Legends of larger-than-life personalities often evolved from a shred of trivia blown so far out of proportion that the eventual celebrity ceased to resemble the original. Not so with Wild Bill Hickok. He was the real deal.
Born in 1837, James Butler Hickok was an Illinois farm boy. His parents were Baptists and abolitionists, his father killed for his abolition activities. Young James dreamed of adventure on the other side of the Mississippi while he hunted on the farm, gaining a reputation for his shooting skills.
He left home at seventeen, worked on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, then moved westward as a stagecoach driver, where he achieved recognition as a marksman. He had jobs as a Pony Express rider and Overland Express. While working as a station manager, he became nationally famous for surviving and shooting down three attackers, not the last time he would come out on top when out-numbered.
In Missouri, he signed up with the Union Army as scout and spy, which is where he picked up the name of “Wild Bill” from breaking up a drunken mob fight, something he excelled at and often did as a lawman. A relieved onlooker mistook him for someone else and shouted her thanks to “Wild Bill” and the name stuck. Hickok had no fear of greater odds but knew when to back down, but it took a cavalry troupe to do it. (More on that later.)
Tall, graceful and elegant for a tough westerner, Hickok kept his hair long, wore expensive shirts and boots, carried a fancy six-shooter and a knife tucked in a sash. He added to his income with gambling and liked women, getting involved duels that ended in the deaths of his rivals. Even though a hard-liver, he had respect for the people who hired or voted for him. While a lawman in Abilene, one of the roughest cow towns, the citizenry were appalled by the rude wall signage of Phil Coe’s establishment that featured a bull’s overwrought appendage. Hickok bought a bucket of paint and stood guard while the offending artwork was covered up.
For all his mistakes, Hickok was a fearless opponent, no matter the odds. While working as a marshal in Hays City. Tom Custer, a cavalry officer of the doomed 7th, (yes, George’s brother), liked to shoot off his pistols, ride into saloons and jump his horse onto billiard tables. Hickok got tired of Tom’s belief that his actions were above the law. He arrested Custer and fined him. Tom Custer got three friends to jump Hickok, who shot one of his assailants, and scared them off. Cowardly Tom later retaliated by rounding up the 7th to shoot down Hickok, who wisely took a fast train out of town. For me, this incident pretty much illuminates the caliber of character of the Custer boys.
Hickok had a long friendship with Bill Cody, perhaps starting from when Hickok recommended Cody for a job with a railroad contract outfit, who needed hunters to supply buffalo meat to the rail workers. Cody later hired Hickok as a part of his shows, but Wild Bill didn’t do well in the entertainment world.
There’s a sadness in Hickok’s eyes. I suspect it stems from an incident—one where Hickok was again in a shoot-out against greater odds. The tragedy unfolded as he was breaking up carousing drovers. Phil Coe, a love-affair opponent and owner of aforementioned nasty sign, was with the carousers and called Hickok out. In the mayhem, Hickok shot Coe in the stomach, heard footsteps coming up behind him and turned to shoot down his own deputy. His life went downhill from that point, in health and finances.
In 1876, he married an older woman, Agnes Lake Thatcher, who had been following him around for years. They honeymooned in Ohio where he left her to try his hand at mining, joining a wagon train west. This is when he met Martha Jane Canary, Calamity Jane, who claimed a romantic connection that by all accounts never existed. Her lifelong infatuation with him was so entrenched that she asked to be buried next to him. They did have a friendship, perhaps due to their shared interests in boozing and hard living. Both were also staunch protectors of the underdog and willing to help anyone in need.
Hickok was only thirty-nine when he died—the famous incident in Deadwood—where he was shot in the back, holding the bad luck card hand of black aces and eights. The night before his death, Hickok was winning and Jack McCall losing. Hickok, always one to feel sorry for anyone down on their luck, gave McCall enough for breakfast and suggested the man should not play cards while drunk.
Furious and humiliated, McCall returned to the tavern the following day, drinking again. Hickok’s usual seat against the wall had been taken, which allowed McCall to shoot Hickok in the back. The miners of Deadwood, and most likely those envious or with a grudge against Hickok, allowed the murderer to go free, when McCall said he’d shot Hickok for killing his brother. McCall moved westward, where he bragged about shooting down Hickok. Lawmen took exception to his bragging, arrested him, learned McCall never had a brother, and hanged him.
Hickok’s poignant and haunting last letter to his wife reads as if he had a premonition of his death. Or he was tired of living hard and fast. Hyperbole and exaggeration were part of what was written about gunfighters, but when it came to James Butler Hickok, his short life endures larger than his legend.
M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)
Follow on Twitter @RigdonML