James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok epitomized the adventureous men of the wild west I envisioned as a boy. He was among my favorite characters I read and heard about, and made even more famous, in the television and film westerns of the 50s and 60s. Characters that included the likes of Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, the fictional Marshall Matt Dillon, Bret Maverick and Paladin from Have Gun – Will Travel. All of them good guys, ‘cept they all wore black hats, Dillon the single exception! Hickok lived a most interesting life of notoriety, some said he was the fastest gun in the west, but, as boys are apt to be, I was most intrigued by the drama and circumstances of his death.
138 years ago today on August 2, 1876, in a dusty, lawless, little town called Deadwood, amid the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, it’s most famous resident at age 39 was playing poker. The game was five card draw, the place was Saloon No. 10, it was early afternoon. As a late arrival to the table Wild Bill, in contrast to his normal, cautious practice of sitting in a corner to protect his back, reluctantly took a seat with his back to the door. It was a fatal mistake for in that setting, at around 3:00, Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall snuck up and with a .45 caliber revolver shot Hickok in the back of the head. (It must have left an awful mark)! It’s believed McCall had been insulted by the gunfighter in a card game the night before. According to the most credible legend the cards Hickok held in his hands when shot dead were the ace of diamonds, the ace of clubs, and the two black eights, clubs and spades. The hand, aces and eights, would famously become known as the “dead man’s hand.”
It isn’t easy to separate truth from fiction about Wild Bill but this much is known. His national reputation was established eleven years earlier in a Harper’s Magazine article. He was an outstanding marksman before becoming a legendary gunfighter and was once viciously attacked by a bear, taking him four months to recuperate. He had been an elected lawman, a Marshall and a Sheriff, even a police detective as he traveled throughout the west from his birthplace in Illinois to Kansas, on to Nebraska, the Wyoming Territories and finally to Dakota. During the Civil War Hickok served as a teamster, a wagon-master and a scout for the Union Army. According to the 1883 History of Greene County, Missouri, Wild Bill was “by nature a ruffian … a drunken, swaggering fellow, who delighted when ‘on a spree’ to frighten nervous men and timid women.”
But still the lady’s man, as gamblers and gunslingers were known to be — at least on television and in the movies – in March of 1876, Hickok married Agnes Thatcher Lake in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. A 50-year-old former circus proprietor she had lost her first husband 7 years earlier when he was shot dead. Not knowing her second was similarly doomed Wild Bill left his wife alone a few months later, to join a wagon train to Dakota where he hoped to find his fortune in the gold fields.
Shortly before Hickok’s death, he wrote a letter to his new bride, which read in part, “Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife—Agnes—and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.”
Jack McCall, the cowardly assasin, was hung for his deed seven months later. He was 24-years old. Wild Bill’s grave can be visited today in Deadwood at the Mount Moriah Cemetery. His 10 foot square plot, surrounded by a cast-iron fence, includes a monument topped by a bronze bust of the folk hero. A lighted American flag flies nearby 24-hours a day.
At the time of his death J.B. “Wild Bill” Hickok is believed to have fatally shot 36 men. But nobody really knows for sure how many. Legend has it that in every instance the killings were either in the discharge of his duty as an officer of the law or in self defense.