandalous reputation in the region. She became something of a curiosity because she simply didn’t act like a typical pious woman. Oh no, Martha was a downright curiosity with her filthy mouth, wildness, and trigger-happy ways.
She was a rarity on the frontier, but she didn’t hesitate to go one step further.
7. She Dressed Like A Man
At Fort Russell, Martha began fashioning what would one day become her signature look. She wore a soldier’s uniform and dressed like a man. More importantly, she lived like a man, helping to wrangle Indigenous groups and place them on reservations.
With a very high opinion of herself, she later claimed that she was one of the best marksmen in the West. But her reckless nature never failed to get her into some serious scrapes.
8. She Rode Into Danger
According to Martha, she transformed into Calamity Jane through her involvement in dangerous campaigns, but one pivotal conflict changed her life forever. In Goose Creek, Wyoming, she went out with a group of officers to help mediate an uprising of Indigenous folks. And that’s when the blood bath began.
9. She Survived The Battle
Over the course of several days, Martha watched her comrades fall and six of them didn’t make it. The skirmishes were brutal and left the group depleted and wounded. Still, the nightmare raged on. She retreated and was only a mile and a half from safety when Indigenous enemies ambushed her.
Hearing the shots ring out, Martha whipped around in her seat…She couldn’t believe her eyes.
10. She Saved His Life
As the sound of firing surrounded her, Martha watched her Captain struggling to remain upright in his saddle; he’d been wounded badly. With heroism in her heart, she turned her own horse around and rode to his aid. Martha caught him in her arms right before he hit the ground, swinging his body onto her own horse and riding like the wind.
11. She Got A New Name
Thanks to Martha, Captain Egan lived to ride another day. She made it back to the Fort—and this was where a life-changing moment took place. The Captain, laughing with gratitude and relief, said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains”. However, other witnesses and historians believe there is more to this surreal account.
12. She Told Her “Truth”
Many years down the road, in 1896, Calamity Jane released an autobiographical booklet. In fact, the hair-raising backstory about her skirmish with the Indigenous folks and her subsequent christening can be found in its pages. But here’s the problem: She wrote the pamphlet for publicity purposes.
She wanted to attract an audience for her upcoming tour—but this didn’t necessarily make her stories true.
13. She Exaggerated Her Adventures
Sadly, much of Calamity Jane’s early life is incredibly murky because her pamphlet just can’t be wholly trusted. She exaggerated and even invented some of her most dramatic tales. For instance, Captain Jack Crawford claimed that Calamity Jane “never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight”.
If this is true, then how did she really get her legendary name?
14. She Courted Calamity
Although this can’t be confirmed, a popular theory is that Calamity Jane acquired her name after warning men that to offend her was to “court calamity”. In the midst of all this speculation, one thing is undeniable.
By 1876, her catchy nickname had already been circulating—and it even appeared in the headline of Deadwood’s newspaper, reading, “Calamity Jane has arrived!”
15. She Endured Terrible Conditions
Ordered north, Jane set out to join General Miles, Terry, and Custer at the Big Horn River—but her journey was harrowing. To deliver dispatches, she had to swim the Platte River. After that she traveled a whopping 90 miles to a local outpost, soaked to the skin and shivering. Unsurprisingly, she did not escape such a brutal journey unscathed.
16. She Paid A High Price
After her frigid expedition, Calamity Jane fell terribly ill. Loaded into General Crook’s ambulance, she sped back to Fort Fetterman. For the next two weeks, she struggled in the hospital, fighting to regain her strength and health.
Of course, Jane being Jane, she pulled through. Her next adventure, however, would lead her to the one man who’d help define her legacy.
17. She Met A Dear Friend
After recuperating, Jane traveled to Fort Laramie. Here, she met an astounding character, Wild Bill Hickok—but there was something eerily familiar about him.
You see, Bill just happened to be a lot like Jane herself. The similarities were uncanny. They both had a knack for dramatic exaggerations and could drink one another under the table. It was a relationship destined to go down in history.
18. She Sparked Rumors
Calamity Jane and Bill Hickok got on like a house on fire—but the intimate details of their relationship remain up for debate. Many believe they were romantically involved, but it wasn’t until decades later that “evidence” for this actually surfaced. Whatever the case may have been, their meeting changed the course of Jane’s life forever.
19. She Followed Him
After meeting Bill, Jane joined him and the wagon train he traveled with, heading for Deadwood, South Dakota. Here, she undertook yet another grueling occupation.
She became a Pony Express rider, safeguarding the US mail over the distance of 50 miles, between Deadwood and Custer. But more importantly, her arrival in Deadwood sparked the beginning of her stardom.
20. Everyone Loved Her Story
At first, Jane had always been the subject of gossip and scandalous whispers, but her story eventually found international notoriety. She became a real-life character, her “story” becoming widespread as newspapers and literary publications sensationalized her adventures. Dime novels were especially instrumental in garnering her fame.
21. She Became A Star
Dime novels were cheap texts that exaggerated the “Wild West” and its dramas—and Calamity Jane just happened to be one of its most popular characters. She became the leading lady to Deadwood Dick and lived a life of action and glorious freedom. Jane filled a niche and was exactly the kind of character the public wanted.
But sadly, no amount of fame could save Jane from heartache.
22. She Lost Him In A Tragic Way
On August 2, 1876, a terrible tragedy rocked Jane’s world. Her friend Wild Bill Hickok joined a gambling table at a Deadwood saloon…He didn’t walk out of there alive.
A man named Jack McCall came up behind him and put a hole in the back of the head. Hickok passed while holding what became known as a “dead man’s hand”— a pair of eights and a pair of aces. Apparently, Jane reacted to this loss in a chilling way.
23. She Went After Him
As always, Jane had a heart-racing story to tell following Bill’s untimely demise. She claimed to have chased down the perpetrator Jack McCall with a meat cleaver, having left her pieces at home. Despite Jane’s bloodthirsty efforts, McCall didn’t meet his day of judgment at her hands. But that didn’t mean that his fate was any less gruesome.
24. She Wanted Justice
McCall claimed that Bill Hickok had taken the life of his brother, and at first, he got off as “not guilty”. But he wasn’t home free yet. No doubt to Jane’s satisfaction, McCall had to undergo another trial, and this time he did not escape so easily. Facing the worst sentence imaginable, he hung the following year.
25. She Couldn’t Escape Disaster
In the wake of Bill’s tragic passing, Jane didn’t abandon Deadwood. She stayed and prospected mining camps. But just when life seemed to settle down, another disaster came raging out of the blue and sideswiped her. Enter: the smallpox plague.
Always playing the hero, Jane swooped in and shocked everyone.
26. She Had An Unexpected Soft Side
As smallpox ravaged the citizens of Deadwood, Jane remained a pillar of strength. She proved herself to be a capable nurse, saving lives and caring for the ill. Though she received little thanks for her tender ministrations, she forged onward. Though known for her rough and tough exterior, Jane revealed an unexpected facet of her character that few had the opportunity to witness.
27. She Was An Angel
As Jane descended on her ailing patients, Doc Babcock took notice, admitting that the posturing woman did indeed have something of an angel within her. The doctor noted that while tending to children “she’d swear to beat hell at them, but it was a tender kind of cussin’”. But though she could be maternal, her hard-boiled antics were far from over.
28. She Caused A Scene
Buckle up for this wild story. When Calamity Jane visited the East Lynne Opera House to see a show, it ended in disaster. It didn’t help that she’d brought her belligerent friend Arkansas Tom along for the ride. Apparently, at the end of the play, Jane became angry. That’s when she stood up and did the unthinkable.
29. She Did Her Dirty
Facing the stage, a rowdy Calamity Jane unleashed a nasty stream of tobacco juice, directing it right at the star player. To everyone’s horror, the brown-colored liquid hit the lead in the eye and leaked down her dress. For Arkansas Tom, this was his cue to let loose and cause even more chaos.
30. She Roused The Audience
After the unfortunate tobacco incident, Arkansas Tom’s hands flashed to his holsters. With a few deft shots, he took out all the lamps. The crowds were absolutely ecstatic. To a soundtrack of cheers, Calamity Jane grabbed Tom by the arm, and together, they strolled up the main aisle and out into the open air. But here’s the sad part.
31. She Never Saw Him Again
Though Jane and Tom managed to kick up their heels at the Opera House, tragedy followed at their heels. After leaving, she never saw Tom again. The very next day, the grim reaper came and claimed him at a bank stick-up.
Trouble seemed to follow Jane wherever she went, and this next fiasco was no exception.
32. She Came To The Rescue
While riding toward Crook city in the spring of 1877, Calamity Jane encountered a huge problem. She happened upon a stagecoach fleeing Cheyenne with a hostile Indigenous group on its tail. Of course, Jane decided to get involved.
She pulled up to the side of the stagecoach—but when she peered inside, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
33. She Saved Them
A horrible sight greeted Calamity Jane. The driver of the stagecoach had been pierced with an arrow and lay face down on the ground. Jumping to attention, she took over and slid into the driver’s seat. Thanks to her brave efforts, the precious cargo of six passengers made it all the way to Deadwood.
The nature of exploits such as these helped make her a household name.
34. She Was Infamous
As the late 1870s rolled around, Calamity Jane courted infamy, with one dime novel even calling her “The White Devil of the Yellowstone”. But in the midst of her growing reputation, Jane herself began settling down. By the early 80s, she purchased a ranch on the Yellowstone River and kept a wayside inn. But this wasn’t enough for her.
Jane’s roaming spirit couldn’t stay pinned down for long.
35. She Never Stopped Moving
Jane had already lived a thousand lifetimes in one, but there was still one adventure she hadn’t embarked upon—and that was marriage. After getting the travel bug and moving to Texas, she met Clinton Burke. But this wasn’t just any man. In the late summer of 1885, she started a new chapter of her life and married him.
But as her new husband soon discovered, Calamity Jane was just not the kind of woman he could tame.
36. She Couldn’t Forget Her Past
The seemingly happy couple ended up in Boulder, Colorado, where they took charge of a hotel. But there was something that Jane just couldn’t shake—her past. For years, she continued to try to tell her outrageous stories—and her desire to put on a show shaped her destiny in a disturbing way.
37. She Put On A Show
In 1895, Calamity Jane ended up in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After all, she was an excellent marksman and a downright cowboy. She began sharpshooting for an audience while riding her horse. Jane performed her character for the world, touring and becoming a star on stage. Ironically, it was also her reputation for insobriety that got her fired.
Calamity Jane—once a woman with a purpose—began to lose her way.
38. She Turned Down A Dark Path
In 1900, a newspaper editor made a chilling discovery when they found a Calamity Jane languishing in a brothel. Though she managed to recover her health, she continued to sabotage her own success. After landing a gig with the Pan American Exposition, Jane had two choices: She could show up for work or cause a riotous scene…
39. She Began To Spiral
Calamity Jane not only threw caution to the wind but also kissed goodbye a decent job. While at a bar, she drank heavily, pulled her pieces out, and began blasting them in view of officers. It ended badly. Pathetically, she ended up tripping down the road, her filthy mouth spewing curses into the air.
One thing was for sure: Calamity Jane had begun to spiral.
40. Her Drinking Destroyed Her
Calamity Jane’s penchant for drinking heartbreakingly destroyed her. In 1903, she returned to the Black Hills—but this would be the last time. Her health was in bad shape and she’d lost almost everything. With her, Jane carried a shabby, old suitcase and had very few belongings. In a moment of desperation, she ended up in a very depressing place.
41. She Worked At A Bawdy House
Having hit rock bottom, Jane showed up on the doorstep of Madam Dora DuFran’s bawdy house. With no money to her name, Jane worked for her keep, undertaking both the cooking and laundry for all the girls. This line of work, however, couldn’t keep her alive. Her life was already crumbling around her, and by this time, it was far too late.
42. She Couldn’t Stop the Cycle
Sadly, by August 1903, Calamity Jane knew that the end was terrifyingly near. She’d taken the train to Terry, South Dakota—but mid-journey, tragedy struck. Apparently, she’d been drinking herself silly on board and became dangerously ill. The conductor himself, SG Tillett, hauled Jane off the train, carrying her in his arms. This was the beginning of the end.
43. She Made A Heartbreaking Request
After getting her into a room at the Calloway, a physician came to call on the ailing patient. The diagnosis did not look good; she had inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia. As she lay there wasting away, she made one last heartbreaking request. She wanted to be buried next to the infamous Wild Bill Hickok.
44. She Was A Joke
In the end, Calamity Jane got her wish. After passing on August 1, 1903, she did indeed find her place of rest at the Mount Moriah Cemetery, next to her old comrade Wild Bill. But there’s a devastating detail about her burial that few know. Apparently, the four men who arranged her funeral thought placing her next to Bill was a joke.
45. She Didn’t Mean Anything To Him
You see, according to these four men, Hickok had “absolutely no use” for Jane, and so burying her so close to him was something of an inside joke. But was Jane really nothing to Bill? It would be decades before new evidence surfaced in regard to Jane and Bill’s real relationship—and boy, are the allegations spicy.
46. Her Daughter Came Forward
In 1941, Jean Hickok came forward and made a shocking confession. She claimed to be the child of Calamity Jane Bill Hickok. This changed every assumption ever made about this famous duo. Jean had evidence that her parents had married at Benson’s Landing on September 25, 1873.
The document came in the form of a bible, which was signed by two ministers and multiple witnesses. But that wasn’t all.
47. Her Letters Told A Different Story
After making such a huge claim, Jean met with some vicious backlash. The discrepancies in her story caused many to challenge and doubt her. But she didn’t stop there.
Jean went even further when she published a book of letters, which she claimed Calamity Jane herself penned. These had been found amongst the sad remnants of Jane’s few belonging. The contents of the letters were jaw-dropping.
48. She Was A Mother
These secret letters supported Jean’s claims. They detailed how Calamity Jane had married Hickok, and how she’d borne his daughter in 1873. Still, the plot thickens.
Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that these letters can’t be viewed as substantial evidence as the general consensus is that Jane was actually illiterate. Still, that didn’t mean there wasn’t controversy surrounding Jane’s offspring.
Apparently, Calamity Jane had two daughters, but the identity of their fathers can’t be confirmed. What’s worse? It sounded like Jane wasn’t exactly the best mother around.
49. She Betrayed Her Daughter
In the late 1880s, Calamity Jane showed up in Deadwood with a girl who she introduced as her daughter. She even asked for a benefit to help raise money for the girl’s education. But her well-meaning efforts went terribly awry.
Apparently, Jane got completely plastered, spent the money meant for her daughter, and then fled the scene the following day. But there’s an even sadder layer to this story.
50. She Couldn’t Control Her Impulses
You see, according to Estelline Bennett—a resident of Deadwood—she had had a conversation with Jane only days before the benefit. According to her, Jane’s heart had been completely invested in her daughter’s future and well-being. However, her addiction and lack of control led to the awful binge that ruined everything.
Thankfully, Jane’s mistake didn’t stop her daughter from getting a good education and living a full life.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8