The man who became marshal of Abilene, Kan., on April 15, 1871, was a frontier dandy. He stood 6 foot 3 in his custom-made boots. His riveting gray eyes, set off by a drooping mustache, seemed to look right through people. Beneath the black hat with the sweeping brim, blond hair tumbled to his shoulders, and a Prince Albert frock coat showed off broad shoulders and a narrow waist. The man was deadly in a confrontation. He moved with cat-easy grace, had lightning reflexes, and shot with great accuracy using either hand. Above all, he was absolutely cool.
"Wild Bill" Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Ill. on May 27, 1837. He was named James Butler Hickok by his father Alonzo, a deacon in the Presbyterian Church. The Hickoks were descendants of the Hiccocks family of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, neighbors of William Shakespeare. A branch of the family moved to America in 1635.
Alonzo Hickok was born in Vermont in 1801 and married Polly Butler in 1827. The couple had five children besides James Butler, three boys and two girls. Alonzo and Polly Hickok moved to Illinois in 1833, finally settling in Troy Grove (known as Homer at the time), LaSalle County, along the banks of the Little Vermillion Creek. They opened a general store in Troy Grove, the Green Mountain House, which did well at first but failed during the financial panic of 1837. The family then turned to farming. For many years Alonzo Hickok operated a station on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves to freedom. His sons often assisted with this work.
As a child in Illinois, he worked on neighboring farms and helped his father in assisting escaped slaves. He left home in 1856 to farm in Kansas and there became involved in the Free State (antislavery) movement. He later served as a village constable in Monticello, Kansas. While working as a teamster in 1861, he had a shoot-out with the McCanles gang, in which three of them were killed. The legends about him probably began in the exaggerated tales of his role in this gunfight.
He was called "Bill" as early as the mid-1850s, and he may have picked up the nickname "Wild Bill" during the Civil War period for his carefree, daring ways of living and fighting. Or it might have been in early 1862 that he and his brother Lorenzo apparently helped stop a lynch mob, and a woman called one or both of them "Wild." In any case, the nickname stuck, thanks in no small part to writer Nichols. And Hickok helped Nichols embellish his accomplishments because he enjoyed telling tales....but the publicity set him up as a target for every gunslinger who wanted to make his own reputation by killing the great Wild Bill Hickok.
During the American Civil War Hickok worked for the Union as a teamster, scout, and spy. He served the Union well, especially at the Battle of Pea Ridge, AR, March 6-8, 1862, when his accurate sharpshooting from a post high above Cross Timber Hollow snuffed out several Confederates. Afterwards, he was appointed deputy U.S. marshal, and he later became a scout for the army. Hickok is remembered particularly for his services in Kansas as sheriff of Hays City and marshal of Abilene, where his ironhanded rule helped to tame two of the most lawless towns on the frontier.
Dduring 1867-68, Hickok scouted for both General Winfield Scott Hancock and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Custer was impressed by Hickok and later wrote of him "Whether on foot or on horseback he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw. Of his courage there could be no question. His skill in the use of the rifle and the pistol was unerring. His deportment was entirely free from all bluster and bravado. He never spoke of himself unless requested to do so. His conversation never bordered on the vulgar or blasphemous. His influence among the frontiersmen was unbounded; his word was law; and many are the personal quarrels and disturbances which he had checked among his comrades by the single announcement that 'this has gone far enough,' if need be, followed by the ominous warning that, if persisted in, the quarreler 'must settle with me....' Wild Bill always carried two handsome ivory-handled revolvers of large size. He was never seen without them. I have a personal knowledge of at least half a dozen men whom he has at various times killed, others have been seriously wounded - yet he always escaped unhurt in every encounter." (1874)
Hickok worked on and off as a deputy U.S. marshal during 1867-70, but it was in Hays City, Kansas, that he truly proved his worth as an enforcer. On August 23, 1869, Hickok won a special election to complete the unexpired term of the Ellis County sheriff, and decided to make his headquarters in Hays. Shortly after the election, Hickok shot Bill Mulvey (or Melvin), a hellraiser from St. Joseph, Mo. After getting drunk at Drum's saloon, Mulvey began terrorizing Hays, shooting out lamps and windows. When Hickok challenged him to give up his gun, Mulvey holstered the weapon and then tried to draw. He never cleared leather and died with a bullet in his chest. Just over a month later, as Hickok settled a disturbance in a saloon, Samuel Strawhun (variously spelled) drew on him. Same result. Hickok pulled the twin Colts and put two shots into Strawhun before he could pull the trigger. Hickok also saved an Army teamster from lynching in Hays, and the commander at Fort Hays expressed his gratitude.
When Hickok was appointed marshal of Abilene less than a year later, he offered troublemakers a choice "Leave town on the eastbound train, the westbound train, or go North in the morning." North meant boot hill and, except in rare instances, the Texas cowboys, the most violent element in town, decided to heed the warning. Actually, Abilene's numerous gamblers and prostitutes gave Hickok and his deputies more trouble than did the cowboys.
Ben Thompson, a deadly Texas gunman, operated Abilene's Bull's Head saloon, and while he disliked Hickok, they didn't test each other's gunfighting skills. Phil Coe, co-owner of the Bull's Head, did become involved in a dispute with Hickok when both men vied for the affection of Jessie Hazel, proprietor of an expensive bawdy house. Hickok lost out, and the madam decided to leave with Coe for Texas. On the evening of October 5, 1871, before he was to leave, Coe and some other Texans went on a shooting spree. When challenged on the street by Hickok, Coe made the mistake of drawing. Both men fired twice from about eight feet. Coe missed with both shots, but Hickok put two bullets into the Texan's stomach, and he died two days later. While Hickok may have taken pleasure in shooting Coe, it proved to be a tragic evening for him. Just as he fired at Coe, another man, holding a revolver, rushed toward them. Thinking the man was one of Coe's friends, Hickok fired twice more and killed the man, who turned out to be his deputy and close friend, Mike Williams. Wild Bill Hickok wept openly as he carried Williams into the Alamo saloon and laid him on a billiard table, where he died. Hickok paid the funeral expenses for Williams, probably the last man he ever killed. In December 1871, the city council of Abilene decided it no longer needed the high-priced services of Marshal Hickok and discharged him.
He drifted on to Colorado and then to Kansas City, where he lost all his money at the gaming tables. Needing money, he accepted an offer to appear on stage with Colonel Sidney Barnett's Wild West show, giving two performances at Niagara Falls, N.Y., on August 28 and 30, 1872, and then quitting because he hated performing. Despite Hickok's dislike of the stage, "Buffalo Bill" Cody persuaded him to join his theatrical group in the East in September 1873 and Hickok toured with Cody for five months before he left for the West. He had begun wearing dark glasses, which he said he needed because of the stage lighting. Hickok, who may have been suffering from glaucoma or trachoma, was apparently bothered by eye problems the rest of his life.
During 1874 and 1875, Hickok spent at least some of his time in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. It was there that he met and married Agnes Lake, a circus-owner and famed a horsewoman, tightrope walker, dancer, and lion-tamer. After a two-week honeymoon in Cincinnati, Hickok left for the Black Hills determined to earn enough money through gambling and gold prospecting to put his marriage on a sound financial base.
Harry Young, bartender at Carl Mann's Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, later wrote of Hickok's arrival "About the middle of July, my old friend Wild Bill arrived in Deadwood. A more picturesque sight than Hickok on horseback could not be imagined. He had never been north of Cheyenne before this, although many in Deadwood knew him, some only by reputation. A good many gunmen of note were in town and his arrival caused quite a commotion. Hickok rode up to the saloon where I was working, as he knew the owner, Carl Mann. Mann greeted him with much enthusiasm and asked him to make the saloon his headquarters. This meant money for Mann, as Hickok was a great drawing card. Hickok agreed."
Hickok spent some time prospecting with friends but, as usual, the allure of gambling proved stronger. Deadwood, though, was teeming with gunmen, gamblers, and every variety of swindler then known. They were living off the gold dust of honest miners, and wanted no cleanup by Hickok or anyone else. Tim Brady and Johnny Varnes, two leaders of the Deadwood underworld, initiated a plot to kill Hickok so he wouldn't be appointed marshal. Jim Levy and Charlie Storms, two noted gunmen, were offered the job but turned it down. Had they known about Hickok's bad eyesight, they might well have accepted.
Hickok's reputation stopped Levy and Storms, and it worked on the six Montana gunmen who spoke of killing him. Hickok, backed by his twin Colts, spoke to them with his usual directness before disarming them "I understand that you cheap, would-be gunfighters from Montana have been making remarks about me. I want you to understand unless they are stopped there will shortly be a number of cheap funerals in Deadwood. I have come to this town not to court notoriety, but to live in peace and do not propose to stand for insults."
Hickok wanted neither notoriety nor love, and he had no romantic relationship
with Martha Jane Cannary (Calamity Jane). Hickok's letter of August
1, 1876 made clear his concern about ever returning home to his wife:
The very next day, August 2, at about 4 p.m., he joined a poker game in Carl Mann's Saloon No. 10. The other players were Charles Rich, a gunman in his own right, Con Stapleton, Carl Mann himself, and Captain Willie Massie, a Missouri steamboat pilot. Hickok had a short conversation at the bar with Harry Young before he sat down. He was the last to be seated, and the only chair left for him put his back to the back door. Hickok, as a precaution, always sat with his back to the wall, and asked Charles Rich to change places with him. Rich just laughed and stayed in his chair.
But Hickok's conspirators had finally found their man - Jack McCall. A local bum who used several aliases, McCall entered the saloon unnoticed, as he would work at menial jobs in the place. McCall began moving, quite casually, toward the back door behind Hickok's chair. Once there, he stopped and watched the game for a few minutes. Hickok and Massie were discussing the captain's habit of sneaking looks at his opponent's discards. The other players stared at their hands. Nobody was paying any attention to McCall. Suddenly the air was shattered by a loud crash, as McCall pulled a .45-caliber revolver from his coat pocket and shot Hickok in the back of the head from three feet. Hickok hung suspended in time for a moment and then toppled over backward, the cards in his hand dropping to the floor. That hand, which included a pair of aces and a pair of eights, became known as the Dead Man's Hand. The suits of those cards and what the fifth card was, no one knows.
Jack McCall was tried by an illegal miner's court in Deadwood on August 3 and found not guilty. Later, he was tried in Yankton, Dakota Territory, and this time he was found guilty. He was hanged on March 1, 1877.
Hickok was initially buried at Ingleside. Two years later, Deadwood's growing population necessitated the removal of bodies buried at Ingleside to be moved up the mountain to Mount Moriah, a permanent city cemetery. Hickok's body was exhumed on August 3, 1879 by his friends Colorado Charley Utter and Lewis B. Schoenfield and reinterred at Mount Moriah. The wooden headboard which Colorado Charley placed at the original gravesite was also moved to Mount Moriah. In a short period of time, the headboard was destroyed by relic hunters who whittled off pieces as souvenirs. By 1891, a nine-foot tall bust of Hickok was erected, but in ten years, vandals destroyed that too.
See also Wyatt Earp
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