Wild Bill Hickok

American gambler, gunfighter, lawman, patriot, and folk hero.

James Butler Hickok

James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 – August 2, 1876)—known as “Wild Bill” Hickok—was a folk character of the American Old West. Although some of his exploits as reported at the time were fictionalized, his skills as a gunfighter and gambler, along with his reputation as a lawman, provided the basis for his enduring fame. Born and raised on a farm in rural Illinois, Hickok went west at age 18 as a fugitive from justice, first working as a stagecoach driver, then as a lawman in the frontier territories of Kansas and Nebraska. He fought (and spied) for the Union Army during the American Civil War, and gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman, actor, and professional gambler. Hickok was involved in several notable shootouts. He was shot from behind and killed while playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota) by an unsuccessful gambler. The card hand he held at the time of his death (aces and eights) has come to be known as the “Dead Man’s Hand“.

Birth

Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois (now Troy Grove, Illinois), on May 27, 1837] to William and Polly (Butler) Hickok. He is a known descendant of Rev. John Robinson. His birthplace is now the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial, a listed historic site under the supervision of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Hickok was a good shot from a very young age and was recognized locally as an outstanding marksman with a pistol. Photographs of Hickok indicate he had dark hair. All contemporaneous descriptions however, confirm he was, in fact, golden blond-haired.

Early Years

In 1857, Hickok claimed a 160-acre tract in Johnson County, Kansas (in what is now Lenexa). On March 22, 1858, he was elected as one of the first four constables of Monticello Township, Kansas. In 1859, he joined the Russell, Waddell, & Majors freight company, the parent company of the Pony Express. The following year, he was badly injured by a bear while driving a freight team from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, Texas. According to Hickok’s own account, he found the road blocked by a Cinnamon bear and its two cubs. Dismounting, he approached the bear and fired a shot into its head, but the bullet ricocheted from its skull, infuriating it. The bear attacked, crushing Hickok with its body. Hickok managed to fire another shot, disabling the bear’s paw. The bear then grabbed his arm in its mouth, but Hickok was able to grab his knife and slash its throat, killing it. Badly injured with a crushed chest, shoulder and arm, Hickok was bedridden for four months before being sent to the Rock Creek Station in Nebraska to work as a stable hand while he recovered.

Civil War and Scouting. When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Hickok signed on as a teamster (an outfitter or packer) for the Union Army in Sedalia, Missouri. By the end of the year, he was a wagon-master, but in September 1862 he was discharged for an undisclosed reason. There are no known records of his whereabouts for over a year, though at least one source claims that Hickok was operating as a Union spy in Confederate territory during this time. In late 1863 he was openly employed by the provost marshal of southwest Missouri as a member of the Springfield, Missouri detective police.

Hickok’s duties as a police detective were mostly mundane, and included counting the number of troops in uniform found drinking while on duty, checking hotel liquor licenses, and tracking down individuals in debt to the cash-strapped Union Army. In 1864, Hickok, along with several other detective police, had not been paid for some time. He either resigned or was reassigned, as he was hired by General John B. Sanborn that year as a scout (at five dollars a day plus a horse and equipment). In June 1865, Hickok was mustered out and afterward spent his time in and around Springfield gambling. According to the History of Greene County, Missouri published in 1883, Hickok at this time was “by nature a ruffian… a drunken, swaggering fellow, who delighted when ‘on a spree’ to frighten nervous men and timid women.”

Lawman

In September 1865, Hickok came in second in the election for city marshal of Springfield. Leaving Springfield, he was recommended for the position of deputy United States marshal at Fort Riley, Kansas. This was during the Indian wars in which Hickok sometimes served as a scout for General George A. Custer‘s 7th Cavalry.

In December 1867, newspapers reported Hickok’s arrival in Hays City, Kansas. On March 28, 1868, he was again in Hays as a deputy U.S. Marshal, picking up 11 Union deserters charged with stealing government property who were to be transferred to Topeka for trial. He requested a military escort from Fort Hays, and was assigned William F. Cody, along with a sergeant and five privates.

In July 1869, Hickok was back in Hays and was elected city marshal of Hays and sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas, in a special election held on August 23, 1869. The county was having particular difficulty holding sheriffs—three had quit over the previous 18 months. Hickok likely was already acting sheriff when elected, as a newspaper reported him arresting offenders on August 18, and the commander of Fort Hays praised Hickok for his work in apprehending deserters in a letter he wrote to the assistant adjutant general on August 21. Regularly scheduled county elections were held on November 2, 1869, and Hickok (Independent) lost to his deputy, Peter Lanihan (Democrat). However, Hickok and Lanihan remained sheriff and deputy, respectively. Hickok accused a J.V. Macintosh of irregularities and misconduct during the election. On 9 December, Hickok and Lanihan both served legal papers on Macintosh, and local newspapers acknowledged Hickok had guardianship of Hays City.

In his first month as sheriff in Hays, he killed two men in gunfights. The first was Bill Mulvey, who “got the drop” on Hickok. Hickok looked past him and yelled, “Don’t shoot him in the back; he is drunk,” which was enough of a distraction to allow him to win the gunfight. The second was a cowboy, Samuel Strawhun, who encountered Hickok and Deputy Sheriff Lanihan at 1 a.m. on September 27 when they had been called to a saloon where Strawhun was causing a disturbance. After Strawhun “made remarks against Hickok”, Strawhun died instantly from a bullet through the head as Hickok “tried to restore order”. At Strawhun’s inquest, despite “very contradictory” evidence from witnesses, the jury found the shooting justifiable.

Later Years

In 1873, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro invited Hickok to join them in a new play called Scouts of the Plains after their earlier success. Hickok and Texas Jack eventually left the show, before Cody formed his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1882.

On March 5, 1876, Hickok married Agnes Thatcher Lake, a 50-year-old circus proprietor in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. Hickok left his new bride a few months later, joining Charlie Utter‘s wagon train to seek his fortune in the goldfields of South Dakota. Martha Jane Cannary, known popularly as Calamity Jane, claimed in her autobiography that she was married to Hickok and had divorced him so he could be free to marry Agnes Lake, but no records have been found that support Jane’s account. The two were believed to have met for the first time after Jane was released from the guardhouse in Fort Laramie and joined the wagon train in which Hickok was traveling. The wagon train arrived in Deadwood in July, 1876. Jane herself confirmed this account in an 1896 newspaper interview, although she claimed she had been hospitalized with illness rather than in the guardhouse.

Shortly before Hickok’s death, he wrote a letter to his new wife, 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.”

Death

On August 2, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Hickok usually sat with his back to a wall. The only seat available when he joined the poker game that afternoon was a chair that put his back to a door. Twice he asked another player, Charles Rich, to change seats with him, and on both occasions Rich refused.

A former buffalo hunter, Jack McCall (better known as “Crooked Nose Jack”), entered the saloon unnoticed by Hickok. McCall walked to within a few feet of Hickok, drew a pistol and shouted, “Damn you! Take that!” before firing at Hickok point blank. McCall’s bullet hit Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The bullet emerged through Hickok’s right cheek, striking another player, Captain Massie, in the left wrist.