Wild Bill Hickok

In July 1871, he was involved in a fight with two troopers of the 7th Cavalry, Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kile. Lonergan managed to pin him down while Kile pushed his pistol into Hickok's ear and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. Hickok managed to get his gun hand free and shoot Lonergan in the knee and put two bullets into Kile, who died the next morning.

Hickok then became employed as Town Marshall in Abilene, a wild Kansas town after his predecessor "Bear River" Tom Smith was gunned down in an ambush. He ruled Abilene from the card tables of the Alamo saloon, telling his deputies to come and get him if he was needed. He quickly established his authority by offering troublemakers the option of "Leaving by the eastbound train or the westbound train, or go North", the last option meaning Boot Hill. Hickok also came into contact with John Wesley Hardin, a notorious gunfighter known to have killed 27 men.  In his memoirs, published in 1896, Hardin states, "Before I got to Abilene I had heard much talk of Wild Bill, he had a reputation as a killer". He went on to relate that his two friends, Ben Thompson and Phil Coe tried to bribe him to shoot Hickok, but told them, "I'm not doing anybody's fighting right now except my own, If Bill needs killing, why don't you kill him yourself?”. Hickok had warned Hardin that weapons must not be carried in town limits, but Hardin shot a man dead in a hotel allegedly for snoring too loud. Hardin left town before Hickok could arrest him, thus avoiding what might have been a memorable shootout. More trouble broke out when Ben Thompson, a local Texan gambler and gunman, joined with his friend Phil Coe and opened the Bull's Head Tavern in Abilene. The two advertised the site by painting a picture of a bull with a large erect penis on the side of the building and local womenfolk complained to Hickok who ordered the pair to remove the picture. When they refused, Hickok simply bought some paint and covered it himself much to the anger of the proprietors.

Further friction occurred when Hickok and Coe both showed an interest in Jessie Hazel, a local bawdy house owner. Hickok lost out and Coe and Hazel decided to leave town and move to Texas. On October 5th 1871, Hickok was confronted with a crowd of some fifty rowdy Texan cowboys and their leader Phil Coe, out on a drinking spree before his departure. The group were shooting out windows and terrifying the locals. Hickok ordered Coe to drop his gun, but Coe insisted that he was only shooting at a stray dog. He went on to threaten Hickok, saying he could "Hit a crow on the wing", Hickok is said to have replied, "Did the crow have a pistol? Was he shooting back? I will be". Coe then fired twice at Hickok, one bullet hitting the floor and the other passing through the marshal's coat. Hickok fired back, hitting Coe twice in the stomach before turning his gun on another armed figure running at him from the side. To his horror he found that his target was his friend Mike Williams who had been running to Hickok's aid. Hickok was grief stricken and carried Williams into the Alamo saloon, laying him on the billiard table where he died. With the cattle trade moving on from Abilene, the town decided that they no longer needed his talents and in December 1871, he was relieved of his duties.

He drifted to Colorado and then to Kansas, trying to make a living as a card player. A run of bad luck led him to accept an offer from Colonel Barnett's Wild West Show, to appear in a play in Niagara Falls, but after just two performances he quit. He also teamed up with William "Buffalo Bill" Cody and appeared for a while in some of his shows.

Hickok's eyesight was deteriorating and in 1876, a doctor diagnosed that he was suffering from Trachoma, a common vision disorder of the time. In March of that year he married Agnes Lake, a 50 year old circus owner in Cheyenne Wyoming. He seemed to have a genuine affection for her, but left her that spring to join Charlie Utter's wagon train and seek his fortune in the goldfields of South Dakota. On this journey he met Martha Jane Cannery, popularly known as "Calamity Jane", who later claimed that she was married to Hickok for a time. Hickok and some friends tried their hand at gold mining, but he soon drifted back to gambling and arrived in Deadwood in July 1876. His reputation went before him and some townspeople wanted him appointed as town marshal. The more violent elements in the town opposed this and many believe that this was the reason for his ultimate death.

On the 2nd August 1876, Hickok was playing poker in the Bell Union saloon in Deadwood. Hickok usually sat with his back to the wall, but the only seat available when he joined the game was a chair that put his back to the door. He twice asked another player, Charlie Rich, to change seats with him, but was twice refused. In the middle of a hand, a former buffalo hunter named Jack McCall entered the saloon and walked to within a few feet of Hickok. He drew a pistol and shouted "Damn You, Take that!" before shooting Hickok in the back of the head. The bullet emerged through Hickok's right cheek and struck another player in the hand. When he was shot, Hickok was holding a hand of aces and eights, afterwards known as the Dead Man’s Hand.

In her book, Calamity Jane describes the shooting, "I was in Deadwood at the time and on hearing of the killing, made my way at once to the scene and found that my friend Wild Bill had been shot by Jack McCall, a desperado. I found the assassin in Shurdy's butcher shop and, having left my guns on the bedpost, grabbed a meat cleaver and made him throw up his hands. He was then taken to a log cabin and locked up, but got away and was afterwards found at Fagan's Ranch at Horse Creek on the old Cheyenne road. He was taken to Yankton Dakota where he was tried, sentenced and hung".

The reason for McCall's action is not clear. Some suggest that he was paid to stop Hickok becoming marshal. Another version suggests that he did it due to a perceived insult when Hickok offered to give him some money for his breakfast after he had lost all his money in a game the previous day. At his trial, McCall testified that he did it to avenge his brother who he claimed was killed earlier by Hickok. This claim may be true; a Lew McCall was known to have been killed in Abilene, but it is not known whether the two were related.

The real Hickok was in complete contrast to the newspaper inspired gunfighter image. Testimony exists of him being gentlemanly, courteous and graceful in manner, but "would not be put upon" and would respond to violence with violence. He was a generous man and slow to anger, but would willingly defend a friend or the fearful if they were under threat. He could be an implacable enemy however and would seek out and face down those who insulted or challenged him. The portrayal of him in the press as the romantic lone lawman in the frock coat and waistcoat, with his ivory handled Colts, gave birth to a whole genre of heroes in the High Noon tradition.

About The Author

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »