Gunfights, Gambling, & More Bear Fights
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recognize an alarming ursine pattern in our frontiersmen: they just can’t stop fighting bears. Daniel Boone, Grizzly Adams, Revenant star Hugh Glass, and now Wild Bill Hickok all fought bears. Now there were certainly more bears and wild country in 18th and 19th century North America, but come on. At this point I’m wondering if these guys just genuinely had something against our furry (mauling) friends.
Born: May 27, 1837
Died: August 2, 1876
Hickok truly was a frontiersman. He participated in some of the most formative moments in American History, fought to survive on the Western frontier, and did it all with the piss-in-your-eye attitude of a gravel-munching gunfighter. Wild Bill Hickok was born James Butler Hickok, but was known by a number of names and aliases in his life: Duck Bill, Wild Bill, Shanghai Bill, and William Haycock. Although his hair appears dark in pictures, it was actually red. He was a tall, slim man with keen eyes and a silver tongue. He spied for the Union in the civil war, survived a number of duels and shootouts, and dabbled in law enforcement, acting, gambling, real estate, wagoneering, soldiering, quickdraw-duel-inventing, and much more.
Birth, then War
Born in Homer, Illinois, he grew up rough. By the age of 18, he mistakenly though he’d killed his first man in a fight, so he fled to join the “army” (actually a band of vigilantes known as the Jayhawkers). Next, he fought and killed a bear. He had signed with a freighting company and was overseeing the safe passage of a wagon full of goods to Santa Fe. When he noticed that the road was blocked by a bear and her cubs, he tried to shoot Mama in the head. The bullet ricocheted off of the bear’s thick skull, and the animal proceeded to absolutely savage Wild Bill. He somehow managed to slash the bear’s throat as it munched on his arm, and his injuries served him right for being so damn stupid. At the outbreak of the civil war, Bill joined the Union. His career led him to be a spy, a scout, and even a detective. When an impoverished Union army couldn’t pay, however, Wild Bill decided to pursue a more lucrative career: law enforcement and gambling.
He Just Gambles and Shoots People
The second half of his life is largely characterized by these two activities. Although number vary, it is certain that Wild Bill was responsible for the deaths of eight people, though some counts claim over 100. The Wild West was a violent place: an environment in which desperate men fought to create a life for themselves in harsh country with little rule of law. Below are a number of notable incidents.
Wild Bill Invents the Quickdraw Gunfight: Hickok participated in the first recorded instance of a quick-draw duel against a man named Davis Tutt. Like many duels, this one was over a woman: Savannah Moore. Tutt was a romantic rival who was financing gamblers in an attempt to bankrupt Wild Bill. Things went south when Tutt laid claim to Hickok’s watch during a disagreeable debt settlement between the two men. Rather than face-to-face, the duel happened in classic dueling stance: side to side, at 75 yards. Hickok shot Tutt through the heart at 3/4 of a football field’s length. This was no small achievement considering the fact that cap and ball revolvers are not precision firearms.
Wild Bill Survives a Misfire: While acting as a particularly violent Sheriff in in Hays, Kansas, Hickok ran into two disorderly soldiers, and tried to subdue them. The pair took Hickok down, and one put a gun to his head, dropping the hammer. Nothing. The misfire gave Bill a chance to draw his own guns (yes, plural- he carried a pair of Colt 1851 Navy Revolvers). One man was wounded and the other died the next day as a result of his injuries. He had killed four people during his time as Sheriff, and was (understandably) not reelected.
Wild Bill Gets in a Gunfight over a Bull Penis: While Hickok was marshall of Abilene, TX, a local saloon erected a sign shaped like a bull’s penis. The Bull’s Head Tavern was operated by Phil Coe and Ben Thompson. The townsfolk were offended by the sign, and asked their friendly marshall to get it taken down. Hickok requested that Coe remove the sign, and his request was denied. When he took it down himself, Coe did the natural thing and tried to have him killed by legendary outlaw John Wesley Hardin. Later on, Hickok caught Coe shooting pistols within city limits, and decided to arrest him for it. When Coe saw him coming, the tavern operator quickly turned his gun on Bill, and was shot immediately for his trouble. Unfortunately, Hickok caught a flurry of movement in his peripheral vision and fired without evaluating his target, killing a friendly deputy. The incident haunted him for the rest of his life.
Wild Bill Gets a Poker Hand Named After Him: Hickok was traveling in the Dakota Territory, and stopped in at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon. Being a violent gambler, Bill usually sat with his back to the wall. Unfortunately, the only available seat that day had its back to the door. After sitting down, Hickok reportedly asked another player to switch with him on multiple occasions, to no avail. Later on in the day, Buffalo hunter Jack McCall entered the saloon and cried “Damn you, take that!” as he shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head at point-blank range. At the time of his death, Bill had a pair of aces and a pair of eights, now known as a “dead man’s hand.”