James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 – August 2, 1876) – better known as “Wild Bill” Hickok – was a folk hero of the American Old West.

His prodigious skills as a gunfighter and scout, along with his reputation as a lawman, became the stuff of legend.

My favorite Hollywood depiction of Hickok was the performance given by Jeff Bridges, in Walter Hill’s 1995 film, “Wild Bill”.
Bridges was nominated for an Oscar that year, on the basis of this – so I guess I’m not alone.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

That’s Hollywood.

Here’s history:

Bill’s Early Life

James Butler Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois (now Troy Grove, Illinois) on May 27, 1837 of English ancestry. His birthplace is now the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial, a listed historic site under the supervision of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Hickok was a crack shot from a very young age, and was recognized locally as an outstanding marksman with a pistol.

In 1855, at age 18, Hickok moved to Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory following a fight with Charles Hudson, which resulted in both falling into a canal.

Mistakenly thinking he had killed Hudson, Hickok fled and joined General Jim Lane’s vigilante “Free State Army” (or Jayhawkers – also known as the “Red Legs”). While a Jayhawker, he met 12-year-old William F. Cody (later known as “Buffalo Bill”) who, despite his age, was a scout for the U.S. Army during the Utah War.

Because of his “sweeping nose and protruding upper lip”, Hickok was derisively called “Duck Bill”. He grew a mustache following an incident with David McCanles (see below), and in 1861 began calling himself “Wild Bill”.

Although Hickok’s photographs seem to indicate that he had dark hair, all contemporary descriptions confirm he was, in fact, golden blond (as reddish shades of hair appeared black in early photographic processes).

Hickok used the name William Hickok from 1858 and William Haycock during the Civil War.

Arrested as Haycock in 1865, he began again to use his real name of James Hickok. Most newspapers continued to use the name William Haycock when referring to “Wild Bill” until 1869.

His Early Career

On March 22, 1858, Hickok was elected as one of the first four constables of Monticello Township, Kansas.

In 1859, he joined the Russell, Waddell, & Majors freight company, the parent company of the Pony Express. The following year, he was badly injured by a bear while he was driving a freight team from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, Texas.

According to Hickok’s own 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 from its skull, infuriating it. The bear attacked, crushing Hickok with its body. Hickok managed to fire another shot, disabling a paw. The bear then grabbed his arm in its mouth, but Hickok was able to grab his knife and slash its throat, killing it.

Badly injured with a crushed chest, shoulder and arm, Hickok was bedridden for four months before being sent to the Rock Creek Station in Nebraska to work as a stable hand while he recovered.

The station was built on land which the company had recently purchased from a local man, David McCanles.

The McCanles Incident

In 1861 Hickok was involved in a deadly shootout with David McCanles at the Rock Creek Station, near Fairbury, Nebraska – an event whose veracity is still the subject of debate.

On December 16, 40-year-old David McCanles; his 12-year-old son, William Monroe McCanles; and two farmhands, James Woods and James Gordon, called at the station’s office to demand payment of the overdue, second installment on their property.

David McCanles was allegedly threatening the station manager, Horace Wellman, when he was shot by either Hickok (who was hiding behind a curtain) or Wellman.

Hickok, Wellman, and an employee, J.W. Brink, were tried for murder, but judged to have acted in self-defense.

McCanles was the first man Hickok was reputed to have killed in a fight.

Civil War Service, and Scouting

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Hickok signed on as a teamster (an outfitter or packer) for the Union Army in Sedalia, Missouri. By the end of the year, he was a wagon-master, but in September 1862 he was discharged for an undisclosed reason.

There are no known records of his whereabouts for over a year – though at least one source claims that Hickok was operating as a Union spy in Confederate territory during this time.

In late 1863 he was openly employed by the provost marshal of southwest Missouri as a member of the Springfield, Missouri detective police.

Hickok’s duties as a police detective were mostly mundane, and included counting the number of troops in uniform found drinking while on duty, checking hotel liquor licenses, and tracking down individuals in debt to the cash-strapped Union Army.

In 1864, Hickok either resigned or was reassigned, as he was then hired by General John B. Sanborn as a scout (at five dollars a day plus a horse and equipment).

In June 1865, Hickok was mustered out, and afterward spent his time in and around Springfield, gambling.

Hickok–Tutt: The First Gunfight

On July 21, 1865, in the town square of Springfield, Missouri, Hickok met and killed Davis Tutt in a “quick draw duel” – the first one of its kind.

During the gunfight, rather than the face-to-face fast-draw commonly shown in movies, the two men faced each other sideways in the historic dueling stance, drawing and aiming their weapons before firing.

Background to the Duel

Hickok first met former Confederate Army soldier Davis Tutt in early 1865, while both were gambling in Springfield.

Hickok often borrowed money from Tutt and they were originally friends, but they had a falling out over a woman. (It was also rumored that Hickok once had an affair with Tutt’s sister, perhaps fathering a child.)

There was a long-standing dispute over Hickok’s girlfriend, Susannah Moore. Hickok refused to play cards with Tutt, who retaliated by financing other players in an attempt to bankrupt him.

The dispute came to a head when Tutt was coaching an opponent of Hickok’s during a card game. Hickok was on a winning streak, and the frustrated Tutt requested he repay a $40 loan, which Hickok immediately did.

Tutt then demanded another $35 owed from a previous card game. Hickok refused, as he had a “memorandum” proving it to be for $25.

Tutt took Hickok’s watch, which was lying on the table, as collateral for the $35 – at which point Hickok warned him not to wear it or he, Hickok, would shoot him.

The next day, Tutt appeared in the town square wearing the watch prominently, and Hickok tried to negotiate the watch’s return. Tutt stated he would now accept no less than $45, but both agreed they would not fight over it and went for a drink together.

Tutt left the saloon, but returned to the square at 6 p.m., while Hickok arrived on the other side and warned him not to approach him while wearing the watch.

Both men faced each other, and fired almost simultaneously.

Tutt’s shot missed, but Hickok’s did not, piercing Tutt through the heart from about 75 yards away. Tutt called out, “Boys, I’m killed” before he collapsed and died.

Aftermath of the Shootout

Two days later Hickok was arrested for murder (the charge was later reduced to manslaughter). He was released on $2,000 bail and stood trial on August 3, 1865.

At the end of the trial, Judge Sempronius H. Boyd gave the jury two contradictory instructions. He first instructed the jury that a conviction was its only option under the law. He then instructed them that they could apply the unwritten law of the “fair fight” and acquit.

The jury voted for acquittal, a verdict that was not popular at the time.

Several weeks later, Hickok was interviewed by Colonel George W. Nichols, and the interview was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Using the name “Wild Bill Hitchcock” , the article recounted the “hundreds” of men whom Hickok had personally killed, and other exaggerated exploits. The article was controversial wherever Hickok was known.

Encounters with John Wesley Hardin

On April 15, 1871, Hickok became marshal of Abilene, Kansas, taking over from former marshal Tom “Bear River” Smith, who had been killed on November 2, 1870.

After completing a cattle drive in early 1871, outlaw John Wesley Hardin arrived in Abilene. Hardin was a notorious gunfighter and is known to have killed over 27 men in his lifetime.

It appears that Hardin idolized Hickok, and identified on some level with him.

For Hickok’s part, it is reported that he didn’t even know that “Wesley Clemmons” (Hardin’s alias at the time) was in fact a wanted outlaw, simply advising Hardin to avoid problems while in Abilene. When Hardin was confronted by Hickok and told to hand over his guns, he did.

It is alleged by Hardin that when his cousin, Mannen Clements, was jailed for the killing of two cowhands, Hickok – at Hardin’s request – arranged for his escape.

Hickok’s next encounter with the outlaw, in August of that same year, had quite a different ending.

This time, Hickok was in pursuit of Hardin after he had killed a man in an Abilene Hotel “for snoring too loud”.
Hardin quickly left Kansas never to return, thereby avoiding a possibly fatal confrontation with Hickok.

Shootout with Phil Coe

Hickok and Phil Coe, a saloon owner and acquaintance of Hardin’s, had an ongoing dispute concerning The Bull’s Head Tavern in Abilene.

The tavern had been established by gambler Ben Thompson and his partner, businessman and fellow gambler Coe. The two entrepreneurs had painted a picture of a bull with a large erect penis on the side of their establishment as an advertisement.

Citizens of the town complained to Hickok. When Thompson and Coe refused his request to remove the bull, Hickok altered it himself.

Infuriated, Thompson tried to incite Hardin into action by exclaiming to him, “He’s a damn Yankee. Picks on rebels, especially Texans, to kill.”
Hardin replied, “If Wild Bill needs killin’, why don’t you kill him yourself?”

Wishing to intimidate Hickok, Coe supposedly stated he could “kill a crow on the wing”.

Hickok’s retort 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.”

On October 5, 1871, Hickok was standing off a crowd during a street brawl, during which time Coe fired two shots. Hickok ordered him to be arrested for firing a pistol within the city limits.

Coe explained that he was shooting at a stray dog, but suddenly turned his gun on Hickok, who fired first and killed Coe.

Hickok caught a glimpse of movement of someone running toward him and quickly fired two more shots in reaction, accidentally shooting and killing Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams – who was coming to his aid.

This event haunted Hickok for the remainder of his life.

Another Perspective

There is another account of the Coe shootout: Theophilus Little, mayor of Abilene and owner of the town’s lumberyard, recorded his time in Abilene by writing in a notebook that was recently given to the Abilene Historical Society. Writing in 1911, he detailed his admiration of Hickok and included a paragraph on the shooting that differs considerably from the reported account:

“Phil Coe was from Texas, ran the ‘Bull’s Head’, a saloon and gambling den, sold whiskey and men’s souls. 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 200 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.” Not a word was uttered.”

Law Enforcement, Acting and Politics

In September 1865, Hickok came in second in the election for city marshal of Springfield.

Leaving Springfield, he was recommended for the position of deputy United States marshal at Fort Riley, Kansas. This was during the Indian wars in which Hickok sometimes served as a scout for General George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry.

In 1867, Hickok moved to Niagara Falls, where he tried acting in a stage play called The Daring Buffalo Chasers of the Plains. He proved to be a terrible actor, and returned to the West, where he ran for sheriff in Ellsworth County, Kansas, on November 5, 1867. He was defeated by a former soldier, E.W. Kingsbury.

On March 28, 1868, Hickok was in Hays City, Kansas, as a deputy U.S. Marshal, picking up 11 Union deserters charged with stealing government property, who were to be transferred to Topeka for trial. He requested a military escort from Fort Hays, and was assigned William F. Cody, along with a sergeant and five privates.

On September 1, Hickok was in Lincoln County, Kansas, where he was hired as a scout by the 10th Cavalry Regiment, a segregated African American unit.

In July 1869, Hickok was back in Hays and was elected city marshal of Hays and sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas, in a special election held on August 23, 1869.

Regularly scheduled county elections were held on November 2, 1869, and Hickok (Independent) lost to his deputy, Peter Lanihan (Democrat). However, Hickok and Lanihan remained sheriff and deputy, respectively.

Gunfights, in Hays

In his first month as sheriff in Hays, Hickok killed two men in gunfights.

The first was Bill Mulvey, who “got the drop” on Hickok. Hickok looked past him and yelled, “Don’t shoot him in the back; he is drunk,” which was enough of a distraction to allow him to win the duel.

The second was a cowboy, Samuel Strawhun, who encountered Hickok and Deputy Sheriff Lanihan at 1 am on September 27 when they had been called to a saloon where Strawhun was causing a disturbance. After Strawhun “made remarks against Hickok”, he died instantly from a bullet through the head as Hickok “tried to restore order”. At Strawhun’s inquest, despite ‘very contradictory’ evidence from witnesses, the jury found the shooting justifiable.

On July 17, 1870, in Hays, Hickok was involved in a gunfight with disorderly soldiers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry. Two troopers, Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kyle (sometimes Kile), attacked Hickok in a saloon. Lonergan pinned Hickok to the ground while Kyle put his gun to Hickok’s ear. Kyle’s gun misfired, which allowed Hickok to reach his own guns. Lonergan was wounded in the knee, while Kyle, shot twice, died the next day.

Scouts of the Plains

In 1873, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro invited Hickok to join them in a new play called Scouts of the Plains.
Hickok and Texas Jack eventually left the show, before Cody formed his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1882.

Health Complications

In 1876, Hickok was diagnosed by a doctor in Kansas City, Missouri, with glaucoma and ‘ophthalmia’, a condition that was widely rumored at the time by Hickok’s detractors to be the result of various sexually transmitted diseases.

In truth, he seems to have been afflicted with trachoma, a common vision disorder of the time.

His marksmanship and health had apparently been suffering for some time, as he had been arrested on several occasions for vagrancy, despite earning a good income from gambling and displays of showmanship only a few years earlier.


On March 5, 1876, Hickok married Agnes Thatcher Lake, a 50-year-old circus proprietor in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory.

Hickok left his new bride a few months later, joining Charlie Utter’s wagon train to seek his fortune in the gold fields of South Dakota.

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 Jane’s account.

The two were believed to have met for the first time after Jane was released from the guardhouse in Fort Laramie and joined the wagon train in which Hickok was traveling.

The wagon train arrived in Deadwood in July, 1876.

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.”

Assassination at Deadwood

It is reported that Hickok had a premonition that Deadwood would be his last camp, and expressed this belief to his friend Charlie Utter (also known as Colorado Charlie) and the others who were traveling with them at the time.

On August 2, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, in the Black Hills, Dakota Territory.

Hickok usually sat with his back to a wall. The only seat available when he joined the poker game that afternoon was a chair that put his back to a door. Twice he asked another player, Charles Rich, to change seats with him, and on both occasions Rich refused.

A former buffalo hunter named Jack McCall (better known as “Broken Nose Jack”) walked in unnoticed. McCall walked to within a few feet of Hickok, drew a pistol and shouted, “Damn you! Take that!” before firing at Hickok. McCall’s bullet hit Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

The motive for the killing is unknown. McCall may have been paid for the deed, but more likely McCall became enraged over what he perceived as a condescending offer from Hickok to let him have enough money for breakfast, after he had lost all his money playing poker the previous day.

When shot, Hickok was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, all black – a combination now known as a “Dead man’s hand”.
The fifth card’s identity is debated, or had been discarded and its replacement had not yet been dealt.

And that’s all your cards, for this one.

I hope you’ll join me, for our next installment.

Till then.