Wild Bill Hickok: Fortune Leaves Him in the Lurch

For Independence Day, we leave Appalachia far behind behind and reach back into America’s Western past. This week’s case is the murder of a true Old West icon, Wild Bill Hickok.

Wild Bill Hickok

James Butler Hickok lived as full a live as a man possibly could. Born in northern Illinois in 1837, he left home at 18 after he mistakenly thought he killed a man. He may have taken his father’s name, William, partly as a means of lying low. Finding his way to “Bleeding Kansas,” the man who now called himself “Wild Bill” joined the Jayhawkers, a violent anti-slavery group. As a Jayhawker, he met a 12-year-old William Cody who would later attain fame as “Buffalo Bill.”

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

When the Civil War formally began, Hickok joined the Union Army as a teamster and then a wagon master. Later he worked for the provost marshal in southwestern Missouri and as a scout. After the war, he gained fame as a lawman in Hays and Abilene, Kansas, and also as a gunfighter and gambler.

In the early 1870s, Abilene, Kansas was a wild town at the end of the cattle trails. In 1871, Hickok was town marshal and had a dispute with saloon owner Phil Coe. The dispute escalated, as disputes often will and on October 5, the two had a confrontation on a city street. Coe aimed his pistol at Wild Bill, but Hickok shot first, killing Coe.

After shooting Coe, Hickok got a quick glimpse of someone running toward him. He turned and fired, killing Abilene Special Deputy Mike Williams, who was rushing to help Hickok. The killing of Williams, which haunted Hickok for the rest of his life, was only one of several questionable shooting. That, coupled with claims of misconduct led the City of Abilene to relieve the marshal of his duties. Wild Bill never fought another gunfight after that.

Wild Bill Hickok in Later Life

In 1873, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro invited Wild Bill to join their acting troupe. The company performed a wild west show called “Scouts of the Plains.” Hickok agreed, but he didn’t like acting and often hid himself behind the scenery. And at one performance, he shot out the spotlight when it focused on him!

A more civilized version of Wild Bill Hickok
A more civilized version of Wild Bill Hickok

By 1876, Wild Bill was making his living by gambling—playing cards. Sometime that year, he visited a Kansas City doctor, who diagnosed him with glaucoma and ophthalmia. Hickok was only 39, but his health and his eyesight—and, consequently, his marksmanship—were failing him.

Eighteen-seventy-six also found Wild Bill in the mining town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, He played cards regularly at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10.

A recent photo of the site of Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10. The original building burned down in 1879. (Photo by CyArk)
A recent photo of the site of Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10. The original building burned down in 1879. (Photo by CyArk)

Jack McCall Murders Wild Bill Hickok

On August 1, 1876, Hickok was playing cards at Nuttal & Mann’s. A chair opened up at the table and a drunken man named “Broken Nose” Jack McCall flopped down. The newcomer was a heavy loser. Wild Bill encouraged him to quit the game until he could cover his losses and offered him money to buy breakfast. McCall took the money, but he felt Hickok had insulted him.

This picture purports to be "Crooked Nose" Jack McCall, although it has never been substantiated.
This picture purports to be “Crooked Nose” Jack McCall, although ithas never been substantiated.

The next day, August 2, Hickok was again playing poker but this time there was a crucial difference. Normally, Bill sat with his back to a wall so he could see the entrance. This time, the only chair open faced away from the door. Twice he asked another player, Charles Rich, to exchange seats but Rich refused.

At some point during the game, McCall came in and walked up behind Hickok. He drew his .45 caliber single-action Colt Army Revolver and shot Hickok in the back of the head at point blank range. Wild Bill Hickok immediately fell to the floor, dead.

Epilogue

Jack McCall was tried twice. A miner’s court convened soon after the shooting. McCall claimed he was avenging the shooting death of his brother by Hickock and was acquitted. That trial was declared invalid, though, since Deadwood was in Indian Territory and had no jurisdiction.

A second trial convened on December 4, 1876, in Yankton, the capital of Dakota Territory. A guilty verdict followed two days later, and Judge Granville Bennett sentenced McCall to hang. He was hanged in a public execution on March 1, 1877 and buried with the noose still around his neck. It later emerged that McCall never had a brother.

Hickok was playing five-card stud (or draw) when McCall shot him. He was holding two pair, aces over eights, all black, when he died. His hole card was a diamond, either a jack or a queen. The hand subsequently became known as the “dead man’s hand.” It’s an intriguing story, but it didn’t emerge until the 1920s, so there is some doubt as to its accuracy.

The infamous "Dead Man's Hand" that Wild Bill Hickok supposedly held when McCall shot him (By Tage Olsin)
The infamous “Dead Man’s Hand” that Wild Bill Hickok supposedly held when McCall shot him (By Tage Olsin)

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