James Butler Wild Bill Hickok was a great living legend in his own day, a very tough and dangerous character, he had nerves of steel and he was fast on the draw and shot with great accuracy always hitting what he aimed at. Few men dared to go up against him and those that did ended up in a pine box.
As Hickok was born in the Union State of Illinois he fought on the side of the Union Army during the American civil War, mostly in Kansas and Missouri and it was during this time where he proved he had the skills to be a great scout. It was during this time that Hickok met the young William Cody a.k.a Buffalo Bill. He also met with Calamity Jane at this time and she became infatuated with him until the day she died.
When the civil war ended in 1865 Hickok went buffalo hunting with Cody and later became an official scout for the U.S army, he also served some time as a US Marshal. His skills as a sharpshooter also became widely know around this time and the start of his legendary status was further enhanced after an interview by Henry Morgan Stanley was published in the St. Louis Missouri Democrat in 1867.
An interesting note here is that in 1873 Buffalo Bill and another notable of the time Texas Jack Omohundro got Hickok to join them in a stage play called Scouts of the Plains which was quite a success but after a short while Hickok left the production, as acting was not quite his forté. Buffalo Bill of course later formed the famous Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1882.
Wild Bill Hickok wasn't so wild, he actually was a mild mannered gentleman, but his skills as a gunfighter along with his reputation as a lawman helped to build up his legendary 'Wild man' status. Hickok was at first a stage coach driver but upon seeing so much lawlessness he decided to become a lawman and served in this capacity in the states of Kansas and Nebraska.
Hickok was also a professional gambler and loved to play poker at almost every opportunity, a game which eventually lead to his sudden demise.
Hickok showed that he had nerves of steel and calm complacency when being involved in several legendary shootouts that happened during the course of his life and below are some of his more notable gunfights.
On 12th July 1861, Hickok shot three outlaw gang members David McCanles, who was killed straight away, James Woods and James Gordon who were both fatally wounded. According to legend Hickok actually killed 9 gang members of the McCanles gang with a rifle and a pistol whilst suffering several bullet wounds in the shoot out.
On July 21st 1865 Hickok shot and killed Davis Tutt Jnr in the town square of Springfield in Missouri. It was a fast draw duel in which both men reportedly fired at the same time from a distance of 50 feet from each other. Tutt missed but Hickok shot Tutt through the heart and he died moments later. It was apparently over a watch that Tutt took off Hickok over a gambling debt. Hickok was arrested over this but was acquitted under the fair fight system which meant that he had shot Tutt in self defence.
The painting below illustrates Hickok playing poker, he always played poker with his back against a wall and only poured his drinks and drank with his left hand to keep his best shooting hand free.
As sheriff and city marshal of Ellis County in Kansas in August 23rd 1869, Hickok killed 2 men in gunfights in the town of Hays. The first account of this is when a man named Bill Mulvey got the drop on Hickok and was about to shoot, Hickok being clever and astute, looked past Mulvery shouting " Don't shoot him boys " Mulvey momentarily looked over his shoulder and as he did so, Hickok drew his pistol and shot him dead.
Hickok was once called over to the Saloon where drunk cowpuncher Samuel Strawhun was creating a lot of trouble. Strawhun pulled his gun on Hickok but Hickok side stepped and drew his gun, fired and shot him dead.
Also while still in the town of Hays July 17th 1970, Hickok was involved in breaking up the unruly conduct of a group of drunken soldiers from the US 7th Cavalry. They were apparently causing trouble in the town and firing their guns, Hickok went over and the resulting confrontation left one soldier severely injured and another soldier by the name of John Kyle who had won the prestigious medal of honor during the civil war, fatally wounded.
The towns folk did not like all the killings and thought Hickok was too violent, he was consequently voted out of office shortly after, being replaced by his deputy Peter Lanihan.
In 1871 Hickok was employed as the Marshal of Abilene in Texas on $150 a month plus a percentage of collected fines. It was during this time that Hickok met the infamous outlaw John Wesley Hardin and as written in Hardin's own words, Hardin got the drop on Hickok after he tried to arrest him for wearing his guns in town.
Hardin was asked by Hickok to surrender his guns, and as Hardin got them out and offered them butts first, he then expertly span them both around in what was known as The road agents spin. With two loaded and cocked guns now pointing at Hickok's head he was lucky that Hardin didn't fire as he had done on so many people before. Hickok was impressed at Hardin's dexterity with the pistols and offered him a drink, Hardin was at first suspicious but eventually they both went to a private room used by Hickok and they drank there for a few hours and became acquaintances as a result.
The short Youtube videos below illustrate (although not very well) The Roads Agents Spin or Border Roll
(These videos are also duplicated on my 'John Wesley Hardin' web page)
The 2nd video shows the trick being carried out with the gun butt facing down.
It wasn't until Hardin shot and killed an innocent man in the town that their short friendship became somewhat strained as Hickok came to arrest him and Hardin had to flee from the town.
It was in October 1871, Hickok shot dead a man by the name of Phil Coe in the street when Coe after reaching for his gun fired off a couple of shots. Hickok also instinctively turned shot and accidentally killed fellow Officer Mike Williams as he ran up behind Hickok to assist. This was something that deeply bothered Hickok till his dying day.
The local council elders of Ellis County were deeply upset and worried over this and a short while later Hickok was fired from his job. After this Hickok spent much of his time gambling and drinking in one town or another, where allegedly he became involved in a few more gunfights.
Gambling was the all-time favorite pastime of most gunfighters, as their lives seamed to be that of chance on a day to day basis.
At the age of 38, on August 2nd 1876, Hickok was playing poker at the Nuttal & Manns Saloon no 10 in Deadwood, Dakota. It was the only time that he never sat with his back against the wall. Through a door behind Hickok came in a man by the name of Jack McCall, he sneaked up behind Hickok and shot him at point black range in the back of the head with a Colt .45 killing him instantly. Hickok was holding 2 black aces and 2 black eights, the fifth card that Hickok was holding isn't known, but the four cards are now forever known as "The dead mans hand".
The assassin Jack McCall was finally hanged on 1 March 1877 and was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery. The cemetery was moved sometime around 1881 and when McCall's body was exhumed, the noose that hung him was still around his neck. This suggests that the locals wanted him to hang for all eternity. I have no further information at the moment if the noose was left in situ when he was re-buried? I presume it was.
Wild Bill Hickok's favorite guns were a pair of Colt Navy model 1851 cap and ball black powder revolvers in .36 caliber. They weighed 2½ lbs each and were 1 foot 1inches long with 7½ inch barrels. A photo of an identical gun to the one Hickok had is pictured below. It was a very nice looking piece.
Hickok's guns were silver plated and inscribed they also had ivory handles and were quite special pieces. Apparently they were both engraved with the words J.B. Hickok 1869. He was presented the guns in 1869 by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts for his services as scout for a hunting trip.
When Hickok had a gunfight, he used to swap them over for the larger caliber .44 Colt Dragoon and when he shot Coe he used a .44 Colt Army 1860 model a similar one is pictured below.
Because of its light weight, balance, and superior ballistics, it was also adopted by the U.S. Army just prior to the American Civil War, it was extremely popular with the cavalry. This revolver became standard issue to the Army until the adoption of the Colt .45 1873 Single Action Army cartridge revolver.
The way he wore his revolvers was unique in that he used to carry them with the butts reversed in a belt or tucked into a sash and didn't really like wearing them in a holster. He would draw out the revolvers with a reverse twist the same as would a cavalry man. Wild Bill Hickok is buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, Dakota. R.I.P.
Page created July 25th 2009. Updated July 26th 2012.