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Wild Bill Hickok & Dead Man’s Hand: Gambling in the Old West

Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok is considered to be one of the most legendary gunfighters from the Wild West. Hickok was a gambler and gunman with a reputation, known for murdering hundreds of men, helping slaves, acting and famously dying in a saloon in Dakota.

But why is Wild Bill Hickok so famous, were people right about his reputation and why was a poker hand named after him? It’s time to find out.

James Butler Hickok

James Butler Hickok was born on May 27, 1837, in Illinois to William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok. His parents ran a station along the Underground Railway and helped smuggle slaves from the south before the Civil War. It was during this time that Bill got his first taste of gunmanship after he and his father were chased by lawmen who suspected them of concealing slaves in the hay of their wagon.

Shortly after this, Bill developed a passion for guns and then, at the age of 14, his father was killed because of his stand on the abolition of slavery. This eventually led Bill to leave his home at the age of 17 when he began working as a towpath driver on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. He later moved to Kansas and began working as a stagecoach driver. It was here that Hickok stopped a man from beating up an 11-year-old child named Bill Cody who would later go on to become Hickok’s best friend.

Wild Bill Hickok

While Hickok was working as a stagecoach driver in the late 1950s, he came face-to-face with a bear. On a journey from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, Hickok found his road blocked by a cinnamon-coloured bear.

Hickok approached the bear and shot the animal, angering it. The bear attacked Hickok, nearly crushing him, but the gunman shot another bullet into its paw.

This caused the bear to grab Hickok’s arm with its mouth, but Hickok quickly slashed the animal’s throat with his knife.

Hickok suffered greatly from the attack, having almost been crushed to death, and was bedridden for several months. When he finally recovered, Hickok decided to move to Nebraska to work at the Pony Express and Overland Express station at Rock Creek where he met David McCanles.

The McCanles Massacre

David McCanles and Wild Bill didn’t get along. Reports suggest that McCanles teased Hickok about his “girlish build” and “feminine features”. In retaliation, Hickok began courting a woman named Sarah Shull who McCanles had taken a liking to.

Then on July 12, 1861, shortly after the Civil War broke out, McCanles, his young son and two friends named James Woods and James Gordon travelled to the station Hickok worked at to collect an overdue debt payment from a man named Horace Wellman. Legend states that McCanles threatened Hickok, sparking a gunfight and either Hickok or Wellman shot him. James Gordon and James Woods later died from their injuries and Hickok, Wellman and a third employee named J.W. Brink were tried for the murder of McCanles but the charges were dropped on the grounds of self-defence.

Over the following years, the gunfight became embellished by writers who suggested that Hickok along had killed off a dozen different men.

Hickok moved again to Missouri in October 1861 where he began his Civil War service as a wagon master. During his service, Hickok used his late brother’s name, William Hickok. Then, less than a year after starting his service, Hickok was discharged for unknown reasons. This led him to join General James Henry Lane’s Kansas Brigade where he met up with old friend Buffalo Bill Cody.

A Growing Legend

In late 1863, Hickok worked as a member of the detective police in Springfield, Illinois. He was responsible for identifying and counting the troops in uniform who were drinking on duty, verifying liquor licenses and tracking down anyone who owed money to the Union Army. It was in Springfield that Hickok first began to gamble.

During one game against 26-year-old Dave Tutt, Hickok lost. When he couldn’t pay, Tutt took his pocket watch which was of great value to the gunman. Hickok asked Tutt to avoid wearing it in public and the pair agreed to avoid fighting over the game. However, when Hickok spotted Tutt wearing the pocket watch in public, the pair agreed to a duel.

Wild Bill Hickok

They met in Springfield’s town square and stood sideways before drawing and firing their weapons. Tutt missed and was killed by Hickok instantly. He was arrested for murder though the charges were later dropped to manslaughter.

Hickok stood trial on August 3, 1865, and Judge Sempronius H. Boyd informed the jury that Hickok couldn’t have acted in self-defence but if they believed his life was in danger due to the duel, they could write it off as a “fair fight”.

The jury cleared Hickok of all charges, a decision which proved controversial but instantly made Hickok famous. Several weeks later, Hickok gave an interview with Colonel George Ward Nichols for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine which gave birth to the legend of Wild Bill Hickok. The article, which misspelt Hickok’s name as Wild Bill Hitchcock, recounted the names of the “hundreds” of men Hickok had killed.

In 1867, shortly after the Civil War ended, Hickok met a man named Henry M. Stanley who worked as a correspondent for the New York Herald. During their meeting, Hickok claimed that he had personally killed over 100 men, a lie which only continued to boost his legendary status.

Hickok was originally called “Duck Bill” due to his long nose and protruding lips. Following the McCanles Massacre, he grew a moustache and, from 1869, began calling himself “Wild Bill”.

Two years later, Hickok became sheriff of Hays City, Kansas. However, he soon became infamous after he shot and killed a man named Bill Mulrey in August 1869 and another man named Strawhan a month later. Hickok landed himself in hot water a year later, in 1870, when several members of the 7th US Cavalry attacked him in a local saloon, knocking him to the floor and repeatedly kicking him. However, Hickok shot and killed most members and greatly injured another. The fight led Hickok to resign as sheriff.

Hickok: The Gambler

Hickok was appointed city marshal in Abilene but over time he began to neglect his duties in favour of gambling. During this time, Hickok was described as having “restless eyes” and reportedly played cards in the corner of the room to “prevent an enemy from stealing up behind him.” Following a large brawl in the local saloon which resulted in Hickok murdering saloon owner Phil Coe and Deputy Mike Williams, Hickok was dismissed as city marshal.

He decided to start his own show called The Daring Buffalo Chase of the Plains and bought six buffalos, four Comanche, three cowboys, a bear and a monkey. The group headed out to Niagra Falls but his plans failed. During one show, the buffalo refused to act, prompting Hickok to fire a shot. The buffalo then began running around and audience members panicked and began to run away. The Buffalo then broke through their wire fencing and the remaining audience members were trampled.

Wild Bill Hickok

He later joined a play titled Scouts of the Prairies by old friend Buffalo Bill Cody. It allowed him to continue gambling spend time with countless women, but it wasn’t for him.

He eventually left and headed out West where he met a woman named Agnes Lake Thatcher who claimed to have followed him and declared her love.

The couple married in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and travelled to Cincinnati for their honeymoon. A month later, Hickok left Thatcher and the pair never saw each other again.

Hickok then moved to Deadwood, South Dakota where he continued indulging in alcohol and gambling. He also formed a close relationship with a woman named Calamity Jane, real name Martha Jane Cannary, who claimed the two were a couple, though it’s long been doubted. Hickok attempted to live as a professional gambler but struggled as he was frequently drunk or arrested.

The Final Poker Game

During one game of poker at the Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Hickok gave a man named Jack McCall, who lost heavily, enough money to buy something to eat but warned him not to play again. The following day, Hickok entered the same saloon and found someone sitting in his preferred seat by the corner. Instead, Hickok took a seat with his back to the saloon door and bar. Meanwhile, McCall, who had been drinking at the bar, spotted Hickok and approached the table.

Wild Bill Hickok Monument

McCall reportedly pulled a double-action .45 pistol, shouted “Take that” and shot Hickok in the back of the head. Hickok was killed instantly. Charlie Utter, a friend of Hickok, claimed the body and arranged a funeral.

Calamity Jane urged that a grave be built in honour of Hickok and an enclosure was erected around his plot with a small American flag.

Jack McCall was arrested and claimed he had killed Hickok in revenge for killing his brother back in Abilene, Kansas. The jury cleared McCall of all charges and he remained in Deadwood until a man suggested his life was in danger. He moved to Wyoming where he thought he had escaped punished. He bragged about murdering Hickok but was quickly arrested, charged with murder and hung.

In 1900, several years after Hickok’s death, Calamity Jane was photographed standing beside Hickok’s grave, claiming that she had wanted to die and be buried beside him. In 1903, three years after the photograph had been taken, Jane died and was buried beside Hickok as she wished.

PokerDead Man’s Hand

When Hickok was shot dead, he was playing five-card poker. His hand included two pairs, a pair of eights and an unknown ‘hole’ card, a combination now known as Dead Man’s Hand.