Man or Myth, Who was Wild Bill Hickok?

12 November 2019

In the early afternoon of 2 August 1876, James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok arrived late to a poker game at Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, South Dakota. Being the last player to show up, he sat with his back to the door, an unusual act for the wary former lawman. Shortly after Hickok had been dealt a hand, Jack McCall walked in, pointed a pistol at the back of Hickok’s head, and pulled the trigger. Hickok dropped dead in his chair while reportedly holding two pair, black aces and eights, that quickly came to be known as the “dead man’s hand.”

4902-03 Cover Image.jpgAt least that is how the details of Hickok’s death have been remembered, something James D. McLaird, longtime professor of history at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, questions in the most recent issue of South Dakota History. Entitled “Wild Bill Hickok in Life and Legend,” the special double issue edited by Charles E. Rankin, former director of the University of Oklahoma Press, features three chapters from an unfinished book McLaird was working on at the time of his death in 2017. In it, McLaird explores several myths and stories surrounding Hickok.

Hickok at various times has been remembered as a Civil War hero, gunfighter, marshal, and frontiersman. The circumstances of his murder have become a prominent part of Wild West lore. McLaird breaks down these tales to illustrate how Hickok’s contemporaries and early historians shaped them. He reconstructs the events and compares various versions of an infamous shootout along the Oregon Trail in Nebraska that led to the death of David C. McCanles and first brought Wild Bill national recognition. The reality behind Hickok’s reputation as a sure-shot gunman and one of the frontier’s premier lawmen, which arose from his eight months as marshal of Abilene, Kansas, is also addressed. Collectively, McLaird’s work challenges popular perspectives and illustrates Hickok’s complex personality, moving well beyond his famous death at a Deadwood poker game.

In the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, actor Carleton Young, playing a newspaper reporter, delivers a line that encapsulates much of early western history: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” McLaird, however, uses a lifetime of research to uncover the fact behind the much-printed legend of Wild Bill Hickok.

Michael Burns


In the photo at top, Wild Bill Hickok’s (left) travels with John B. (“Texas Jack”) Omohundro (standing) and William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody added to his legend as the three men participated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.