Wild Bill Hickok & the
... Wild Bill had his
faults, grievous ones, perhaps ... He would get drunk, gamble, and indulge
in the general licentiousness characteristic of the border in the early
days, yet even when full of the vile libel of the name of whiskey which
was dealt over the bars at exorbitant prices, he was gentle as a child,
unless aroused to anger by intended insults. ... He was loyal in his
friendship, generous to a fault, and invariably espoused the cause of the
weaker against the stronger one in a quarrel.
Jack Crawford, who scouted with
before they both followed the gold rush to
Wild Bill Hickok was born
James Butler Hickok in Troy Grove,
on May 27, 1837 to
William Alonzo Hickok and
Polly Butler Hickok. Bill
had four brothers and two sisters and his parents were God-fearing
Baptists who expected Bill to
keep up his chores on the farm and to attend church every Sunday.
parents also operated a station along the Underground Railroad, where
they smuggled slaves out of the South. It was during this time that
the lean and wiry young man got his first taste of hostile gunfire
when he and his father were chased by law officers who suspected them
of carrying more than just hay in their wagon. Bill became enamored of
guns and began target practice on the small wildlife around the farm. His romantic notions of the
West never sat very well with his father, but despite the protests,
Bill became locally
recognized as an outstanding marksman even in his youth.
age of 14, Bill's
father was killed because of his stand on abolition. Three
years later, when Bill
was 17, he went to work as a towpath driver on the Illinois
and Michigan Canal. However, a year later he headed to
getting a job in Monticello driving a stage coach on the
Oregon Trails. One of the first people he was to meet in
Cody, who would later claim fame with his
Buffalo Bill Wild
stagecoaches were often subject to the threats of bandits and
Indians along the trail, and Bill
quickly put his marksmanship to work, as well as developing a ready
belligerence to the frequent attacks. On one such overland trip,
the stage broke down near Wetmore,
Wild Bill slept under some bushes outside, the customers stayed within
the coach until they were awakened by a disturbance. One of the
travelers lit a kerosene lantern to find Bill
being attacked by a cinnamon bear. When the struggle between man
and bear was over, Bill was severely
wounded, but the bear lay dead on the ground from Hickok's
six inch knife.
After recovering from the almost lethal
attack, Wild Bill headed back to Monticello, Kansas
where he accepted a position as a peace officer on March 22, 1858. Sometime after that he worked for the
and Overland Express station in Rock Creek,
Nebraska, where he met
teased Hickok unmercifully about his
girlish build and feminine features. Perhaps in retaliation,
Hickok began courting a woman by the
name of Sarah Shull who McCanles had
his eye on.
July 12, 1861, McCanles, along
with his young son and two friends by the names of James Woods and James
Gordon came to the station, supposedly to collect a debt. However,
profanities were exchanged which resulted in gunfire.
McCanles was killed
and both James Woods and James Gordon, who were seriously wounded, later
died of their wounds. No charges were made against Hickok on the grounds of self-defense. Later, when
Hickok's fame began to spread, writers looked back and began to call
this gunfight the "McCanles Massacre”,
embellishing the story to the point that Wild Bill had
polished off a dozen of the West’s most dangerous desperados.
Hickok moved on
again, landing in Sedalia,
where he signed on with the Union Army as a wagon master and scout on
October 30, 1861. The military records of his service give very
little information regarding his services, but we do know that Hickok received the nickname "Wild
Bill” while he was serving in the Union Army. As the story
goes, he was in
when he encountered a drunken mob with intentions of hanging a bartender
who had shot a hoodlum in a brawl. Hickok
fired two shots over the heads of the men, staring them down with an angry
glare until the mob dispersed. A grateful woman was allegedly heard
to shout from the sidelines, "Good for you, Wild Bill!” She may have mistaken Hickok for someone
else, but the name stuck.
July of 1865 Hickok met up with a twenty-six-year-old gambler in
to whom Hickok lost at the gaming table. When Bill
couldn’t pay up, Dave Tutt took his pocket watch for security. Hickok
growled that if Tutt so much as used the timepiece, he would kill him.
On July 21, 1865, the two met in the public
square, Tutt proudly wearing the watch for all to see. Moments
later, Tutt lay on the ground dead. Hickok
was acquitted of any wrong doing.
During his time in the Army,
became good friends with
General George Custer, working as one of his principal scouts. Custer was said to have admired
played poker with him, and would have known him better had it not been for
the disaster at Little Big Horn.
Shortly after the war, in 1867, Hickok
was tracked down by Henry M. Stanley, correspondent for the New
York Herald who later went to Africa and "found” Dr. Livingstone. Hickok
blithely told the gullible Stanley that he had personally slain over
100 men. Stanley immediately reported this claim as gospel fact
and Wild Bill became a national legend.
On November 5, 1867, Wild Bill
ran for sheriff of Ellsworth County, Kansas
but lost. He returned to the army where he was lanced in the
foot during a skirmish with an
Indian in eastern
Colorado. Returning to
he became the sheriff of
in 1869. On August 24, 1869, he shot and killed a man named Bill Mulrey. Just a month later on September 27, 1869, he killed a
ruffian named Strawhan when he and several others were causing a
disturbance in a local
On July 17, 1870, real trouble started for Hickok
when several members of the 7th U.S. Cavalry caught him off
guard in Drum’s Saloon,
knocked him to the floor and began kicking him. Hickok
drew his pistols, killing one private and seriously wounding another. After this skirmish, Bill resigned his position in
Hays City, landing
back in Ellsworth,
for a time, then on to
On April 15, 1871, Hickok
was appointed city marshal in Abilene, for $150 per month, plus one
fourth of all fines assessed against the persons he arrested. At first
tended to routine business.
John Wesley Hardin, purportedly the worst killer in the
West, arrived in Abilene, Wild Bill
took an indulgent and parent-like attitude toward the nasty little
murderer. They drank together, visited the brothels together, and
often gave Hardin advice. Hardin enjoyed being seen with the celebrated gunfighter, but he
was also cautious around the city marshal, sure in the knowledge that
if he got seriously out of line, Wild Bill
would add him to his reputation.
However, it didn’t take
long before Hardin crossed the line. Sleeping at the American House Hotel,
he was awakened by the sound of snoring coming from the next room. Angry at having been awakened,
Hardin fired two shots through the wall. In the deathly silence, Hardin knew that Marshal
would waste no time in chasing him down.
Crawling out a window
onto the roof dressed only in his undershirt, Hardin spotted Wild Bill
approaching and dove from the roof into a hay stack, where he hid for the
rest of the night. With the dawn, Hardin emerged, stole a horse and high-tailed it out of town dressed
only in his underclothes.
gradually spent more time at the gaming tables and with the ladies of the
evening than he did taking care of his sheriff duties. One young man
in Abilene, by the name of Samuel Henry, described Hickok's
gambling habits as:
"His whole bearing was like that of a hunted
tiger---restless eyes, which nervously looked about him in all directions
closely scrutinizing every stranger. When he played cards, which he did
most of the time in the
sat in the corner of the room to prevent an enemy from stealing up behind
newspaper complained that
to be overrun with gamblers, con men, prostitutes and
did have some marshalling to do and the Bull’s Head Saloon gave
him the most trouble. Phil Coe and Ben Thompson, gamblers and
gunmen, were the owners of the
what brought matters to a head was an oversize painting of a
Longhorn painted in full masculinity. Most
Abilene townspeople were
offended by the sign and demanding the animal’s anatomy be altered,
stood by with a shotgun as the necessary deletions were made to the
painting. Later, Thompson left town and Coe sold his interest in the
saloon, although he remained on as a gambler. When
and Coe began to court the same woman, rumors started to circulate that
each planned to kill the other.
On October 5,
1871, the trouble finally came to a head. Many
were in town, fighting, drinking, carousing, and only Deputy Mike Williams
his assistance. Coe was celebrating the end of the cattle season and when
he and his friends neared the Alamo
vicious dog tried to bite him, prompting Coe to take a shot at the dog.
Though he missed the dog,
appeared just minutes later to investigate the shots. Upon Coe’s
explained to Coe that firearms were not allowed in the city, but for
whatever reasons, all hell broke loose and Coe sent a bullet Hickok's
way. Bill returned the fire and shot Coe twice in the stomach. Suddenly,
heard footsteps coming up behind him and turning swiftly; he fired
again and accidentally killed Deputy Mike Williams. Coe died three days
later. Abilene had had enough. The city fathers told the
there could be no more cattle drives through their town and dismissed
as city marshal.
this time the east coast was thriving on the
West stories in the dime novels that were being turned out and the
exaggerated articles displayed in the press. Having had some
luck at the gaming tables, Hickok
decided to join the foray and put together a show called "The Daring
Chase of the Plains” in the early 1870’s. Making a
thousand dollar investment, he packed up six
a bear and a monkey, and headed on a train to Niagara Falls. But
the show was a disaster. The once frisky buffalo
acted like Jersey cows, until
fired a shot. Suddenly the buffalo
ran circles with the Comanche
screaming in pursuit, some stray dogs mixed into the fray, as well as
several children chased by their parents, and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, the
broke through a wire fence and stampeded the audience.
made only a little over $100 for his show and had to sell the
to a butcher shop to pay the expenses home for everybody.
However, his old friend
Buffalo Bill Cody
came to his rescue. Inviting Hickok
to join his dramatic play entitled "Scouts of the Prairies,”
made a decent income and was able to indulge in his love for women and
gambling, but an actor he was not. Nor was he happy, beginning
to drink a lot, his acting became even worse, and finally in March of
1874 he said goodbye to Cody and headed back out West.
On March 5, 1876, Hickok
married an older woman by the name of Agnes Lake Thatcher, who had
been chasing him around the country for years and patiently waiting
for him to tire of his long string of female companions.
By this time he was almost
39, going bald, wearing glasses, and was said to have sensed his
oncoming death. Marrying in Cheyenne,
the two traveled to Cincinnati for their honeymoon. Just a month
explained to her that he was headed to the western goldfields to make
a grubstake and would send for her later. She would never see
By the time Hickok
Charlie Utter's wagon train to
his reputation as a gunfighter
had preceded him. Initially, he attempted to lead a quiet,
reasonably respectable life in the wild mining camp, but his two greatest
failings – gambling and liquor, led him into the rough
lining the main street of the narrow gulch.
the wagon train trail to Deadwood,
Calamity Jane in Laramie, Wyoming. Being very much alike with their outrageous tales and heavy drinking
habits, the two hit if off immediately. Later, Calamity Jane would tell everyone that they were a "couple,” but this has been
Seemingly uninterested in
a grubstake, Wild Bill tried vainly to resume a career as a gambler, but no longer
possessed the requisite skills. In fact, he was just barely able to
keep himself properly suited and situated so as to hold on to the
reputation and the illusion. He was seldom sober and was repeatedly
arrested for vagrancy.
evening of August 1, 1876, Hickok
was playing poker in a Deadwood saloon with
several men, including a man by the name of
who lost heavily. Wild Bill
generously gave him back enough money to buy something to eat, but advised
him not to play again until he could cover his losses.
afternoon, August 2, when Wild Bill
entered Nuttall & Mann's Saloon he
found Charlie Rich sitting in his preferred seat. After some hesitation, Wild Bill
joined the game, reluctantly seating himself with his back to the door and
the bar---a fatal mistake.
drinking heavily at the bar, saw Hickok enter the saloon,
taking a seat at his regular table in the corner near the door.
slowly walked around to the corner of the saloon where
was playing his game. From under his coat,
pulled a double-action .45 pistol, shouted
"Take that!” and shot
Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Hickok
had been holding a pair of eights, and a pair of Aces, which has ever
since been known as the "dead man's hand."
Hickok's good friend, Charlie Utter, claimed the body, made the funeral arrangements, and bought
the burial plot. He was buried in the cemetery outside
on August 3,
1876. Calamity Jane
that a proper grave be built in honor of the man she loved, and an
10'x10' enclosure was built around his burial plot encircled by a 3'
fence with fancy cast iron filigree on top. A small American
flag was stuck into the ground in front of the tombstone in honor of
his service in the War.
Wild Bill Hickok's grave today in
South Dakota, Kathy Weiser. This image available for photographic prints
and download HERE!
The entire population of the
gulch, prospectors to prostitutes, followed his funeral procession to
"boot hill." Charlie Utter
placed a wooden marker on the grave inscribed:
Killed by the assassin
Deadwood, Black Hills
August 2, 1876
Pard we will meet again
Happy Hunting Grounds to
part no more
Colorado Charlie, C. H.
Soon, his new bride would receive a letter that
had penned just one day before his death. Seemingly, it appears
that he had a premonition of his rapidly approaching demise:
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."
The day after Hickok
was killed a jury panel was selected to try Jack McCall.
claimed he had shot Wild Bill
in revenge for killing his brother back in Abilene,
maintained that he would do it all over again given the chance.
In less than two hours the jury returned a "not guilty” verdict that
evoked this comment in the local newspaper: "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."
hung about Deadwood for several days, until a man called
Joe strongly suggested the air might be bad for
McCall's health. McCall
got the message and believing he’d escaped punishment for his crime,
headed to Wyoming bragging to anyone who would listen that he had killed the
famous Wild Bill Hickok.
Less than a month later, the trial held in
was found to have had no legal basis,
being located in Indian
was arrested in Laramie,
on August 29, 1876, charged with the murder, and taken to Yankton,
to stand trial.
Illinois to attend the trial of his brother's murderer and was
gratified by the guilty verdict. On March 1, 1877, Jack McCall
was put to death by hanging. As to
earlier claim of having shot Hickok
out of revenge for his brother, it was later discovered that Jack
never had a brother.
Years after Hickok's
death, in 1900, an aging Calamity Jane arranged to
be photographed next to his overgrown burial site. Elderly, thin and poor,
her clothes were ragged and held together with safety pins. Holding a
flower in her hand, she said that when she died she wanted to be buried
next to the man she loved. Three years later, she was.
of America, updated April, 2017.
by Emerson Hough
Bill Hickok Photo Gallery & Timeline
Hills Historic Characters & Tales
Jane - Rowdy Woman of the West
Utter, Bill Hickok's Best Pard
Rough & Tumble Mining Camp
Deadwood, South Dakota Timeline
Deadwood Photo Print Gallery
HBO's Deadwood - Facts & Fiction
McCanles Massacre - A WPA Interview
Station & the McCanles Massacre
Wild Bill -
1867 Harper's Weekly Article
at Wild Bill's
grave, July 1900,
Bill Hickok Slideshow:
Most images available for photo prints & editorial downloads
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