Aug 2, 2010

Dead Man's Hand

One of the most colorful figures of the Old West was James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. He was shot in the back on this date in Deadwood, Dakota Territory in 1876 while playing poker. He was holding what immediately became known as "dead man's hand," two black eights and two black aces. There are differing accounts regarding what the fifth card was.

Deadwood in 2004, the cards pictured were on his gravesite.

Hickok was born in Homer (now Troy Grove), Illinois in 1837.

His life shares many parallels with his friend, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who was nine years younger. Both moved to Kansas Territory around the same time, and it's difficult to separate the fact from the fiction from their lives.

Courtesy of "Buffalo Bill Cody, The Man Behind the Legend," here is how Cody described Hickok:
He was a plainsman in every sense of the word. In person he was about six feet and one inch in height, straight as the straightest of the warriors whose implacable foe he was. He had broad shoulders, well formed chest and limbs, and a face strikingly handsome....His hair and complexion were those of the perfect blond. The former was worn in ringlets, falling carelessly over his powerfully formed shoulders. Add to this figure a costume blending the immaculate neatness of the dandy and the extravagant taste and style of the frontiersman, and you have Wild Bill. Whether on foot or house horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw.They first met while serving together on a wagon train in 1857. Later, Hickok performed with Cody in the play "Scouts of the Plains." Wild Bill had trouble remembering his lines, but he was a great ad-libber, which he discovered when he bellowed out during a performance, "This is cold tea...I asked for whiskey." Audiences loved him.
A staunch Union man, Hickok served as a scout during the Civil War, and served in the same capacity during the Plains Indian Wars.

Like Buffalo Bill, Hickok was a superb marksman, but unlike Cody, he was a gun fighter, and that is largely how Wild Bill is remembered.

His reputation as a gunslinger originated from an 1861 incident in Nebraska Territory, but it was not publicized until 1867 in a Harper's Magazine article by Colonel George Ward Nichols. In that account, Will Bill gunned down "the McCanles Gang" with a pistol, a rifle, and a knife. All ten of them.

What really happened is that Hickok was working for the owner of a Pony Express station, Horace Wellman. He bought the land from David McCanles, but the Civil War and the telegraph cut into use of the Pony Express, and Wellman couldn't pay up. So McCanles, his son, and a nephew--not ten men--came to the station to collect their debt. Wellman asked Will Bill, who was recovering from his wounds after killing a grizzly bear, to settle things. Hickok shot all three, killing McCanles and wounding the other two, who were then shot to death by Wellman and a third man. In the dime novel "Wild Bill the Pistol Dead Shot," Hickok kills 11 men in the shootout.

As for the real shootout, Hickok pleaded self-defense and was acquitted.

But it's time to revisit the famous quote from John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

And that legend preceded Wild Bill's entrance into any town. The same year the Harper's article was released, he became a Kansas lawman, serving as a US deputy marshall at Fort Riley, a sheriff in Ellis County, and the marshall for Abilene, where he twice crossed paths with the outlaw John Wesley Hardin.

But not much happened between the two men.

While protecting Kansans, Will Bill began to dress in fancy frock coats, mimicking the dandified caricature created by his chroniclers.

How many men did Hickok kill? It is impossible to know. He told journalist Henry Stanley, himself a legend (Dr. Livingston, I presume), "No, by Heaven, I never killed one man without good cause. I would be willing to take my oath on the Bible tomorrow that I have killed over a hundred."

After Hickok accidentally shot his deputy to death in Abilene, he lost interest in law enforcement. It was then he performed with Cody; Wild Bill also organized buffalo hunts for wealthy easterners and Europeans.

But by the time he came to Deadwood in 1876, Hickok was a glorified has-been. His vision was failing him. Wild Bill blamed the floodlights of the stage, some speculate that gonorrhea (Hickok liked the ladies) caused his ailment, others believe it was trachoma. A gunmen with bad eyes--remember the nearly blind shooter in "Unforgiven?"--isn't going to find much work.

On August 2, 1876, Hickok walked into Carl Mann's saloon in Deadwood and sat down for a poker game. His luck seemed to have changed, he was dealt a good hand, two pairs. Wild Bill usually made it a point to keep his back to the wall, but not that night. Then into the saloon walked Jack McCall, who shot the legend in the back, killing him instantly.

As for his motive, some speculate that McCall wanted to place his name in history books, others postulate that McCall had recently lost a lot of money playing poker with Hickok.

And why did McCall shoot Wild Bill in the back, not in front of him. He explained, "I didn't want to commit suicide."

In essence he did. He was hanged for his crime in 1877.

Note: In addition to Carter's Buffalo Bill book, much information for this post was gleaned from Michael Ruttter's "Myths and Mysteries of the Old West."

Related posts:

July 4, 1882: Buffalo Bill Cody and the birth of the rodeo

September 7, 1876: The defeat of Jesse James in Northfield, Minnesota

My Kansas Kronikles: Abilene

Please follow all these related posts to the original author,

John, thank you for the re-post.


John Ruberry said... credit for the author of this post?

Capn said...

Please follow all these related posts to the original author,
John Ruberry.

John, thank you for the re-post.