Wild Bill Hickok

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Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876) was born James Butler Hickok and traveled the American west as a stagecoach driver, then became a lawman in the frontier territories of Kansas and Nebraska. He fought in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman, and professional gambler. Between his law enforcement duties and gambling, which easily overlapped, Hickok was involved in several notable shootouts, and was ultimately killed while playing poker in a South Dakota saloon.

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Early Life

James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois on May 27, 1837. The home is now the Wild Bill Hickok State Memorial, a listed historic site under the supervision of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. While he was growing up, his father's farm was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, and Hickok learned his shooting skills protecting the farm with his father from anti-abolitionists. Hickok was a good shot from a very young age. He is known as one of the earliest champions of equal rights for blacks during the latter days of slavery.

In 1855, he left his father's farm to become a stage coach driver on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. An early record refers to him as "Duck Bill" (a reference to his big nose), but his gunfighting skills changed his nickname to "Wild Bill." His killing of a bear with a Bowie knife during a turn as a stage driver cemented a growing reputation as a tough man who feared nothing, and who was feared for more than carrying a fast gun.

Gunfighter

On July 21, 1865, in the town square of Springfield, Missouri, Hickok killed Davis Tutt, Jr. in a "quick draw" duel. This type of gunfight was later mythologized by writers and filmmakers. Hickok's is in fact the only one on record that fits the portrayal. The incident was precipitated by a dispute over a gambling debt incurred at a local saloon.

Hickok was working as sheriff and city marshal of Hays, Kansas when, on July 17, 1870, he was involved in a gunfight with disorderly soldiers of the 7th US Cavalry, wounding one and mortally wounding another. In 1871, Hickok became marshal of Abilene, Kansas, taking over for former marshal Tom "Bear River" Smith, who had been killed on November 2nd, 1870. Hickok's encounter in Abilene with outlaw John Wesley Hardin resulted in the latter fleeing the town after Hickok managed to disarm him.

While working in Abilene, Hickok and Phil Coe, a saloon owner, had an ongoing dispute that later resulted in a shootout. Coe had been the business partner of known gunman Ben Thompson, with whom he co-owned the Bulls Head Saloon. On October 5, 1871, Hickok was standing off a crowd during a street brawl, during which time Coe fired two shots at Hickok. Hickok returned fire and killed Coe. Hickok, whose eyesight was poor by that time in his life from the early stages of glaucoma, caught the glimpse of movement of someone running toward him. He quickly fired one shot in reaction, accidentally shooting and killing Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams, who was coming to his aid, an event that haunted Hickock for the remainder of his life.

Hickok's retort to Coe, who supposedly stated he could "kill a crow on the wing", is one of the West's most famous sayings (though possibly apocryphal): "Did the crow have a pistol? Was he shooting back? I will be." However, due to his having accidentally killed deputy Mike Williams, Hickock was relieved of his duties as marshal less than two months later.

Legendary Gunfighting Prowess

Wild Bill was known as a spectacular gunfighter in his own time. However, it is not widely known that his pistols had no triggers. Rather, Hickok would draw the pistol (located on the opposite hip to the hand that drew it) and pull back the hammer with his thumb. In this way he gained an incremental advantage over his opponents.

An anonymous admirer in the Chicago Tribune of August 25, 1876, wrote that in his rapid and accurate use of his pearl-handled 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.

Death

On August 2, 1876, while playing poker at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, in the Black Hills, Dakota Territory, Hickok could not find an empty seat in the corner, where he always sat in order to protect himself against sneak attacks from behind, and instead sat with his back to one door and facing another. Later in the evening he was shot in the back of the head with a .45-caliber revolver by Jack McCall. Legend has it that Hickok, playing poker when he was shot, was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights. The fifth card is either unknown, or, as some say, had not yet been dealt. "Aces and eights" thus is known as the "Dead Man's Hand".

Epilogue

In 1879, at the urging of Calamity Jane, Hickok was reinterred in a ten-foot square plot at the Mount Moriah Cemetery, surrounded by a cast-iron fence with a U.S. flag flying nearby. A monument has since been built there. Calamity Jane's dying wish was to be buried next to Hickok, which she was in 1903.

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