Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876) was a legend in his own lifetime. Newspapers, magazines and dime novels of the period filled the public’s heads with stories – some more accurate than others – about his exploits as a lawman in the Wild West.
A man of many talents, Hickok also plied his trade as a gambler, an actor, a gold prospector and an army scout, though he is best known for his time spent as a gunslinging sheriff.
Separating the truth from the myth, here are 10 facts about the famous frontiersman.
1. One of Hickok’s first jobs was as a bodyguard
The man who would become Wild Bill was born James Butler Hickok in 1837 in Homer (now Troy Grove), Illinois. In his late teens, he moved west to Kansas, where a small-scale civil war was raging over slavery.
After joining a band of antislavery fighters, the Free State Army of Jayhawkers, he was assigned to protect its leader, controversial politician James H. Lanes.
2. He saved a young Buffalo Bill Cody from a beating
Around this time, young James Hickok began using his father’s name of William – the ‘Wild’ part came later – and he also met Buffalo Bill Cody, then just a messenger boy on a wagon train. Hickok saved Cody from getting beaten by another man and the two became longtime pals.
3. He is said to have wrestled a bear
One of the best-known stories about Hickok is his encounter with a bear. After serving as a constable in Monticello, Kansas, he worked as a teamster driving freight across the country. On a run from Missouri to New Mexico, he found the road obstructed by a bear and its two cubs. Hickok shot the mother in the head, but that only made it angry and it attacked, crushing his chest, shoulder and arm.
He fired another shot into the bear’s paw, before finally killing it by slashing its throat. Hickok’s injuries left him bedridden for several months.
4. The McCanles Massacre made his name
Still convalescing, Hickok moved to work at the Rock Creek Pony Express station in Nebraska. One day in July 1861, David McCanles, the man who had sold the station to the Pony Express on credit, showed up demanding back payments. After McCanles reportedly made threats, either Hickok or station chief Horace Wellman shot him from behind a curtain that divided the room.
A sensationalised account published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine six years later made Hickok out to be the hero of the slaughter, reporting he shot five gang members, knocked out another and despatched three more in hand-to-hand combat.
More likely, though, it was a team effort, with Hickok wounding just two others, who were then finished off by Wellman’s wife (with a hoe) and another staff member. Hickok was acquitted of murder, but the incident established his reputation as a gunfighter and he began calling himself ‘Wild Bill’.
5. Wild Bill was involved in one of the first fast-draw duels
During the American Civil War, Hickok served as a teamster, scout and, some say, spy before resigning and living as a gambler in Springfield, Missouri. There, on 21 July 1865, another event that framed his gunslinging reputation occurred.
During a poker game, tensions with a former friend, Davis Tutt, came to a head over gambling debts, triggering a stand-off in the town square. The two stood sideways to each other 70 metres apart, before firing simultaneously. Tutt’s shot missed, but Hickok’s hit Tutt in the ribs and he collapsed and died.
Hickok was acquitted of manslaughter and an 1867 Harper’s Magazine article recounting the incident made him famous across the country.
6. He was fired for shooting his own deputy
From 1869 to 1871 Hickok served as a marshal in the Kansas towns of Hays City and Abilene, getting involved in several shootouts.
In October 1871, after shooting an Abilene saloon owner, he suddenly glimpsed another figure running towards him out of the corner of his eye and fired twice. It turned out to be his Special Deputy Marshal, Mike Williams. The killing of his own man affected Hickok for the rest of his life. Two months later he was relieved of his duties.
7. He acted alongside Buffalo Bill
Now no longer a lawman, Hickok turned to the stage to make a living. In 1873 his old friend Buffalo Bill Cody asked him to join his troupe and the two performed together in Rochester, New York.
But Hickok disliked the theatre – even shooting out a spotlight during one performance – and began drinking. He left the troupe and returned west.
8. He walked out on his wife to hunt gold
Now 39 and suffering from glaucoma, which affected his shooting skills, he married circus owner Agnes Thatcher Lake but left her shortly after to seek his fortune hunting gold in the Black Hills of Dakota.
He travelled to the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, aboard the same wagon train as another famous western hero, Calamity Jane, who would later be buried alongside him.
9. Hickok was murdered while playing cards
On 1 August 1876 Hickok was playing poker in the Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood. For some reason – likely because there was no other seat available – he was sitting with his back to the door, something he didn’t normally do.
In walked drifter Jack McCall, who pulled out his gun and shot him in the back of the head. Hickok died instantly. McCall was acquitted of murder by a jury of local miners, but a retrial reversed the verdict and he was hanged.
10. Hickok was holding the Dead Man’s Hand when he died
Reports say that at the time of his death Hickok was holding two black aces and two black eights, plus another unknown card.
Since then this has been known as the ‘Dead Man’s Hand’, a cursed card combination that has been shown in the fingers of many a film and TV character.