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
swim to the other shore.
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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