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"Wild Bill" Hickok

"Wild Bill" Hickok

James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 – August 2, 1876), better known as "Wild Bill" Hickok, was a folk hero of the American Old West known for his work across the frontier as a drover, wagon master, soldier, spy, scout, lawman, gunfighter, gambler, showman, and actor. He earned a great deal of notoriety in his own time, much of it bolstered by the many outlandish and often fabricated tales that he told about his life. Some contemporaneous reports of his exploits are known to be fictitious, but they remain the basis of much of his fame and reputation, along with his own stories.

Hickok was born and raised on a farm in northern Illinois at a time when lawlessness and vigilante activity were occurring because of the influence of the "Banditti of the Prairie". Hickok was drawn to this ruffian lifestyle and headed west at age 18 as a fugitive from justice, 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 American Civil War and gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman, actor, and professional gambler. Over the course of his life, he was involved in several notable shoot-outs.

In 1876, Hickok was shot from behind and killed while playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (present-day South Dakota) by Jack McCall, an unsuccessful gambler. The hand of cards which he supposedly held at the time of his death has become known as the dead man's hand: two pairs, aces and eights.

Hickok remains a popular figure in frontier history. Many historic sites and monuments commemorate his life, and he has been depicted numerous times in literature, film, and television. He is chiefly portrayed as a protagonist, although historical accounts of his actions are often controversial, and most of his career was exaggerated by both himself and various mythmakers. While Hickok claimed to have killed numerous named and unnamed gunmen in his lifetime, according to Joseph G. Rosa, Hickok's biographer and the foremost authority on Wild Bill, Hickok killed only six or seven men in gunfights.[9][10]

Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok

(1837-05-27)May 27, 1837
Homer, LaSalle County, Illinois (present-day Troy Grove)
DiedAugust 2, 1876(1876-08-02)(aged 39)
Deadwood, Lawrence County, Dakota Territory
Cause of deathMurder by shooting
Resting placeMount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, Dakota Territory
Other namesJames B. Hickok, J.B. Hickok, Shanghai Bill, William Hickok, William Haycock
OccupationFarmer, vigilante, drover, soldier, scout, actor
Agnes Thatcher Lake (m.1876)
Parent(s)William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler

Early life

James Butler Hickok was born May 27, 1837, in Homer, Illinois, (present-day Troy Grove, Illinois) to William Alonzo Hickok, a farmer and abolitionist, and his wife Polly Butler.[11] His father was said to have used the family house, now demolished, as a station on the Underground Railroad.[12]

Hickok was the fourth of six children. William Hickok died in 1852, when James was 15.[13]

Hickok was a good shot from a young age and was recognized locally as an outstanding marksman with a pistol.[14]

Photographs of Hickok appear to depict dark hair, but all contemporaneous descriptions affirm that it was red. (Red objects appear black in early photographs, as the photographic processes were insensitive to red light.)[15]

In 1855, at age 18, James Hickok fled Illinois following a fight with Charles Hudson, during which both fell into a canal (each thought, mistakenly, that he had killed the other). Hickok moved to Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory, where he joined "General" Jim Lane's Free State Army (also known as the Jayhawkers), a vigilante group active in the new territory.[16] While a Jayhawker, he met 12-year-old William Cody (later known as Buffalo Bill), who despite his youth served as a scout just two years later for the U.S. Army during the Utah War.[17]


James B. Hickok, in the 1860s, during his pre-gunfighter days

James B. Hickok, in the 1860s, during his pre-gunfighter days

While in Nebraska, James Hickok was derisively referred to by one man as "Duck Bill" for his long nose and protruding lips.[18][19] He grew a moustache following the McCanles incident and in 1861 began calling himself Wild Bill.[20][21] He was also known before 1861 by Jayhawkers as "Shanghai Bill" because of his height and slim build.[22]

Hickok used his late brother's name, William Hickok, from 1858 and the name William Haycock during the Civil War. Most newspapers referred to him as William Haycock until 1869. He was arrested while using the name Haycock in 1865. He afterward resumed using his given name, James Hickok. Military records after 1865 list him as Hickok but note that he was also known as Haycock.[23][24] In an 1867 article about his shoot-out with Davis Tutt, his surname was misspelled as Hitchcock.[25]

Early career

Mauled by a bear

In 1857, Hickok claimed a 160-acre (65-ha) tract in Johnson County, Kansas (near present-day Lenexa).[26] On March 22, 1858, he was elected one of the first four constables of Monticello Township. In 1859, he joined the Russell, Majors and Waddell freight company, the parent company of the Pony Express.

In 1860, he was badly injured by a bear while driving a freight team from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. According to Hickok's 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 off its skull, infuriating it. The bear attacked, crushing Hickok with its body. Hickok managed to fire another shot, wounding 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.

Hickok was severely injured, with a crushed chest, shoulder and arm. He was bedridden for four months before being sent to Rock Creek Station in the Nebraska Territory to work as a stable hand while he recovered. The freight company had built the stagecoach stop along the Oregon Trail near Fairbury, Nebraska, on land purchased from David McCanles.[27]

McCanles shooting

David C. McCanles, alleged leader of the McCanles Gang, in 1860

David C. McCanles, alleged leader of the McCanles Gang, in 1860

On July 12, 1861, David McCanles went to the Rock Creek Station office to demand an overdue property payment from Horace Wellman, the station manager. McCanles reportedly threatened Wellman, and either Hickok (who was hiding behind a curtain) or Wellman killed him.[28][29] Hickok, Wellman, and another employee, J.W. Brink, were tried for killing McCanles but were found to have acted in self-defense. McCanles may have been the first man Hickok killed.[28] Hickok subsequently visited McCanles' widow,[30] apologized for the killing, and offered her $35 in restitution, all the money he had with him at the time.[1]

Civil War service

After the Civil War broke out in April 1861, James Hickok became a teamster for the Union Army in Sedalia, Missouri. By the end of 1861, he was a wagon master, but in September 1862 he was discharged for unknown reasons. He then joined General James Henry Lane's Kansas Brigade and, while serving with the brigade, saw his friend Buffalo Bill Cody, who was serving as a scout.

In late 1863 he worked for the provost marshal of southwest Missouri as a member of the Springfield detective police. His work included identifying and counting the number of troops in uniform who were drinking while on duty, verifying hotel liquor licenses, and tracking down individuals who owed money to the cash-strapped Union Army.

Buffalo Bill claimed that he encountered Hickok disguised as a Confederate officer in Missouri in 1864.[32][33] [] Hickok had not been paid for some time and was hired as a scout by General John B. Sanborn by early 1865. In June, Hickok mustered out and went to Springfield, where he gambled.[32] The 1883 History of Greene County, Missouri described him as "by nature a ruffian ... a drunken, swaggering fellow, who delighted when 'on a spree' to frighten nervous men and timid women."[34]

Lawman and scout

Duel with Davis Tutt

The Hickok–Tutt shootout, in an 1867 illustration accompanying the article by Nichols in Harper's magazine

The Hickok–Tutt shootout, in an 1867 illustration accompanying the article by Nichols in Harper's magazine

While in Springfield, Hickok and a local gambler named Davis Tutt had several disagreements over unpaid gambling debts and their mutual affection for the same women. Hickok lost a gold watch to Tutt in a poker game. The watch had great sentimental value to Hickok and he asked Tutt not to wear it in public. They initially agreed not to fight over the watch, but when Hickok saw Tutt wearing it, he warned him to stay away. On July 21, 1865, the two men faced off in Springfield's town square, standing sideways before drawing and firing their weapons. Their quick-draw duel was recorded as the first of its kind.[35] Tutt's shot missed, but Hickok's struck Tutt through the heart from about 75 yards (69 m) away. Tutt called out, "Boys, I'm killed" before he collapsed and died.[36][37]

Two days later, Hickok was arrested for murder. The charge was later reduced to manslaughter. He was released on $2,000 bail and stood trial on August 3, 1865. At the end of the trial, Judge Sempronius H. Boyd told the jury they could not find Hickok acted in self-defense if he could have reasonably avoided the fight.[2] However, if they felt the threat of danger was real and imminent, he instructed they could apply the unwritten law of the "fair fight" and acquit.[3] The jury voted to clear Hickok, resulting in public backlash and criticism of the verdict.[38]

Several weeks later, an interview Hickok gave to Colonel George Ward Nichols, a journalist known as the creator of the Hickok legend,[39] was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Under the name "Wild Bill Hitchcock" [sic], the article recounted the "hundreds" of men whom Hickok had personally killed and other exaggerated exploits.[25] The article was controversial wherever Hickok was known, and several frontier newspapers wrote rebuttals.

Deputy U.S. marshal in Kansas

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 federal 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.[17]

In 1865, Hickok recruited six Indians and three cowboys to accompany him to Niagara Falls, where he put on an outdoor demonstration called The Daring Buffalo Chasers of the Plains.[13] Since the event was outdoors, he could not compel people to pay, and the venture was a financial failure.[40] [] The show featured six buffalo, a bear and a monkey and one show ended in disaster when a buffalo refused to act, prompting Hickok to fire a bullet in the sky. This angered the buffalo and panicked audience members, causing the animals to break free of their wire fencing and chase audience members, some of which were trampled[41]. The incident helped contribute to the overall failure of the show.

Killings of Native Americans

Hickok was reported by some to be "an inveterate hater of Indians", perhaps to enhance his reputation as a scout and Indian fighter, but it is difficult to separate fact from fiction considering his recruitment of Native Americans to cross the nation in order to appear in his own Wild West show.[13] Witnesses confirm that while working as a scout at Fort Harker, Kansas, on May 11, 1867, he was attacked by a large group of Indians, who fled after he shot and killed two. In July, Hickok told a newspaper reporter that he had led several soldiers in pursuit of Indians who had killed four men near the fort on July 2. He reported returning with five prisoners after killing ten. Witnesses confirm that the story was true to the extent the party had set out to find whoever had killed the four men,[4] but the group returned to the fort "without nary a dead Indian, [never] even seeing a live one".[42][43]

Move to Hays, Kansas

In December 1867, newspapers reported that Hickok had come to stay in Hays City, Kansas. He became a Deputy U.S. marshal, and on March 28, 1868, he picked up eleven Union Army deserters who had been charged with stealing government property. Hickok was assigned to bring the men to Topeka for trial, and he requested a military escort from Fort Hays. He was assigned William F. Cody, a sergeant, and five privates. They arrived in Topeka on April 2. Hickok remained in Hays through August 1868, when he brought 200 Cheyenne Indians to Hays to be viewed by "excursionists".[44]

Work as a scout

On September 1, Hickok was in Lincoln County, Kansas, where he was hired as a scout by the 10th Cavalry Regiment, a segregated African-American unit. On September 4, Hickok was wounded in the foot while rescuing several cattlemen in the Bijou Creek Basin who had been surrounded by Indians. The 10th Regiment arrived at Fort Lyon in Colorado in October and remained there for the rest of 1868.[44]

Marshal of Hays, Kansas

Wild Bill Hickok in 1869; the unsheathed knife is likely a photographer's prop.

Wild Bill Hickok in 1869; the unsheathed knife is likely a photographer's prop.

In July 1869, Hickok returned to Hays and was elected city marshal of Hays and sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas, in a special election held on August 23, 1869.[45] Three sheriffs had quit during the previous 18 months. Hickok may have been acting sheriff before he was elected; a newspaper reported that he arrested offenders on August 18, and the commander of Fort Hays wrote a letter to the assistant adjutant general on August 21 in which he praised Hickok for his work in apprehending deserters.[5]

The regular county election was held on November 2, 1869, and Hickok, running as an independent, lost to his deputy, Peter Lanihan, running as a Democrat, but Hickok and Lanihan remained sheriff and deputy, respectively. Hickok accused a J.V. Macintosh of irregularities and misconduct during the election. On December 9, Hickok and Lanihan both served legal papers on Macintosh, and local newspapers acknowledged that Hickok had guardianship of Hays City.[46] []

Killings as sheriff

Hickok's star on the Texas Trail of Fame in the Fort Worth Stockyards, Texas

Hickok's star on the Texas Trail of Fame in the Fort Worth Stockyards, Texas

In September 1869, his first month as sheriff, Hickok killed two men. The first was Bill Mulvey, who was rampaging through town, drunk, shooting out mirrors and whisky bottles behind bars. Citizens warned Mulvey to behave, because Hickok was sheriff. Mulvey angrily declared that he had come to town to kill Hickok. When he saw Hickok, he leveled his cocked rifle at him. Hickok waved his hand past Mulvey at some onlookers and yelled, "Don't shoot him in the back; he is drunk." Mulvey wheeled his horse around to face those who might shoot him from behind, and before he realized he had been fooled, Hickok shot him through the temple.[17][47]

The second killed by Hickok was Samuel Strawhun, a cowboy, who was causing a disturbance at 1 a.m. in a saloon on September 27 when Hickok and Lanihan went to the scene.[35] Strawhun "made remarks against Hickok," and Hickok killed him with a shot through the head. Hickok said he had "tried to restore order". At the coroner's inquest into Strawhun's death, despite "very contradictory" evidence from witnesses, the jury found the shooting justifiable.[46] []

On July 17, 1870, Hickok was attacked by two troopers from the 7th U.S. Cavalry, Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kyle (sometimes spelled Kile[48]), in a saloon. Lonergan pinned Hickok to the ground, and Kyle put his gun to Hickok's ear. When Kyle's weapon misfired, Hickok shot Lonergan, wounding him in the knee, and shot Kyle twice, killing him. Hickok was not re-elected to office.

Marshal of Abilene, Kansas

John Wesley Hardin, a well-known gunfighter, who was known to have killed at least 27 men. In his autobiography, Hardin made the unlikely claim that while surrendering his guns to the lawman due to a local ordinance, he had once disarmed Town Marshal "Wild Bill" Hickok with the use of  "the road agent's spin."

John Wesley Hardin, a well-known gunfighter, who was known to have killed at least 27 men. In his autobiography, Hardin made the unlikely claim that while surrendering his guns to the lawman due to a local ordinance, he had once disarmed Town Marshal "Wild Bill" Hickok with the use of "the road agent's spin."

On April 15, 1871, Hickok became marshal of Abilene, Kansas. He replaced Tom "Bear River" Smith, who had been killed on November 2, 1870.[49]

The outlaw John Wesley Hardin arrived in Abilene at the end of a cattle drive in early 1871. Hardin was a well-known gunfighter and is known to have killed more than 27 men.[50] In his 1895 autobiography, published after his death, Hardin claimed to have been befriended by Hickok, the newly elected town marshal, after he had disarmed the marshal using the road agent's spin.[51] However, Hardin was known to exaggerate.[51] In any case, Hardin appeared to have thought highly of Hickok.[52]

Hickok later said he did not know that "Wesley Clemmons" was Hardin's alias and that he was a wanted outlaw. He told Clemmons (Hardin) to stay out of trouble in Abilene and asked him to hand over his guns, and Hardin complied.[53] Hardin claimed that when his cousin, Mannen Clements, was jailed for killing two cowhands, he persuaded Hickok to arrange for his escape.[54]

Attempt at arrest of Hardin

In August 1871, "Wild Bill" Hickok sought to arrest Hardin for killing Charles Couger in an Abilene hotel "for snoring too loud". Hardin left Kansas before Hickok could arrest him.[55] [] [56] A newspaper reported, "A man was killed in his bed at a hotel in Abilene, Monday night, by a desperado called 'Arkansas'. The murderer escaped. This was his sixth murder."[57]

Shootout with Phil Coe

Hickok and Phil Coe, a saloon owner and acquaintance of Hardin's, had a dispute that resulted in a shootout. The Bull's Head Saloon in Abilene had been established by the gambler Ben Thompson and Coe, his partner, businessman and fellow gambler.[58][59] The two entrepreneurs had painted a picture of a bull with a large erect penis on the side of their establishment as an advertisement. Citizens of the town complained to Hickok,[59] who requested that Thompson and Coe remove the bull. They refused, so Hickok altered it himself. Infuriated, Thompson tried to incite John Wesley Hardin to kill Hickok, by exclaiming to Hardin that "He's a damn Yankee. Picks on rebels, especially Texans, to kill." Hardin was in town under his assumed name Wesley Clemmons but was better known to the townspeople by the alias Little Arkansas. He seemed to have respect for Hickok's abilities and replied, "If Bill needs killing why don't you kill him yourself?"[55] Hoping to intimidate Hickok, Coe allegedly stated that he could "kill a crow on the wing". Hickok's retort is one of the West's most famous sayings (though possibly apocryphal): "Did the crow have a pistol? Was he shooting back? I will be."

On October 5, 1871, Hickok was standing off a crowd during a street brawl when Coe fired two shots. Hickok ordered him to be arrested for firing a pistol within the city limits. Coe claimed that he was shooting at a stray dog, and then suddenly turned his gun on Hickok, who fired first and killed Coe.[60] Hickok caught a glimpse of someone running toward him and quickly fired two more shots in reaction, accidentally shooting and killing Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams, who was coming to his aid.[61] This event haunted Hickok for the remainder of his life.[62] There is another account of the Coe shootout: Theophilus Little, the mayor of Abilene and owner of the town's lumber yard, recorded his time in Abilene by writing in a notebook which was ultimately given to the Abilene Historical Society. Writing in 1911, he detailed his admiration of Hickok and included a paragraph on the shooting that differs considerably from the reported account:

"Phil" Coe was from Texas, ran the "Bull's Head" a saloon and gambling den, sold whiskey and men's souls. As vile a character as I ever met for some cause Wild Bill incurred Coe's hatred and he vowed to secure the death of the marshal. Not having the courage to do it himself, he one day filled about 200 cowboys with whiskey intending to get them into trouble with Wild Bill, hoping that they would get to shooting and in the melee shoot the marshal. But Coe "reckoned without his host". Wild Bill had learned of the scheme and cornered Coe, had his two pistols drawn on Coe. Just as he pulled the trigger one of the policemen rushed around the corner between Coe and the pistols and both balls entered his body, killing him instantly. In an instant, he pulled the triggers again sending two bullets into Coe's abdomen (Coe lived a day or two) and whirling with his two guns drawn on the drunken crowd of cowboys, "and now do any of you fellows want the rest of these bullets?" Not a word was uttered.[63]

Hickok was relieved of his duties as marshal less than two months after accidentally killing Deputy Williams, this incident being only one of a series of questionable shootings and claims of misconduct.[14]

Later life

Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro, and Buffalo Bill Cody as the "Scouts of the Plains" in 1873

Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro, and Buffalo Bill Cody as the "Scouts of the Plains" in 1873

In 1873, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro invited Hickok to join their troupe after their earlier success.[33] [] Hickok did not enjoy acting, and often hid behind scenery. In one show he shot the spotlight when it focused on him. He was released from the group after a few months.[64]

In 1876, Hickok was diagnosed by a doctor in Kansas City, Missouri, with glaucoma and ophthalmia. Although he was just 39, his marksmanship and health were apparently in decline, and he had been arrested several times for vagrancy,[65] despite earning a good income from gambling and displays of showmanship only a few years earlier.


A rare tintype of Hickok, circa 1870, found with the last letter he wrote to his wife, Agnes Thatcher Lake

A rare tintype of Hickok, circa 1870, found with the last letter he wrote to his wife, Agnes Thatcher Lake

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 her account.[66] The two possibly 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.[67] Jane confirmed this account in an 1896 newspaper interview, although she claimed she had been hospitalized with illness rather than in the guardhouse.

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.[17]

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."[68]


On August 1, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. When a seat opened up at the table, a drunk man named Jack McCall sat down to play. McCall lost heavily. Hickok encouraged McCall to quit the game until he could cover his losses and offered to give him money for breakfast. Although McCall accepted the money, he was apparently insulted.[69]

The next day, Hickok was playing poker again. He usually sat with his back to a wall so he could see the entrance, but the only seat available when he joined the game was a chair facing away from the door. He twice asked another man at the table, Charles Rich, to change seats with him, but Rich refused.[70]

McCall entered the saloon, walked up behind Hickok, drew his Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army .45-caliber revolver, and shouted, "Damn you! Take that!" before shooting Hickok in the back of the head at point-blank range.[71]

Hickok died instantly. The bullet emerged through his right cheek and struck another player, riverboat Captain William Massie, in the left wrist.[72][73] Hickok may have told his friend Charlie Utter and others who were traveling with them that he thought he would be killed while in Deadwood.[74]

Jack McCall's two trials

Jack McCall shot Hickok in the back of the head

Jack McCall shot Hickok in the back of the head

The card hand held by Hickok at his death, now widely known as the "dead man's hand"

The card hand held by Hickok at his death, now widely known as the "dead man's hand"

McCall's motive for killing Hickok is the subject of speculation, largely concerning McCall's anger at Hickok's having given him money for breakfast the day before, after McCall had lost heavily.[75][76]

McCall was summoned before an informal "miners' jury" (an ad hoc local group of miners and businessmen). He claimed he was avenging Hickok's earlier slaying of his brother, which may have been true. (A man named Lew McCall was killed by an unknown lawman in Abilene, Kansas, but it is not known whether or not the two McCall men were related.)[76] McCall was acquitted of the murder, which prompted editorializing in the Black Hills Pioneer: "Should it ever be our misfortune to kill a man ... we would simply ask that our trial may take place in some of the mining camps of these hills." Calamity Jane was reputed to have led a mob that threatened McCall with lynching, but at the time of Hickok's death, Jane was actually being held by military authorities.[77]

After bragging about killing Hickok, McCall was re-arrested. The second trial was not considered double jeopardy because of the irregular jury in the first trial and because Deadwood was in Indian country. The new trial was held in Yankton, the capital of the Dakota Territory. Hickok's brother, Lorenzo Butler, traveled from Illinois to attend the retrial. McCall was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Leander Richardson, a reporter, interviewed McCall shortly before his execution and wrote an article about him for the April 1877 issue of Scribner's Monthly. Butler spoke with McCall after the trial and said McCall showed no remorse.[78]

As I write the closing lines of this brief sketch, word reaches me that the slayer of Wild Bill has been rearrested by the United State authorities, and after trial has been sentenced to death for willful murder. He is now at Yankton, D.T. awaiting execution. At the [second] trial it was suggested that [McCall] was hired to do his work by gamblers who feared the time when better citizens should appoint Bill the champion of law and order – a post which he formerly sustained in Kansas border life, with credit to his manhood and his courage.[6][78]

Jack McCall was hanged on March 1, 1877 and buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery. The cemetery was moved in 1881, and when McCall's body was exhumed, the noose was found still around his neck.[79]

Dead man's hand

Hickok was playing five-card stud when he was shot. He was holding two pairs: black aces and black eights as his "up cards". The identity of the fifth card (his "hole card") is the subject of debate.[7]


Steve and Charlie Utter at Hickok's grave, photograph date unknown

Steve and Charlie Utter at Hickok's grave, photograph date unknown

Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickok's Gravesite, Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickok's Gravesite, Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

Charlie Utter, Hickok's friend and companion, claimed Hickok's body and placed a notice in the local newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer, which read:

Died in Deadwood, Black Hills, August 2, 1876, from the effects of a pistol shot, J. B. Hickock [sic] (Wild Bill) formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Funeral services will be held at Charlie Utter's Camp, on Thursday afternoon, August 3, 1876, at 3 o'clock P. M. All are respectfully invited to attend.

Almost the entire town attended the funeral, and Utter had Hickok buried with a wooden grave marker reading:

Wild Bill, J. B. Hickock [sic] killed by the assassin Jack McCall in Deadwood, Black Hills, August 2, 1876. Pard, we will meet again in the happy hunting ground to part no more. Good bye, Colorado Charlie, C. H. Utter.

Hickok is known to have fatally shot six men and is suspected of having killed a seventh (McCanles). Despite his reputation,[80] Hickok was buried in the Ingelside Cemetery, Deadwood's original graveyard. This cemetery filled quickly, and in 1879, on the third anniversary of Hickcock's original burial, Utter paid to move Hickok's remains to the new Mount Moriah Cemetery.[8] Utter supervised the move and noted that, while perfectly preserved, Hickok had been imperfectly embalmed. As a result, calcium carbonate from the surrounding soil had replaced the flesh, leading to petrifaction. One of the workers, Joseph McLintock, wrote a detailed description of the re-interment. McLintock used a cane to tap the body, face, and head, finding no soft tissue anywhere. He noted that the sound was similar to tapping a brick wall and believed the remains weighed more than 400 lb (180 kg). William Austin, the cemetery caretaker, estimated 500 lb (230 kg), which made it difficult for the men to carry the remains to the new site. The original wooden grave marker was moved to the new site, but by 1891 it had been destroyed by souvenir hunters whittling pieces from it, and it was replaced with a statue. This, in turn, was destroyed by souvenir hunters and replaced in 1902 by a life-sized sandstone sculpture of Hickok. This, too, was badly defaced, and was then enclosed in a cage for protection. The enclosure was cut open by souvenir hunters in the 1950s, and the statue was removed.[81]

Hickok is currently interred in a ten-foot (3 m) square plot at the Mount Moriah Cemetery, surrounded by a cast-iron fence, with a U.S. flag flying nearby.[82] A monument has been built there.

Notable nearby graves

It has been reported that Calamity Jane was buried next to Hickock, according to her dying wish. Four of the men on the self-appointed committee who planned Calamity's funeral (Albert Malter, Frank Ankeney, Jim Carson, and Anson Higby) later stated that, since Hickok had "absolutely no use" for Jane in this life, they decided to play a posthumous joke on him by laying her to rest by his side.[83] Potato Creek Johnny, a local Deadwood celebrity from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is also buried next to Wild Bill.[84]

Pistols known to have been carried by Hickok

Hickok's favorite guns were a pair of Colt 1851 Navy Model (.36 caliber) cap-and-ball revolvers. They had ivory grips and nickel plating and were ornately engraved with "J.B. Hickok–1869" on the backstrap.[85] He wore his revolvers butt-forward in a belt or sash (when wearing city clothes or buckskins, respectively), and seldom used holsters per se; he drew the pistols using a "reverse", "twist" or cavalry draw, as would a cavalryman.[17]

At the time of his death Hickok was wearing a Smith & Wesson Model 2 Army Revolver, a newly released five-shot, single-action 38 cal. weapon. Bonhams auction company offered this pistol at auction on November 18, 2013, in San Francisco, California,[86] described as Hickok's Smith & Wesson No. 2, serial number 29963, a .32 rimfire with a six-inch barrel, blued finish and varnished rosewood grips. The gun did not sell because the highest bid of $220,000 was less than the reserve set by the gun's owners.[87]

Hickok has remained one of the most popular and iconic figures of the American Old West, and is still frequently depicted in popular culture, including literature, film, and television.


Paramount Pictures' Western silent film Wild Bill Hickok (released on November 18, 1923) was directed by Clifford Smith and stars William S. Hart as Hickok.[88][89] A print of the film is maintained in the Museum of Modern Art film archive.[90]

The movie The Plainsman (1936), starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok, features the relationship between Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane as its main plot line. It is a loose adaptation of J. B. Hickok's life ending with his infamous aces and eights card hand.

The White Buffalo (1977), starring Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickok, tells a tale of Hickok's hunt for a murderous white buffalo that follows him in his nightmares.

A highly fictional film account of Hickok's later years and death, titled Wild Bill (released on December 18, 1995), stars Jeff Bridges as James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and David Arquette as Jack McCall, and was written and directed by Walter Hill. The film received mixed reviews, and currently holds a 5.9 rating on the Internet Movie Database[91] and a 41% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[92]

A semi-fictionalized version of Hickok's time as Marshal of Abilene Kansas, titled Hickok (released on July 7, 2017), stars Luke Hemsworth as James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, Trace Adkins as the Bulls Head saloonkeeper Phil Coe, Kris Kristofferson as Abilene mayor George Knox, and Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as John Wesley Hardin. It was written by Michael Lanahan and directed by Timothy Woodward Jr.


A Screen Gems television series, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, with Guy Madison in the starring role and Andy Devine as sidekick Pete "Jingles" Jones, ran for eight seasons from 1951 through 1958, first in syndication and then on CBS for the last three seasons.

Two actors portrayed Hickok on the syndicated anthology series Death Valley Days. Charles Carlson was cast in the 1962 episode, "The Truth Teller", which focuses on the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867.[93] Rhodes Reason portrays Hickok in "A Calamity Called Jane", in which Calamity and Hickok argue over her masculine wardrobe and manners. The segment concludes with Hickok's assassination by Jack McCall in a saloon in Deadwood.[94]

Lloyd Bridges portrayed Hickok in an episode of The Great Adventure titled "Wild Bill Hickok - The Legend and the Man," which aired on 3 January 1964. Ironically, Bridges's son, Jeff, would also play Hickok years later in the aforementioned film Wild Bill.

In episodes 1-4 of the HBO dramatic television series Deadwood, which aired from 2004 to 2006, Hickok, portrayed by Keith Carradine, is shown arriving in Deadwood with Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane, with the Deadwood camp inhabitants aware of Hickok's celebrity status as a gunfighter and lawman. The series shows Hickok as a self-destructive, compulsive gambler who is eventually murdered while playing poker and subsequently laid to rest in Deadwood's cemetery.

In the early 1990s ABC television series Young Riders, a fictional account of Pony Express riders, Hickok is portrayed by Josh Brolin.[95]

In Doctor Who, The Doctor assembles his outfit from costumes found in the employee storage area of a hospital. One of the costumes is that of "Wild Bill Hickok" being used by a nurse as a costume for a New Year's Eve party.

Memorials and honorable distinctions

Statue of Wild Bill Hickock in Deadwood

Statue of Wild Bill Hickock in Deadwood

Hickok's birthplace is now the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial and is a listed historic site under the supervision of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The town of Deadwood, South Dakota re-enacts Hickok's murder and McCall's capture every summer evening.[79]

In 1979, Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.[96]


Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgPersonal account of the foreman of the Overland Stage Company stations, as given to The DeWitt Times News: At the time of this affair I was at a station farther west and reached this station just as Wild Bill was getting ready to go to Beatrice for his trial. He wanted me to go with him and as we started on our way, imagine my surprise and uncomfortable feeling when he announced his intention of stopping at the McCanles home. I would have rather been somewhere else, but Bill stopped. He told Mrs. McCanles he was sorry he had to kill her man then took out $35 [$976 in 2018 dollars] and gave it to her saying: 'This is all I have, sorry I do not have more to give you.' We drove on to Beatrice and at the trial, his plea was self-defense, no one appeared against him and he was cleared. The trial did not last more than fifteen minutes. Elliott, F. G. (November 26, 1938). "Wild Bill Hickok & McCanles Affair" (PDF). Library of Congress. Retrieved July 31, 2019.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgJudge Boyd told the jury, "The defendant cannot set up justification that he acted in self-defense if he was willing to engage in a fight with the deceased. To be entitled to acquittal on the ground of self-defense, he must have been anxious to avoid a conflict, and must have used all reasonable means to avoid it. If the deceased and defendant engaged in a fight or conflict willingly on the part of each, and the defendant killed the deceased, he is guilty of the offense charged, although the deceased may have fired the first shot."
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgJudge Boyd said, "That when danger is threatened and impending a man is not compelled to stand with his arms folded until it is too late to offer successful resistance and if the jury believe from the evidence that Tutt was a fighting character and a dangerous man and that [Defendant] was aware such was his character and that Tutt at the time he was shot by the Deft. was advancing on him with a drawn pistol and that Tutt had previously made threats of personal injury to Deft. ... and that Deft. shot Tutt to prevent the threatened impending injury [then] the jury will acquit."
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Citation Linkchroniclingamerica.loc.govFor details, see Evening Star, July 1, 1867, which contains a garbled report of eleven men killed by Indians at Fort Harker. It also reports the death of one and the wounding of a second railroad man by Indians near Fort Harker (the two casualties are confirmed). The report of the larger number of deaths may confuse this incident with another fight with Indians, at Fort Wallace, Kansas, in which a number of soldiers were killed and wounded. For the Fort Wallace fight and casualties, see The Sun, July 15, 1867.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgThe "special election" may not have been legal, as a letter dated September 17 to the governor of Kansas noted that Hickok had presented a warrant for an arrest which was rejected by the Fort Hays commander, because, when asked to produce his commission, Hickok admitted that he had never received one.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMcCall alleged that John Varnes, a Deadwood gambler, had paid him to murder Wild Bill. When Varnes could not be found, McCall then implicated Tim Brady in the plot. Brady, like Varnes, had disappeared from Deadwood and could not be found.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgDead man's hand was an established poker idiom for various different hands long before Hickok died. In 1886, ten years after Hickok's death, the dead man's hand was described as "three Jacks and a pair of Tens" in a North Dakota newspaper, which attributed the term to a specific game held in Illinois 40 years earlier, indicating Hickok's hand had yet to gain widespread popularity. Eventually, Hickok's aces and eights became widely known as the dead man's hand.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgThe old cemetery was in an area that was better suited for the constant influx of new settlers to live on, so the remaining bodies there were eventually also moved up the hill to the Mount Moriah Cemetery (in the 1880s).
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Citation Linktruewestmagazine.comTrimble, Marshall. "How many men did Wild Bill Hickok actually kill?". True West Magazine. April 1, 2002
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgRosa, Joseph G. Wild Bill Hickok, Gunfighter: An Account of Hickok's Gunfights. University of Oklahoma Press; 1st edition (May 26, 2003). p. 198. ISBN 978-0806135359
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgThey Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok. pp. 4–5.
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Citation Linkbooks.google.esOstrom, Gene F. (2008). Vi's Secret: A Family's Story. iUniverse. p. 9. ISBN 9780595466252.
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Citation Linkwww.angelfire.comOdrowaz-Sypniewska, Margaret. James Butler Hickok/"Wild Bill".
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Citation Linkwww.blackhillsvisitor.com"James Butler 'Wild Bill' Hickok, Early Deadwood". Black Hills Visitor Magazine. Retrieved February 20, 2013.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgRosa, Joseph G. (1979). They Called Him Wild Bill. University Press of Oklahoma. p. 306.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgJayhawkers were also often referred to as "Red Legs" because of the distinctive feature of their uniform leggings.
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Citation Linkbooks.google.comMartin, George (1975). James Garry (ed.). Guns of the Gunfighters. Peterson Publishing. ISBN 0-8227-0095-6. Retrieved October 14, 2011.
Sep 23, 2019, 4:50 PM
Citation Linkwww.legendsofamerica.comWeiser, Kathy (April 2012). "Nebraska Legends: Rock Creek Station and the McCanles Massacre". Legends of America. Retrieved October 31, 2016.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgThey Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok. p. 51: the name was inspired by his "sweeping nose and protruding upper lip".
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Citation Linkwww.nebraskahistory.org"Wild Bill" Hickok Court Documents. Nebraska State Historical Society. 1861 subpoena issued to Monroe McCanles to testify against Hickok.
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