The Rise and Fall of a Legend
Although his nickname was ‘Wild Bill’, his birth name was James Butler Hickok, son of William Alonzo and Polly Hickok. He was born in the year 1837, and accounts of his early life suggest that he was a great marksman from almost the first time he handled a weapon. He grew up on his parents’ farm until 1855, when he joined General James Lane’s Free State forces in Kansas. This was an anti-slavery force and later on he was to become a driver, a spy and a teamster for the Union Army during the Civil War. There are no records to prove that he was ever a spy for the Union army, but he certainly served as first a provost marshal and later as a civilian scout.
From Duckbill to Wild Bill
A point must be made here about his appearance. Hickok had a big nose and large lips, and people often called him ‘Duckbill’, so it is hardly surprising that developed a temper. He grew a moustache and long hair to draw attention away from his appearance and the ‘Wild Bill’ nickname was probably his own invention to take him away from the other name he disliked so much.
He became part of the legends of the Wild West because of an incident that took place in 1861. This was when he took part in the McCanles Massacre in Red Creek, Nebraska, a shootout where he proved his skill as a marksman. The McCanles brothers, William and David, along with several of their farmhands came to the way station where they asked for money for a property he had bought from them. Hickok was wounded quite badly in the melee that followed, but when the dust had settled he had killed three men.
As with many of these stories, when the incident was reported in the magazines and newspapers of the time – such as Harper’s New Monthly Magazine – the battle was inflated out of all proportion and some records say that he was responsible for killing ten men. It was also said, near the end of his life, that in his time Hickok had killed more than 100 men.
The legend of Wild Bill continued to grow apace, with stories abounding about his fighting ability. Like Davy Crockett he is said to have killed a bear – but with his bare hands and a Bowie knife, with no gun in sight. He is also supposed to have put six bullets through the ‘O’ in a sign, firing one after the other with hardly any hesitation and making the shots from at least 50 yards from his target.
He seems to have been a quarrelsome man and fell out with a friend called Davis Tutt who had once been a good friend. They decided to have a duel because this was the way to settle their grudges against each other. Tutt must have been a foolhardy man or he knew little about Wild Bill’s prowess with a gun. The story is that Tutt was reaching for his weapon while Wild Bill had already drawn, gunning him down from 75 yards away.
It was then that he moved on and became sheriff of Hays City and Marshall of Abilene, both frontier towns that have become the kind of lawless staples of western fiction. During his time in Abilene he managed to clean up the town as requested by the authorities. However in one shootout with a saloon owner called Phil Coe he shot and killed one of his own deputies, Mike Williams. There was an official inquest into the kind of frontier justice meted out by Hickok and he was dismissed from his jobs. Worse still, the killing of his deputy was to prey on his mind for the rest of his days. He became a showman instead and took up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where he showed off his prowess to all.
However by 1876 he had developed the eye condition called glaucoma and had to resort to vagrancy and begging for a short time. It was also during this time that he met Calamity Jane, but contrary to dime fiction he does not seem to have had any kind of romance with her. He was married, but this did not last. Then he became a gambler after trying his hand in the goldfields of California.
Death and the Dead Man’s Hand
He was gambling in a saloon in South Dakota – Nutall & Mann’s – when a gunman called McCall walked in. Hickok was facing away from the door at the time, which was unusual for him, and McCall shot him in the back of the head. Even the cards Hickok held at the time entered into legend – two black eights and two black aces – becoming ‘the dead man’s hand.’
McCall was given a ‘mining trial’ and acquitted. However, he went around boasting that he had killed the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, and as Deadwood was in Indian Territory the trial was considered to have no legal force. He was re-arrested by US Marshall’s and hung in Yankton, South Dakota on March 1st 1877.
As for Wild Bill Hickok, he was certainly the stuff of which Wild West Legends are made and the stories about his life will provide inspiration to writers of the Frontier for many years to come.