Ultimately, the book’s encyclopedic range is its strength and its limitation, moving as it does through so many versions of this deeply intriguing figure that some (including Weigert’s) receive short shrift. Jones certainly demonstrates the enduring power of what Jack Halberstam calls female masculinity. Calamity Jane emerges as the most famous, and perhaps the best storyteller, of many gender-bending peers. They include another stagecoach driver, “One Eyed Charley”, revealed as Charlotte Parkhurst after her death in 1879. When Milton Matson found that cross-dressing was getting her into trouble – “it seemed natural to me from the first” – she joined a San Francisco freak show in 1895, making good money as “the bogus man”. In the nineteenth-century West, masculinity was far from the exclusive domain of men.
Karen Jones’s book, then, is a sort of dual biography: it’s the biography of Martha Canary (who checks out halfway through this book in 1903, at 47, from alcohol-induced inflammation of the bowels), and it’s the biography of the legend that grew up around her, much of it during her own lifetime and with her encouragement and collusion, and how it changed over the years that followed. She was, writes Jones, a ‘multi-purpose frontier artefact’.
As the historian Karen R Jones explains, much, if not all, of Calamity Jane’s story was probably untrue. She was born Martha Jane Canary in about 1856, and moved west with her parents across the Great Plains to look for land and opportunity, as so many Americans did in those days. It is possible that she was an army scout, but it is equally likely that she was a cook or camp follower. That other great Wild West celebrity, Buffalo Bill Cody described her as a “mascot”, while another observer declared that she was a prostitute and said he had never seen her fire a gun in anger, except “into space”.