Sunday, July 14, 2013

Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends (South Dakota Biography Series)

The second of the Deadwood books featured Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The two have been joined in history despite never really having much to do with each other. In the the TV show the characters are played as legendary (Hickok) and vagrant (Jane). The real story is (as is often the case) much different. I will start with Jane. She was a woman who really was wild, tough and perhaps more than a little loose morally speaking. But she wanted to be more. She earned money as a tracker, did get involved with more traditional forms of employment but mostly earned her money the way many women had to back those time. She worked in local brothels. She was a hard drinker, a decent shot and for some reason a local writer cleaned up has story and she became a bit of a local legend in her own time. She used that status to make a better life for herself but she could never seem to get out of her own way. She is buried near Hickcok, again despite the fact they we never really a couple.
Hickok's legend is harder to pin down. It appears that he became a legendary figure mostly because people thought he was a legendary figure. His exploits were featured in dime store books at the time and each time his story was told he became faster with his pistols, better at gambling and more of a draw for the ladies. He used his fame to secure special favors in small towns where salons would give his preferential treatment just to play cards in their bars. Some of the stories have bits of truth in them, like all good stories.
When I read this book I decided that most of our legendary figures are just like these two people. They did some good thing, some bad things, maybe even some remarkable things. The fact that someone wrote about them and make them famous had more to do with luck than anything. We live in an era where that is very much happening. We have far too many celebrities who are famous only for being famous. At least as written in these books Hickok and Jane seem much more interesting and worth a little fame than most of today's reality "stars" who will most likely not rate their own historical society books.

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