September 08, 2013

Wild Bill Hickock, a Deadwood Calamity

David Ellis

ONCE one of the shootin'est places in America's West, Deadwood in the famed Black Hills of South Dakota has a population today of just 1,280, yet over 80 gambling casinos.

And it's got a cemetery whose 3,600 graves draw 100,000-something aficionados of the Wild West every year, many just to see those of one-time lawman James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickock, and next to him, at her request, Martha Jane "Calamity Jane" Cannary. Neither of whom in real life, however, quite matched Doris Day's almost-prim version of Calamity, or the clean-cut Howard Keel's law-abiding Wild Bill in 1953 Hollywood's  Calamity Jane.

Wild Bill and Calamity had arrived at Deadwood on the same day in July 1876, Bill with his mate "Colorado Charlie" Utter, and Jane with some ladies of doubtful repute. They'd travelled aboard a 30-piece wagon train of over 200 prospectors, gamblers and prostitutes as 30,000 hopefuls flocked to the Black Hills to stake claims over gold discovered there a year earlier.

And no longer a lawman after one too many dubious shoot-outs – he had 36 legal and more-questionable notches on his gun-belt – Wild Bill was now a professional gambler, with intentions on relieving the miners of some of the gold that was being dug out of the Black Hills at an incredible $10,000 worth a day… around $1m a week today.

And Martha Jane Cannary quickly proved how she was anything but Doris Day's pretty "Indian scout" Calamity Jane. Rather she was a gun-totin', masculine-looking alcoholic who dressed like a man, shot-out the lights of saloons and gambling halls for kicks, cussed better than any trooper, and worked some of Deadwood's cheaper brothels when in need of cash and whiskey.

Calamity was also madly attracted to Wild Bill, and although he did not reciprocate her attentions, and knowing he had left a 50-year old new bride in Wyoming to seek his fortune at Deadwood's gaming tables, she bizarrely boasted to friends that she and Bill were secretly married, and shared a daughter.

It was pure fiction, as were the many other claims she made of her adventurous life as a frontierswoman, Indian scout, bull wrangler, stage-coach driver and countless similarly more-masculine pursuits. Even Deadwood's Black Hills Pioneer  headlined her arrival there with "Calamity Jane Has Arrived!"

(Just how she got her nickname is unclear, but the most-accepted explanation is that with her quick temper, foul mouth and itchy trigger-finger, men were said to be "courting calamity" if they crossed her.)

And as she lay dying at 53 years of age from the effects of the booze and venereal disease in Terry, South Dakota in1903, Calamity Jane's last wish was that her grave be next to Wild Bill in Deadwood's cemetery – where he'd been buried 27 years earlier after being shot dead in a card game.

His killing had been at the hands of a drunken hoodlum named Jack McCall whom Bill had cleaned-out at a game the day before.

But when he'd gone into Deadwood's No. 10 Saloon on August 2 1876 and the only available chair had its back to the door, rather than his favoured back to the wall, Bill initially declined a game.

When finally convinced to join-in, he'd played just a few hands when McCall lurched through the batwing doors, screamed "Damn you!" and shot Wild Bill point-blank through the head… his pair of black aces and pair of black eights spilled to the floor, and to this day are known as "the deadman's hand."

McCall was captured hiding in a butcher's shop, and put before a hastily formed jury who acquitted him after he claimed it was retribution for Hickock having earlier killed his brother – but when he repeatedly boasted his crime, he was re-arrested, re-tried and hanged.

Visitors to Deadwood today find the town much as it was in Wild Bill and Calamity Jane's day, thanks largely to legislation in 1989 making Deadwood a gambling mecca, with millions of dollars in funds from its 80+ casinos being used to restore and re-open dilapidated 19th and 20th century buildings, and promote a thriving tourism industry.

If you are interested in visiting Deadwood, which is recognised on America's National Historical Register "for the accurate restoration of its past," see travel agents or visit


[1] DEADWOOD as it was in its 1888 Wild West heyday. (Shorpy Historic Photos Archives)
[2] TODAY Deadwood is home to just 1,280 folk amid 80+ casinos. (Shorpy Historic Photos Archives)
[3] NOW empty, the one-time No 10 Saloon where Wild Bill Hickock was shot playing cards. (Cathy Huffman)
[4] GRAVES of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane – bizarrely side-by-side at her request (her's to the right of photo.) (Deadwood Chamber of Commerce)
[5] CALAMITY Jane was not quite the pretty Doris Day. (Deadwood Chamber of Commerce)
[6] WILD Bill Hickock – he had 36 notches on his gun belt, legal and more questionable. (Deadwood Chamber of Commerce) 
[7] DEADMAN'S Hand: Wild Bill's last fatal hand at the card table. (Gaming Magazine)  

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