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’.
Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane
"as Karen Jones sets out dismayingly early in her book, the only things that the real-life ‘Calamity Jane’ can with confidence be said to have in common with her legend is that she wore trousers, swore like a navvy and was pissed all the time..."
— The Spectator
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”.