11 August 2015

Women who bucked tradition...

... Nellie Bly and Calamity Jane
By Dan Jorgensen
Calamity Jane 1890's
While they led intensely different lives, the parallel paths followed by Nellie Bly and Calamity Jane provide interesting perspectives on how women tackled previously untested roles to open doors and pave the way for generations of women who followed.

Nellie Circa 1890
In my novel And The Wind Whispered, Nellie Bly, perhaps the greatest investigative reporter who ever lived, arrives in 1894 Hot Springs in the southern Black Hills ready to “be a tourist” in a region being touted as “The new Baden, Baden.  A genteel land of relaxation, spas and breathtaking scenery.”  While that description was justified, it’s remarkable that less than 100 miles away, Calamity Jane was holding court as “Queen of Deadwood,” one of the Old West’s wildest and “least accommodating” communities.

The intersection of this newfound “tourist respectability” with the ongoing “Wild West” owes something to both of these remarkable women, whose lives paralleled but rarely intersected as each was establishing herself in historical lore.

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, “Nellie” built her reputation as the most renowned undercover and daredevil reporter of her time.  Her impact on what had been considered the domain of men lasts until this day. She was a dynamo in a small frame.  Her slight build, short-cropped hair and thin waist made her appear fragile, but it masked a stubbornness and will of iron that made her a formidable force.

Nellie 1894
Nellie took her pen name to protect her identity, particularly since she was going into so many dangerous situations where the discovery of who she really was could lead to injury or death.  She reported on terrible working conditions from factories to the burlesque stage, posed as an insane woman to unmask the horrors of infamous Blackwell’s Island Sanatorium, and traveled alone around the world to beat a mythical record from Jules Verne’s famous book. 

To avoid discovery, cover her tracks and protect her sources, she would write on tiny pieces of paper and conceal them inside special pockets sewn inside her underwear.  To defend herself and make quick getaways, she became an accomplished marksman and horseback rider.  She memorized conversations and transcribed them at night in her hotel room, sending coded reports to her editors via the telegraph wire. Generations of investigative reporters have emulated her style, including Truman Capote, who used it for his interviews while writing In Cold Blood

Traveling alone, Nellie reported from far-reaching sites, including parts of the Wild West previously not visited by “respectable” women; towns like Deadwood.  “A free American girl … can travel anywhere and do anything,” she wrote.  And women everywhere, especially younger women and girls, believed her completely and came by the droves to permanently change those communities.

She simultaneously brought new excitement to journalism and shed light on sexist ideologies permeating Society.  Nellie Bly became a household synonym for journalistic excellence. So, when she left journalism to marry, Arthur Brisbane, the managing editor of The New York World, lamented:  “Reporting has suffered a great loss.  Nellie Bly’s the best reporter in the world.  Not the best female reporter, simply the best.”

While Nellie was writing her way to fame, Calamity Jane – born Martha Jane Canary – was creating her own larger than life persona as a rough-riding, hard-drinking, hard-smoking, “champion swearer of the Black Hills,” working as a muleskinner, bullwhacker, and scout for the Army. Her title of “champion swearer” was not just assigned – she actually won it in a competition.

Calamity Jane 1890's
By 1894 she was so notorious that two Black Hills Creeks and a Peak had been named in her honor.  (Fortunately, Calamity Peak did not lend itself to good carving, so Mount Calamity never came to be). 

Calamity came to the Black Hills as a scout for a wagon train that included Wild Bill Hickok, and by the time they reached Deadwood they were nearly inseparable until his murder. Dressed in leather with a powerful voice and “nasty saloon habits,” she quickly took center stage, even in that rough and ready boomtown.   

But Calamity Jane was an enigma. Fearless, mean and nasty when the need arose, she also was held in highest regard for her kindness and gentle care of the poor or injured. She literally gave her last dime to help the needy, and during the 1878 smallpox epidemic spent weeks nursing the sick and dying – without fear or compensation. 

Opponents said she was “just another harlot, no different from 90 percent of the other Deadwood prostitutes – only uglier and meaner” – but she could exude remarkable charm and beauty when she chose to bathe and “get fixed up.”

Martha Jane became Calamity beginning at age 12 after her parents’ death. While doing men’s jobs dressed as a man, she also found prostitution to be a lucrative trade. Being both charming and a fierce fighter when threatened, she told some men that while sex was on the table, “You’re courting calamity if you mess with me.”  Thus, perhaps, the genesis for her nickname. 

She rode as a scout at age 23, traveled to the gold fields at age 25, and personally helped foster her own reputation by writing a widely shared autobiography. She also encouraged dime novelists to write sordid tales of her wild sex affairs with some of the most notorious desperados of the day. 

By 1895, when Nellie was leaving the limelight to run her husband’s business, Calamity was expanding her fame. She joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and toured America. Wherever she performed, she also sold copies of her greatly exaggerated autobiography, further spreading her story. 

But her hard living caught up with her and she died at age 51, exactly 27 years to the day that Wild Bill was shot to death in a Deadwood saloon.  Whether loved or despised, she always drew a crowd, and a mile-long procession followed her hearse to Deadwood’s Boot Hill – where she lies buried side-by-side with Wild Bill.
Wild Bill 1896
Meanwhile, after a 20-year sojourn, Nellie returned to journalism and, true to form, became the first female war correspondent, covering World War I and achieving more reporting fame.  Exposed to the ravages of war, she developed lung problems and died of pneumonia in 1922 at age 57.  She is buried in New York City, and despite her popularity, only three people came to her funeral. 


"And The Wind Whispered," is also at Bygone Era Books' site:  www.bygoneerabooks.com


  1. Sounds wonderful! I recently read an excellent biography of Nellie Bly called "Eighty Days," which detailed Bly's "race" against Elizabeth Beland. I've added "And the Wind Whispered" to my To-Read list. :-)

    1. THanks Meredith- I must confess it was Doris Day who first nudged my interest about Calamity "Oh the deadwood Stage is a-comin' up over the hill...." LOL


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