Weird History

Calamity Jane On 'Deadwood': How Accurate Is The Character To Real Life?

Try as they might, many television series based on real-life events or people often get many facts wrong, and HBO's Deadwood is no different. This critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning series is based on the US history surrounding the outlaw settlement in the dusty Black Hills of South Dakota in 1876. 

It focuses on the richest gold strike in US history and how it draws the attention of misfits looking to make their fortune. The cast of characters is met with a stream of seemingly never-ending challenging situations as they try to get rich and make a life for themselves while surviving the dangerous town. 

While the general setting, individuals, and certain events depicted in the series are true-to-life, many facts were skewed or reimagined for viewer entertainment. We were curious how accurate the series is regarding the fan-favorite character Martha Jane Cannary, AKA Calamity Jane, so we took a deep dive into the true story of Calamity Jane.

  • She Suffered From Lifelong Alcohol Addiction
    Photo: C.E. Finn, Livingston, Mont. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    She Suffered From Lifelong Alcohol Addiction

    According to historical accounts, Jane's battle with alcoholism got so bad that in 1901 she was fired from the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, because of her alcohol-induced erratic behavior. 

    This was only one instance of how her alcoholism got her into trouble. In fact, Jane's intoxicated escapades were a major factor in her notoriety. For example, Jane was once found by Wild Bill Hickok incredibly inebriated and almost entirely naked at an army camp in Fort Laramie, WY. It is believed that their friendship began on this day when he helped Jane find some clothes.

    Sadly, her penchant for liquor was one of the defining traits that kept her legend alive, and it was carried over into the series Deadwood. Jane's rowdy nature is one of the truest things depicted in the series, and actress Jane Weigert's performance is painfully real. In the show, Jane experiences blackouts, often slurs her words to the point of incoherence, gets sick from too much imbibing, and suffers alcoholic shakes.

  • Jane Proudly Wore Men's Clothing
    Photo: HBO

    Jane Proudly Wore Men's Clothing

    Historically, Jane grew up hard because her mother and father died while she was still young. On her own from an early age, Jane had to raise herself, and this led to her developing masculine tendencies that many other females of her class and age did not share. 

    It is unsurprising that Jane frequently wore men's clothes, given her self-reliance, itinerant lifestyle, and the need to assume many roles to earn a living. After moving to Deadwood in 1876, it's believed that Jane became a bullwhacker which was an incredibly physical profession. She would have to haul goods and machinery to nearby outlying camps, and these duties could certainly not be done in a dress. 

    Deadwood depicts Jane as proudly wearing men's clothing, which is accurate. What the series doesn't show is that she did not wear male attire exclusively, and did, occasionally, wear dresses.

  • Jane And 'Wild Bill' Knew Each Other, But Probably Weren't Close Friends
    Photo: HBO

    Jane And 'Wild Bill' Knew Each Other, But Probably Weren't Close Friends

    HBO's Deadwood offers a grim, gritty, and perpetually filthy depiction of the historic frontier town, many aspects of which are true to what we know. Yet, some of the storylines stray from the historical truth. One of the biggest inaccuracies is the relationship depicted between Jane and Wild Bill.

    In Deadwood, Jane considers Bill to be a sweet and kind person who is an almost fatherly figure. In real life, Jane and Wild Bill did know one another, but it's highly unlikely they were close friends

    This tweaking of the historic record may have been a conscious choice by the show's creators, since the real Jane was fond of spinning tall tales, particularly on the subject of Bill. According to the real Calamity Jane, she and Bill were either lovers or married, and even had a child together. Historians consider these claims unlikely.

    Skeptics believe Jane lied in her personal memoir when she said she was friends with the legendary gunslinger. And though she was eventually buried next to him in Deadwood's Mount Moriah Cemetery, it has been remarked that it may have been less a gesture of friendship than a final prank on Bill.

  • While Her Sexuality Is Nebulous On 'Deadwood,' In Real Life She Occasionally Worked As A Prostitute

    Throughout Deadwood, Jane's rough demeanor and male attire make her the target of cutting remarks - many aimed at her sexuality, or lack thereof. Jane herself seems to veer between asexuality and lesbianism, at least where Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) is concerned. 

    Although this is a progressive move for a television show, in real life, Jane was believed to be heterosexual. Additionally, historical accounts have stated that Jane occasionally worked as a prostitute, a marked contrast from the sexually timid personality she has in the show. 

    It's also known that Jane was one of the first dancers at the Gem Theater and that she once took a job finding ten young women for saloon and brothel owner Al Swearengen. She brought the women she found back to the saloon to live a life of servitude - something the show's version of Jane would definitely have balked at.