Wild Bill Hickok

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Hickok posing as sheriff in 1884. His rebellious air can be seen in the form of his moustache, which was dangerously close to being considered 'too short' in the eyes of strict 19th century Wild West bylaws.

James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 – August 2, 1876), better known as Wild Bill Hickok, was a figure of renown in the American Old West. He is remembered for his skills as a gunfighter, sharpshooter, and marksman, and for his excellent aim with a firearm. Hickok's exploits gained him such great fame that he earned the moniker of “Bill” despite that nickname having virtually no connection to his actual name. This nickname also inspired similar nicknames for other men named William.[1] Hickok's horse was called Black Nell, and he owned two Colt 1851 Navy Revolvers, along with a rarely-used Colt 1855 Air Force Bazooka.

Hickok came to the West in the little-known Boron Rush of 1849.[2] To help finance his Boron-seeking operation, he became a part-time stagecoach driver. He spent most of his time in the territories of Nebraska and Kansas, progressing from stagecoach driver to stagecoach driver/lawman, and finally to lawman. He served in the Union army during the American Civil War, giving his allegiance to Lincoln and his modest beard over Jefferson Davis' pretty-boy hairstyle.[3] He gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman, skilled juggler, and professional gambler. Hickok was involved in countless Wild West shootouts, often shooting people off of roofs and using cactusses for cover, among other Wild West stereotypes. He was ultimately killed while playing poker in a Dakota Territory saloon.[4]

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Life and Career

At the age of 8, Wild Bill was deputized by his third grade teacher for his reputation as a 'right good shot'.

Early Life

Wild Bill Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois on May 27, 1837. By sheer happenstance, he was born on the site of the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial. While he was growing up, his father's farm was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, where escaped slaves could stop and enjoy one of several low-cost sandwiches[5] that were under 400 calories each. He learned his shooting skills helping his father protect the farm from sandwich poachers, and became a very good shot from a young age.[6]

In 1855, at the age of 18, Hickok moved to Kansas Territory following a fight with Charles Hudson, which resulted in both falling into a canal. Massively overestimating the danger of canals, Hickok mistakenly thought he had killed Hudson, and as a result decided to flee the state. He joined General Jim Lane's vigilante Free State Army (“The Red Legs”), so named for both their contempt for the British Redcoats and their stylish red cotton daywear. During his service in the Red Legs he met 12-year-old William Cody, later to be known as “Buffalo Bill”. At the age of 21, Hickok was elected constable of Monticello Township, successfully running on the platform of “a chicken in every pot and a horse in every garage”.

Due to his bowlegged walk, remarkable swimming abilities, and penchant to emit quack-like noises in tense situations, Hickok was nicknamed “Duck Bill”. He severely disliked this name, and encouraged his cohorts to refer to him as “Wild Duck Bill”, and later simply “Wild Bill”. At first his associates would not comply, but soon Hickok adopted a shoot-on-sight policy for those uttering the word 'duck' in his presence, and he became known as “Wild Bill”.[7]


In 1857, Hickok settled in Johnson County, Kansas. On March 22, 1858, he was elected Constable of Monticello Township.[8] He joined the Russell, Waddell, Majors, and Bear freight company as a stagecoach driver. Since stagecoaches were such a revolutionary new technology at the time, Hickok was one of few qualified to drive the complicated contraptions, and was paid handsomely. However, upon realizing that one of the partners of the firm was, in fact, a bear, Hickok was diagnosed with 'being mauled by a bear' and sent to Nebraska to work as a stable hand while he recovered. During this time he was involved in the famed McCanles incident, over which there remains much debate. It involved David McCanles and several of his farmhands demanding payment from the station office for his farm, which had suffered bear-related damage. McCanles alleged that the very same bear which had sent Wild Bill to Nebraska had also cut a swath of damage through his land, leaving a trail of salmon carcasses and Canadian beer behind.[9] A shot was fired from inside the house, felling McCanles and starting a deadly shootout. The origins and details of this event are still disputed by the dozens of Hickok experts in the world today. Some claim that Wild Bill himself fired the first shot, others allege that various other characters present that day would have more of a motive than Hickok did. In the end, Wild Bill and his accomplices were tried and judged to have acted in self-defense, most likely due to the tendency for jurors in Hickok's previous trials ending in conviction to be discovered weeks later riddled with curious bullet-sized holes.

Civil War and Scouting

Wild Bill Hickok (left), ever the gambling man, once engaged in a six dollar bet with Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody regarding who could stare into a camera the longest. Hickok won my a slim margin.

When the American Civil War began, Hickok joined the Union forces and served in the west, mostly in Kansas and Missouri. He earned a reputation as a skilled scout due to his ability to shoot people at great distances with lethal[10]accuracy. After the war, Hickok became a scout for the U.S. Army and served for a time as a United States Marshal. He also somehow managed to find time to be a professional gambler, with his favorite games including Whiskey Poker, Gin Rummy, Scotch Checkers, and other games named for alcohol.

Eventually Wild Bill reunited with his old acquaintance Buffalo Bill, and they actively engaged in buffalo hunting. They obtained a government contract for the eradication of all sick buffalo and all buffalo with mean streaks,[11] but unfortunately there was an error in the typing of the contract and Hickok, along with his group, systematically shot every buffalo in the Western United States. It is estimated that over ninety million buffalo were shot, a testament to Hickok's resolve as well as the woeful inability of buffalo to dodge bullets.

In 1873 Buffalo Bill invited Hickok to join him in his Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Wild Bill's contribution to the show was a comedy act in which he told Wild West-related jokes,[12] performed a bit of slapstick, and juggled his guns. The juggling was well-received, but mostly for its element of danger, as Hickok would juggle loaded weapons that would occasionally discharge towards the audience. The rest of his act was a flop, and experts theorize that it was at this point that Wild Bill sunk into the depression which would haunt his later years.

Lawman and Gunfighter Notoriety

On July 21, 1865, Hickok killed Davis “Slow Draw” Tutt Jr. in a “quick draw” duel. Fiction later typified this as the quintessential “showdown” between two men in the Wild West, often occurring at so-called “high noon” with tumbleweeds rolling around the participants' feet and scared townsfolk hiding behind comically large water barrels or those swinging saloon doors that don't go all the way to the ground. Wild Bill shot a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. One stole his watch, and defied Hickok's warning not to wear it in public. Although that person ended up being Tutt, it is likely that Wild Bill killed other people in dramatic duels as well. Rumors of Hickok dueling Alexander Hamilton are unsubstantiated, but have not been proven false beyond reasonable doubt.

Hickok never did give up his dream of becoming a famous comedy performer, even stooping so low as to practice ventriloquism and use it to perform an act where he would have comical conversations with his guns. However, these were not well received, and Wild Bill returned to his occupation of renegade lawman/professional gambler/duelist/stagecoach chauffeur in Kansas. He was profiled in numerous contemporary Wild West magazines, including Gulch Enthusiast and Boron Seeker Weekly. In one interview, Hickok claimed to have killed forty men, although that number may not be accurate as many times doctors attempting to verify the death of his victims were subsequently shot by Hickok.

Wild Bill's health steadily declined, and he was eventually diagnosed with glaucoma. This meant that not only was he eligible for legal medicinal aid from the government, but he needed to fire many more shots to hit a target than in previous duels due to his deteriorating eyesight. This led to a decrease in his duel effectiveness, and he was eventually stripped of his title as lawman, and, in a final humiliation, stagecoach driver. Broken and alone, Hickok set out for the Dakota territory to pursue his two remaining vices: gambling and Boron.


Wild Bill is said to have used a severed hand on occasion to throw off his poker opponents. In this case it seems to have worked – note the disbelieving expression of the gentleman in the top hat.

Hickok added 'severe paranoia' to his resume of shortcomings upon reaching the Dakota territory. He refused to eat most meats, and would only drink from a personalized mug with 'Billy' emblazoned on the side to avoid poisoning. He would only sit in the corner of rooms, which ruled him ineligible to be a patron of countless saloons with circular floor plans.

Once settled into his new lifestyle, Hickok resumed his quixotic search for precious Boron with new fervor. He somehow managed to make enough money gambling to finance the purchases of increasingly expensive gear, but he eventually abandoned his dream of hitting the Boron jackpot when his large slag melting machine and his large slag-transporting donkey, Phil, died at the same time.

Desperate for both human attention and some sort of reason to live, Wild Bill's gambling panache quickly faded, and he stated taking out larger and larger loans from larger and larger loan sharks, eventually borrowing over four hundred dollars from Disgustingly Fat Eddie. His luck finally caught up with him one night in Nuttal & Mann's Saloon in Deadwood.[13] Unable to find a corner seat, he had to settle for sitting with his back to a door. His fears proved prescient and he was shot in the back of the head while playing poker by Jack “Shoot 'Em in the Back” McCall, from whom he had borrowed a substantial amount of money.[14] Many legends have surfaced concerning the circumstances of Wild Bill's death; specifically, the poker hand he was holding when he died has been under fierce speculation. It is widely believed that he was holding two pair, aces over eights, at the time of his death, and this hand has come to be known as the “Dead Man's Hand”. The identity of the fifth card is the most disputed, and some say it had not yet been dealt. However, the most accepted version of the story is that the fifth card was actually Wild Bill's lucky severed human hand, and he refused to accept a fifth card, as he would sometimes do to unnerve opponents. If this theory is correct, then the origin of the term “Dead Man's Hand” might be accurate in more than one sense.


  1. Though research has shown that the sizes of all of these subsequent men's genitals pale in comparison to Hickok's.
  2. Often overshadowed by the Gold Rush of 1849 and the Tungsten Rush of 1852.
  3. Hair meant a lot to those living in the 1800s.
  4. The term 'saloon' had a number of uses in the American West, but was used mainly to describe beauty parlors. Not this one, though...this was the tough kind of saloon.
  5. These sandwiches were referred to as 'submarines' in the free North, but were more commonly known as 'grinders' in the Deep South due to their tendency to include small quantities of sand that would grind in one's teeth.
  6. Similarly to any self-respecting child in the South.
  7. This is one of the most well-documented cases of a famous person forcibly regulating the way in which they are referred to. Perhaps the most publicized is that of Samuel L. Jackson, who will viciously attack people who drop his middle initial. Footage of one such incident was worked into the final cut of Pulp Fiction.
  8. Hickok credits this victory to his various opponents' mysterious bullet-related deaths.
  9. The bear was nothing but trouble from the beginning at the firm, and they officially parted ways in 1865.
  10. The term “lethal” is used loosely here, since at the time of the Civil War virtually all gunshot wounds ended in death, even partial grazes, due to inappropriate medical practices of the time such as leeching, hacking off limbs without reason, and heavy doses of 'medicinal' rum.
  11. Such as the infamous Bill Buffalo, not to be confused with Buffalo Bill.
  12. Mostly involving cactux and tumbleweeds.
  13. To the very end, Hickok maintained his tough-guy aura, as evidenced by his selection to die in a town with a totally bad-ass name.
  14. Wild Bill had, in fact, already paid McCall back in Boron ingots, but McCall assumed the incredibly valuable ingots were some sort of insult to his character.

See Also

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