The Revenger: The Life and Times of Wild Bill Hickok, by Aaron Woodard, TwoDot Books, Guilford, Conn., and Helena, Mont., 2018, $16.95
Wild Bill Hickok was not only one of the top gunfighters of the Old West but also one of the best-documented shootists of the period. Hickok’s merit as a gunfighter is borne out by his record as a peace officer, not to mention ample observations from contemporaries. “His skill in the use of the rifle and pistol was unerring,” said George Custer, “while his deportment was exactly the opposite of what might be expected from a man of his surroundings. It was entirely free of bluster or bravado.” Buffalo Bill Cody concurred with Custer: “In all the fights he [Hickok] had no one ever succeeded in getting him down. His fatal coolness and his certain aim saved him. The other fellow was quietly buried, for none of Bill’s subjects ever went away and got cured so they could make him future trouble.”
Hickok’s ranking among the best-documented gunfighters is due largely to Englishman Joseph Rosa. Writes Aaron Woodard: “Anyone who writes on Wild Bill Hickok must acknowledge the lifetime of scholarly work by the late Joseph Rosa.” Woodard also admires Hickok, who, he reminds us, “was not a crook, a criminal or a coward, unlike so many of his contemporaries.” But why produce another Hickok biography that covers ground mostly familiar to those who have read Rosa? Woodard answers in part when he writes, “[The Revenger] is the first full-length biography of Wild Bill that contains the complete record of McCall’s legal and political attempts to avoid the noose.”
That would be Jack McCall, the man who assassinated Hickok in August 1876 and who, for a while, seemed to have gotten away with murder. Indeed, the most interesting chapter of Woodard’s book is the last one, “Aftermath,” in which he details the assassin’s penchant for blabber (“McCall was unable to remain silent about his murder of a Western superstar”), which prompted a second trial, capped by a trip to the gallows.