James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 – August 2, 1876), better known as Wild Bill Hickok, was a folk hero of 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
Hickok came to the West as a stagecoach driver, then became a lawman in the frontier territories of Kansas and Nebraska. He fought for the Union Army during the American Civil War, and gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman, actor, and professional gambler. Between his law-enforcement duties and gambling, which easily overlapped, Hickok was involved in several notable shootouts. He was shot and killed while playing poker in the Number Ten Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota).
Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois (now Troy Grove, Illinois) on May 27, 1837 of English ancestry. His birthplace is now the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial, a listed historic site under the supervision of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Hickok was a good shot from a very young age and was recognized locally as an outstanding marksman with a pistol.
In 1855, at age 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” (or Jayhawkers, also known as the “Red Legs”). While a Jayhawker, he met 12-year-old William Cody (later known as “Buffalo Bill”) who, despite his age, was a scout for the U.S. Army during the Utah War.
Because of his “sweeping nose and protruding upper lip”, Hickok was derisively called “Duck Bill” (especially by David McCanles). In 1861, he grew a mustache following the McCanles incident, and began calling himself “Wild Bill”. When later recounting his exploits to audiences, he claimed that his nickname until 1861 had been “Shanghai Bill”, a name given to him, he said, by The Red Legs (because of his height and slim build). Although Hickok photographs seem to indicate he had dark hair, all contemporary descriptions confirm he was, in fact, golden blond (as reddish shades of hair appeared black in early photographic processes).
Hickok used the name William Hickok from 1858 and William Haycock during the Civil War. Arrested as Haycock in 1865, he afterward resumed using his real name of James Hickok. Most newspapers continued to use the name William Haycock when referring to “Wild Bill” until 1869. Military records after 1865 used his correct name, although acknowledging he was also known as Haycock.
In 1857, Hickok claimed a 160-acre (0.65 km2) homestead 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, & Majors freight company, the foundation company of the Pony Express. The following year, he was badly injured by a bear while he was driving a freight team from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, Texas. According to Hickok’s own 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 from its skull, infuriating it. The bear attacked, crushing Hickok with its body. Hickok managed to fire another shot, disabling a paw. The bear then grabbed his arm in its mouth, but Hickok was able to grab his knife and slash its throat, killing it. Badly injured with a crushed chest, shoulder and arm, Hickok was bedridden for four months before being sent to the Rock Creek Station in Nebraska (built on land which the company had recently purchased from a local, David McCanles) to work as a stable hand while he recovered.
In 1861 he was involved in a deadly shootout with David McCanles at the Rock Creek Station, an event whose veracity is still the subject of much debate. On December 16, 40-year-old David McCanles; his 12-year-old son, William Monroe McCanles; and farmhands, James Woods and James Gordon; called at the station’s office to demand payment of an overdue, second installment on the property. David McCanles was allegedly threatening the station manager, Horace Wellman, when he was shot by either Hickok (who was allegedly hiding behind a curtain) or Wellman. Hickok, Wellman, and an employee, J.W. Brink, were tried for murder, but judged to have acted in self-defense. McCanles was the first man Hickok was reputed to have killed in a fight.
Civil War and scouting
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Hickok signed on as a teamster (an outfitter or packer) for the Union Army in Sedalia, Missouri. By the end of the year, he was a wagon-master, but in September 1862 he was discharged for an undisclosed reason. There are no known records of his whereabouts for over a year. (During this “missing year”, Hickok was operating as a spy in Confederate territory.) In late 1863 he was openly employed by the provost marshal of Southwest Missouri as a member of the Springfield, MO detective police.
Hickok’s duties as a police detective were mostly mundane, and included counting the number of troops in uniform drinking while on duty, checking hotel liquor licenses and tracking down individuals in debt to the cash-strapped Union Army. In 1864, Hickok, along with several other detective police, had not been paid for some time. He either resigned or was reassigned, as he was hired by General John B. Sanborn that year as a scout (at five dollars a day plus a horse and equipment). In June 1865, Hickok was mustered out and afterward spent his time in and around Springfield gambling.
Lawman and gunfighter notoriety
“Wild Bill” Hickok in 1869. Because a knife would not have been worn unsheathed, it is likely a photographer’s prop. Although buckskins are often seen in movies depicting earlier periods, Hickok was one of the first to wear them.
On July 21, 1865, in the town square of Springfield, Missouri, Hickok met and killed Davis Tutt in a “quick draw” duel –the first of its kind. Fiction later popularized Hickok’s “quick draw gunfight” as typical, but Hickok’s is the first one on record to fit the portrayal. However, rather than the face to face fast draw as is commonly shown in movies, the two men faced each other sideways in the duelling stance, drawing and aiming their weapons before firing.
Hickok had first met former Confederate Army soldier Davis Tutt in early 1865, while both were gambling in Springfield. Hickok often borrowed money from Tutt. and they were originally friends, but they had a falling out over a woman. (It was also rumored that Hickok once had an affair with Tutt’s sister, perhaps fathering a child.) There was also 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 bankrupt him.
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 the frustrated Tutt requested he repay a $40 loan, which Hickok immediately 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 point Hickok warned him not to wear it or he, Hickok, would shoot him. The 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 and fired almost simultaneously. Tutt’s shot missed, but Hickok’s did not, piercing Tutt through the heart from about 75 yards away. Tutt called out, “Boys, I’m killed” before he collapsed and died.
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 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 W. Nichols, and the interview was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Using the name “Wild Bill Hitchcock” [sic], the article recounted the ‘hundreds’ of men whom Hickok supposedly personally killed, and other exaggerated exploits. The article was controversial wherever Hickok was known, and it led to several frontier newspapers writing rebuttals. (Hickok is known to have killed five men (one by accident); was an accessory in the deaths of three more; and wounded one more.)
Hickok was reported to be “an inveterate hater of Indians”, but it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Witnesses confirm that while scouting from Fort Harker Kansas on May 11, 1867, Hickok was attacked by a large group of Indians, who fled after Hickok shot and killed two. In July, Hickok told a newspaper reporter 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 the story was true in part; the party did set out to find those who had killed the four men, but the group returned to the fort “without nary a dead Indian, [never] even seeing a live 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 during the Indian wars in which Hickok sometimes served as a scout for General George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry.
In 1867, Hickok moved to Niagara Falls, where he tried acting in a stage play called The Daring Buffalo Chasers of the Plains. He proved to be a terrible actor, and returned to the West, where he ran for sheriff in Ellsworth County, Kansas, on November 5, 1867. He was defeated by a former soldier, E.W. Kingsbury.
In December 1867, newspapers reported Hickok’s arrival in Hays City, Kansas. On March 28, 1868, he was again in Hays as a deputy U.S. Marshall, picking up 11 Union deserters charged with stealing government property and who were to be transferred to Topeka for trial. He requested a military escort from Fort Hays, and was assigned William F. Cody, along with a sergeant and five privates. The group arrived in Topeka on April 2. Hickok was still in Hays in August 1868, when he brought 200 Cheyenne Indians to Hays to be viewed by “excursionists”. 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 were surrounded by Indians. The 10th arrived at Fort Lyon, Colorado, in October and remained for the rest of 1868.
In July 1869, Hickok was back in Hays and was elected city marshal of Hays and sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas, in a special election held on August 23, 1869. The county was having particular difficulty holding sheriffs—three had quit over the previous 18 months. Hickok likely was already acting sheriff when elected, as a newspaper reported him arresting offenders on August 18 and the commander of Fort Hays praised Hickok for his work in apprehending deserters in a letter he wrote to the assistant adjutant general on August 21. Regularly scheduled county elections were held on November 2, 1869, and Hickok (Independent) lost to his deputy, Peter Lanihan (Democrat). However, Hickok and Lanihan remained sheriff and deputy, respectively. Hickok accused a J.V. Macintosh of irregularities and misconduct during the election. On 9 December, Hickok and Lanihan both served legal papers on Macintosh, and local newspapers acknowledged Hickok had guardianship of Hays City.
In his first month as sheriff in Hays, 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 in the back; he is drunk,” which was enough of a distraction to allow him to win the gunfight. The second was a cowboy, Samuel Strawhun, who encountered Hickok and Deputy Sheriff Lanihan at 1 am on September 27 when they had been called to a saloon where Strawhun was causing a disturbance. After Strawhun “made remarks against Hickok”, Strawhun died instantly from a bullet through the head as Hickok “tried to restore order”. At Strawhun’s inquest, despite ‘very contradictory’ evidence from witnesses, the jury found the shooting justifiable.
On July 17, 1870, in Hays, he was involved in a gunfight with disorderly soldiers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry. Two troopers, Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kyle (sometimes Kile), set upon Hickok in a saloon. Lonergan pinned Hickok to the ground while Kyle put his gun to Hickok’s ear. Kyle’s gun misfired, which allowed Hickok to reach his own guns. Lonergan was wounded in the knee, while Kyle, shot twice, died the next day.
In the next election, Hickok failed to win re-election. On April 15, 1871, Hickok became marshal of Abilene, Kansas, taking over from former marshal Tom “Bear River” Smith, who had been killed on November 2, 1870. The outlaw John Wesley Hardin was in Abilene in 1871, and 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. He further claimed 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 could not defend himself. Hardin was an extremely accomplished and well known gunfighter (and is known to have killed over 27 men in his lifetime). Hardin idolized Hickok and identified with Wild Bill. It is 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 included 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.
Coe supposedly stated he could “kill a crow on the wing”, and 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.” Hickok was relieved of his duties as marshal less than two months after having accidentally killed deputy Mike Williams, allegedly owing to this incident being only one of a series of questionable shootings and claims of misconduct.
Hickok’s favorite guns were a pair of cap-and-ball Colt 1851 .36 Navy Model pistols, which he wore until his death. These had ivory handles, silver plating and were ornately engraved with “J.B. Hickock-1869″ engraved on the backstrap. 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”, “twist” or cavalry draw, as would a cavalryman.
Wild Bill, Texas Jack Omohundro, and Buffalo Bill Cody in 1873
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.
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 have been afflicted with trachoma, a common vision disorder of the time. His marksmanship and health apparently had been suffering for some time, as he had been arrested several times for vagrancy, despite earning a good income from gambling and displays of showmanship only a few years earlier. 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 gold fields of South Dakota. 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 Jane’s account. The two were believed to have 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. Jane herself confirmed this account in an 1896 newspaper interview, although she claimed she had been hospitalized with illness rather than in the guardhouse.
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.”
Wild Bill had a premonition Deadwood would be his last camp, and expressed this belief to his friend Charlie Utter (also known as Colorado Charlie), and the others who were traveling with them at the time. On August 2, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, in the Black Hills, Dakota Territory. Hickok, as a precaution, usually sat with his back to the wall. The only seat available when he joined the poker game was a chair that put his back to a door. Twice he asked another player, Charles Rich, to change seats with him, and on both occasions Rich refused.
A former buffalo hunter named John McCall (better known as “Jack” or “Broken Nose Jack” McCall) walked in unnoticed. Jack McCall walked to within a few feet of Wild Bill and then suddenly drew a pistol and shouted, “Take that!” before firing.
The assassin’s bullet hit Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The bullet emerged through Wild Bill’s right cheek, striking Captain Massie in the left wrist. Legend has it that Hickok had lost his stake and had just borrowed $50 from the house to continue playing.
The motive for the killing is unknown. McCall may have been paid for the deed, but more 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. At the resulting two-hour trial by a “miners jury” (an ad hoc local group of assembled miners and businessmen), McCall claimed he was avenging Hickok’s earlier slaying of his brother, which may have been true. A Lew McCall is known to have been killed by a lawman in Abilene, but it is unknown if he was related, and the name of the lawman was not recorded. 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.” Calamity Jane was reputed to have led a mob that threatened McCall with lynching, but at the time of Wild Bill’s death, Jane was being held by military authorities.
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 and sentenced to death. Reporter Leander Richardson interviewed McCall 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 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 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 courage.”
McCall was hanged on March 1, 1877, and buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery. The cemetery was moved in 1881, and 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 reenacted every evening (in summer) in Deadwood.
Funeral and burial
Steve and Charlie Utter at the grave of Wild Bill Hickok.
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 was originally buried in the Ingelside Cemetery, Deadwood’s original graveyard. This graveyard filled quickly, preventing further use, and in 1879, on the third anniversary of his original burial, Utter paid to move Hickok to the new Mount Moriah cemetery. As the old cemetery was an area that was better suited for the constant influx of new settlers to live on, the remaining bodies there were moved up the hill to the Mount Moriah Cemetery in the 1880s.
Wild Bill’s present-day grave site monument.
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 reinterment. McLintock used a cane to tap the body, face and head, finding no soft tissue anywhere. He noted the sound was similar to tapping a brick wall, and believed the remains to now weigh 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 them to the new site. The original grave marker was moved to the new site, but by 1891 had been destroyed by souvenir hunters whittling pieces from it, and it was replaced with a statue. This, in turn, was destroyed by relic hunters and replaced in 1902 by a life-size sandstone sculpture of Hickok. This, too, was badly defaced, which led to its complete enclosure in a cage for protection. This was cut open by relic hunters in the 1950s and the statue removed.
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. It has been reported that Calamity Jane was buried next to him because that was her dying wish. However, 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 since Bill had “absolutely no use” for Jane in this life, they decided to play a posthumous joke on Hickok by laying her to rest for eternity by his side. Potato Creek Johnny, a local Deadwood celebrity from the late 19th century and early 20th century, is buried next to Wild Bill.