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Outlaws, lawmen and colorful characters: Who built the legend of Deadwood

A look into some of the personalities that created the legend of Deadwood, one of the Wild West's most infamous towns.

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A panoramic view of Deadwood from Mount Moriah Cemetary.
Cassie Williams / Mitchell Republic
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a larger series that will include stories on the history, violence, vice and historical preservation efforts in Deadwood, a community of approximately 1,200 residents in the Black Hills of South Dakota that boasts a history rich in famous figures, gold and western expansion from the 1800s into the 20th century. Stories on these subjects will appear in upcoming editions of the Mitchell Republic.

DEADWOOD, S.D. — The history of Deadwood contorts itself around the legends of those who journeyed to it. The legacy of Deadwood itself has been enmeshed with thousands of stories of those who have lived there or simply passed by, and history continues to be unraveled as time goes on.

Names like "Wild Bill" Hickok and "Calamity Jane" ring as some of the most notorious western figures in the American move west; however, some stories, such as Edward Senn or the madams of Deadwood's infamous brothels, are oftentimes overlooked.

'Wild Bill'

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2006.06 James Butler "Wild Bill" Collection. Courtesy of Deadwood Historic Preservation.
J.W. Clark Mendota, III

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was born in 1837 in Illinois to farmer and abolitionist Williams Alonzo Hickok and his wife, Polly Butler. From a young age, Hickok was recognized as an outstanding marksman, leading him to join the U.S. Army at 24. During his time in the Army, Hickok served as a teamster, scout and spy during the Civil War.

Most stories depict Hickok as a legendary figure of the Wild West, with the majority of his legend built on his ability to handle a pistol in each hand. Hickok was known as one of the first “fast guns,” as he carried his guns butts-forward, a more unusual style of carry for the time period. He was also known for his calm nature and deliberate aim during shootouts.

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Hickok was known for his legendary gunfights throughout his lifetime. His last shootout was instigated by an advertisement of a bull with an erect penis outside of a saloon in Abilene, Texas. The saloon owner, Phil Coe, refused to take down the advertisement despite backlash from the town’s residents. After Coe's refusal to remove it, Hickok took it upon himself to alter the image himself, infuriating Coe even more.

On October 5, 1871, Coe fired multiple rounds during a street brawl, of which Hickok was observing with the sideline crowds. Hickok ordered for Coe to be arrested due to firing a weapon within city limits, to which Coe claimed he was simply shooting at a stray dog before turning his pistol on Hickok. Hickok fired first, killing Coe.

After shooting Coe, however, Hickok saw another figure coming towards him. He immediately shot two more rounds, killing Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams.

The accidental shooting of his friend cost him his job as marshal, of which he was relieved of his duties two months later. This incident was one of many questionable shootings and claims of misconduct during his career, but most note that the death of Deputy Williams haunted Hickok for the remainder of his life.

In 1873, Wild Bill was invited to act in William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show, known as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Hickok was recruited to act in Cody’s new play called “Scout of the Plains,” where Hickok would be acting alongside John “Texas Jack” Omohundro, another famous cowboy of the West.

Hickok did not take to acting, however, and oftentimes hid being props during shows. According to the Deadwood City Archives, some reports recalled that Hickok even went as far as to shoot a stage light when it focused on him during a show. He was subsequently released from the group a few months later.

On Aug. 1, 1876, Hickok had sat down to play poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. When another chair became available, another man, visibly drunk, sat down beside him. The man, Jack McCall, lost heavily and Hickok quickly recommended that he should quit until he could cover his losses, even offering to pay for his breakfast. McCall accepted the money, though he was insulted by Hickok’s words.

The next day, Hickok arrived back at the saloon for another round of poker. Though he usually opted for a seat with clear viewing of the door, Hickok was forced to sit with his back facing the entrance due to it being the only seat available. He twice asked to switch with someone else, but was denied each time.

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Hickok was shot in the back of the head by McCall, who entered the saloon and shouted, “Damn you! Take that!” before shooting Hickok at point-blank range.

Hickok died instantly at the age of 39, but his legend continued to grow, becoming his legacy.

Hickok was buried in Deadwood. His gravesite has been one of the most visited in the United States, and subject to many acts of vandalism over the years. Despite multiple statues being erected in his name, most have broken due to tourists and improper handling. Today, his gravesite, which faces Roosevelt's friendship tower, in Mount Moriah is protected by a chain link fence.

'Calamity Jane'

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Pictured is Martha "Calamity Jane" Canary, famous western heroine.
Photo courtesy of Deadwood Public Library.

Though her legacy remains shrouded in controversy and speculation, Martha Jane Canary, or better known as Calamity Jane, was indeed one of the most famous of legends to come from Deadwood.

Canary, the oldest of six children, relocated in her early childhood from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana Territory in 1865. The following year, her mother died of pneumonia. Her father, a known gambler, died in 1867 of unknown causes, leaving Canary and her five siblings orphaned.

Canary took charge of her siblings, uprooting the family once more and relocating to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory, at just 14 years old. The children arrived in May of 1868 and, from there, traveled on toward Piedmont, Wyoming.

In Piedmont, Calamity Jane took many jobs to try to support her and her siblings, working as a dance-hall girl, waitress, laundress, dishwasher and prostitute. It was around this time that Canary started wearing men’s clothing to disguise her gender, which would later define her persona.

In 1874, she found work as a scout at Fort Russell. During this time, she began prostituting at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch.

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During this time period, Canary earned her nickname, “Calamity Jane,” though the details surrounding the how and why remains unknown. According to the Deadwood City Archives, one account said that it was Captain James Egan who dubbed her Calamity Jane first, after proclaiming at Goose Creek, Wyoming, “I name you Calamity Jane, heroine of the Plains!”

In 1875, Canary claimed that her scouting detachment was ordered by General George Crook to the Big Horn River. According to an autobiographical pamphlet written by Canary, she swam multiple important dispatches across the Platte River, and traveled over 90 miles at top speed to deliver them, all while cold and wet. She claimed that she fell ill due to this. This has not been able to be verified by historians.

However, true accounts have noted that Canary did become ill from an unknown sickness and spent a few weeks regaining her strength before joining a wagon train at Fort Laramie in July of 1876. The wagon train was headed north, and in the party she’d joined was none other than Wild Bill Hickok himself.

Canary settled in the Deadwood area in 1876, later befriending the leading Black Hills’ madam, Dora DuFran, who would occasionally hire Canary as a laundress and prostitute.

“She did whatever she could to earn a living for herself when she was here,” Rose Speirs, communications director of Deadwood History Inc., explained. “She prostituted for a few of the brothels here in Deadwood in the early days, and came back to work for Dora DuFran before she passed, but she didn’t live here the entire time. She came and went.”

Canary had a few children – two to four daughters are estimated by historians – but the father of those children remains unknown. Speculation of a love-affair between Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane grew more popular following their deaths, but nothing has been able to be confirmed by historians.

In the late 1880s, Canary returned to Deadwood to allegedly raise money for her daughter’s schooling at St. Martin’s Academy in Sturgis, South Dakota. A benefit was held at Canary’s request in one of the theaters, which ended up being quite successful. However, Canary got drunk and spent a considerable amount of the money buying drinks for everyone. She left with the child the next day.

Calamity Jane was portrayed as an expert scout and general western heroine, but, in reality, she still had many faults, such as suffering from severe alcoholism. When not on the road, Canary was often found at local saloons drinking heavily and chewing tobacco.

Many accounts recall that she was often the life of the party and had a very good-hearted and caring side that wasn’t often seen by the public. During the outbreak of smallpox in Deadwood in the late 1870s, Canary tended to the ill.

In the spring of 1903, Canary’s health began to decline. She returned to Deadwood for work, according to Speirs, but was in “rough shape.” Madame Dora DuFran offered her a job doing laundry and cooking for her girls at the brothel.

In late July of 1903, Canary boarded a train to Terry, South Dakota, where she drank too much and fell ill, having to be carried off by the conductor while a local bartender secured a room at a nearby hotel for her. Unfortunately, her conditions worsened and she died at the Calloway Hotel on Saturday, Aug. 1, 1903. The physician, at the time, noted that he believed her to have passed from inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia.

Calamity Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, directly next to Wild Bill Hickok. According to legend, four of the men who helped to plan her funeral thought it would be funny to play a posthumous joke on Hickok, noting that Hickok had “absolutely no use” for Canary when she was alive. Another account states that Canary herself had requested as her dying wish for her final resting place to be next to Hickok.

Speirs, however, noted that it just as well could have been the city planning committee who brought Calamity Jane back to Deadwood due to her notoriety.

Edward 'E.L.' Senn

Deadwood was known as one of the wildest towns in South Dakota. It’s popularity grew exponentially as people realized the city nearly encouraged the need for vices. However, not everyone was a fan of the lawlessness and sin that surrounded Deadwood, including editor and journalist Edward Senn.

“In the 1920s, there was a newspaper editor who came here who went by the name Edward Senn, and he was quite the reformist,” Speirs said. “You’re about in the middle of hell in Deadwood, so there’s a lot to reform here.”

According to Speirs, Senn sent out his paper, the daily Deadwood Daily Telegram, which he used as his platform to attempt to reform the city.

“He’d often go after all the vice – the liquor, the gaming, the prostitution – whatever he could think of,” Speirs noted. “And we kind of like our vice here, so, as you can imagine, he wasn’t very popular.”

Senn was eventually paid a visit by some men, though they remain unnamed, at his printing shop. There, Senn was brutally beaten while a few other men destroyed his printing press, which Speirs noted was “pretty expensive and hard to come by” during the time. The men then set the building on fire, according to Speirs, “for good measure.”

“They wanted to make sure he got the message (that he wasn’t welcome),” Speirs said with a laugh. “The poor guy would walk down the street – the cops would beat him up!”

Senn stayed put for a good number of years, however, despite the makings of many enemies. In fact, a good number passionately supported his endeavors to eliminate sin from Deadwood.

His fight against both legal and illegal alcohol in Deadwood led to his appointment as the federal director of Prohibition in South Dakota, hand-picked by the governor himself.

Senn died at age 85, and was later buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Watch for more about famous Deadwood residents, like Seth Bullock, in upcoming issues of the Mitchell Republic.

“Let’s put this in the rearview mirror,” Sen. Michael Diedrich, a Rapid City Republican said.
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Cassie Williams joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2022. To get in contact with Cassie about potential stories, feel free to email her at cwilliams@mitchellrepublic.com.
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