|Hickok's ash blonde hair photographed darker.|
On August 2, 1876 James Butler Hickok a.k.a. Wild Bill, was shot in the back of the head by a drifter, Jack McCall while playing poker in a Deadwood saloon. At the time of his death he was losing for the day, but held a good hand—two black aces, two black eights. The fifth card was a Diamond but its value has never been agreed on. After Hickok’s death aces and eights became commonalty referred to as the Dead Man’s Hand, although that designation had previously been given to other poker hands involved in fatal altercations.
Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois in 1837. His father was an abolitionist and ran a station of the Underground Railroad out of the family’s barn. Young James was given his first pistols by his father to defend the station in cases of raids by slave catchers. Although the raids never came, the boy became an expert marksman and something of a local celebrity for his shooting skills.
He high tailed it to Bloody Kansas in 1855 after he mistakenly thought he had killed a companion in a fist fight in which both boys ended up in a canal. Likely he was drawn to Kansas in support of his father’s views. He quickly enlisted in a Jayhawker militia fighting pro-slavery Bushwhackers. He met young William Fredrick Cody, then 12 years old and serving as a scout/spy for the Jayhawkers.
By 1859 both he and Cody had signed on with the Russell, Waddell, and Majors freight company, a contractor for the Pony Express. After being injured by a bear, he was recuperating on light duty as a stable man at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska when he was involved in a gunfight with the former owner of the property David McCanles and members of his family who demanded a due payment on the land. In a wild gun fight McCanles was killed. Hickok, the station manager, his wife, and another employee were all charged with murder but acquitted on the ground of “defending company property.” Whether Hickok himself made the fatal shot is still a matter of dispute.
At the outset of the Civil War Hickok enlisted as an Army Teamster and within six months was promoted to wagon master. He served in the bloody civil war with in a Civil War in Missouri. He was discharged in September 1862 and disappears from history until late the following year when he was appointed a detective for the Provost Marshal of South-West Missouri working out of Springfield. There is indirect evidence, and much speculation that Hickok was serving as a spy during those missing months. He mustered out of the service at war’s end but stayed in Springfield as a gambler.
On July 21, 1865 he was involved in a shoot out in the Springfield streets that is the first recorded “quick draw” duel in history—the kind of gunfight that though extremely rare in actuality became a staple of Western movies. He shot and killed Davis Tutt, a drinking and gamboling companion, over an alleged poker debt and Davis’s wearing of the watch he took from Hickok as collateral. Several witnesses attest that both men drew and fired at a distance of 75 yards—ordinarily far out of range for accurate pistol fire. Tutt, at least, may have believed that both men could fire, preserve their honor, and survive the confrontation. Tutt’s shot was wild and wide. Hickok sent a ball completely through the Tutt’s torso, although he was standing in a sideways dueling posture to reduce his exposure. The shot impressed everyone and cemented Hickok’s later reputation. Again, he was acquitted on a murder charge because the judge instructed the jury to considerer the incident a “fair fight.”
Shortly after the trial Hickok, who had acquired the nickname Wild Bill during the war, was interviewed by Colonel George Ward Nichols for an article that appeared, with a woodcut of a ferocious looking Wild Bill, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Either Hickok hornswoggled the writer, or more likely given his personal reputation for not being a braggart, Nichols simply spun a wild but entertaining yarn, but the article portrayed Hickok as a dead shot who had killed hundreds of men. In reality Wild Bill is known to have killed five men in gunfights over his entire life or six if credited with McCanles. He was involved in other, non-fatal scrapes and fights, but his fearsome reputation discouraged many would-be assailants. In addition in his Civil War service and later service as an Army Scout he undoubtedly killed several others.
After losing an election for city marshal of Springfield that November, Hickok accepted appointment as a Deputy U. S. Marshal at Fort Riley, Kansas. During his tenure there he also served as a scout for Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry. Custer burnished Hickok’s reputation by extolling his “sure shot” ability with a pistol, bravery, and honor in press interviews. Hickok was involved a number of skirmishes and led small parties seeking out Indian raiders during Red Cloud’s War.
In 1867 Hickok went east for the first time to cash in on his reputation by performing in a western melodrama in Buffalo, New York. He was a terrible actor and returned west within a month with a bitter taste in his mouth.
He ran for election as sheriff in Ellsworth County, Kansas but was defeated. Resuming duties as a Federal Marshal he arrived at wild and woolly Hays City where he arrested a gang of Army deserters and was re-united with Cody who served as scout for an army detachment sent to help escort the 11 men to trial in Topeka.
After an 1869 stint as a scout with the Buffalo Soldier 10th Cavalry during which time he was wounded in the foot while rescuing a party of ranchers near Bijou Creek in Colorado who had been surrounded by hostiles. Back in Hays City in July 1869 Hickok finally won an election—two in fact—to serve as both city marshal and Ellis County sheriff. Hays City was then a railhead destination for the great Texas cattle drives and the town and county were beset by wild cowboys fueled on lots of liquor at the end of a long trek. It’s clear the Hickok was expected by the town’s “better elements” to clean things up.
In his first month on the job he was involved in two fatal gunfights. Legal questions about his first election and his defeat at the hands of his deputy for Sheriff in November was overturned on account of election fraud, Hickok remained in “effective control” of law enforcement in the area through most of 1870.
In July of that year he got into a fracas with two drunk and disorderly 7th Cavalry troopers who somehow got the best of him. The two held him on the floor of a saloon while one trooper, John Kile, tried to shoot him in through the ear. When Kile’s pistol misfired, Hickok wrestled the gun from his companion, Jeremiah Lonergan, shot him in the knee and put two balls in Kile, who died the next day. Hickok held up in the town’s Boot Hill for a few days where the commanding view and clear field of fire would give him a chance incase fellow Troopers rode after him in revenge.
That fall, after the town father’s decided to get out of the business of running a trail head for the cattle drives, Hickok was defeated for re-election and replaced by a much less expensive officer.
In 1870 he became town marshal at Abilene, Kansas which had picked up most of Hays City’s former business as a cow town. On October 5, 1871 Hickok was involved in his last known fatal gun fight, the outcome of which would haunt him the rest of his life.
After an earlier run-in with a drunken saloon keeper—Phil Coe who was also a business rival to Hickok’s second profession as a gambler—he tried to arrest the man for discharging a gun on the street. Coe pretended to hand over the gun, but spun it and took aim at the marshal who fired, killing him. Another man rushing to the scene caught Hickok’s attention and thinking that he was under attack by Coe’s friend, killed the second man. That man turned out to be his friend and deputy, Mike Williams. Hickok was inconsolable. He is known to have written and anguished letter to Williams’ widow and raised money for the support of her and her children. Some historians believe that the incident happened because Hickok was beginning to lose his fabled eye-sight, probably from trachoma. He occasionally wore spectacles, but did not have them on the night of the shooting.
Hickok’s career as a lawman and a gunfighter was over within two months. He turned to full time gambling and heavy drinking. In 1873 Cody convinced him to join with another showman, Texas Jack Omohundro in a new western stage play. Although this was more successful than his first theatrical attempt, he left the show after a few months with a substantial purse from the show’s success and two new Smith and Weston revolvers from his old friend. Those revolvers soon disappeared, probably pawned, as Hickok fell on hard times back out west.
He returned to his old favorite twin bone handled Colt 1851 .36 Navy Model pistols—by then obsolete cap-and-ball revolvers. He carried them, usually without a holster, stuck in his belt butt forward in the fashion of the cavalry and drew them with equal skill with either a “reverse spin” or a cross draw.
Frequently a loser at cards, Hickok was arrested for vagrancy several times before winding up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, another wide open town. He had better luck there. In March of 1876 he married for the first time to Agnes Thatcher Lake, the operator of a small time circus who was 14 years his senior. Her money may have been a factor, although surviving letters indicate an admiring and loving relationship.
Despite his new wife, however, Hickok signed on as a teamster and guard for a wagon train taking supplies to the Black Hills gold rush town of Deadwood, a lawless, illegal settlement on Indian land in what is now South Dakota. His aim was to re-make his fortune in the gold fields, not as a miner, but by separating miners from their gold—and possibly even from their claims. He may also have had the notion that the new wild town might use his somewhat rusty services as a law man.
Mary Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane, joined the wagon train near Ft. Laramie. This was likely the first time the two met, although she would later claim to have previously had a child with Hickok and graciously given him up to Agnes Lake. Calamity was an alcoholic sometime prostitute, teamster, and a fairly shrewd business woman who was better looking than the most frequently seen picture of her in her teamster’s buckskins. They were both in Deadwood for some weeks, although they were not known to have a relationship.
Hickok was drinking heavily and gambling, mostly unsuccessfully. On August 1, he had a minor run in with Jack McCall that ended with Hickok buying the younger man a drink. Perhaps because he had been humiliated, perhaps looking for revenge for a brother he said he believed Hickok had killed as marshal in Abilene, perhaps to just to gain a reputation as the man who killed Wild Bill, and perhaps at the urging of local interests that may have been worried about Hickok resuming his lawman career, McCall entered Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10 where Hickok was sitting uncharacteristically with his back to the door and shot him once in the back of the head crying out “Take this!”
After boasting around town of the killing, he was captured and put on trial for murder but somehow acquitted. The trial, however, in unorganized Deadwood, had no effect in law. The next year Federal Marshals re-arrested McCall and he was tried in Dakota Territory capital Yankton. This time he was convicted and hanged.
Hickok’s friends arranged for a Deadwood funeral and burial. The grave was later relocated to the new Mount Moriah Cemetery high on a hill overlooking the town. Various monuments were destroyed by souvenir hunters as the grave became a tourist attraction until the current bronze bust and marker were erected. When Calamity Jane died in 1903, old timers buried her next to Hickok, some said as a joke because “Bill couldn’t stand to be around her” but probably to further interest tourists.
Hickok was one of the western figures who almost lived up to his reputation—if you discount the wild exaggerations of the popular press. But in death he became iconic. He has been portrayed in dozen of films, the best known of which include Wild Bill Hickok staring William S. Hart in 1923; The Plainsman, C.B. DeMille’s fanciful 1936 epic staring Gary Cooper; the musical Calamity Jane with Howard Keel opposite Doris Day in the title role in 1953; Little Big Man with Jeff Corey as Dustin Hoffman’s mentor in 1970; and the gritty Wild Bill starring Jeff Bridges in 1995. Wild Bill Elliot and Roy Rogers both played him in B movies.
Baby Boomers undoubtedly best remember the long running TV show (1951-’58) The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok starring heart throb Guy Madison with Andy Divine as his comic sidekick Jingles. Other than the name the TV character had nothing in common with the historical figure.
Much better was David Milch’s riveting cable mini-series Deadwood which ran from 2004-2006 with Keith Carradine Wild Bill.
Hickok has also frequently appeared in print in innumerable cheap popular paperback novels, and in comic books, but also in serious fiction, most significantly in Thomas Burger’s Little Big Man, Buffalo Gals by Larry McMurtry, and Darlin’ Bill: A Love Story of the Wild West by Jerome Charyn.