Wild Women of the West
In this lesson, we will take a look at the extraordinary lives of Calamity Jane, Poker Alice, Charlie Parkhurst and Sally Skull. Not all the women in this lesson were outlaws. Some, like Calamity Jane, simply did not wish to conform to the role expected of her in society. Instead, she preferred to go her own way, to dress as she pleased, and to spend her time in bars and pursue occupations normally held by men. This rebellion led to both admiration and censure on the part of her contemporaries. Though many tales have been written about her heroic adventures, the ladies of Deadwood once took it upon themselves to “clean her up” by giving her a bath and cutting her hair, an act of charity Jane did not appreciate.
During the early days of settlement, a woman needed to have grit and courage in order to survive. Because of the constant dangers from Indian attacks and other hazards, many of the women, from an early age, learned to ride a horse and shoot like a man. Calamity Jane learned her shooting skills on the trek westward with her family. Charlie Parkhurst began dressing as a man to escape an orphanage and continued to do so after learning skills more suited to a male than a female.
Women who did not conform to society’s ideas of who they should be or how they should act often took on a tough, masculine role to pursue a job normally held by men. Calamity Jane often masqueraded as a man when she served as a scout or as a muleskinner. Charlie Parkhurst assumed a masculine identity in order to keep the job she loved–driving a stagecoach. She could not have held this job, traditionally held by men, if the truth of her gender had been known.
Sally Skull, horse trader, would not have gained the fear and respect of her fellow traders if she had been wearing skirts.
Other women discovered they had a skill or interest that was definitely unladylike. Poker Alice’s penchant for playing cards kept her out of the mainstream of genteel society.
Not all of the women in this lesson were outlaws, though all of them lived outside the rules of society. Calamity Jane worked hard and was described as being kind-hearted. She probably did more good deeds than bad. However she also was known to have worked as a prostitute and had a heavy drinking problem. While Poker Alice did not commit any hard crimes, she ran a bordello as well as a card-playing establishment. Sally Skull not only lived outside the role expected of her gender, but was also a dangerous criminal who murdered a countless number of her rivals in the competitive horse trade. These women in this lesson came from diverse backgrounds and had different motivations for how they lived their lives. But in one way they were the same–all of them defied the roles set for them by society.
Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Cannary. Not much is known about her early years. She is believed to have been born in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. She was described as being tall and tough and strong. Jane could drink and shoot like a man, and her crude, unfeminine behavior was the talk of Deadwood, South Dakota. Martha Jane and her younger siblings were orphaned at an early age. In 1865 the family traveled to Virginia city, where smallpox killed her father and her mother died shortly after of some unknown disease.
Left on her own and destitute, Jane sought work. There were few decent jobs for young single girls in western towns. Unable to find employment, she became acquainted with Madam Mustache, who introduced her to prostitution. Jane, however, was not cut out for that life. She swore, drank heavily, chewed tobacco, and got rowdy when drunk and drew guns on her patrons.
In 1868 Jane moved from Montana to Wyoming, where she worked as a muleskinner, a scout, and also drove a team of horses. There are many glamorous accounts of Calamity Jane’s early years, life, and adventures. Some of these myths were perpetuated by Jane herself; while on the other hand, she appeared to also scorn the tales about her wild adventures. Since Jane made up stories herself and other people made up stories about her, it is difficult to tell fact from fiction. But it is known that she lived life boldly, and with a kind of carefree abandon.
No one knows exactly where the nickname Calamity Jane came from. Jane once said it was given to her by Captain Egan when she escorted him safely from a Sioux ambush “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the Plains.” Calamity also said it referred to the trouble she always seemed to get herself mixed up in, and that seems more likely.
Jane claimed in her brief autobiography that she was working for the US army as a scout in 1876 and arrived at Custer’s Last Stand minutes after the last soldier was killed. In truth, she was working as a cattle driver in Wyoming at the time and had been admitted to a hospital with pneumonia. It is true Jane worked as a scout, but she was never near the battlefield at the time of Custer’s Last Stand.
Calamity met Wild Bill Hickok in Ft. Laramie, and together they went to Deadwood, South Dakota round 1876. Jane worked throughout the Black Hills as a messenger, dispatcher, and horse rider. She claimed a romance with Wild Bill, which he adamantly denied. The two, however, were good friends and remained so through their lifetimes. Much of the rumors of romance between them was a product of fiction promoted by their public image. In reality Bill was married to Alice Lake. If Calamity did see him as a romantic interest, her love for him was one-sided. She did think highly of him and devastated by his murder in Deadwood.
Jane was rowdy and wild, but she could also be kind and generous. She helped out during a smallpox epidemic and risked her life to care for dying miners. She left Deadwood for a while and spent time prospecting for gold, driving a mule train, cattle ranching, and drinking. In 1885 she married Clinton Burke, and in 1895 returned to Deadwood with her husband.
Jane began to sell her life story. She also went on tour with Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, shooting and showing off. Though she was no great talent, she was popular with the audience. She continued to drink heavily, and had to be let go because of it. Hard living began to take its toll. Her wrinkled and lined face made her look older than she was. The last few years of her life she wandered from town to town, telling stories for drinks. She died an alcoholic at age 51. According to her wishes, Calamity Jane was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok.
Alice Ivers was born in 1853 in Devonshire, England. She was the daughter of a teacher, and was brought up to be a lady. Instead of becoming a lady, she became a master gambler.
Alice was educated in England and moved with her family to Colorado. There, she met and married Frank Duffield, a mining engineer. They moved to a small mining town, where Alice got started playing faro and poker.
Alice discovered she had a certain skill at cards; she was a good player and a lucky one. When her husband Frank died and left her widowed, she had to support herself. Unable to get work as a teacher in the small town, she did the next best thing– she started to earn her living by gambling.
Alice began to expand her operation. In the winter she left Colorado and began traveling and gambling all over the West. She wandered through New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and South Dakota. In New Mexico, she broke the bank at one of the saloons, and the dealer was forced to close the game. Alice took over and played all night and left with a tidy profit.
Alice soon moved to Deadwood, South Dakota, where she became something of a local legend. A woman dealer attracted men. Her “poker face” or deadpan expression gave her advantage. Alice’s winnings at the table often totaled as much as $6,000 in one night.
In Deadwood, she met her second husband whose last name was Tubbs. At first he and Alice were rivals, in competition over the gaming trade until Alice saved his life. A customer pulled a gun on him and she shot the customer in arm. She and Warren Tubbs married and for a time Alice gave up gambling and ranched with her husband. In 1910 Tubbs died of pneumonia.
Alice was unable to take his body out to bury until the blizzard was over. She had to hock her wedding ring to pay the burial expenses. Once more she found herself broke and without a man, so she went back to dealing cards. She moved to Sturgis, South Dakota, and resumed gambling, playing mostly poker. In Sturgis, she ran a poker establishment. She was also a madam. Alice had a religious streak, and always closed her establishment on Sundays.
Alice married a third husband, George Huckert, who had worked as her ranch hand. She owed him back wages and married him in lieu of payment. When he died she took back the name of Tubbs.
Alice’s trademark became the cigars she smoked. She also always a gun. She was arrested once for shooting a rowdy customer who died of his injuries, but was found not guilty by reason of self-defense.
During the waning years of her life, Alice’s beauty faded and she took to wearing an old skirt, a man’s shirt and a worn hat. Though some of the thrill of the early days were gone, Poker Alice continued to play cards well into her sixties, until her establishment was closed down by reformers. She lived into her seventies. Alice died in 1930 and was buried in the Black Hills, but her legend lives on.
No one paid much attention to “One Eye Charley.” Charlie Parkhurst was just another stagecoach driver, more skilled than most. Stagecoach drivers were called “whips”. Pulling six horses required quite a bit of strength and agility. Charlie was about 5′ 7, slender but stocky. He was not much to look at. Like his fellow drivers, his face was sun-burnt and his clothing dirty from driving the stage. He tended to be a bit standoffish. He had a scarred, weathered face, and wore an eye patch due to an injury from being kicked by a horse somewhere in the past, which is where he derived the nickname “One Eye Charley.”
It wasn’t until his death in 1879 that his secret was discovered. This tough, wiry stagecoach driver called Charlie was a woman! Not until the undertaker had laid him out for burial was his gender known by any but a few close friends. Even his partner, Woodward, didn’t have a clue. For some reason, Charlie, had chosen to live life as a man.
Charlie Parkhurst was born under the name Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Early in life the child was abandoned by poverty-stricken parents. Charlie grew up in an orphanage where the child took to wearing stolen boy’s clothing. Charlie struck out on her own to seek employment. She got work as a stable hand. A kindly old man, Ebenezer Balch, who thought he had hired a boy, taught Charlie to drive a team of horses.
Charlie also learned to smoke, chew tobacco, and drink. Her voice became deep and raspy. Charlie moved to California and drove a stage and worked as a muleskinner. By placing a vote in the Santa Cruz election in 1868 she was one of the first women voters, but no one at the time knew as she voted as a man.
At some point, Charlie got pregnant. Nothing is known of the child, and it is believed it died at birth.
Driving a stage was a dangerous business. A driver had to be both skilled and alert to maneuver the six-horse team over rough, narrow roads with hairpin curves and high, steep grades. Head-on collisions with other teams or with livestock also made the job a hazardous one. Indian attacks as well as outlaw hold-ups were also constant risks. Sitting up front and guiding the horses in all kinds of weather could also be a chilly business, and Charlie was known to wear a muffler, gloves and a greatcoat of buffalo hide over regular blue jeans or wool trousers.
During his time as a driver, Charlie did his share of brave deeds, such as helping women in labor, setting broken bones, and according to legend filling outlaw Black Bart’s behind with buckshot. After his death, when it was discovered he was really a woman, stories about him grew until he became the most well-known driver in California. Like Calamity Jane, Charlie became a folk hero and many daring deeds were attributed to him he probably never actually performed. But Charlie did appear to be a good and respected person as well as a brave one.
Charlie retired from stagecoach driving in his sixties when the rails began to take over the stage routes. Charlie’s tombstone is simply marked “Parkhurst”, which is fitting for a woman who lived her life as a man.
If ever there was a tough, rough Western character, Sally Skull would certainly fit the bill. Sally Skull was a horse trader, rancher, and “champion cusser.” She was also a dangerous killer.
Sally was known for her colorful language. She wore men’s clothing and went heavily armed, carrying a rifle and a pair of pistols in a cartridge belt as well as a whip. She was so skilled with the whip it was said that for amusement she could snap the heads off of flowers. Though for the most part she talked and acted like a man, Sally loved to dance, which perhaps proves she had a “feminine side.”
There is no record of Sally Skull’s birth. The first known record of her life is a divorcee decree. She divorced her husband in the 1850’s, at a time when divorce was uncommon and even cause for scandal. Sally had two children, but did not appear to take much interest in their upbringing. She sent them off to boarding school and to live with relatives when they were still very young. In their adult years, both children were estranged from their mother and rarely visited the ranch where she lived.
Sally had learned the horse trade from her first husband, Jesse Robinson. After the divorce, she entered the horse trade profession herself. On the Texas-Mexican border, she made a living by buying and stealing horses which she then sold for a profit. She also rounded up wild horses and stray cattle to sell.
Sally was reputed to have been “a merciless killer when aroused.” She had a reputation for killing without remorse, and was believed to have killed “well in excess of three score” men. The horse trade along the border was very competitive. The men Sally killed were no doubt her rivals. The horse traders often fought over the territory in which they rounded up the wild horses. Though there is no doubt that she did kill, her victims are unknown, and there is no mention of her going to prison for any of the murders. Perhaps in the horse trade, killing competitors was fair game.
Sally’s second husband’s last name was Skull and she kept this name even after his death, and after she married her third husband, Bill Hornsdorf. Maybe the name Skull suited her better. Sally definitely would have been better off if she had not married again, for she and her new husband did not get along.
After one of their many violent quarrels, Sally fired several shots at Bill. She probably did not intend to kill him, for she was an excellent shot, and not prone to miss her mark. But Bill became angry and asked for a divorce. He also asked for half of the money she had made horse trading.
On a trip across the border, Sally mysteriously disappeared. Bill claimed she ran off after an argument. It was suspected he killed her and dumped her body in Mexico, but since no body was ever found, charges were never brought against him. He later left Refugio where the two had lived and rode out of history. It appeared Sally died the way she lived–violently. Not as well-known as other female outlaws, no film has ever been made about Sally Skull’s life, which would make an intriguing story.