By Tom Morrow
Of all the characters and legends the Old West, none would exceed the storied life of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok.
Born May 27, 1837, Hickok was known for his exploits across the frontier as a drover, wagon master, soldier, spy, scout, lawman, gunfighter, gambler, showman, and actor. He earned a great deal of notoriety, much of it bolstered by outlandish and often fabricated tales he told about himself. Some contemporaneous reports remain the basis of much of Hickok’s fame and reputation.
Hickok was raised on a farm near present-day Troy Grove, Ill. At age 18, he began working as a stagecoach driver and later as a lawman in the frontier territories of Kansas and Nebraska. He fought and spied for the Union Army during the Civil War and gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman, actor, and professional gambler.
While Hickok claimed to have killed numerous gunmen, but, according to historians, Hickok killed only six or seven men in gunfights.
In 1855, at age 18, Hickok moved to Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory, where he joined the Jayhawkers vigilante group. In April 1861, after the Civil War broke out, Hickok became a teamster for the Union Army in Sedalia, Missouri. He joined General James Henry Lane’s Kansas Brigade and, while serving with the brigade, saw his friend William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was serving as a scout. There are no records of Hickok’s whereabouts for the next year, although at least one source claims that he was a Union spy in Confederate territory during this time.
In September 1865, Hickok became a deputy federal marshal at Fort Riley, Kansas. Earlier, Hickok sometimes served as a scout for General George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry.
One account of Hickok’s prowess as a gunfighter was when a saloon argument with four men broke out, he faced them in the street at about 40 feet. Hickok killed three of the men each with a bullet to the head and wounded the fourth with a shot through the cheek bone.
Later, as Abilene’s marshal, Hickok was trying to quell a street brawl when he accidently shot and killed his deputy, who was coming to Hickok’s aid. This event haunted Hickok for the remainder of his life.
In 1876, Hickok was diagnosed with glaucoma and ophthalmia, commonly known as “moon (night) blindness.” Though he was just 39, his marksmanship and health were apparently in decline.
Martha Jane Cannary, known as “Calamity Jane,” claimed she was married to Hickok, but no records have been found supporting that.
On Aug. 2, 1876, Hickok was playing poker in a Deadwood Saloon. A drunk, Jack McCall, lost heavily. Hickok encouraged him to quit offering money for breakfast. McCall accepted the money, but he was insulted.
The next day, Hickok again was playing poker. He usually sat with his back to a wall, but the only seat available was facing away from the door. McCall entered the saloon, walked up behind Hickok and shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. McCall claimed he was angry at Hickok for the breakfast gesture.
Hickok was playing five-card stud when he was shot. He was holding two pairs: black aces and black eights. Poker players everywhere have since known the four cards as “the dead-man’s hand.”
McCall was acquitted before an informal “miners jury.” Calamity Jane supposedly led a lynch mob for McCall, but at the time of Hickok’s death, Jane was being held by military authorities. After bragging about killing Hickok, McCall was re-arrested, found guilty and was hanged on March 1, 1877. In 1881, the cemetery where McCall was buried was moved and when he was exhumed, the noose was found still around his neck.
Hickok’s favorite guns were a pair of Colt 1851 Navy Model (.36 caliber) revolvers. They had ivory grips and nickel plating. He wore his revolvers butt-forward in a belt or sash, and seldom used holsters. He drew the pistols using a “reverse, twist” or cavalry draw.
The true-life story of James Butler Hickok will never be known, but as Hollywood director John Ford once said, “There’s always a legend alongside a true story. Always print the legend – it’s far more interesting.