America has a passion for The Old West. For good or bad, it is the one time in history that is uniquely American. Ghost towns are popular attractions for all ages, Generation X became skilled at dying of dysentery while trying to navigate “The Oregon Trail,” and Westworld is one of the most popular shows on television. Through the mediums of movies, literature, and tv, we love to throw ourselves back to the time of high noon challenges, sheriffs vs outlaws, and dramatic entrances via swinging saloon doors.
Meet James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, one of the greatest gunfighters of the American Old West.
Born on a farm in Illinois that served as a post for the Underground Railroad, James Butler Hickok would grow up to become ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok: soldier, lawman, gambler, showman, and legendary gunfighter.
James left home at 17, at which time he was already considered a master marksman. He would go on to work for the abolition of slavery, serve in the Union Army as a teamster and spy, as a stagecoach driver, and a lawman.
It was during his service in the Union Army that he acquired the name “Wild Bill” in a case of probable mistaken identity. While in Independence, Missouri, James Hickok ran across a drunken mob intent on hanging a bartender who had shot a hoodlum in his saloon. Hickok fired two shots over the heads of the mob and stared them down until the crowd dispersed. A random woman in the crowd, apparently grateful for the intervention, yelled, “Good for you, Wild Bill!” Most historians agree that she mistook Hickok for someone else entirely, but the nickname stuck, and so the seeds of legend were planted.
The Legend of Wild Bill Hickok is rooted in stories that became famous via word of mouth, in dime novels, and newspapers. Stories like The McCanles Massacre, a second-hand report of which appeared for the first time in 1867, in Harper’s New Monthly magazine, six after it happened. The story’s author, Col. George Ward Nichols, claimed to have heard the details directly from Hickok two years prior. According to Nichols’ version, Hickok out-drew and killed at least six members of the McCanles gang before besting three more in hand-to-hand combat. The public latched on to the story hard, and suddenly different versions of the event appeared all over. Following the publishing of these stories, more accounts of Hickok’s fighting prowess began to surface… Reports that Hickok killed a cinnamon bear with his bare hands and a six inch Bowie knife, nearly dying himself in the process and how he’d been known to hit dead center of a target no bigger than a man’s heart from 50 yards away without sighting down the barrel.
In July 1865, while in Springfield, Missouri, Hickok shot and killed David Tutt, a skilled gunfighter in his own right, who had been flaunting a pocket watch he won from Hickok in a poker game. The story spread quickly, further solidifying Hickok’s legendary status; and later, journalist Sir Henry Morton Stanley reported as fact Hickok’s exaggerated claim to have killed 100 men in the New York Herald.
His final gun battle took place in Abilene, Kansas, 1871, where he was serving as the local sheriff. In a shootout with a local saloon owner, Hickok accidentally shot and killed his own deputy in the melee. The incident haunted Hickok so much he never willingly participated in another gunfight for the rest of his life.
Hickok drifted after that, having adventures as a showman and gambler; eking out a living and skirting just the right of the law. He acted in Buffalo Bill Cody’s play “Scouts on the Prairie,” was allegedly romantically linked to Martha Jane Canary (aka Calamity Jane), and while his reputation as a famous gunslinger preceded him from town to town, earning him spaces in poker games and drinks in saloons, he was arrested for public intoxication and vagrancy on numerous occasions.
In August 1876, Hickok was living in Deadwood, South Dakota. On the first of that month, he played a game of poker in Nuttall & Mann’s Saloon alongside several other men, including Jack McCall. McCall was quite drunk during the game and lost hand after hand. At the end of the game, Hickok took pity on McCall, giving him back just enough money to buy food; but advised him not to play again until he could cover his losses.
The following afternoon, August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok came back to the saloon and the poker game only to find another man in his preferred seat; the seat with his back to the wall. After some hesitation, he accepted a seat with his back to the bar and the saloon doors; a move that would prove to be his fatal mistake. At 4:15pm, Jack McCall rose from the bar, quietly pulled his pistol, and Wild Bill Hickok point-blank in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
At the time of his death, Hickok was holding a pair of black eights and a pair of black Aces; there are no reports of what the fifth card in his hand might’ve been. Even in death, his legend grew as the combination of Aces & Eights in poker became known as The Deadmans’ Hand.
Think about all of this for a minute: Of all the notable and notorious characters from that time, Wild Bill Hickok, one of the greatest gunfighters in the American West, is also immediately known for the most infamous poker hand in history.