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Book Review: Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends by James D. McLaird

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"Legend" is a word tossed around too easily and misused too often. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a legend is "an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical."

In titling his latest book, James D. McLaird demonstrates he knows what the word means. Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends explains that much of what we think we know about Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in Deadwood is, in fact, the stuff of legend.

An emeritus professor of history at Dakota Wesleyan University and author of an earlier biography on Calamity Jane, McLaird wastes no time conveying his point. On the first page of the introduction, he tells the reader that Wild Bill and Calamity Jane "accomplished little of significance to deserve their prominence" in the history of Deadwood. Still, the goal of Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends isn't to demolish the celebrity of Wild Bill — whose real name was James — or Calamity Jane — whose real name was Martha Canary. Instead, as a historian is inclined to do, McLaird examines their lives using facts, not mythology.

Essentially, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane become their era's equivalent of mass media darlings. Hickok garnered his national reputation thanks to a February 1867 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine and ensuing dime novels. McLaird notes, though, that the magazine article's tales of Hickok's derring-do "bore little resemblance to actual events, and some episodes were entirely fictionalized." Similarly, the connection between Hickok and Calamity Jane is more tenuous than commonly thought.

The two met for the first time in July 1867, when Calamity Jane hooked up with a group heading to the Black Hills that included Hickok. Less than a month later, Hickok was dead. Although known in the area because of previous trips there and as a dance-hall girl, Calamity Jane's national fame didn't begin until after Hickok's death. Like Hickok, a magazine article and, more important, a series of highly popular dime novels published between 1877 and 1885 featuring "Deadwood Dick," in which she was a character, pushed her into the spotlight.

McLaird approaches each individual's life story separately, which is easier than popular belief might think. McLaird argues with some credence that no intimate connection between the two arose in the public eye until Calamity Jane was buried next to Wild Bill in Deadwood's Mount Moriah Cemetery in 1903. Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends examines how each gained their national reputations and compares the mythology built around them during and after their lives to more historically accurate accounts. McLaird also explores their lives once the spotlight of fame fell upon them, as well as Hickok's brief period of time in Deadwood and how the two ultimately became even bigger cultural icons and a joint part of Deadwood lore and tourism.

McLaird relays their stories concisely, pointing out the heavy varnish that at times was used to polish their character. His book illustrates what gave rise to differences of opinion that existed about them during their time. To some, they helped personify the lure and individualism of the west. To others, they were simply "scum," undeserving of attention. Yet where McLaird pokes holes in popular versions of their lives, he does so recognizing that it is the folklore that means so much to popular American history and culture, helping make the book an interesting combination of biography and cultural/historical study.

No one can doubt that Wild Bill and Calamity Jane live on into the 21st Century, whether in popular culture, such as the HBO television series Deadwood, or by helping make the actual town of Deadwood a popular tourist attraction to this day. In exploring both the fact and fiction of their lives, McLaird establishes that, individually and collectively, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are legends in the true sense of the word.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.