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!