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Just after midnight on September 27, 1869, Ellis County Sheriff Wild Bill Hickok and his deputy respond to a report that a local ruffian named Samuel Strawhun and several drunken buddies were tearing up John Bitter’s Beer Saloon in Hays City, Kansas. When Hickok arrived and ordered the men to stop, Strawhun turned to attack him, and Hickok shot him in the head. Strawhun died instantly, as did the riot.
Such were Wild Bill’s less-than-restrained law enforcement methods. Famous for his skill with a pistol and steely-calm under fire, James Butler Hickok initially seemed to be the ideal man for the sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas. The good citizens of Hays City, the county seat, were tired of the wild brawls and destructiveness of the hard-drinking buffalo hunters and soldiers who took over their town every night. They hoped the famous “Wild Bill” could restore peace and order, and in the late summer of 1869, elected him as interim county sheriff.
Tall, athletic, and sporting shoulder-length hair and a sweeping mustache, Hickok cut an impressive figure, and his reputation as a deadly shot with either hand was often all it took to keep many potential lawbreakers on the straight and narrow. As one visiting cowboy later recalled, Hickok would stand “with his back to the wall, looking at everything and everybody under his eyebrows–just like a mad old bull.” But when Hickok applied more aggressive methods of enforcing the peace, some Hays City citizens wondered if their new cure wasn’t worse than the disease. Shortly after becoming sheriff, Hickok shot a belligerent soldier who resisted arrest, and the man died the next day. A few weeks later Hickok killed Strawhun. While his brutal ways were indisputably effective, many Hays City citizens were less than impressed that after only five weeks in office he had already found it necessary to kill two men in the name of preserving peace.
During the regular November election later that year, the people expressed their displeasure, and Hickok lost to his deputy, 144-89. Though Wild Bill Hickok would later go on to hold other law enforcement positions in the West, his first attempt at being a sheriff had lasted only three months.
Classic Gunfights: Don’t Look Back Wild Bill vs Billy Mulvey
As the newly elected acting sheriff of Ellis County, headquartered in Hays City, Kansas, James “Wild Bill” Hickok finds out in a matter of days that his firearm has to be trusty and reliable.
In office for only one day, acting Ellis County Sheriff James “Wild Bill” Hickok is making his rounds in the Kansas cowtown during the height of cattle season, with a town full of Texas cowboys looking to let off steam.
Rounding the corner of Fort Street, Wild Bill comes face to face with Billy Mulvey (also styled as Mulrey) who levels two pistols at the lawman. According to local tradition, Wild Bill looks past the drunk cowboy and yells, “Don’t shoot him in the back he’s drunk.”
Mulvey turns to see who is behind him, and, in a flash, Wild Bill draws his pistols and shoots the bad man in the head. Mulvey dies the next day.
“His power lies in the wonderful quickness with which he draws a pistol and takes his aim.”
— W.E. Webb, who knew Wild Bill during his Hays City days Webb was also the land agent who established Hays City on August 23, 1867 —
The Town Tamer
The lawmen who police the Kansas cowtowns are a special breed of cat. They have to be. Wild Bill has many attempts on his life while enforcing law and order as a deputy U.S. marshal in Kansas and as acting sheriff of Ellis County, headquartered in Hays City he was appointed acting sheriff the day before the gunfight.
After escaping several assassination attempts, he cautiously patrols the streets of the roaring cowtown. He avoids the sidewalks and especially the dark alleys. He allows no one to get too close or to approach from the rear.
He takes to walking down the center of North Main Street, eyes scanning the saloons for potential trouble.
In the last year of his life, Wild Bill suffered vision problems that exacerbated his slide into oblivion.
Aftermath: Odds & Ends
Less than a month later, on September 27, Wild Bill ordered drunk Texas cowboy Sam Strawhun to cease destroying Oderfeld’s Saloon on Fort Street. When he advanced with a weapon instead, Wild Bill killed him. At an inquest on the shooting, the evidence was deemed “very contradictory,” yet the verdict returned as “justifiable.”
On November 2, 1869, Wild Bill lost his bid for re-election as sheriff, 86 votes to 114. After bouncing around Kansas, Deputy U.S. Marshal Wild Bill landed back in Hays City. On July 17, 1870, he got in a fight inside Paddy Welch’s saloon with two members of the 7th Cavalry. He killed one of them and escaped.
Wild Bill took part in his last gunfight on October 5, 1871. The town marshal of Abilene, he shot Texan Phil Coe dead, but also killed a friend, local jailer Mike Williams, who had rushed in to assist the marshal. Distraught and grieving, Wild Bill never again worked as a lawman.
After a failed career on the theatre stage, Wild Bill gravitated to the new boomtown of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, where he was shot from behind by the scoundrel Jack McCall on August 2, 1876.
I started working on my Wild Bill book 22 years ago. When I bought ownership in True West Magazine in 1999, I put the book on hold.
Old West gunfights have always been a part of the magazine’s 65-year history. I made it a regular feature when I came up with the idea of Classic Gunfights on March 7, 2000.
My first gunfight (July 2000) featured Wyatt Earp at Mescal Springs. In the next issue, I featured Wild Bill’s gunfight with Dave Tutt. Over the next nearly 200 issues, I have covered several other Wild Bill gunfights. Finally, thanks to prodding by our publisher, Ken Amorosano, I took another run at the book. With major help from Robert Ray and Meghan Saar, my Wild Bill book is finally here.
Hope you read it and share your thoughts with me!
Recommended: The Illustrated Life and Times of Wild Bill Hickok by Bob Boze Bell, published by Two Roads West.
A bar in Hays City, Kansas, on July 17, 1870. Two 7th Cavalry troopers jump&hellip
September 1865 George Ward Nichols and Gen. Thomas Church Haskell Smith, the inspector general of&hellip
“The Sheriff is on the Warpath” November 1, 1867 Sheriff Harry Morse “is on the&hellip
In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.
Too Wild for Kansas
Today's History Lesson . ol' West le gend
The days of the Wild West boasted of drunken brawls and gunfights. Local citizens were tired of the destructiveness brought on by the hard-drinking buffalo hunters and thirsty soldiers who literally 'tore the town apart' every night. Enough was enough and the townsfolk looked to Wild Bill Hickok as the ideal man for sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas. Was he up to the challenge? No question there. Whether the citizens could remain impressed with his methods is a totally different question.
Wild Bill Hickok lived up to his name 'Wild' yet at the same time expressed a humble nature.
-- Captain Jack Crawford, who scouted with Wild Bill before they both followed the gold rush to Deadwood . (Source: Old West Legends)
Wild Bill Hickok proved himself capable of 'cleaning up the town' but not by methods pleasing to the citizens of Hays City. Was he too 'wild' for Kansas? He lost the regular election the following November for sheriff to his deputy, which meant his first attempt at being sheriff lasted only three months. However, that was NOT his last!
Wild Bill Hickok: Pistoleer, Peace Officer and Folk Hero
James Butler Hickok’s reputation as the Old West’s premier gunfighter or ‘man-killer’ made him a legend in his own lifetime–a distinction shared by few of his gunfighting contemporaries. Thanks to an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February 1867 and some other colorful accounts published in the mid-1860s, Hickok, or rather ‘Wild Bill,’ as he was generally called, was soon elevated from regional to national status. And since his death in 1876, he has achieved worldwide fame.
This woodcut of Hickok appeared in the February 1867 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine as the lead illustration for a George Nichols article that helped make Wild Bill famous.
But even without such publicity, Hickok would have made his mark, for he was a man whose personality, strength of character and single-mindedness set him apart. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer described him as a’strange character, just the one which a novelist might gloat over… a Plainsman in every sense of the word… whose skill in the use of the rifle and pistol was unerring.’ Many others besides Custer regarded Wild Bill as the best pistol shot on the Plains–a man whose quick-witted reaction to danger enabled him, according to one account, to draw and fire his Colt Navy revolvers ‘before the average man had time to think about it.’
Credited with the deaths of 100 or more badmen, Hickok emerged as perhaps the most prolific man-killer of his generation. But when some of his critics branded him a ‘red-handed murderer,’ his reaction was predictable. Hickok admitted his flaws and vices as do most people, but he reckoned that being called a red-handed murderer was going too far. In February 1873, it was widely reported that he had been shot dead by Texans at Fort Dodge in Kansas. Worse, it was suggested that, like all men of his kind, he had died with his boots on. Wild Bill broke his silence of some years and wrote angrily to several newspapers, declaring, ‘No Texan has, nor ever will `corral William.” He also demanded to know who it was who prophesied that he and others should die with their boots on. ‘I have never insulted man or woman in my life, but if you knew what a wholesome regard I have for damn liars and rascals they would be liable to keep out of my way.’ Two years later, in conversation with Annie Tallant, one of the first white women to enter the Black Hills, Hickok again denied that he was a red-handed murderer, but admitted that he had killed men in self-defense or in the line of duty, adding, ‘I never allowed a man to get the drop on me.’
Sadly, it is Hickok’s pistol prowess and his image as the slayer of innumerable badmen that is best remembered today. Indeed, many seem unaware of his deserved reputation as a great Civil War scout, detective and spy Indian scout and courier U.S. deputy marshal county sheriff and town marshal. Wild Bill himself hated his desperado reputation, and he may well have regretted his famous alias, though it had been fastened upon him during the Civil War and he had no reason to feel ashamed of it. Nevertheless, he must have realized too late that once he pulled the legs of the likes of Colonel George Ward Nichols of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and Henry M. Stanley of the St. Louis Weekly Missouri Democrat, he became a target for the press, sensationalists and reputation seekers.
The real Hickok, however, was in complete contrast to his newspaper-inspired desperado image. Rather, he was gentlemanly, courteous, soft-spoken and graceful in manner, yet left no one in any doubt that he would not ‘be put upon,’ and if threatened would meet violence with violence. Wild Bill could be generous to a fault and, though slow to anger, would willingly defend a friend or the fearful if they were under threat. When angered, however, he became an implacable enemy and sought out and faced down those who insulted or challenged him. This man-to-man approach, rather than involving brothers or close friends in gunfights, feuds or disputes, earned him respect among his peers, especially when it was known that he only became ‘pistoliferous’ as a last resort, and on occasion was known to slug it out with antagonists fist to fist and toe to toe.
It could be argued that Wild Bill Hickok’s alleged exploits as a city marshal or as acting county sheriff inspired the image of the lone man who, thanks to novels and the movies, walked tall and tamed cow towns, mining camps and indeed any other Western habitat where law and order was in short supply. This is nonsense: In reality, it took more than one man to clean up, civilize, or enforce and uphold the law, and city councils hired deputies to assist the marshal.
Colonel Custer’s statement that Hickok was both courageous and able to control others by threatening to settle disputes personally if they refused to back off reflected contemporary opinion. Old-timers in such places as Hays City and Abilene recalled that his presence did much to keep the violence down. In the latter Kansas cow town, the cry ‘Wild Bill is on the street!’ is said to have curtailed many a drunken brawl–or aided a harassed mother anxious to persuade an unruly child to do as he was told! An announcement that appeared in the Coolidge, Kan., Border Ruffian of July 17, 1886, is worth repeating because the character sought sums up the legendary Wild Bill’s own alleged attitude toward so-called evil-doers:
A man for marshal, with the skin of a rhinoceros, a bullet proof head, who can see all around him, run faster than a horse, and is not afraid of anything in hades or Coolidge–a man who can shoot like [Captain Adam] Bogardus, and would rather kill four or five whisky-drinking, gambling hoodlums before breakfast than to eat without exercise. Such a man can get a job in this town at reasonable wages, and if he put off climbing the golden stair for a few years may get his name in a ten-cent novel.
Despite its humor, the foregoing opinion was shared by citizens in Kansas who were either the victims of, or feared, drunken desperadoes or the murderous Texas cowboys in their midst. For many knew that once Hickok assumed his position of authority, ordinary folk felt a sense of security. He never tried or succeeded in eradicating lawlessness, but he helped control it. Indeed, on November 25, 1871, the Topeka Daily Commonwealth, in a feature devoted to Wild Bill’s bloodless head-on clash with some roughs from a train (which was copied verbatim by the Abilene Chronicle on the 30th), stated that the citizens of the state should thank him for ‘the safety of life and property at Abilene, which has been secured, more through his daring than any other agency.’ A Leavenworth paper, following his death, added that his memory would be cherished by those whose peace and security he had sought to preserve.
Hickok did not wear a badge for long in Hays City (chosen Ellis County’s acting sheriff in a special August 23, 1869, election, he was defeated in the regular election that November) or in Abilene (city marshal from April 15 to December 13, 1871), but it was time enough for him to make his mark. Like most of his contemporaries, he was not a professional policeman but did what he was paid for. To suggest, as one recent writer has, that today Wild Bill would have difficulty getting a job as a dogcatcher is unfair to Hickok. There is no comparison between a 19th-century frontier marshal and one of today’s professionally trained law enforcers. Each must be judged by his own time. Hickok commanded respect and was vilified, based as much on hearsay as on fact. His legendary life has long been subject to eulogizing and deflation. But what of the real man?
In appearance at least, Hickok matched his myth. He was a broad-shouldered, deep-chested, narrow-waisted fellow, over 6 feet tall, with broad features, high cheekbones and forehead, firm chin and aquiline nose. His sensuous-looking mouth was surmounted by a straw-colored moustache, and his auburn hair was worn shoulder length, Plains style. But it was his blue-gray eyes that dominated his features. Normally friendly and expressive, his eyes, old-timers recalled, became hypnotically cold and bored into one when he was angry. Around his waist was a belt that held two ivory-handled Colt Navy revolvers, butts forward, in open-top holsters. Worn in this fashion, his six-shooters could be drawn underhand and spun forward for the Plains or reverse draw, or for a cross-body draw. Either way, the weapons were readily and easily available.
An anonymous admirer in the Chicago Tribune of August 25, 1876, wrote that in his rapid and accurate use of his Navy pistols, Wild Bill had no equal. He then said: ‘The secret of Bill’s success was his ability to draw and discharge his pistols, with a rapidity that was truly wonderful, and a peculiarity of his was that the two were presented and discharged simultaneously, being `out and off’ before the average man had time to think about it. He never seemed to take any aim, yet he never missed. Bill never did things by halves. When he drew his pistols it was always to shoot, and it was a theory of his that every man did the same.’ Charles Gross, who knew Wild Bill in Abilene, recalled years later that he watched Hickok shoot and was impressed both by his quickness and accuracy. He also said that Hickok told him one should aim for a man’s ‘guts’–it might not kill him, but it would put him out of action.
Hickok’s real and imaginary shooting skill had fascinated the public ever since Colonel Nichols in his Harper’s article described how Wild Bill pointed to a letter ‘O’ on a signboard some 50 yards away that was ‘no bigger than a man’s heart,’ and ‘without sighting the pistol with his eye,’ fired six times, and each ball hit the center of the ‘O.’ Others later upped the distance to 100 yards, and soon amazing stories of Hickok’s marksmanship circulated that had him hitting dimes at 50 feet, driving corks through whiskey bottle necks 20 feet away, and other near-miraculous feats that are now legion.
Some of those alleged feats have been duplicated by modern gun experts. Although tests carried out during the 1850s had proved that Colt’s Model 1851 Navy revolver was accurate in the hands of an expert at 200 yards, Wild Bill, like most of his contemporaries, was more concerned with its accuracy and reliability at 10 or 20 feet. As the anonymous writer for the Tribune and others have pointed out, Hickok’s ability to get a pistol or pistols into action ‘as quick as thought’ furthers the awe-inspiring image of a pistoleer who had no equal in the Wild West.
Besides Hickok’s obvious liking for Colt Navy revolvers, at various times he was armed with, or proficient in the use of, Colt’s Model 1848 Dragoon. By the early 1870s, however, the introduction of centerfire and rimfire revolvers to replace the still popular percussion, or cap-and-ball, arms was led in the United States by Smith & Wesson. That company’s No. 3 model in .44 rimfire, which broke open to load or eject its cartridges, was superseded by Colt’s New Model Army revolver, the ‘Peacemaker.’ Hickok did not get his hands on the latter, but when, in March 1874, he left Buffalo Bill’s theatrical Combination, William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro presented him with a pair of Smith & Wesson No. 3 ‘American’ revolvers. Later that year it was reported from Colorado that Hickok carried them, but by the time he reached Deadwood in Dakota Territory, they had disappeared and he either had the old cap-and-ball Navy revolvers or perhaps a pair of Colt’s transitional rimfire or centerfire revolvers known as ‘conversions’ .
Although he never met or fought them, Hickok was well aware that there were better shots, and deadlier men, on the frontier. Nonetheless, he must have realized the potential of his awesome reputation and, understandably, when it suited him, turned it to his own advantage, ever conscious that while drunken bravado rarely matched action, there was always some gunman eager to prove himself superior to Wild Bill. But Hickok’s speedy reaction to danger was backed by the killer instinct. Without it, or the state of mind needed to react instinctively when threatened or under fire, even the best shots could hesitate and go down before a drunken desperado or someone coldbloodedly determined to kill or be killed.
Despite his awesome gunfighter reputation, Wild Bill did not draw his six-shooters in serious confrontations as often as one might think. Certainly his tally was considerably lower than the ‘hundreds’ of badmen he tongue-in-cheek claimed to have laid away. In fact, the authenticated killings number six known victims with a possible seventh–if one accepts that he also killed David C. McCanles at Rock Creek in 1861. However, those six victims do serve to pinpoint the difference between a newspaper reputation and reality.
As we have said, much of Hickok’s real and mythical reputation as a fighting man can be laid at the door of border scriveners who elevated Wild Bill into a kind of demigod. Some were genuine admirers, some tongue-in-cheek and others malicious, or they thought it was what the public wanted. Whatever the reason, Hickok typified the era of the man-killer or shootist, better known today as the gunfighter–a term in use as early as 1874 but not popularized until post-1900. Back in 1881, however, a Missouri editor was to write that the gentleman who had ‘killed his man’ was quite common, and if ‘his homicidal talents had been employed in the enforcement of law and order, he would be ranked as a `great Western civilizer.” Predictably, some writers have eagerly seized upon the word ‘civilizer’ to explain Hickok’s role in the control and eradication of the badmen who infested many frontier towns and habitats, ignoring the fact that when acting in an official capacity, every time he drew and fired his pistols and a man was killed, he was answerable to the coroner and not necessarily applauded for ridding them of such characters.
We will probably never know how Wild Bill really felt about gunfighting. Old-timers recalled his bravery under fire, or deadly purpose when he drew and fired at another man who was as intent on killing him. Buffalo Bill Cody, in one of his last interviews, said that Hickok cocked his pistols as he drew–which gave him a split-second advantage–and was always ‘cool, kinda cheerful, almost, about it. And he never killed a man unless that man was trying to kill him. That’s fair.’ The first recorded shootout involving Hickok was the so-called McCanles Massacre at the Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory, station on July 12, 1861, when, according to Harper’s, Wild Bill killed 10 ruffians in a desperate fight that left him with shot and stab wounds. In fact, only three men died, and the fracas has been a controversial issue ever since. The fight occurred following a row between former owner David C. McCanles and Russell, Majors & Waddell, the company that had bought the place from him for use as a Pony Express relay station. After making a down payment and promising to pay the remainder on a regular basis, Russell, Majors & Waddell went bankrupt. McCanles demanded his money or his property back or he would take it by force.
Hickok, who had turned up at the station in late April or early May 1861 and was employed as a stable hand or handyman, was not involved when the station keeper, Horace Wellman, who had failed to get money for McCanles or at least a promise to pay, returned empty-handed from the company office at Brownville, Nebraska Territory. McCanles and Wellman then had an argument, which ended with McCanles and two of his men dead and his young son William Monroe escaping to give the alarm. It has been alleged that Hickok shot McCanles, but it could well have been Wellman. However, Hickok, Wellman and one J.W. ‘Doc’ Brink were arrested and taken before a justice of the peace, who accepted their plea of defense of company property and released them. To date, despite the lurid account in Harper’s and a mass of published material, no one knows for sure who killed McCanles.
If we ignore Hickok’s Civil War service, during which he is reported to have killed a number of bushwhackers and guerrillas, it was 1865 before he was again involved in a face-to-face shootout. This was between himself and his friend Davis K. Tutt, an ex-Confederate turned Union man who, like Hickok, was an inveterate gambler. The pair played cards on the night of July 20 in Springfield, Mo., and Hickok lost. Tutt claimed he was owed $35, and Hickok said it was $25. Dave took Wild Bill’s Waltham watch pending payment. The pair then spent most of the 21st arguing over the amount. Hickok stated that Dave had loaned him money many times in the past, but he did not believe that he owed his friend $35 and they should compromise. But Tutt stormed off and reappeared on the public square at 6 p.m. sporting the watch. When Hickok told him to stop, Tutt drew his pistol, and Hickok did the same. Seventy-five yards apart, both men opened fire, the shots sounding as one. Tutt had turned sideways (in dueling fashion) and missed, but Hickok’s ball entered Dave’s right side and exited through his left, piercing his heart. Arrested and put on trial for manslaughter, Hickok was found not guilty by a jury influenced more by the judge’s remarks on one’s rights of self-defense than by the opinion of the prosecuting counsel. Tragically, neither man had wanted the fight, which is a far cry from the anti-Hickok statements made in the 1920s by men who claimed to have witnessed the shootout, some of whom had not even been born when it took place.
It was to be another four years before Hickok again killed another white man (Indians did not count in those days), during which time the press had been busy building up his reputation both as a man-killer and pistol dead shot. Following his election as acting sheriff of Ellis County in August 1869, Wild Bill shot dead Bill Mulvey, who when drunk had refused Hickok’s order to disarm and continued shooting at anyone who moved. A month later, Wild Bill was called to a saloon where Sam Strawhun and friends were raising a ruckus and threatening to shoot anyone who stopped them. Whether Strawhun threatened to shoot Wild Bill or thrust a broken glass into his face is hotly debated, but Sam was buried the next day, unmourned, and Hickok received congratulations for ridding Hays City of such a character. Wild Bill still lost the November election to his deputy, Peter ‘Rattlesnake Pete’ Lanahan.
Almost a year later, in July 1870, when Hickok paid a visit to Hays City, either on personal business or in his guise as a U.S. deputy marshal, he was set upon in a saloon by two troopers of the 7th Cavalry, Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kile. During the scuffle, Lonergan pinned Hickok down and Kile pushed his pistol into Wild Bill’s ear, but it misfired, by which time Hickok had his hands on a six-shooter. Lonergan received a ball in the knee and Kile, who was shot twice, died the next day. Hickok, meanwhile, hid out on boot hill, determined to sell his life dearly if other troopers fancied their chances.
It was more than a year later, on the evening of October 5, 1871, when a number of Texans were roaming the streets of Abilene, carousing and drinking, that City Marshal Hickok heard a shot and found himself facing more than 50 armed and drunken Texans led by gambler Phil Coe. Coe said that he had fired at a dog, and then fired twice at Hickok, one shot hitting the floor and the other passing through the marshal’s coat. Hickok’s first two shots thudded into Coe’s stomach, and he may have hit others in the crowd before he shot at another armed man rushing toward him out of the shadows. To his horror, Wild Bill later discovered that the man was a former jailer and now friend, Mike Williams, who, in trying to help Hickok, ran into the line of fire. Williams was the last known man to be killed by Wild Bill. Hickok paid for Mike’s funeral and later told his grief-stricken wife what had happened and why. That gunfight brought to an end Hickok’s career as a law officer. When the cattle season ended, the town officials decided to get rid of the cattle trade and had no further use for a highly paid marshal, so on December 13, Wild Bill was fired.
Wild Bill now left it to his reputation to deter most would-be rivals, while the legend builders eagerly spread the word. But it is doubtful even they realized how much Hickok’s murder at the hands of the back-shooting coward Jack McCall in a Deadwood saloon in August 1876 would immortalize Wild Bill Hickok as a Western legend.
This article was written by Joseph G. Rosa and originally appeared in Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
The colorful history of Abilene dates from the pioneer cattle days when great herds of longhorns were driven overland from Texas to Abilene, the western terminus of the first railroad through Kansas. The City of Abilene holds a colorful position in the annuals of the Old West. Many of the legends and the traditions of the cowboy days had their origin in the Abilene of nearly a century ago. Unlike so many pioneer boom town, Abilene never lost its fame and character.
The story of Abilene had its beginning in the year 1858 when Timothy F. Hersey and his family chose a spot on the present of the city for their log cabin. It was named by Mrs. Hersey. In allowing it to fall open where it might. It happened to be at the third chapter of Luke, in the first verse of which is the name of Abilene, meaning City of the Plains. The growth of the city was slow until the Kansas Pacific Railroad was built through Abilene in 1867. A livestock dealer form Illinois, Joseph G. McCoy, saw the opportunities presented by the railroad in providing a means of transporting Texas cattle to markets in the est. McCoy came to Abilene with the plan of making it a cattle shipping center and built a stockyard and hotel for the purpose. The new enterprise prospered until 1872 when newer railroads put Newton, Wichita, and Ellsworth in favored positions as shipping points.
As the end of the Texas cattle trail -- Chisholm Trail -- it rapidly became a wild and "open" frontier town. Stores, saloons, and gambling houses sprang up to compete for the patronage of the cowboys. With the prosperity of the cattlemen came an era of lawlessness. Tom Smith, who had the reputation of being one of the bravest men in the West, became the first city marshal. One of his first official acts was to issue an order that no one would be allowed to carry firearms within the city limits without a permit. Smith's ability was well enough respected that even the most troublesome cowboys and gamblers obeyed. In 1870, however, Smith was murdered while attempting to arrest a man near the town of Detroit.
Tom Smith's successor as city marshal was the famous Wild Bill Hickok. Wild Bill's name was well known in the west before he came to Abilene, but the deadly marksmanship he displayed in keeping the city quiet and orderly throughout 1871 added to his fame. His reported long record of fatal shots at white men, or of knives sunk in their hearts, whether he acted as a Union Scout in the Civic War, frontier guide, duelist, marshal or gambler, caused the citizens to give him a wide berth. He figured as the recognized superior among the two-pistol men (meaning ability to shoot straight with either hand or both hands at once.)
Wild Bill's headquarters in Abilene was in the palatial Alamo Saloon. The town trustees appointed him marshal because of his skilled fearlessness. He served in this capacity for either months, during 1871. He prevented murders and the destruction of property through the dread of his twin-pistols, and for this he deserved and received credit, especially because of the increasing cattle trade. He spent most of his time in the Alamo Saloon, on lusty, gaudy, old Texas Street - center of the town's wild life - not being too friendly with either substantial citizens (who wouldn't be caught dead or alive in the Alamo) or with drunken cowboys (who, without Wild Bill's presence, might often have been found dead in the Alamo, or some other saloon.) He was a lone wolf, fearing no man. After taking office, he stopped the gun play and convinced the renegade cowboys that he meant business - the law would be enforced. On the other hand, he made no attempt to cleanup the town, possibly thinking that the whole situation might get out of control is such measures were taken.
Without Wild Bill, the townspeople had been in terror over the prospects of anarchy and chaos with him, they went about their business calmly and unmolested. Hickok left that winter Abilene quieted down by itself the next year when the railroad hit towns further south, and happily, became a peaceful, quiet, law-abiding community.
Tutt and Wild Bill Hickok did not get along. They chased the same women and gambled fiercely with one another. Eventually, Wild Bill lost a gold watch to Tutt in a poker game. The watch was special to Hickok, so he asked Tutt not to wear it in public—but of course, Tutt refused. Tensions boiled over and on July 21, 1865, the two of them met in Springfield’s town square. What happened next is believed to have been one of the first quick-draw duels in history.
Tutt missed. Wild Bill didn’t. He shot his rival through the heart, and was subsequently arrested for murder. But this was a different time, and after a lengthy trial, a jury cleared Hickok of all charges.
Hickok kills a Medal of Honor Winner,1870.
This is a new development, since I read Rosa's Hickok biographies.
For a brief stint in 1869 James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas. A year later, in July 1870, Deputy U.S. Marshal Hickok revisited the bustling county seat, Hays City. He was drinking in one of the saloons when two troopers of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer's 7th U.S. Cavalry suddenly accosted him. In the ensuing struggle Hickok mortally wounded one soldier and severely injured another with a pistol shot to his knee. The cause of the brawl is unknown, though it was most likely triggered by a confrontation the wounded trooper had had with Hickok when Wild Bill was county sheriff. Hickok was lucky to escape the 1870 fight alive. The soldier who eventually died had reportedly pressed his Remington pistol to Wild Bill's ear and pulled the trigger, only to have it misfire.
Tracing the two soldiers' lives has been a long process. No one had confirmed their actual names—Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kile—until Hickok biographer Joseph G. Rosa turned to military records almost 50 years ago in search of the truth surrounding the brawl. An accurate account of their military careers has remained hidden until now.
John Kile's military career was more complex—marked by desertions, courts-martial, prison sentences, heroic actions and manipulations of the military system. On July 8, 1869, he had a fight with Indians, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, receiving it on August 24 but with his name given as "Kyle." The misspelling came from Lieutenant William Volkmar's itinerary report that Brevet Maj. Gen. Eugene A. Carr used to write the MOH recommendation.
Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok, the renowned ‘Wild Bill,’ remains perhaps the most famous of all Western gunfighters. His exploits as a Civil War operative, frontiersman and peace officer have been celebrated often in print, in movies, and on television. But, despite all this attention through the years, we know very little about the man himself. Vintage photographs, haunting and mysterious, span the mist of time. We wonder, who was Wild Bill Hickok?
The man who became marshal of Abilene, Kan., on April 15, 1871, was a frontier dandy. He stood 6 foot 3 in his custom-made boots. His riveting gray eyes, set off by a drooping mustache, seemed to look right through people. Beneath the black hat with the sweeping brim, blond hair tumbled to his shoulders, and a Prince Albert frock coat showed off broad shoulders and a narrow waist.
Hickok dazzled many women, including George Armstrong Custer’s wife, Libbie. There were even rumors of an affair. In any case, Libbie Custer wrote the following about him in her 1890 book Following the Guidon: ‘Physically, he was a delight to look upon. Tall, lithe, and free in every motion, he rode and walked as if every muscle was perfection, and the careless swing of his body as he moved seemed perfectly in keeping with the man, the country, the time in which he lived. I do not recall anything finer in the way of physical perfection than Wild Bill when he swung himself lightly from his saddle, and with graceful, swaying step, squarely set shoulders and well poised head, approached our tent for orders. He was rather fantastically clad, of course, but all seemed perfectly in keeping with the time and place. He did not make an armory of his waist, but carried two pistols. He wore top-boots, riding breeches, and dark blue flannel shirt, with scarlet set in front. A loose neck handkerchief left his fine firm throat free. I do not all remember his features, but the frank, manly expression of his fearless eyes and his courteous manner gave one a feeling of confidence in his word and in his undaunted courage.’
But most striking of all, at least to some people, were the two Navy Colts resting in a red sash around Hickok’s waist, their ivory handles turned forward for the underhand or ‘twist’ draw. Some Westerners may have been fooled by the fancy dress, but most understood the promise of the twin Colts. The man was deadly in a confrontation. He moved with cat-easy grace, had lightning reflexes, and shot with great accuracy using either hand. Above all, he was absolutely cool and composed in pressure situations-fine attributes to have in 1871 Abilene, which may well have been the toughest town in the West. The famed ‘Bear River’ Tom Smith had been an exceptional marshal, but he was shot from ambush late in 1870. So Abilene went after the man with the biggest reputation of all, J.B. Hickok.
While Hickok delighted in amusing family and friends with accounts of the ‘hundreds’ of men he had gunned down, his reputation, both real and imagined, did serve him well as a lawman. He ruled Abilene from the card tables of the Alamo Saloon, telling his deputies to come and get him if he was needed. Despite the many hard cases in the boisterous cow town, few challenged him. Did Hickok deserve his reputation? Yes and no. He became famous, maybe even more famous than the president, because Eastern publishers wanted to sell magazines to a public hungry for tales of the Wild West.
The glorification of Wild Bill Hickok began in Springfield, Mo., on July 21, 1865, when he killed gunman Dave Tutt. Some said the two men fought over a card game, while others attributed the duel to competition for the attention of a woman named Susannah Moore. Colonel Albert Barnitz, the army post commander in Springfield, reported that both men fired simultaneously and that Tutt was’shot directly through the heart.’ Another version had Hickok drawing first, but then waiting for Tutt to shoot. After Tutt missed, Hickok rested his gun on his left arm to steady it and then shot him. Regardless of who fired when, Hickok established himself as a cool, deadly gunfighter. And less than two months later, Colonel George Ward Nichols of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine arrived in Springfield eager to increase sales by featuring Hickok in a story. Nichols cared little for the truth, and in his exaggerations he found a willing accomplice in Hickok. When the story finally appeared in February 1867, Hickok emerged as a superman. Nichols regaled readers with accounts of the Tutt affair and Hickok’s Civil War exploits, as well as the new hero’s role in the Rock Creek incident, or ‘McCanles Massacre.’
Rock Creek Station in Nebraska Territory had been purchased by Russell, Majors and Waddell from David C. McCanles to use on their Pony Express route to California. Their company (generally known as the Overland Stage Company) was experiencing financial difficulties at the time, however, and could not pay McCanles the full amount promised. On July 12, 1861, McCanles, assisted by his cousin James Woods and James Gordon, tried to reclaim the station, but all three died under the guns of company employees Hickok, J.W. Brink and Horace Wellman. For many years it was believed that Hickok killed McCanles, but recent research suggests one of the others shot him. In Nichols’ story for Harper’s Weekly, Hickok was said to have killed 10 men at Rock Creek Station all by himself.
Hickok worked for the Union during the Civil War. At various times he acted as a scout, a spy, a detective, a special policeman and a sharpshooter. He served the Union well, especially at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Ark., March 6-8, 1862, when his accurate sharpshooting from a post high above Cross Timber Hollow snuffed out several Confederates.
James Butler Hickok was called ‘Bill’ as early as the mid-1850s, and he may have picked up the nickname ‘Wild Bill’ during the Civil War period for his carefree, daring ways of living and fighting. Some people attribute the sobriquet to an early 1862 incident in Independence, Mo. He and his brother Lorenzo apparently helped stop a lynch mob, and a woman called one or both of them ‘Wild.’ Or it might have been just J.B. Hickok stopping an angry mob outside an Independence saloon and a woman subsequently saying, ‘Good for you, Wild Bill.’ In any case, the nickname stuck, thanks in no small part to writer Nichols. Why did Hickok help Nichols embellish his accomplishments? Again, the answer is complex. First, Hickok tended to be rather boastful. He also found telling tales quite amusing, and may have even sensed that a big reputation might serve him well.
But some of the things Nichols wrote apparently did not please Hickok, as Joseph G. Rosa points out in the introduction to the second edition of his They Called Him Wild Bill. While the Harper’s story did establish Hickok’s reputation, this sometimes proved to be a curse. Reporters hounded him for the rest of his life, and he had to repeat the same stories over and over. It soon became impossible to tell where truth ended and fiction began. Furthermore, the publicity set him up as a target for every gunslinger who wanted to establish his own reputation by killing the great Wild Bill Hickok.
Hickok’s early life certainly prepared him for the pressures of fame and facing death every day. He was born in Troy Grove, Ill., on May 27, 1837, and baptized James Butler Hickok by his father Alonzo, a deacon in the Presbyterian Church. The Hickoks were descendants of the Hiccocks family of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, neighbors of William Shakespeare. A branch of the family moved to America in 1635.
Alonzo Hickok was born in Vermont in 1801 and married Polly Butler in 1827. The couple had five children besides James Butler, three boys and two girls. Alonzo and Polly Hickok moved to Illinois in 1833, finally settling in Troy Grove (known as Homer at the time), LaSalle County, along the banks of the Little Vermillion Creek. They opened a general store in Troy Grove, the Green Mountain House, which did well at first but failed during the financial panic of 1837. The family then turned to farming.
For many years Alonzo Hickok operated a station on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves to freedom. His sons often assisted with this work, and it was during these times that young James began to develop the courage, cunning and resourcefulness that marked his later years. James liked to be alone, and he liked guns. So, while the rest of the family worked the farm, he prowled the woods, honing his shooting skills by hunting wolves for bounty and providing a variety of fresh meat for the family.
Hickok left Troy Grove at 18 to begin life in the West. Despite his involvement with the Kansas ‘Free Staters’ in the late 1850s, his gunplay at Rock Creek in 1861 and his Civil War activity, Hickok’s life was not the stuff of immortality until he killed Dave Tutt. Then everything changed.
In the spring of 1866, Hickok helped guide General William T. Sherman during the general’s tour of the West. And during 1867-68, Hickok scouted for both General Winfield Scott Hancock and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Custer was impressed by Hickok and later wrote of him: ‘Whether on foot or on horseback he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw. Of his courage there could be no question. His skill in the use of the rifle and the pistol was unerring. His deportment was entirely free from all bluster and bravado. He never spoke of himself unless requested to do so. His conversation never bordered on the vulgar or blasphemous. His influence among the frontiersmen was unbounded his word was law and many are the personal quarrels and disturbances which he had checked among his comrades by the single announcement that ‘this has gone far enough,’ if need be, followed by the ominous warning that, if persisted in, the quarreler ‘must settle with me….’ Wild Bill always carried two handsome ivory-handled revolvers of large size. He was never seen without them. I have a personal knowledge of at least half a dozen men whom he has at various times killed, others have been seriously wounded-yet he always escaped unhurt in every encounter.’
Custer’s account, which appeared in his 1874 book My Life on the Plains, fueled the Wild Bill legend, of course, but it may have also reflected Hickok’s growing maturity, suggesting that he was learning to be quiet about himself. Furthermore, the ability to settle quarrels led to the next phase of his life, law enforcement. Hickok worked on and off as a deputy U.S. marshal during 1867-70, but it was in Hays City, Kan., that he truly proved his worth as an enforcer. On August 23, 1869, Hickok won a special election to complete the unexpired term of the Ellis County sheriff, and decided to make his headquarters in Hays.
Shortly after the election, Hickok shot Bill Mulvey (or Melvin), a hellraiser from St. Joseph, Mo. After getting drunk at Drum’s saloon, Mulvey began terrorizing Hays, shooting out lamps and windows. When Hickok challenged him to give up his gun, Mulvey holstered the weapon and then tried to draw. He never cleared leather and died with a bullet in his chest. Just over a month later, as Hickok settled a disturbance in a saloon, Samuel Strawhun (variously spelled) drew on him. Same result. Hickok pulled the twin Colts and put two shots into Strawhun before he could pull the trigger. Hickok also saved an Army teamster from lynching in Hays, and the commander at Fort Hays expressed his gratitude. But the people of Ellsworth County didn’t seem to appreciate Hickok’s style of law enforcement, and he lost the regular November election to his deputy, Peter Lanihan.
Hickok left his last mark on Hays during the summer of 1870. On the night of July 17, two drunken 7th Cavalry troopers, Jerry Lonergan and John Kile, apparently attacked him in a saloon. According to one account, Kile tried to get off a shot but the cap failed to explode. Before Lonergan could fire, or Kile pull the trigger again, Hickok got off two shots. One shattered Lonergan’s knee, and the other wounded Kile, who died the next day.
When Hickok was appointed marshal of Abilene less than a year later, he offered troublemakers a choice: ‘Leave town on the eastbound train, the westbound train, or go North in the morning.’ North meant boot hill and, except in rare instances, the Texas cowboys, the most violent element in town, decided to heed the warning. Actually, Abilene’s numerous gamblers and prostitutes gave Hickok and his deputies more trouble than did the cowboys.
One Texan, however, infuriated Hickok. He was John Wesley Hardin, one of the most prolific and deadly shootists in the annals of the Old West. Hardin followed the murderer of a fellow Texan to Sumner City, Kan., killed him, and then moved on to Abilene and killed another man for no reason. Hardin fled when an angry Hickok came after him. Hardin later claimed that Hickok tried to disarm him. According to Hardin’s story, he had extended his pistols to Hickok, butts first. When Hickok reached for them, Hardin suddenly twirled the guns in his hands, getting the drop on his adversary and causing Wild Bill to back down. By the time Hardin made this claim in his 1895 autobiography, Hickok was already dead, and it seems highly unlikely that a man of Hickok’s experience would fall for this maneuver, called the ‘border shift’ or the ‘road agent’s spin.’
Ben Thompson, another deadly Texas gunman, operated Abilene’s Bull’s Head saloon, and while he disliked Hickok, they didn’t test each other’s gunfighting skills. Phil Coe, co-owner of the Bull’s Head, did become involved in a dispute with Hickok when both men vied for the affection of Jessie Hazel, proprietor of an expensive bawdy house. Hickok lost out, and the madam decided to leave with Coe for Texas. On the evening of October 5, 1871, before he was to leave, Coe and some other Texans went on a shooting spree. When challenged on the street by Hickok, Coe made the mistake of drawing. Both men fired twice from about eight feet. Coe missed with both shots, but Hickok put two bullets into the Texan’s stomach, and he died two days later.
While Hickok may have taken pleasure in shooting Coe, it proved to be a tragic evening for him. Just as he fired at Coe, another man, holding a revolver, rushed toward them. Thinking the man was one of Coe’s friends, Hickok fired twice more and killed the man, who turned out to be his deputy and close friend, Mike Williams. Wild Bill Hickok, the stone-cold killer, wept openly as he carried Williams into the Alamo saloon and laid him on a billiard table, where he died. Hickok paid the funeral expenses for Williams, probably the last man he ever killed.
In December 1871, the city council of Abilene decided it no longer needed the high-priced services of Marshal Hickok and discharged him. He drifted to Colorado and then to Kansas City, where he lost all his money at the gaming tables. Destitute, he accepted an offer to appear on stage with Colonel Sidney Barnett’s Wild West show, giving two performances at Niagara Falls, N.Y., on August 28 and 30, 1872, and then quitting because he hated performing.
The next spring, reports flashed around the country that Hickok had been murdered in Fort Dodge, Kan., by some Texans. He responded by writing letters to several newspapers. In one letter he went after famed writer Ned Buntline: ‘Ned Buntline has been trying to murder me for years. Having failed to do so, he is trying to have it done by some Texans.’
Despite Hickok’s dislike of the stage, ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody persuaded him to join his theatrical group in the East in September 1873 (see the October 1994 issue of Wild West for more on Hickok’s short-lived stage career). Hickok toured with Cody for five months and then left for the West. He had begun wearing dark glasses, which he said he needed because of the stage lighting. Hickok, who may have been suffering from glaucoma or trachoma, was apparently bothered by eye problems the rest of his life.
During 1874 and 1875, Hickok spent at least some of his time in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. It was there that he encountered Agnes Lake, a lady he had met several years earlier in Abilene. Lake had become a widow in 1869 when husband William Lake Thatcher (a circus performer who had dropped ‘Thatcher’ for show-biz reasons) was shot in an argument with a ‘customer’ in Missouri. Agnes Lake enjoyed international fame as a horsewoman, tightrope walker, dancer and lion-tamer. When Hickok met her in Abilene in 1871, she was a circus owner. On March 5, 1876, not long after their Cheyenne reunion, Wild Bill and Agnes were married. The ceremony took place at the Cheyenne home of S.L. Moyer and was performed by the Rev. F.W. Warren of the Episcopal Methodist Church. Following a two-week honeymoon in Cincinnati, at the home of Agnes Lake’s son-in-law, Gilbert Robinson, Hickok left for the Black Hills determined to earn enough money through gambling and gold prospecting to put his marriage on a sound financial base. The newlyweds would never see each other again.
Harry Young, bartender at Carl Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, later wrote of Hickok’s arrival: ‘About the middle of July, my old friend Wild Bill arrived in Deadwood. A more picturesque sight than Hickok on horseback could not be imagined. He had never been north of Cheyenne before this, although many in Deadwood knew him, some only by reputation. A good many gunmen of note were in town and his arrival caused quite a commotion. Hickok rode up to the saloon where I was working, as he knew the owner, Carl Mann. Mann greeted him with much enthusiasm and asked him to make the saloon his headquarters. This meant money for Mann, as Hickok was a great drawing card. Hickok agreed.’
Once in Deadwood (see the December 1995 Wild West for more on Deadwood), Hickok set up camp on the outskirts of town with his good friends ‘California Joe’ Anderson, ‘Colorado Charlie’ Utter and Steve Utter. He spent some time with them prospecting, but, as usual, the allure of the gaming tables proved stronger. Hickok’s presence in the various saloons threatened the town’s lawless elements. Deadwood, like Abilene several years earlier, was dominated by gunmen, gamblers and every variety of swindler then known. They were feasting on the gold dust of honest miners, and wanted no cleanup by Hickok or anyone else.
Tim Brady and Johnny Varnes, two leaders of the Deadwood underworld, initiated a plot to kill Hickok so he wouldn’t be appointed marshal. Jim Levy and Charlie Storms, two noted gunmen, were offered the job but turned it down. Had they known about Hickok’s bad eyesight, they might well have accepted.
Just a few months before, Hickok had commented to an acquaintance: ‘My eyes are getting real bad. My shooting days are over.’ Hickok therefore relied on his reputation to see him through the danger he must have sensed was all around him in Deadwood. Hickok’s reputation stymied Levy and Storms, and it worked on the six Montana gunmen who spoke of killing him. Hickok, backed by his twin Colts, spoke to them with his usual directness before disarming them: ‘I understand that you cheap, would-be gunfighters from Montana have been making remarks about me. I want you to understand unless they are stopped there will shortly be a number of cheap funerals in Deadwood. I have come to this town not to court notoriety, but to live in peace and do not propose to stand for insults.’
Hickok wanted neither notoriety nor love, and he had no romantic relationship with Martha Jane Cannary, the famed Calamity Jane (see the August 1994 issue of Wild West for more on her). He just wanted to return to his new wife with some money in his pocket, as evidenced by a portion of his letter from Deadwood on July 17, 1876:
My own darling wife Agnes…I know my Agnes
and only live to love her. Never mind, pet, we will
have a home yet, then we will be happy.
Hickok’s letter of August 1 made clear his concern about ever returning home to his wife:
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
This last letter proved to be prophetic, but perhaps sooner than Hickok expected. The next day, August 2, at about 4 p.m., he joined a poker game in Carl Mann’s Saloon No. 10. The other players were Charles Rich, a gunman in his own right, Con Stapleton, Carl Mann himself, and Captain Willie Massie, a Missouri steamboat pilot.
Hickok had a short conversation at the bar with Harry Young before he sat down. He was the last to be seated, and the only chair left for him put his back to the back door. Hickok, as a precaution, always sat with his back to the wall, and asked Charles Rich to change places with him. Rich just laughed and stayed in his chair. But Hickok’s conspirators had finally found their man-Jack McCall.
A local bum who used several aliases, McCall entered the saloon unnoticed, as he often worked at menial jobs in the place. McCall began moving, quite casually, toward the back door behind Hickok’s chair. Once there, he stopped and watched the game for a few minutes. Hickok and Massie were discussing the captain’s habit of sneaking looks at his opponent’s discards. The other players stared at their hands.
Nobody was paying any attention to McCall. Suddenly the air was shattered by a loud crash, as McCall pulled a .45-caliber revolver from his coat pocket and shot Hickok in the back of the head from three feet. Hickok hung suspended in time for a moment and then toppled over backward, the cards in his hand dropping to the floor. That hand, which included a pair of aces and a pair of eights, became known as the Dead Man’s Hand. The suits of those cards and what the fifth card was are still being disputed-nobody will ever know these details for sure (see the editorial on P. 6 of the December 1995 Wild West).
Jack McCall was tried by an illegal miner’s court in Deadwood on August 3 and found not guilty. Later, he was tried in Yankton, Dakota Territory, and this time he was found guilty. He was hanged on March 1, 1877.
Hickok’s death devastated his family. Several months after he died, his wife wrote: ‘I can see him day and night before me. The longer he is dead, the worse I feel.’ In Kansas, Hickok’s sister Lydia expressed regret that he had not died with Custer at the Little Bighorn, rather than on a barroom floor. And when the bad news reached Troy Grove, Ill., his mother suffered a lung hemorrhage. She died two years later.
Who was Wild Bill Hickok? There are too many mysteries, controversies, half-truths and outright fabrications about his life for anyone to answer that question with total confidence. Yet people will keep trying to answer it because, while he was certainly no saint, Wild Bill lived a life of adventure and displayed enough courage and daring to forge one of the enduring legends of the Wild West.
This article was written by James Bankes and originally appeared in the August 1996 issue of Wild West.
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Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok, later known as “Wild Bill”, was born in Homer Illinois on May 27th 1837. He is one of history’s characters whose life was more colourful than the legends that grew around him. He was a 6ft 3in tall, wide shouldered, handsome man with auburn hair worn long and down to his shoulders in the fashion of a Plainsman and contemporaries speak of his clear grey eyes that “could see right through you”. Little is known of his early life apart from him being a good shot with a pistol, but at the age of eighteen he got into a fight with a Charles Hudson, during which, they both fell into a canal. Believing he had killed Hudson, he fled to Leavenworth in Kansas where he joined General Jim Lane’s vigilante Free State Army, also known as The Red Legs. It was here that he first met William Cody, later to become famous as “Buffalo Bill Cody”, who although only twelve years old, was working as a scout for the US Army. He also met George Custer, who was later to recall that Hickok was “A strange character, a Plainsman in every sense of the word whose skill in the use of rifle or pistol was unerring”.
The origin of his nickname is uncertain he was sometimes called “Duck Bill” in his early years due to his long nose and sweeping upper lip and grew a moustache to cover it as soon as he was able. During his time with the Red Legs he was nicknamed “Shanghai Bill” and later “Wild Bill” a name allegedly given to him by an admiring woman when he and his brother Lorenzo apparently stopped a lynch mob in Independence Missouri, and it seems that he readopted the Wild Bill tag when he later became a lawman.
In 1858, he claimed a tract of land in Johnson County in Kansas and a year later was elected as one of four constables in Monticello Township. This employment did not last and he took a job with Russell, Wadell and Majors Freight Company, the owners of the Pony Express and it was while driving a freight team from Missouri to Santa Fe that he encountered a Cinnamon bear and her cubs blocking the trail. Hickok dismounted and later described how he shot the bear in the head, but the bullet bounced off the bear’s skull. The bear attacked Hickok, crushing him and grabbing his arm with its mouth, but Hickok managed to draw his knife and fatally slashed the bear’s throat. He was however, badly hurt with crushed chest, shoulder and arm and was bedridden four the next four months. He was then sent to Rock Creek Station in Nebraska to work as a stable hand while recovered from his wounds. The station was built on land that the company had recently purchased from Dave McCanles, a local resident. McCanles had been involved in a long running feud with the company over the second instalment of the payment for the land and on 16th December, 1861, McCanles, his son William and two farmhands, James Woods and James Gordon, called at the station’s office demanding payment, threatening the manager Horace Wellman. What happened next has long been disputed, but resulted in Hickok or Wellman shooting McCanles, Woods and Gordon.
Both were tried for murder, but judged to have acted in self defence. McCanles was the first man reputed to have been killed by Hickok in a gunfight.
He is thought to have spent the next year working for the Union Army as a scout, sniper and teamster at the outbreak of the Civil War, but in September 1862 he was discharged for reasons unknown. In late 1863, he found work as a Provost Marshall in Springfield Missouri, but resigned a year later to sign on as an army scout, (Five dollars a day, plus horse and equipment) with General John Samborn. It was here that he served with General Custer. Hickok was definitely a ladies man and could dazzle women with his easy charm. He was rumoured to have had an affair with Custer’s wife Libbie, who wrote of him in her book written in 1890, “Physically he was a delight to look upon. Tall, lithe and free in every motion”. He was mustered out in 1865 and began a life of drinking and gambling in Springfield. In “The History of Greene County Missouri” it was said of him at that time that he was, “By nature a ruffian, a drunken swaggering fellow who delighted when on a spree, to frighten nervous men and timid women”.
Hickok befriended a fellow gambler Davis Tutt, an ex Confederate soldier and the pair often loaned money to each other to finance a game. They later fell out in an argument over a woman and Hickok refused to play cards with Tutt who retaliated by financing other players in an attempt to bankrupt him. During one such game, Tutt was coaching Hickok’s opponent, but could not break Hickok’s winning streak. A frustrated Tutt demanded that Hickok repay a $40 dollar loan which he immediately did. Tutt then demanded another $35 from a previous card game. Hickok refused and said that he had “a memorandum” proving that he only owed $25. Tutt grabbed Hickok’s watch from the table, claiming it as collateral against the loan and the unfazed Hickok warned him that if he saw Tutt wearing the watch, he would shoot him.
When Tutt appeared the next day wearing the watch, Hickok tried to negotiate its return but Tutt stated that he now wanted $45. The two agreed not to fight over it and went for a drink together. It is not known what was said and, but Tutt later left the saloon He returned to the town square at 6 that evening as Hickok arrived from the other direction and warned him not to approach while wearing the watch. When both men were about 50 yards apart, they drew their guns and opened fire. Tutt’s shot missed, but Hickok’s struck Tutt in the chest killing him. The event was said to be the first recorded example of a quick draw duel. Hickok carried two 1836 Navy Colt cap and ball pistols in a sash around his waist with the butts forward enabling him to “Cross draw” and fire very quickly. Hickok stood trial for the shooting, but was acquitted on the grounds of “A fair fight”.
Hickok returned to gambling, but in the East, people were beginning to take an interest in the exploits of the colourful characters of the Wild West and newspapers and magazines began running articles on the lives of these “cowboys”. He gave a tongue in cheek interview to Harper’s New Monthly magazine in which he claimed to have killed “Hundreds of men”. Other publications quickly pointed out that the article was full of inaccuracies and that Hickok was lying about his tally. It is now thought that, being bemused by the attention, he deliberately exaggerated his exploits to the interviewers wind them up. The interviewers in turn, magnified his exploits and reported that he alone killed ten men at Rock Creek Station.
He later gave another interview in which he was asked, “How many men have you killed?” and he replied, “I suppose about a hundred”.
In 1868, he became sheriff of Hayes City Kansas, a rough place that needed strong policing. He was not afraid of using violence to keep the town under control and in August 1869, he shot and killed Bill Mulvey in a gunfight. Mulvey was drunk and refused Hickok’s order to drop his gun and continued shooting at lamps, windows and anything that moved. Mulvey holstered his weapon and then tried to draw, but Hickok put two bullets in him before he had even lifted his gun. The following month he shot Samuel Strwahun dead after he and his friends caused trouble in a saloon. Strawhun refused to put down his gun and threatened Hickok with a broken bottle whereupon he was shot dead. Some of the townspeople felt that he was too violent and in the next elections he lost to his deputy Pete Lanihan. He continued in the role as Lanihan’s deputy, although in reality, he remained in charge and old timers later recalled that his presence did much to keep the violence down.
Sheriff of Ellis County
Wikimedia Commons A cabinet card of Wild Bill. 1873.
After the duel with Tutt, Hickok met up with his friend Buffalo Bill on tour with General William Tecumseh Sherman. He became a guide for General Hancock’s 1867 campaign against the Cheyenne, and while there, he met Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who described Hickok reverently as “one of the most perfect types of physical manhood that I ever saw.”
For a time Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill put on outdoor gunslinging demonstrations that featured Native Americans, buffalos, and sometimes monkeys. The shows were ultimately a failure, but they helped to contribute to Wild Bill’s growing reputation.
Ever-traveling, Wild Bill made his way to Hays, Kan. where he was elected county sheriff of Ellis County. But Wild Bill killed two men within his first month alone as sheriff. The first, town drunk Bill Mulvey, caused a raucous about Wild Bill’s move to the County. Wild Bill consequently shot a bullet into the back of his brain.
A second man was gunned down by the quick-handed sheriff for talking trash, too. It’s said that in his ten months as sheriff, Wild Bill killed four people before he was finally asked to leave.
Today in History: Wild Bill Hickok gets his brains blown out over game of poker gone terribly wrong
The West was full of bad asses. Times were tougher back then and they made tougher people. Gunslingers prowled the streets, whiskey was safer to drink than water, everyone had venereal diseases, showers were a rare treat and it wasn&rsquot unheard of to get your head blown off over a game of cards.
Which, was exactly what happened one Wild Bill Hickok, in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, 143 years ago, today.
He went by many names: William, Bill, Duck Bill, Wild Bill, Shainghai Bill&hellip he was called just about anything but his true name: James Butler Hickok.
And, let me tell you, this dude was about as gritty they come. He was a renowned gunman, lawman, serviceman, vigilante, bear-wrestler, actor, scout, and dueler famous for his wit, his speed with a revolver, his flowing blonde hair and long frowning moustache.
The man, the myth, the legend: Wild Bill Hickok
No one knows exactly how many lives he took during his gunfighting days, but we know for sure he killed his first man at a train station, in &ldquoself-defense,&rdquo at 30 years old. Being a nice guy, Wild Bill paid the dude&rsquos widow $35 for her troubles (which, in his defense, was all the money he had at the time).
Then, he went to go fight the damn rebel confederates in the Civil War, before embarking on a strange and duel-spattered career in law-enforcement. He marshalled towns, scouted, became a sheriff of Hayes, Kansas, and all the while he was busy killing fools, shooting criminals, trouble-makers, drunks, Indians and drunk Indians.
And Texans. Apparently, Wild Bill Hickok had thing against Texans (likely leftover animosity from his days fighting to preserve the Union).
Perhaps his most famous gunfight encounter was with a man named Bill Mulvey. Mulvey was drunkenly rampaging through Hays, Hikok&rsquos town, shooting bottles and mirrors out of saloons, striking fear into the townspeople and claiming that he&rsquod come to kill Wild Bill, himself.
Well, word of Mulvey&rsquos debauchery reached Sherriff Wild Bill, and when Mulvey came for him, he was ready.
The drunken criminal was on horseback, charging, his rifle drawn and fully cocked, when Wild Bill stepped out into the street, waving his hands.
&ldquoStop,&rdquo the Sherriff shouted, as if he was speaking to people behind Mulvey, &ldquoDon&rsquot shoot him in the back, he&rsquos drunk.&rdquo
Mulvey, hearing the Sheriff&rsquos words, wheeled on his horse immediately, to face the fucker who would be so yellow-bellied as to shoot him from behind.
He realized Wild Bill&rsquos trick, too late. The Sheriff pulled his gun with lightning speed, and blew Mulvey&rsquos head straight off his shoulders.
Incidents like this seemed to follow Wild Bill everywhere he went. He was mauled by a bear once, attacked in saloons by soldiers he thought were his friends, won gun-fight after gun-fight, bested his enemies, and outsmarted those who would otherwise have him done in.
But on August 2nd (hey, that&rsquos today!) of 1876, one of these incidents put an end to Wild Bill&rsquos Wild West antics in a small town called Deadwood.
Bill apparently had a bad feeling when he entered that town, remarking to one of his friends as they entered it, that he thought he would be killed there.
On Bill&rsquos first and last night in Deadwood (August 1st) he was hangin&rsquo out at a local saloon. A spot opened up at a poker table and Bill sat down to play. Across from him sat the very man who would end his life, Jack McCall.
Well, McCall was apparently a pretty bad poker player. Or, at least, that night he was. Wild Bill whooped his ass so bad, that the famous gunman had to apologize to McCall, and even gave him money for breakfast the next day. Whatever people say about Wild Bill, at least he wasn&rsquot a poor-winner.
Anyway, McCall didn&rsquot take the loss very well. Despite Wild Bill&rsquos apologies and breakfast donation, he was infuriated and insulted by the loss and the next night, the night of August 2nd, McCall returned to that saloon, walked right up behind his nemesis and pulled out his Colt .45 single action.
&ldquoDamn you! Take that!&rdquo McCall shouted, as he pulled the trigger.
Wild Bills head exploded all over the poker table. The bullet exited through his left cheek and hit the man sitting across from Hikok in the wrist. The famous gunslinger slumped over the table, dead, still holding his cards: two black aces, and two black eights.
A hand that would become known to history as the &ldquoDead Man&rsquos Hand.&rdquo
The "Dead Man's Hand."