“He was a Plainsman in every sense of the word, yet unlike any other of his class. In person he was about six feet one in height, straight as the straightest of the warriors whose implacable foe he was; broad shoulders, well-formed chest and limbs, and a face strikingly handsome; a sharp, clear, blue eye, which stared you straight in the face when in conversation; a finely-shaped nose, inclined to be aquiline; a well-turned mouth, with lips only partially concealed by a handsome moustache. His hair and complexion were those of the perfect blond. The former was worn in uncut ringlets falling carelessly over his powerfully formed shoulders. Add to this figure a costume blending the immaculate neatness of the dandy with the extravagant taste and style of the frontiersman, and you have Wild Bill, then as now the most famous scout on the Plains. Whether on foot or on horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw.”
Born in Troy Grove, Illinois on May 27, 1837 to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler Hickok, his correct name was James Butler Hickok. His parents were God-fearing Baptists who operated a “station” on the “Underground Railroad”, smuggling escaped slaves into freedom. It was when his father was being pursued with escaped slaves that Bill first experienced hostile gunfire. After this the young man became fascinated with guns and gunfire, and began practicing on small animals around his parent’s farm. He developed into an excellent marksman. His father was killed because of his abolitionist views when Bill was 14. At 17, Bill went away to work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Eventually he wound up as a stagecoach driver. Bill developed a reputation for belligerence in putting his marksmanship to work fighting off bandits who were always trying to rob the stagecoach. This was burnished by a deadly encounter with a bear with Bill killing the bear with his six-inch knife. Such a man was obviously not to be messed with!
“Wild Bill” Gets Into Gunfights
In July of 1861 while working for the Pony Express station in Nebraska
he got into a fight with David McCanles, who was always teasing Bill about his girlish appearance. Bill might have dallied with a girl that McCanles fancied. Whatever the case, when McCanles and two of his fellow gunmen came to the station to collect a debt, profanities were exchanged, and gunfire erupted. Hickok who was initially behind a curtain opened fire and killed McCanles, and fatally wounded the
other two men. No charges were filed and Bill got off on self-defense. Later this would become told again and embellished as the “McCanles Massacre” in which Bill quickly and easily knocked off a dozen outlaws. Bill went on to serve during the Civil War as a scout. By some accounts it was during this period that he acquired his nick-name. In Independence, Missouri, Bill ran into a mob which was bent on (above, Hickok, circa 1860’s) hanging a bartender who had shot a man during a brawl. Hickok put a stop to this by firing two shots over their heads. He then stared down the rest of the mob until it broke up. A woman onlooker who was grateful shouted from the side “Good for you Wild Bill!” She may have mistaken Hickok for another man, but the moniker caught on, and stuck ever after.
The Tutt Gunfight
By this time of post-Civil War America, Bill was becoming well known as a gunfighter and a gambler. Bill soon found himself in a dispute where he was tested as both. In early 1865, Bill met and befriended Davis Tutt, a former soldier in the Confederate Army. But the two men had a falling out, and by July of that year they were playing in a poker game. Hickok was on a winning streak when Tutt demanded payment
on a debt from a previous game.Bill didn’t have the cash on hand. Tutt then saw Bill’s pocket watch on the table and snapped it up as collateral for the “loan”. Bill angrily warned Tutt that if he wore the watch he would kill him. But Tutt appeared in the town square the next day, July 21, proudly sporting the watch. Bill warned him not to approach while wearing the watch. Tutt began to move toward Bill, and the two men faced each other and fired simultaneously, in true dueling style (above). Tutt’s shot missed, but Bill’s did not piercing Tutt’s heart. Bill was arrested for murder, but acquitted – a very unpopular result at the time. But this was the first of what became known as the classic western gunfight; an important part of Old West folklore.
Bill Falls on Hard Times
Bill for the next several years held several different jobs, including scouting for George Armstrong Custer. He also held several jobs as town marshal in places throughout the west. And he became known as an expert gambler. By 1871, he was the town marshal in Abilene, Kansas. Samuel Henry who knew Bill described his gambling posture: “His whole bearing was like that of a hunted tiger—restless eyes, which nervously looked about him in all directions closely scrutinizing every stranger. When he played cards, which he did most of the time in the saloons, he sat in the corner of the room to prevent an enemy from stealing up behind him” In October of 1871 a bunch of rowdies led by Phil Coe started shooting up the town. Coe shot at a wild dog which had tried to bite him. Bill came out of the Alamo Saloon and tried to disarm Coe. Shots were fired and Bill manged to wound Coe. But a few minutes later, Bill heard someone’s footsteps approaching him, and he turned and fired, assuming it to be one of Coe’s friends. But it was actually Hickok’s Deputy Marshal, Mike Williams, who was
killed. Coe died three days later. Hickok was dismissed as town Marshal. and William’s death haunted Bill for the rest of his life. Over the next few years, Bill lived off of his reputation as the subject of countless dime novels, and even took part in Buffalo Bill Cody’s play “Scouts of the Prairies”, a forerunner to Cody’s “Wild West Show” (above). But he was slowing down; his eyesight began to suffer and he began wearing glasses. And he continued to brood over his accidental killing of his Deputy in Abilene.
Hickok Meets His End in Deadwood
In the summer of 1876, Bill joined Charlie Utter’s wagon train to South Dakota, seeking his fortune in the goldfields. Along the way, his train picked up “Calamity Jane” (below), another of those amazingly colorful characters of the Old West – a tough woman and an excellent shot – and she immediately became
fast friends with Bill who shared with her a love of drinking and telling tall tales. Jane later claimed that she and Bill were “a couple”, but that part of the story remains in doubt. The wagon train arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota in July of 1876. Bill attempted to live a quiet respectable life, but he fell into drinking too much. And he tried to live off of his reputation as a gambler, but he no longer had the skills for that – his eyesight was getting worse, and his drinking was taking a toll on his health overall. His winnings dwindled, and he was several times arrested for vagrancy.
On August 1, 1876 Bill was playing poker with several men, one of whom was one Jack McCall (below) who lost badly. McCall ran out of money, so Bill gave him enough money to get something to eat, but told him
not to play again until he had the money to cover his losses. The following day Hickok came to Nuttall & Mann’s Saloon. There he was invited to join in a poker game, but someone was sitting in his preferred seat, facing the door. He hesitated but went ahead and took a seat with his back to the door, and the rest of the saloon. This would prove to be a fatal misstep. Jack McCall who had been drinking heavily saw Bill enter the saloon. He slowly moved over to the corner where Hickok’s game was being played, until he was within a few feet of him. He then pulled a double action .45 pistol from under his coat, shouted “Damn you! Take that!” and fired into the back of Hickok’s head, killing him instantly. McCall’s motive has never been firmly established. But he likely resented what he saw as Bill’s condescending attitude towards him the day before. At the time of his death, the hand that Bill was holding consisted of a pair of black aces, and black eights. This has since come down through legend as the “Dead Man’s Hand”.
“Wild Bill” in Death
McCall was charged with murder, but an ad-hoc miner’s jury in Deadwood which was still a lawless place acquitted him. He shortly fled to Colorado wherein he was arrested. The verdict of Deadwood was not legally binding in the eyes of the authorities of Colorado. So he went before a properly constituted court in the Colorado Territorial capitol of Yankton. This time he was convicted and hung on March 2, 1877. As to “Wild Bill” Hickok, he was to become one of the iconic figures of America’s storybook – “The Old West”. In death he was already afforded legendary status in the following very reverent account of his appearance in his casket, by St. Louis reporter J.W. Buell:
“His long chestnut hair, evenly parted over his marble brow, hung in waving ringlets over the broad shoulders ; his face was cleanly
shaved excepting the drooping moustache, which shaded a mouth that in death almost seemed to smile, but in life was unusually grave ; the arms were folded over the stilled breast, which enclosed a heart that had beat with regular pulsation the most startling scenes of blood and violence. The corpse was clad in complete dress-suit of ‘black broadcloth, new underclothing and white linen shirt ; beside him in the coffin lay his trusty rifle, which the deceased prized above all other things, and which was to be buried with him in compliance with an often expressed desire.”
“The Great West” Edited by Charles Neider, Bonanza Books, New York, 1958