The Life and Death of Wild Bill Hickok

The story of Wild Bill Hickok, a legendary gunslinger from the American Frontier, has been largely untold in modern history. 

Tom Clavin
7-minute read
Episode #73
Wild Bill

This would be a quick-draw, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later event. A few seconds passed, then Tutt’s hand jerked and his pistol came with it. In a smoothly coordinated series of motions, Hickok lifted his Colt, balanced the barrel on his bent left arm, and pulled the trigger the same instant Tutt tugged his. In an abrupt and hushed silence, the gun smoke was swept away by the evening breeze. Then Tutt cried out, “Boys, I’m killed!” He began to move, staggering, toward the courthouse. He got as far as the porch, then weaved back into the sunbaked, dusty street. He fell and may have been dead before he hit the ground. The bullet had entered Tutt’s torso between the fifth and seventh ribs and struck his heart. Hickok watched the man die as he holstered his pistol. The story spread across the frontier like a prairie fire that there was a man named Wild Bill Hickok in Missouri who might well be the fastest gunslinger on the American frontier. For once, a story with such a swift circulation was true.

For Hickok, in the following years, there were gunfights galore.

From that day forward, Wild Bill Hickok was the most famous and feared gunslinger on the frontier. In fact, the most famous western heroes to much of America in the years after the Civil War were Hickok and George Armstrong Custer. The two became fast friends when Hickok was hired as a scout for the dashing colonel’s 7th Cavalry. But taking a special shine to Hickok was Custer’s young and beautiful wife, Libbie. Upon meeting him at Fort Riley she was immediately smitten.

“Physically, he was a delight to look upon,” is how the description begins in Following the Guidon, her memoir published in 1890.

“Tall, lithe, and free in every motion, he rode and walked as if every muscle was perfection, and the careless swing of his body as he moved seemed perfectly in keeping with the man, the country, the time in which he lived. I do not recall anything finer in the way of physical perfection than Wild Bill when he swung himself lightly from his saddle, and with graceful, swaying step, squarely set his shoulders and well-poised head, approached our tent for orders. He was rather fantastically clad, of course, but all seemed perfectly in keeping with the time and place. He did not make an armory of his waist, but carried two pistols. He wore top-boots, riding breeches, and dark blue flannel shirt, with scarlet set in the front. A loose neck-handkerchief left his fine firm throat free. I do not remember all his features, but the frank, manly expression of his fearless eyes and his courteous manner gave one a feeling of confidence in his word and his undaunted courage."

For Hickok, in the following years, there were gunfights galore. Sometimes, he shot men in the course of doing his job as one of the frontier’s first lawmen, in Hays City and Abilene and as a deputy U.S. marshal roaming the prairie. Other times, it was purely self-defense, because Hickok would suddenly encounter a man or group of men looking to establish their own reputations by killing the fastest gun in the West. Whatever town he was in, Hickok walked down the middle of the street, avoiding doorways and alleys, and he always carried two Colt .45 pistols, a derringer, a Bowie knife, and a shotgun. Adding to his distinctive look was that Hickok always wore a black sombrero and yellow moccasins.

As with most gunfighters, time caught up to Wild Bill Hickok. He was only 37 and living in Deadwood, South Dakota, when on August 2, 1876—only weeks after his friend George Armstrong Custer was killed at Little Bighorn—he decided to spend the hot afternoon playing cards in the cool interior of a saloon. The cowardly Jack McCall entered the saloon. For once, Hickok was not seated with his back to the wall.

Quietly and unobtrusively, McCall eased himself behind Hickok. Rich dealt cards to the three other men. Hickok held in his hands a pair of aces, a pair of eights, and a queen. At about 4:10, McCall stepped forward and placed the muzzle of a .45-caliber revolver against the back of Hickok’s head and pulled the trigger. There was the sudden loud sound of a shot, and McCall cried out, “Damn you, take that!” Hickok jerked forward. He was motionless for a few moments, then fell sideways out of the chair. Hickok still held two aces, two eights, and a queen—forever to be known as Dead Man’s Hand.

Wild Bill Hickok packed a lot of exciting adventures into his short life. With exciting details and many colorful characters, those adventures can be found in my book Wild Bill by Tom Clavin, just published by St. Martin’s Press. Ask for it at your local bookstore.


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