This was the way that George Armstrong Custer described the appearance of James Butler Hickok, more famously known as "Wild Bill Hickok", one of the most celebrated gunfighters of America's Old West. Hickok was one of the most colorful figures in a tapestry which came to be filled with such characters. With the passage of time and the contributions of the popular dime novels, Hickok's exploits were considerably embellished, sometimes by Hickok himself. But he was killed on today's date, August 2 in 1876, while playing poker. The hand he was holding at the time has ever after become known as the "Dead Man's Hand".
William Hickok's Early Life
Born in Troy Grove, Illinois on May 27, 1837 to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler Hickok, his correct name was James Butler Hickok. His parents were God-fearing Baptists who operated a "station" on the "Underground Railroad", smuggling escaped slaves into freedom. It was when his father was being pursued with escaped slaves that Bill first experienced hostile gunfire. After this the young man became fascinated with guns and gunfire, and began practicing on small animals around his parent's farm. He developed into an excellent marksman. His father was killed because of his abolitionist views when Bill was 14. At 17, Bill went away to work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Eventually he wound up as a stagecoach driver. Bill developed a reputation for belligerence in putting his marksmanship to work fighting off bandits who were always trying to rob the stagecoach. This was burnished by a deadly encounter with a bear with Bill killing the bear with his six-inch knife. Such a man was obviously not to be messed with!
"Wild Bill" Gets Into Gunfights
In July of 1861 while working for the Pony Express station in Nebraska
he got into a fight with David McCanles, who was always teasing Bill about his girlish appearance. Bill might have dallied with a girl that McCanles fancied. Whatever the case, when McCanles and two of his fellow gunmen came to the station to collect a debt, profanities were exchanged, and gunfire erupted. Hickok who was initially behind a curtain opened fire and killed McCanles, and fatally wounded the
other two men. No charges were filed and Bill got off on self-defense. Later this would become told again and embellished as the "McCanles Massacre" in which Bill quickly and easily knocked off a dozen outlaws. Bill went on to serve during the Civil War as a scout. By some accounts it was during this period that he acquired his nick-name. In Independence, Missouri, Bill ran into a mob which was bent on (above, Hickok, circa 1860's) hanging a bartender who had shot a man during a brawl. Hickok put a stop to this by firing two shots over their heads. He then stared down the rest of the mob until it broke up. A woman onlooker who was grateful shouted from the side "Good for you Wild Bill!" She may have mistaken Hickok for another man, but the moniker caught on, and stuck ever after.
The Tutt Gunfight
By this time of post-Civil War America, Bill was becoming well known as a gunfighter and a gambler. Bill soon found himself in a dispute where he was tested as both. In early 1865, Bill met and befriended Davis Tutt, a former soldier in the Confederate Army. But the two men had a falling out, and by July of that year they were playing in a poker game. Hickok was on a winning streak when Tutt demanded payment
Bill Falls on Hard Times
Bill for the next several years held several different jobs, including scouting for George Armstrong Custer. He also held several jobs as town marshal in places throughout the west. And he became known as an expert gambler. By 1871, he was the town marshal in Abilene, Kansas. Samuel Henry who knew Bill described his gambling posture: "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" In October of 1871 a bunch of rowdies led by Phil Coe started shooting up the town. Coe shot at a wild dog which had tried to bite him. Bill came out of the Alamo Saloon and tried to disarm Coe. Shots were fired and Bill manged to wound Coe. But a few minutes later, Bill heard someone's footsteps approaching him, and he turned and fired, assuming it to be one of Coe's friends. But it was actually Hickok's Deputy Marshal, Mike Williams, who was
Hickok Meets His End in Deadwood
In the summer of 1876, Bill joined Charlie Utter's wagon train to South Dakota, seeking his fortune in the goldfields. Along the way, his train picked up "Calamity Jane" (below), another of those amazingly
On August 1, 1876 Bill was playing poker with several men, one of whom was one Jack McCall (below) who lost badly. McCall ran out of
"Wild Bill" in Death
McCall was charged with murder, but an ad-hoc miner's jury in Deadwood which was still a lawless place acquitted him. He shortly fled to Colorado wherein he was arrested. The verdict of Deadwood was not legally binding in the eyes of the authorities of Colorado. So he went before a properly constituted court in the Colorado Territorial
capitol of Yankton. This time he was convicted and hung on March 2, 1877. As to "Wild Bill" Hickok, he was to become one of the iconic figures of America's storybook - "The Old West". In death he was already afforded legendary status in the following very reverent account of his appearance in his casket, by St. Louis reporter J.W. Buell:
"His long chestnut hair, evenly parted over his marble brow, hung in waving ringlets over the broad shoulders ; his face was cleanly
"The Great West" Edited by Charles Neider, Bonanza Books, New York, 1958