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He fought and spied for the Union Army during the American Civil War and gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman , actor, and professional gambler. Over the course of his life, he was involved in several notable shoot-outs. In , Hickok was shot from behind and killed while playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood , Dakota Territory present-day South Dakota by Jack McCall , an unsuccessful gambler.
The hand of cards which he supposedly held at the time of his death has become known as the dead man's hand: Hickok remains a popular figure in frontier history. Many historic sites and monuments commemorate his life, and he has been depicted numerous times in literature, film, and television. He is chiefly portrayed as a protagonist, though historical accounts of his actions are often controversial and most of his career was exaggerated by both himself and various mythmakers.
While Hickok claimed to have killed numerous named and unnamed gunmen in his lifetime, according to Joseph G. Rosa , Hickok's biographer and the foremost authority on Wild Bill, Hickok killed only six or seven men in gunfights.
Hickock was the fourth of six children. William Hickok died in , when James was Hickok was a good shot from a young age and was recognized locally as an outstanding marksman with a pistol. Photographs of Hickok appear to depict dark hair, but all contemporaneous descriptions affirm that it was red. Reddish shades of hair appear black in early photographic processes because of their sensitivity, primarily to blue light. In , at age 18, James Hickok fled Illinois following a fight with Charles Hudson, during which both fell into a canal each thought, mistakenly, that he had killed the other.
Army during the Utah War. While in Nebraska, James Hickok was derisively referred to as "Duck Bill" for his long nose and protruding lips. Most newspapers referred to him as William Haycock until He was arrested while using the name Haycock in He afterward resumed using his given name, James Hickok.
Military records after list him as Hickok but note that he was also known as Haycock. In , he joined the Russell, Waddell and Majors freight company, the parent company of the Pony Express. In , he was badly injured by a bear while driving a freight team from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. According to Hickok's account, he found the road blocked by a cinnamon bear and its two cubs. Dismounting, he approached the bear and fired a shot into its head, but the bullet ricocheted off its skull, infuriating it.
The bear attacked, crushing Hickok with its body. Hickok managed to fire another shot, wounding the bear's paw. The bear then grabbed his arm in its mouth, but Hickok was able to grab his knife and slash its throat, killing it. Hickok was severely injured, with a crushed chest, shoulder and arm.
He was bedridden for four months before being sent to Rock Creek Station in the Nebraska Territory to work as a stable hand while he recovered. The freight company had built the stagecoach stop along the Oregon Trail near Fairbury, Nebraska , on land purchased from David McCanles.
McCanles reportedly threatened Wellman, and either Hickok who was hiding behind a curtain or Wellman killed him. Brink, were tried for killing McCanles but were found to have acted in self-defense. McCanles may have been the first man Hickok killed. By the end of , he was a wagon master , but in September he was discharged for unknown reasons. In late he worked for the provost marshal of southwest Missouri as a member of the Springfield detective police.
His work included identifying and counting the number of troops in uniform who were drinking while on duty, verifying hotel liquor licenses, and tracking down individuals who owed money to the cash-strapped Union Army. Buffalo Bill claimed that he encountered Hickok disguised as a Confederate officer in Missouri in Sanborn by early In June, Hickok mustered out and went to Springfield, where he gambled. While in Springfield, Hickok and a local gambler named Davis Tutt had several disagreements over unpaid gambling debts and their mutual affection for the same women.
Hickok lost a gold watch to Tutt in a poker game. The watch had great sentimental value to Hickok and he asked Tutt not to wear it in public. They initially agreed not to fight over the watch, but when Hickok saw Tutt wearing it, he warned him to stay away.
On July 21, , the two men faced off in Springfield's town square, standing sideways before drawing and firing their weapons. Their quick-draw duel was recorded as the first of its kind. Tutt called out, "Boys, I'm killed" before he collapsed and died. Two days later, Hickok was arrested for murder. The charge was later reduced to manslaughter. At the end of the trial, Judge Sempronius H. Boyd told the jury they could not find Hickok acted in self-defense if he could have reasonably avoided the fight.
Several weeks later, an interview Hickok gave to Colonel George Ward Nichols , a journalist known as the creator of the Hickok legend,  was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Under the name "Wild Bill Hitchcock" [ sic ], the article recounted the "hundreds" of men whom Hickok had personally killed and other exaggerated exploits. In September , Hickok came in second in the election for city marshal of Springfield.
Leaving Springfield, he was recommended for the position of deputy federal marshal at Fort Riley , Kansas. Custer 's 7th Cavalry. Hickok was reported by some [ by whom? In July, Hickok told a newspaper reporter that he had led several soldiers in pursuit of Indians who had killed four men near the fort on July 2. He reported returning with five prisoners after killing ten. Witnesses confirm that the story was true to the extent the party had set out to find whoever had killed the four men, [notes 4] but the group returned to the fort "without nary a dead Indian, [never] even seeing a live one".
In , Hickok reportedly was involved in a dispute with drunken cowboys inside a saloon in Jefferson County, Nebraska. One of them pushed him, causing him to drop his drink. Hickok struck the man, and four of his friends rose with guns drawn. The bartender counted down and Hickok killed three of the men with a bullet to the head and wounded the fourth with a shot through the cheek bone.
Hickok was wounded in the shoulder. Later that year, he moved to Kansas, where he ran for sheriff in Ellsworth County on November 5, He was defeated by a former soldier, E. He became a Deputy U. Hickok was assigned to bring the men to Topeka for trial, and he requested a military escort from Fort Hays. He was assigned William F. Cody , a sergeant, and five privates. They arrived in Topeka on April 2.
Hickok remained in Hays through August , when he brought Cheyenne Indians to Hays to be viewed by " excursionists ". On September 4, Hickok was wounded in the foot while rescuing several cattlemen in the Bijou Creek Basin who had been surrounded by Indians. The 10th Regiment arrived at Fort Lyon in Colorado in October and remained there for the rest of Hickok may have been acting sheriff before he was elected; a newspaper reported that he arrested offenders on August 18, and the commander of Fort Hays wrote a letter to the assistant adjutant general on August 21 in which he praised Hickok for his work in apprehending deserters.
The regular county election was held on November 2, , and Hickok, running as an independent, lost to his deputy, Peter Lanihan, running as a Democrat, but Hickok and Lanihan remained sheriff and deputy, respectively. Hickok accused a J. Macintosh of irregularities and misconduct during the election. On December 9, Hickok and Lanihan both served legal papers on Macintosh, and local newspapers acknowledged that Hickok had guardianship of Hays City. In September , his first month as sheriff, Hickok killed two men.
The first was Bill Mulvey, who was rampaging through town, drunk, shooting out mirrors and whisky bottles behind bars. Citizens warned Mulvey to behave, because Hickok was sheriff. Mulvey angrily declared that he had come to town to kill Hickok. When he saw Hickok, he leveled his cocked rifle at him.
Hickok waved his hand past Mulvey at some onlookers and yelled, "Don't shoot him in the back; he is drunk. The second killed by Hickok was Samuel Strawhun, a cowboy, who was causing a disturbance at 1 a. Hickok said he had "tried to restore order". At the coroner's inquest into Strawhun's death, despite "very contradictory" evidence from witnesses, the jury found the shooting justifiable.
On July 17, , Hickok was attacked by two troopers from the 7th U. Lonergan pinned Hickok to the ground, and Kyle put his gun to Hickok's ear. When Kyle's weapon misfired, Hickok shot Lonergan, wounding him in the knee, and shot Kyle twice, killing him. Hickok was not re-elected to office. On April 15, , Hickok became marshal of Abilene, Kansas. The outlaw John Wesley Hardin arrived in Abilene at the end of a cattle drive in early Hardin was a well-known gunfighter and is known to have killed more than 27 men.
Hickok later said he did not know that "Wesley Clemmons" was Hardin's alias and that he was a wanted outlaw. He told Clemmons Hardin to stay out of trouble in Abilene and asked him to hand over his guns, and Hardin complied. Hardin left Kansas before Hickok could arrest him. Hickok and Phil Coe , a saloon owner and acquaintance of Hardin's, had a dispute that resulted in a shootout. The Bull's Head Saloon in Abilene had been established by the gambler Ben Thompson and Coe, his partner, businessman and fellow gambler.
Citizens of the town complained to Hickok,  who requested that Thompson and Coe remove the bull. They refused, so Hickok altered it himself. Picks on rebels, especially Texans, to kill. He seemed to have respect for Hickok's abilities and replied, "If Bill needs killing why don't you kill him yourself?
Hickok's retort is one of the West's most famous sayings though possibly apocryphal: Was he shooting back?
On October 5, , Hickok was standing off a crowd during a street brawl when Coe fired two shots. Hickok ordered him to be arrested for firing a pistol within the city limits. Coe claimed that he was shooting at a stray dog, and then suddenly turned his gun on Hickok, who fired first and killed Coe. Theophilus Little, the mayor of Abilene and owner of the town's lumber yard, recorded his time in Abilene by writing in a notebook which was ultimately given to the Abilene Historical Society.
Writing in , he detailed his admiration of Hickok and included a paragraph on the shooting that differs considerably from the reported account:. As vile a character as I ever met for some cause Wild Bill incurred Coe's hatred and he vowed to secure the death of the marshal.
Not having the courage to do it himself, he one day filled about cowboys with whiskey intending to get them into trouble with Wild Bill, hoping that they would get to shooting and in the melee shoot the marshal. But Coe "reckoned without his host". Wild Bill had learned of the scheme and cornered Coe, had his two pistols drawn on Coe. Just as he pulled the trigger one of the policemen rushed around the corner between Coe and the pistols and both balls entered his body, killing him instantly.
In an instant, he pulled the triggers again sending two bullets into Coe's abdomen Coe lived a day or two and whirling with his two guns drawn on the drunken crowd of cowboys, "and now do any of you fellows want the rest of these bullets? Hickok was relieved of his duties as marshal less than two months after accidentally killing Deputy Williams, this incident being only one of a series of questionable shootings and claims of misconduct.
In one show he shot the spotlight when it focused on him. He was released from the group after a few months. In , Hickok was diagnosed by a doctor in Kansas City, Missouri , with glaucoma and ophthalmia. Martha Jane Cannary, known popularly as Calamity Jane , claimed in her autobiography that she was married to Hickok and had divorced him so he could be free to marry Agnes Lake, but no records have been found that support her account.
The wagon train arrived in Deadwood in July Hickok left his new bride a few months later, joining Charlie Utter 's wagon train to seek his fortune in the goldfields of South Dakota. Shortly before Hickok's death, he wrote a letter to his new wife, which read in part, "Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife—Agnes—and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.
When a seat opened up at the table, a drunk man named Jack McCall sat down to play. Hickok encouraged McCall to quit the game until he could cover his losses and offered to give him money for breakfast. Although McCall accepted the money, he was apparently insulted. The next day, Hickok was playing poker again. He usually sat with his back to a wall so he could see the entrance, but the only seat available when he joined the game was a chair facing away from the door.
He twice asked another man at the table, Charles Rich, to change seats with him, but Rich refused. The bullet emerged through Hickok's right cheek and struck another player, riverboat Captain William Massie, in the left wrist. McCall's motive for killing Hickok is the subject of speculation, largely concerning McCall's anger at Hickok's having given him money for breakfast the day before, after McCall had lost heavily.
McCall was summoned before an informal "miners' jury" an ad hoc local group of miners and businessmen. McCall claimed he was avenging Hickok's earlier slaying of his brother, which may have been true. After bragging about killing Hickok, McCall was re-arrested. The second trial was not considered double jeopardy because of the irregular jury in the first trial and because Deadwood was in Indian country. The new trial was held in Yankton , the capital of the Dakota Territory.
Hickok's brother, Lorenzo Butler, traveled from Illinois to attend the retrial. McCall was found guilty and sentenced to death. Leander Richardson , a reporter, interviewed McCall shortly before his execution and wrote an article about him for the April issue of Scribner's Monthly.
Butler spoke with McCall after the trial and said McCall showed no remorse. As I write the closing lines of this brief sketch, word reaches me that the slayer of Wild Bill has been rearrested by the United State authorities, and after trial has been sentenced to death for willful murder.
He is now at Yankton, D. At the [second] trial it was suggested that [McCall] was hired to do his work by gamblers who feared the time when better citizens should appoint Bill the champion of law and order — a post which he formerly sustained in Kansas border life, with credit to his manhood and his courage.
The cemetery was moved in , and when McCall's body was exhumed, the noose was found still around his neck. Hickok was playing five-card stud when he was shot. Explore natural and human history from around the world in permanent and changing exhibits.
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