Appearances Can Be Deceiving
See the fellow to the right? He looks like a bit of a dandy, an old-timey sort who you might find running a dry-goods store or travelling from town-to-town peddling Dr. Orpheum’s Kickapoo Elixir and Cure-All. But he wasn’t. The fellow in the fancy hat and string tie is James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, soldier, scout, lawman, gambler, one of the deadliest gunslingers of the Old West and the subject of this Profile in Toxic Masculinity.
His Maculate Origin
Wild Bill was born in Homer (now Troy Grove) Illinois on May 27, 1837, to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler. The senior Hickok was a farmer; the Hickoks were staunch abolitionists who reportedly had an Underground Railroad stop on their farm.
The young Hickok quickly gained a reputation as a crack shot. When he was eighteen, he was involved in a scrap (unarmed) with a local named Charles Hudson, which fight was resolved when both young men tumbled into a canal. Surfacing separately and presumably out of sight of each other, both young men assumed the other had drowned. Wishing to avoid prosecution. Hudson left for parts unknown and history tells us no more about him, but young Hickok went to the Kansas Territory and began using his late brother’s name, William.
His Adventurous Career
Hickok arrived in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1855. Having inherited his parents’ abolitionist leanings, he fell in with Jim Lanes Jayhawkers, formally then known as the “Free State Army” and took part in the group’s vigilante campaigns in what became known as the “Bloody Kansas” uprisings. During this time Hickok picked up the nickname “Duck Bill,” due to his long nose and jutting upper lip. He detested the nickname and, in 1861, grew a long mustache to cover the lip and began calling himself “Wild Bill.” The name stuck.
Them in 1858, having presumably grown bored of nightriding with the Jayhawkers, Hickok turned up in the Utah Territory, where he served as a scout for the U.S. Army engaged in the Mormon Rebellion.
It’s not impossible to imagine that, during this dust-up, the young Hickok may have encountered a Mormon gunsmith named Jonathan Browning and maybe even his three-year-old son John, but if this fanciful event happened there’s no record of it.
At some point after the Mormon Rebellion, Hickok returned to Kansas, eventually claiming a large farm in Johnson County. In 1858 he began his career as a lawman when he was elected one of four constables of Monticello Township. In 1859, however, he gave this up to join the freight company that would later become the Pony Express, and began hauling freight on the Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory run. The following year, Hickok was on the westbound run when he encountered a large cinnamon bear with cubs; Hickok fired a shot that bounced off the bear’s skull, provoking (understandably) an attack. The bear tore into Hickok’s arm and landed full-on him, injuring his chest, but the intrepid freighter managed to get to his knife and slashed at the bear’s throat, killing it.
This was one of the first overt displays of Wild Bill’s steadfastness, but it wouldn’t be the last.
After his recovery from the bear, Hickok discovered that the War of the Northern Aggression was under way, and so proceeded to Sedalia, Missouri, where the Union Army enlisted him as a teamster. He was discharged in 1862 for unknown reasons but managed to join up again with the Kansas Brigade, where he served until late 1863. At that time, he went on to serve with the Provost Marshal’s office in southwest Missouri, and then later as a scout working for General John B. Sanborn, which duty he was engaged in at war’s end.
Following the surrender of the last Confederate troops, Wild Bill found himself at loose ends.
His One-Man War
In the summer of 1865, Hickok surfaced in Springfield, Missouri, where he was involved in the killing of one Dave Tutt. Tutt claimed Hickok owed him a gambling debt, gambling being one of Hickok’s vices. Tutt took a gold watch highly prized by Hickok as payment, at least until Hickok could cough up the cash. Hickok agreed to this, on the condition that Tutt not flaunt the watch in the open.
The next day, Tutt was wearing the watch and encountered Hickok in the Springfield town square. One thing led to another and both men drew revolvers and opened fire; Tutt was killed. Hickok was tried and acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, but this began Hickok’s notoriety as a gunslinger.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wild Bill took the art of shooting seriously, reportedly practicing for an hour or more on most days. He also took the art of gambling seriously, which passion would lead to his downfall. His favored arms were a pair of 1851 Navy Colts, and we have already examined the virtues of that landmark sixgun in other articles.
As we saw in the chronicles of one John Garrison Johnston, an earlier Profile in Toxic Masculinity, in the Old West it wasn’t uncommon for a one-time ne’er-do-well to suddenly emerge as a champion of Law and Order. Wild Bill performed this lateral arabesque in 1867, when he was appointed as a U.S. Deputy Marshall in Fort Riley, Kansas. He later served as Sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas (1869) and, in 1871, was made Marshal of Abilene, Kansas.
During his tenure as a lawman, several men sought to gain fame by killing Wild Bill. Hickok stood them off, one after the other, but while later accounts of his life greatly exaggerate the number of men Wild Bill killed on one gunfight or another, the number according to Hickok biographer Joseph Rosa was probably six, possibly seven – hardly the great score that was claimed of him in many dime novels.
Two of those dead men, however, would lead to another turning point in Wild Bill’s life.
On October 5th, 1871, Hickok was trying to calm a violent crowd on the streets of Abilene. While the reasons for the crowd’s anger is unclear, what is known is that during the disturbance, one Phil Coe, a saloonkeeper, fired two shots. Hickok tried to arrest Coe, but Coe turned his guns on Wild Bill – a mistake, as Hickok’s habit of practice paid off. He drew and fired before Coe could draw a bead and shot Coe through the heart, killing him instantly. Unfortunately, Hickok noticed another man approaching him quickly from the side and fired again, killing Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams. This led to Hickok’s discharge from the position of Marshal.
At odds again, Hickok traveled, gambling and appearing sporadically alongside Buffalo Bill Cody in a traveling Wild West show. 1876 found him in Wyoming, where he met and married a woman named Agnes Thatcher Lake and moved with her to Deadwood, South Dakota.
On August 2nd of that year, Wild Bill was playing poker in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon, and was seated, unwisely as it turned out, with his back to the door.
Into the saloon came one Jack McCall, who saw Hickok, approached him from behind, and fired one shot into the back of Wild Bill’s head, killing him instantly. Wild Bill was reportedly holding a hand of aces and eights, which combination was to become famous as the “dead man’s hand.”
It’s not known why McCall took it in his head to assassinate Wild Bill. He may have been simply seeking notoriety, and in that he was certainly successful. On his arrest – taken into custody by no less than Wild Bill’s friend Martha “Calamity” Jane Cannary – he claimed to be avenging his brother, killed by Hickok, although there’s no record of that. McCall was initially acquitted but, Dakota Territory not yet being fully a part of the U.S., was later arrested again and found guilty. He was hanged for the murder in March of 1877.
Thus, ended the career of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, soldier, scout, lawman, gunslinger, gambler, almost certainly a scoundrel but absolutely a colorful one.
His Golden Years
Following his untimely end, Wild Bill himself obviously enjoyed no happy golden years. His legacy, however, did continue, and as time brought forth the film industry, Hickok’s fame only grew. He has been portrayed on stage and screen by such worthies as:
- Gary Cooper, The Plainsman (1936)
- Bill Elliot, The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (1938)
- Guy Madison, Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (TV, 1951-1958)
- Charles Bronson, White Buffalo (1977)
- Jeff Bridges, Wild Bill (1995)
- Keith Carradine, Deadwood (TV, 2004-2006)
Wild Bill Hickok’s story certainly resonates with many Americans. His life story has been exaggerated, often wildly, by novelists and movie and television screenwriters. But even told straight out, his tale is a colorful one, adventurous, courageous, and quintessentially American.