Maggie Scanlan Deadwood Dick on Deck
Northern Illinois University

Deadwood Dick on Deck (1878) Spotlight

About the Novel

Deadwood Dick on Deck; or Calamity Jane, The Heroine of Whoop-Up is set in the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota, a territory populated by outlaw bands, murderous Mormons (or Danites), and a trio of three cross-dressing heroines: Calamity Jane, Dusty Dick, and Madame Minnie. Each of these women are survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault who turn to the outlaw life partly to seek revenge against the men who wronged them, but also to protect the innocent from meeting a similar fate. The novel challenges many of the western genre's idealogical assumptions about femininity, domesticity, and womanhood in the 19th century, presenting female protagonists who are more guardian angels than "gentle tamers."

Deadwood Dick on deck, or, Calamity Jane, the heroine of Whoop-up : a story of Dakota cover

"Calamity Jane."

Deadwood Dick on Deck was first published in Beadle Half-Dime Library no. 73 in 1878, the eighth Deadwood Dick story by Edward L. Wheeler. Calamity Jane would appear in twenty of theses stories, beginning with the first, Deadwod Dick, the Prince of the Road; or, The Black Rider of the Black Hills in Beadle's Half-Dime Library no. 1. She bears little relationship to the real Martha Cannary. In some stories, Calamity Jane is portrayed by Wheeler as Deadwood Dick's friend and lover, while in others they are adversaries. She is killed by the author at least twice and gives birth to a son, Deadwood Dick, Jr., who would go on to feature in many of his own dime novels. The Deadwood Dick novels were reprinted multiple times, initially in Beadle's Pocket Library, then in the Deadwood Dick Library published by Ivers and Westbrook (pictured above).

About the author

Edward L. (Lytton) Wheeler (1854-1885) was born in Avoca, New York in either 1854 or 1855. Although one of the most popular and prolific dime novel authors, what little is known about Wheeler is mainly from city directories, correspondence, and neighbors’ recollections gathered by Albert Johannsen for his House of Beadle & Adams (1950). Wheeler’s family moved during his boyhood from Avoca to Titusville, PA, and then to Philadelphia, where his parents ran boarding houses. He began his writing career in the 1870s, publishing his first novelette, “Hurricane Nell, the Girl Dead-Shot, or the Queen of the Saddle, and Lasso,” in Frank Starr’s Ten Cent Pocket Library in 1877. By 1878, he was married and making a living as a writer. His most famous creation, Deadwood Dick, was introduced in October of 1877. The "Robin Hood of the West," as the character was known, straddled the western and the detective genres and became one of the most popular fictional characters of the late 19th century. Wheeler wrote over 100 novels during his short career, a third of them featuring Deadwood Dick, before dying sometime in 1885. Beadle and Adams are believed to have kept his death a secret, employing ghost writers to “fix” his work for the next two decades, often commenting that these posthumous stories were not up to his usual quality.

Discussion Questions

  • What freedom does the wearing of men’s clothes give Dusty Dick and Calamity Jane? What changes for Dusty Dick when she is discovered to be a woman?
  • “Capitalist” is used to describe two different characters in the novel. What is meant by it and how does its meaning change in regard to who its describing? Why would this idea be important at this time and in this place? Discuss the way the industrial revolution was changing the face of labor.
  • There is a thread running through the story of East vs. West, the “the states versus the territory.” What opposing ideas are represented between characters, such as the mining town residents, Calamity Jane, and the “Man from Washington.”? How do their values differ?
  • The character “Alf the Danite” is a Mormon. Extrapolate relevant excerpts from Sanborn-Jones’ text and discuss why Mormonism and Mormons were demonized in the West, then connect that to groups today.

Classroom Activities

  • Deadwood Dick is a natural for the stage. Edward Wheeler himself wrote a version that eventually made it to New York, as did Tom Taggert. Have the students write their own treatments of the story, breaking it into scenes, then writing dialogue and performing them. Be sure to the preserve the genuine western dialect.
  • The story goes into great detail about how a boom town is set up, which is astonishing since Edward Wheeler had never been out West! Have the students create a map of the town, complete with shops and entertainment venues. Have them research, as well as imagine, what would have been needed in such a new community and what would have been available. Remember that there were no train tracks or highways built to provide easy access. Make sure they have a map of South Dakota to help them fully comprehend the challenges.


  • Taggart, Tom. Deadwood Dick or the Game of Gold : A Rootin’ Tootin’ melodrama of the Gay 90’s in Three Acts. 1953. Samuel French, 1981.
  • McLaird, James. South Dakota Biography Series. Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
  • American Variety Stage, Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment. American Memory Recording Collections. Stable URL.

Further Reading

  • Cameron, Elisabeth Moon, Jennifer Paff Ogle. “The Hybrid Hero” in Western Dime Novels: An Analysis of Women’s Gender Performance, Dress and Identity in the Deadwood Dick Series.” Clothing, and Textiles Research Journal.

Cameron and Paff use Judith Butler and Erving Goffman’s theories to provide insight into the tradition of cross-dressing dime novel heroines.

  • Tonkovich, Nicole. "Guardian Angels and Missing Mothers: Race and Domesticity in Winona and Deadwood Dick on Deck." Western American Literature, 32, no. 3 (Fall 1997), pp. 240-264.

Examines how the novel challenges traditional western myths, including the transgressive role of married women and the failure of the lone male hero's vigilante justice.

  • Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: the American West As Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970. Available online.

Smith discusses evidence of Jane's background as a "lady," and the role that speech and dialect play in such a determination.