Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok was a famous gunfighter forever linked with Deadwood, South Dakota. He was born James Butler Hickok on May 27, 1837. He was reported to have killed as many as three dozen men. He served as a lawman in several towns in the West. He was also known as an excellent poker player.  At one time or another he also was a Civil War soldier, an Army scout, and an actor (a poor one), but his skill as a gunfighter and a gambler cemented his reputation. That and his being assassinated in Deadwood, Dakota Territory in a notorious case of murder. 

He arrived in Deadwood in July, 1876 at the height of the Black Hills gold rush. He usually sat with his back to a wall when playing poker in saloons; he had many enemies. But on August 2, 1876 he had to sit at a poker table with his back to the front door. Jack McCall came in and walked up to the back of Hickok’s chair, said, “Damn you! Take that!”, and shot Hickok with a .45 pistol in the back of the head. The bullet killed Hickok instantly, exited his cheek, and lodged in the wrist of Captain Massie, sitting across from Hickok.  

McCall was tried for murder by a miner’s jury in Deadwood and was acquitted, claiming that Hickok had killed his brother. The acquittal amazed the people of Deadwood. But McCall couldn’t help bragging about his killing Hickok. He was again arrested, this time in Yankton, the capital of Dakota Territory, and again tried for murder. The authorities insisted the trial by a miner’s jury in Deadwood had no legal standing because at the time Deadwood was in the Indian Territory of the Black Hills, hence illegal. McCall was found guilty this time and hanged in Yankton on March 1, 1877. 

At the time Hickok was shot he was holding two pairs in a game of five-card draw poker: black aces and eights. Ever since then that hand has been called the “dead man’s hand”.  The fifth card was a matter of dispute. 

Hickok is buried in Mount Mariah Cemetery in Deadwood. Next to him are interred the bodies of Calamity Jane, who probably meant nothing to Hickok, and Potato Creek Johnny, a well-known Black Hills character of the late 19th Century. 

I have wondered how well-known Wild Bill Hickok would have become if he had not been shot dead in Deadwood and in such spectacular manner. Just like Lt. Col. George Custer. How well known would he have become if he and his battalion of cavalry had not been annihilated along the banks of the Little Big Horn River by the Sioux and Cheyenne the same year that Hickok was murdered in Deadwood? How many people can name the three officers (one colonel and two generals) commanding the three columns of soldiers (one of which Custer and his regiment were a part of) hunting the Indians that summer? None of them were killed in the campaign.