Wild Bill Hickok & the Deadman’s Hand

John Wesley Hardin

When John Wesley Hardin, purportedly the worst killer in the Wild 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 Hickok 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 Hickok 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.

Hickok 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 saloons, he sat in the corner of the room to prevent an enemy from stealing up behind him.”

A local newspaper complained that Hickok allowed Abilene to be overrun with gamblers, con men, prostitutes and pimps.

However, Wild Bill 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 saloon and what brought matters to a head was an oversize painting of a Texas Longhorn painted in full masculinity. Most Abilene townspeople were offended by the sign and demanding the animal’s anatomy be altered, Hickok 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

Hickok and Coe began to court the same woman, rumors started to circulate that each planned to kill the other.

Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok

On October 5, 1871, the trouble finally came to a head. Many cowboys were in town, fighting, drinking, carousing, and only Deputy Mike Williams offered Hickok his assistance. Coe was celebrating the end of the cattle season and when he and his friends neared the Alamo Saloon, a vicious dog tried to bite him, prompting Coe to take a shot at the dog.

Though he missed the dog, Hickok appeared just minutes later to investigate the shots. Upon Coe’s explanation, Wild Bill 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, Hickok 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 Texans there could be no more cattle drives through their town and dismissed Hickok as city marshal.

At about this time the east coast was thriving on the Wild 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 Buffalo Chase of the Plains” in the early 1870’s. Making a thousand dollar investment, he packed up six buffalos, four Comanche, three cowboys, 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 Wild Bill 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 buffalo broke through a wire fence and stampeded the audience. Wild Bill made only a little over $100 for his show and had to sell the buffalos 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,” Wild Bill 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, Wyoming, the two traveled to Cincinnati for their honeymoon. Just a month later, Bill 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 him again.

By the time Hickok accompanied Charlie Utter’s wagon train to Deadwood, South Dakota, 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 saloons lining the main street of the narrow gulch.

Along the wagon train trail to Deadwood, Hickok met 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 much disputed.

Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok

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.

On the evening of August 1, 1876, Hickok was playing poker in a  Deadwood saloon with several men, including a man by the name of Jack McCall, 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.

The next 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. Jack McCall, drinking heavily at the bar, saw Hickok enter the saloon, taking a seat at his regular table in the corner near the door.

2 thoughts on “Wild Bill Hickok & the Deadman’s Hand”

  1. Hi – I was wondering if you had old western actors that do scene reenactments or just dress-up for social events to play a particular part? This is a serious inquiry, I apologize if it catches you off guard. If I am in the wrong place could you possibly direct me to a contact you have that could help me?

    1. Chad – I’m sorry we don’t. Finding them would be more of a local thing in my opinion. Try Visitor’s Bureaus or local historic societies. Good luck.

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