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Calamity Jane and Coconut Cake! How Authentic Should a Western Be?

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Historian Sherry Monahan suspects she was genetically predisposed to loving all things Western: “I was the only kid in my New Jersey high school who wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat in my senior class group picture.” Since then, she’s written several books about the Old West and recently filmed an episode of Lost Worlds about the town Deadwood. She spoke to us about separating fact from fiction in films like Wild Bill and some common misconceptions about the genre.

Q: What is a repeated historical inaccuracy in Western films?

A: You get these typical old saloons and there’s nothing but swinging doors and a million tables and people are sitting around drinking and that didn’t happen at all. Saloons in say Denver or Tombstone or Deadwood, they were very sophisticated and would have had just a bar and brass rail. Maybe a couple tables in the back…It wasn’t all poker. You also probably had a roulette wheel, a Faro table… They had several types of banking games.

Q: The film Wild Bill depicts the infamous death of Wild Bill Hickock. The saloon is almost empty and his killer, Jack McCall, is portrayed as being conflicted and hesitant. What really happened?

A: What I’ve learned is that he was playing a game of poker with one or two of the owners of the saloon, of the No.10 saloon. There were several people in there. It wasn’t this quiet thing. McCall did sneak in through the back door; made his way up along the bar and he simply walked up behind Wild Bill, pulled out a gun and shot him. He wasn’t afraid to kill him and he said something like “take that” for whatever reason. Today we still don’t know why he killed him but this guy had a purpose and he intended to kill him and I don’t think he had any shyness about it.

Q:  Calamity Jane is played as if she really loved him and wants them to be together.

A: That’s actually pretty accurate.  She truly did fall in love with Bill and wanted them to be together but he didn’t look at her that way. Yeah, she was cool to hang out with and was a reliable, trusted friend but he probably wanted a softer woman…not somebody who’s wearing buckskins and swearing like a sailor.  I think the series Deadwood did an excellent job portraying her.

Q:  We always see these characters drinking. What were people eating in frontier towns?

A: The menus were printed in French for a long time that were posted in the newspapers. Trendy food was classic French cooking. You probably would have something like a Chicken Fricassee…When I started to see oysters imported from Baltimore to Tombstone I thought you gotta be kidding me. Coconut cake was one of the most popular deserts during the late 1800s…The thing I always try to stress to people was that yeah it was the Wild West but at the same time it was the Victorian era and people that went West were from the East and from Europe .

Q: Of the Western films based on real people or events, is there one that is more accurate than others?

A: Tombstone . There are some things as a historian I look at and go why did they do that? My husband’s like “could we just watch the movie?” I’ve probably seen that move at least 50 to 70 times.

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Q: There are a several portrayals of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. Who would you like to see a movie about?

A: I’m actually working on a book right now called Victorian Women in the Wild West and my favorite one is a woman named Evelyn. She came from England, from a very proper family and her husband and brother-in-law were stock brokers. In 1885, they decided they wanted to go out West to America…you see this very proper, Victorian woman who expects certain niceties and she gets here and starts along the trail and it’s like oh my God… Those stories are so fascinating to me. Let’s do Evelyn’s story.

Wild Bill is showing tonight, Sunday, March 16 @ 8PM | 7C. For a complete list of all Westerns showing now on AMC, click here.

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