Wild Bill is shot holding the “dead man’s hand.”

August 2, 1876

On this day gambler and occasional lawman, James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok (left) was killed in Deadwood’s Saloon #10, holding black aces and eights, known since as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Hickok was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall, a former buffalo hunter living near Deadwood under the alias Bill Sutherland.  Contemporary accounts claimed McCall murdered Hickok after losing in a poker game and feeling demeaned when Hickok offered him money for breakfast.

McCall (right) was arrested and tried for the shooting in an impromptu Deadwood proceeding.  Declaring revenge as the motive, McCall said Hickok had killed his brother in Abilene, Kansas, winning him an acquittal.

Not willing to leave well enough alone, however, McCall continued to brag about the event.  As a result he was tried again some months later in Laramie, Wyoming, found guilty and hanged March 1, 1877, in Yankton, South Dakota.

McCall’s claim of a revenge did prove to have some merit.  Records indicate Hickok fatally shot one Robert McCall while he was marshal of Abilene, but like much of the Hickok legend, the facts remain murky.

What is known for sure is that Hickok was born May 27, 1837, on an Illinois farm, now present-day Troy Grove.  He fled west at age 18, mistakenly thinking he had killed a man named Charles Hudson during a fight. Landing in Leavenworth, Kansas, Hickok quickly joined Jim Lane’s anti-slavery Free State Army known as Jayhawkers.  The  loosely knit group of “free-staters”  roamed the Kansas/Missouri border plundering the homesteads of pro-slavery settlers for both politics and profit. 

Hickok began his career as a lawman at age 20 in Johnson County, Kansas, after a short stint as a farmer. He was elected one of four constables of Monticello Township in 1858.  The next year, however, he hired on with the freight handling company of Russell, Wadell & Majors, the parent company of the Pony Express.

While on the trail, Hickok was seriously injured, by his account, in a legendary confrontation with a bear.  Hickok was seriously injured but after a  four-month recovery, was employed as a stable hand at the Rock Creek Pony Express station near present-day Fairbury, Nebraska. 

It was at Rock Creek that Hickok was involved in his first suspect shooting incident involving the station’s landlord. David McCanles had come to collect back rent payments accompanied by two local ranchers and his 12-year-old son, Monroe.  In  Hickok’s heroic and improbable retelling, McCanles (left)  and “his gang” were Southern sympathizers there to steal horses for the Confederates.  In fact, McCanles and his brother James, were ardent Union supporters.

Hickok, station agent Horace Wellman and a second stable hand, J.W. Brink, were arrested after Jamesd4   filed a criminal complaint.  Court records are scant, but what evidence can be found indicates that young Monroe, the only witness not involved in the murders, was barred from the proceedings.   In addition, the officiating justice in the case, T. M. Coulter, was himself indicted for embezzlement three years later.   

There was never any question that Hickok shot and killed Davis Tutt (right).  He and the former Confederate soldier were apparently friends.  But the friendship ended over a $25 loan Tutt had made to Hickok, taking his watch at collateral.  Hickok stood trial for the killing but was acquitted under the Old West’s perceived “fair fight” doctrine.

Another verified shooting occurred in Abilene, Kansas in 1871 where Hickok was marshal.  Legend has it that residents complained of a lewd sign outside The Bull’s Head Tavern.  When owner Philip Coe refused to change it, Hickok altered the sign himself.  Angered, Coe reportedly shot at Hickok during a street brawl.   Not so, say some historians.  The two actually tangled over the affections of  bawdy house owner, Jessie Hazel.  Whatever the cause, in the melee Hickok shot and killed deputy marshal Mike Williams.  He resigned or was fired following the incident.

After several more years and a spotty record as a lawman, Hickok took a whirl as a showman.  He joined his lifelong friend Buffalo Bill Cody in a Chicago stage play, a precursor to Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West Show.

In his single brush with domesticity, Hickok married 50-year-old legendary tight rope walker and circus proprietor, Agnes Thatcher Lake (right), in Cheyenne, Wyoming on March 5, 1876.  That same year sources say he was diagnosed with glaucoma which would have seriously compromised his marksmanship.  

The Lake/Hickok honeymoon was short-lived.   Just weeks after the wedding the bridegroom left for the Black Hills gold fields with the Newton-Jenny Expedition, where he reportedly first met Martha Jane Canary (Calamity Jane) (below).  Canary claimed a romantic relationship with Hickok, but friends of both denied it. In 1941, however, a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick petitioned the Department of Public Assistance as the daughter of Canary and Hickok who supposedly wed in 1873.  Her petition was granted but McCormick’s evidence remains suspect.

Hickok was buried in Deadwood’s original grave yard, Ingleside Cemetery.  Three years later his remains were exhumed and moved to the town’s new Mount Moriah Cemetery 

Dime novel exploits not withstanding, various sources tally up 36 men sent to their graves by Wild Bill during his  brief 39 years.  In a final fact or fiction debate, the four friends who buried Calamity Jane next to Hickok said he actually disliked her.  It was simply a mean-spirited posthumous prank that Hickok may have richly deserved but that Calamity Jane did not. 

The Adams Museum, downtown Deadwood, S.D. and its Legends Gallery brings together memorabilia and artifacts from Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, sometime friend of Wild Bill’s Charlie Utter and Deadwood sheriff Seth Bullock, among others.  The museum’s Risky Business exhibit explores the town’s seamy past of prostitution, gambling and crime and the lawmen who struggled to bring law and order. 

Open daily 9 to 5 May through September, 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday October through April and closed for winter holidays. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children.  For more information go to deadwoodhistory.com, call (605) 722-4800 or write Deadwood History, Inc., PO Box 252, 150 Sherman Street, Deadwood, SD 57732.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.