James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 - August 2, 1876), better known as Wild Bill
Hickok, was a figure in the American Old West. His skills as a gunfighter and
scout, along with his reputation as a lawman, provided the basis for his fame,
although some of his exploits are fictionalized. His nickname of Wild Bill has
inspired similar nicknames for men known for their daring in various fields.
Hickok's horse was named Black Nell. He owned two Colt 1851 Navy
Hickok came to the West as a stagecoach driver, then became a lawman in the
frontier territories of Kansas and Nebraska. He fought in the Union Army during
the American Civil War, and gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman,
and professional gambler. Between his law-enforcement duties and gambling, which
easily overlapped, Hickok was involved in several notable shootouts, and was
ultimately killed while playing poker in a Dakota Territory saloon.
Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois (what is now Troy Grove) on May 27, 1837. His
birthplace is now the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial, a listed historic site under
the supervision of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. While he was
growing up, his father's farm was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad,
and he learned his shooting skills protecting the farm with his father from
slave catchers. Hickok was a good shot from a very young age.
In 1855, at the age of 18, Hickok moved to Kansas Territory following a fight
with Charles Hudson, which resulted in both falling into a canal. Mistakenly
thinking he had killed Hudson, Hickok fled and joined General Jim Lane's
vigilante Free State Army ("The Red Legs") where he met 12-year-old William
Cody, later to be known as "Buffalo Bill," who at that time was a scout for
Johnston's Army. At 21, Hickok was elected constable of Monticello Township.
Due to his "sweeping nose and protruding upper lip," Hickok was nicknamed "Duck
Bill." In 1861, after growing a mustache following the McCanles incident, and
with some encouragement from himself, he began calling himself Wild Bill.
In 1857, Hickok claimed a 160 acre (65 ha) 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, and Majors freight company called the Pony Express. The following year
he was badly injured by a bear and sent to the Rock Creek Station in Nebraska
(which the company had recently purchased from David McCanles) to work as a
stable hand while he recovered. In 1861 he was involved in a deadly shoot-out
with the McCanles Gang at the Rock Creek Station after 40-year-old David
McCanles, his 12-year-old son (William) Monroe McCanles, and two farmhands,
James Woods and James Gordon, called at the station's office to demand payment
of an overdue second installment on the property, an event that is still the
subject of much debate. David McCanles "called out" Wild Bill from the Station
House. Wild Bill emerged onto the street, immediately drew one of his .36
calibre SA Navy revolvers, and at a 75 yard stand-off distance, fired a single
shot into McCanles' chest, killing him instantly (ref. Am. Handgunner). Hickok
and his accomplices, the station manager Horace Wellman, his wife, and an
employee, J.W. Brink, were tried but judged to have acted in self-defense.
According to Joseph G. Rosa, a Hickok biographer, the shot that felled the elder
McCanles came from inside the house; a tale Wild Bill's friends invented to keep
the 'heat' of both the law and McCanles' extended family off Wild Bill (extended
generational member). It remains unknown who actually fired it. Rosa conjectures
that Wellman had far more of a motive to kill McCanles, a belief supported by
McCanles' son's own account. There were also women in the house, conceivably
armed with shotguns. McCanles was the first man Hickok was reputed to have
killed in a fight. On several later occasions, Hickok was to confront and kill
several men while fighting alone.
Civil War and scouting
When the Civil War began, Hickok joined the Union forces and served in the west, mostly in Kansas
and Missouri. He earned a reputation as a skilled scout. After the war, Hickok
became a scout for the U.S. Army and served for a time as a United States
Marshal. For a while he was also a professional gambler. His fame increased
after a published interview by Henry Morton Stanley in 1867.
During the Civil War, Buffalo Bill Cody served as a scout, along with Robert
Denbow, David L. Payne, and Hickok. After the war, the four men, Payne, Cody,
Hickok, and Denbow, engaged in buffalo hunting. When Payne moved to Wichita,
Kansas, in 1870, Denbow joined him there, while Hickok served as sheriff of
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.
Lawman and gunfighter notoriety
On July 21, 1865, in the town square of Springfield, Missouri, Hickok killed
Davis Tutt, Jr. in a "quick draw" duel. Fiction later typified this kind of
gunfight, but Hickok's is in fact the first one on record that fits the
Hickok first met former Confederate Army soldier Davis Tutt in early 1865, while
both were gambling in Springfield, Missouri. Hickok often borrowed money from
Tutt. Although originally good friends, they eventually fell out over a
woman, and it was rumored that Hickok once had an affair with Tutt's sister,
perhaps fathering a child and likely exacerbated by the fact there was a
long-standing dispute over Hickok's girlfriend Susannah Moore. Hickok refused to
play cards with Tutt, who retaliated by financing other players in an attempt to
According to the accepted account, the dispute came to a head when Tutt was
coaching an opponent of Hickok's during a card game. Hickok was on a winning
streak and, frustrated, Tutt requested he repay a $40 loan, which Hickok did.
Tutt then demanded another $35 owed from a previous card game. Hickok refused,
as he had "a memorandum" proving it to be for $25. Tutt then took Hickok's
watch, which was lying on the table, as collateral for the $35, at which Hickok
warned him not to wear it or he, Hickok, would shoot him. Next day Tutt appeared
in the square wearing the watch prominently and Hickok tried to negotiate the
watch's return. Tutt stated he would now accept no less than $45 but both agreed
they would not fight over it and went for a drink together. Tutt left the saloon
but returned to the square at 6 p.m. while Hickok arrived on the other side and
warned him not to approach him while wearing the watch. Both men faced each
other sideways in the dueling position and both fired almost simultaneously.
Tutt's shot missed, but Hickok's didn't, piercing Tutt through the side from
about 75 yards away. Tutt called out "Boys, I'm killed", ran onto the porch of
the local courthouse and then back to the street where he collapsed and
Hickok was arrested for murder two days later; however, 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 Boyd gave the jury two
contradictory instructions. He first instructed the jury that a conviction was
its only option under the law. He then instructed them that they could apply
the unwritten law of the "fair fight" and acquit. The jury voted for
acquittal, a verdict that was not popular at the time.
Several weeks later Hickok was interviewed by Colonel George Ward Nichols and
the interview was published in Harpers New Monthly Magazine. Using the name
"Wild Bill Hitchcock"(sic), the article recounted the hundreds of men Hickok
personally killed, and other exaggerated exploits. The article was controversial
wherever Hickok was known, and led to several frontier newspapers writing
rebuttals. As can be seen in this account, Hickok killed five men (one by
accident), was an accessory in the deaths of three more, and wounded one.
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 the time of the Indian Wars
that counted the Great Plains as a battleground, and Hickok sometimes served as
a scout for George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry.
In 1867 Hickok took a break from the west and moved to Niagara Falls where he tried his hand at acting
in a stage play called "The Daring Buffalo Chases of the Plains." He proved
to be a terrible actor and returned to the West, where in 1868 he ran for
sheriff in Ellsworth County, Kansas, but was defeated by former soldier E.W.
Kingsbury. Hickok was elected sheriff and city marshal of Ellis County, Kansas,
though, on August 23, 1869. In his first month in Hays, Kansas 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, boys," which was enough
distraction to allow him to win the fight. The second was cowboy Samuel
Strawhun, who drew his gun on Hickok after Hickok had been called to a saloon
where Strawhun was causing a disturbance.
On July 17, 1870, also in Hays, he was involved in a gunfight with disorderly
soldiers of the 7th US Cavalry, wounding one and mortally wounding another, John
Kyle. He later failed to win reelection. On April 15, 1871, Hickok became
marshal of Abilene, Kansas, taking over for former marshal Tom "Bear River"
Smith, who had been killed on November 2, 1870. The outlaw John Wesley
Hardin, who was in Abilene in 1871, was befriended by Hickok. In his 1895
autobiography (published after his own death, and 19 years after Hickok's),
Hardin claimed to have disarmed Hickok using the famous road agent's spin during
a failed attempt to arrest him for wearing his pistols in a saloon and that
Hickok, as a result, had two guns cocked and pointed at him. This story is
considered to be apocryphal, or at the very least an exaggeration, as Hardin
claimed this at a time when Hickok couldn't defend himself. Hardin was known to
have killed over 40 men in his lifetime, he was the real deal; he in turn
idealized Hickok and self-identified with Wild Bill. It is also recorded
that when Hardin's cousin Mannen Clements was jailed for the killing of two
cowboys, Hickok, at Hardin's request, arranged for his escape.
While working in Abilene, Hickok and Phil Coe, a saloon owner, had an ongoing
dispute that later resulted in a shootout. Coe had been the business partner of
known gunman Ben Thompson, with whom he co-owned the Bulls Head Saloon. On
October 5, 1871, Hickok was standing off a crowd during a street brawl, during
which time Coe fired two shots. Hickok ordered him to be arrested for firing a
pistol within the city limits. Coe explained he was shooting at a stray dog
but suddenly turned his gun on Hickok who fired first and killed Coe. Hickok
caught the glimpse of movement of someone running toward him and quickly fired
two shots in reaction, accidentally shooting and killing Abilene Special Deputy
Marshal Mike Williams, who was coming to his aid, an event that haunted
Hickok for the remainder of his life. There is another account of the Coe
shootout. Theophilus Little, mayor of Abilene and owner of the town's
lumberyard, recorded his time in Abilene by writing in a notebook that was
recently given to the Abilene Historical Society. Writing in 1911, he detailed
his admiration of Hickok and includes a paragraph on the shooting that differs
considerably from the accepted account.
"-"Phil" Coe was from Texas, ran the "Bull's Head" a saloon and gambling den,
sold whiskey and men's souls. A 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
Marshall. 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."
Hickok's retort to Coe, who supposedly stated he could "kill a crow on the
wing," 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." However, due to
his having accidentally killed deputy Mike Williams, Hickok was relieved of his
duties as marshal less than two months later.
Hickok's favorite guns were a pair of cap-and-ball Colt 1851 .36 Navy Model
pistols, which he wore until his death. These were silver-plated with ivory
handles, and were engraved: "J.B. Hickock-1869". He wore his revolvers backwards
in a belt or sash (when donning city clothes or buckskins, respectively), and
seldom used holsters per se; he drew the pistols using a "reverse," or "twist,"
draw, as would a cavalryman.
In 1876 Hickok was diagnosed by a doctor in Kansas City, Missouri, with glaucoma
and ophthalmia, a condition that was widely rumored at the time by Hickok's
detractors to be the result of various sexually transmitted diseases. In truth,
he seems to had been afflicted with trachoma, a common vision disorder of the
time. It was apparent that his markmanship and health had been suffering for
some time, as despite earning a good income from gambling and displays of
showmanship only a few years earlier, he had been arrested several times for
vagrancy. On March 5, 1876, Hickok married Agnes Thatcher Lake, a 50-year-old
circus proprietor. 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 this is not believed to be true. Hickok soon left his new bride to seek his
fortune in the gold fields of South Dakota.
Shortly before Hickok's death, he wrote a letter to his new wife, which reads 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".
On August 2, 1876, while playing poker at Nuttal & Mann's
Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, in the Black Hills, Dakota Territory, Hickok could
not find an empty seat in the corner of the room, where he always sat in order
to protect himself against a possible attack from behind, and instead sat with
his back to one door while facing another. His paranoia was prescient: he was
shot in the back of the head with a .45-caliber revolver by Jack McCall. Legend
has it that Hickok was playing poker when he was shot, holding a pair of aces
and a pair of eights. The fifth card is debated, or, as some say, had not yet
been dealt. "Aces and eights" thus is known as the "Dead Man's Hand". In
1979 Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
The motive for the killing is still debated. McCall may have been paid for the
deed, or it may have been the result of a recent dispute between the two. Most
likely McCall became enraged over what he perceived as a condescending offer
from Hickok to let him have enough money for breakfast after he had lost all his
money playing poker the previous day. McCall claimed, at the resulting two-hour
trial by a miners jury, an ad hoc local group of assembled miners and
businessmen, that he was avenging Hickok's earlier slaying of his brother, which
was later found to be untrue. McCall was acquitted of the murder, resulting
in the Black Hills Pioneer editorializing:
"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"
McCall was subsequently rearrested after bragging about his deed, and a new
trial was held. The authorities did not consider this to be double jeopardy
because at the time Deadwood was not recognized by the U.S. as a legitimately
incorporated town, as it was in Indian Country and the jury was irregular. The
new trial was held in Yankton, capital of the territory. Hickok's brother,
Lorenzo Butler Hickok, traveled from Illinois to attend the retrial, and spoke
to McCall after the trial, noting he showed no remorse. This time McCall was
found guilty. Reporter Leander Richardson interviewed Hickok shortly before his
death and helped bury him. Richardson wrote of the encounter for the April 1877
issue of Scribner's Monthly in which he mentions McCall's second trial.
"As I write the closing lines of this brief sketch, word reaches me that the
slayer of Wild Bill has been re-arrested 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 trial it was proved that the murderer
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
McCall was hanged on 1 March 1877 and buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery.
When the cemetery was moved in 1881, his body was exhumed and found to have the
noose still around his neck. The killing of Wild Bill and the capture of Jack
McCall is re-enacted every evening (in summer) in Deadwood.
Funeral and burial
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. Hickok (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
Almost the entire town attended the funeral, and Utter had Hickok buried with a
wooden grave marker reading:
"Wild Bill, J. B. Hickok 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 was originally buried in the Ingelside Cemetery, Deadwood's original
graveyard. The graveyard filled quickly and was in an area that could be better
used for the constant influx of settlers to live on, so all the bodies there
were moved up the hill to the Mount Moriah Cemetery in the 1880s.
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. A
monument has since been built there. In accordance with her dying wish, Martha
Jane Cannary, known popularly as Calamity Jane, was buried next to him. Potato
Creek Johnny, a local Deadwood Celebrity from the late 1800s and early 1900s is
also buried next to Wild Bill.
"Dime novel" fame
It is difficult to separate the truth from fiction about Hickok, the first "dime
novel" hero of the western era, in many ways one of the first comic book heroes,
keeping company with another who achieved part of his fame in such a way,
frontiersman Davy Crockett. In the dime-store novels, exploits of Hickok were
presented in heroic form, making him seem larger than life. In truth, most of
the stories were greatly exaggerated or fabricated by both the writers and
Hickok told the writers that he had killed over 100 men. This number is
doubtful, and it is more likely that his total killings were about 20 or a few
more. He also would tell tourists various exaggerated exploits of his, usually
leaving himself unarmed with no manner of escape, and then stop talking. When
someone would inevitably ask what he did then, he claimed "I was surrounded.
What could I do? They killed me."
Hickok was a fearless and deadly fighting man. Versatile with a rifle, revolver,
or knife. His story of fighting a grizzly bear, which he claims mistook him for
food because of his greasy buckskins, personified a man who feared nothing.
According to Wild Bill, he killed the bear with a Bowie knife after emptying his
pistols into the bear. He also cut off the bear's testicles and put them in a
coffee can. That story is also thought to be an exaggeration.
Photograph Hand Oil Tinted by Margaret A. Rogers