The Prince of Pistoleers
Pancake hat, Prince Albert frock coat
Even while Wild Bill Hickok was alive, and ever since his dramatic death, tall tales and exaggerations of his exploits have been common. As was the case with all noted figures of the West, be they outlaws, lawmen or somewhere in between, the number of men they fought or killed has been grossly inflated. Just as with Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and countless others, the fictional Wild Bill has so far cast the factual one in shadow as to make the true person unknown.
Hollywood in particular latched onto Wild Bill as a perfect subject for Westerns and his character appeared in silent movies, programmers, serials and major A-pictures. He appeared on the big screen 40 times, that I know of, and in 153 TV shows. That’s a lot of screen Bills. He has been impersonated by actors as diverse as William S Hart, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Elliott, Forrest Tucker, Guy Madison, Charles Bronson, LQ Jones, David Carradine, and both father and son, Lloyd and Jeff Bridges.
Out of all these appearances (I do not count here the TV documentaries), not a single one has accurately shown us the true James Butler Hickok (1837 – 76).
1. The fact
To get at the real (but no less interesting) Wild Bill, we need to read Joseph G Rosa. Mr. Rosa, an Englishman from Middlesex, devoted his life to the subject and he is by far the most authoritative and reliable of Bill’s biographers. He wrote many books but the key text is They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Times of James Butler Hickok, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, which was first published in 1964 and then revised after more research in 1974. It is an admirable book, scholarly yet readable, obviously deeply researched, balanced, clear, factual and fascinating.
Fine book - you won't do better
James Butler Hickok was born in Homer (now Troy Grove), Illinois on May 27, 1837, the fourth son of farmers William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok. He received schooling (though all his life his spelling was to be basically phonetic) and as a boy developed a passion for and skill with firearms. He was also imbued with his parents’ detestation of slavery and helped southern slaves escape to the safety of Canada through the ‘underground railway’. James was a lifelong anti-slaver.
In 1856 James and his brother Lorenzo set out for Kansas to establish a claim on farmland. For some unknown reason, James was often known in the family as Bill. Lorenzo was known as ‘Tame Bill’ and was of a different character. He soon returned home, leaving James to make his way in Kansas. James became involved in the Free State movement and joined James H Lane’s Free State Army, which he stayed with for about a year.
In 1857 he first met William Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, and began their lifelong friendship. He stayed at the Cody home in Leavenworth for several months.
Buffalo Bill Cody as a young man
In March 1858 James, not yet 21, was elected Constable of Monticello in Johnson Country. It was his first experience as a peace officer. He farmed at the same time and made a claim on land. At the end of ’58 he left Monticello, apparently because of an unsuccessful affair with a girl, Mary Owen.
James got a job as a freighter and coach driver. When in 1860 Cody became a rider for the new Pony Express, James was too tall and big to join him (they only hired youths and slight men) and instead continued with his transportation work. It is at this time that he was said to have fought a grizzly bear and killed it with his knife, being, however, severely mauled. In September, Indians attacked a station and drove off stock; James led a successful raid to recover the animals, with Cody along too.
The McCanles affair
In July 1861 Hickok was involved in the first of his several famous shooting scrapes. As far as we can ascertain, the facts, according to Rosa, were these: David C McCanles, whose mistress Sarah Shull had perhaps been dallying with Hickok, came to the Pony Express station at Rock Creek to demand payment of money he was owed by the company, and was fatally shot from inside the building as he entered, perhaps by Hickok or by the superintendent, Horace Wellman.
Dave McCanles. He looks a bit like Pavarotti.
Two of McCanles’s supporters then rushed the station. Hickok shot and wounded one, James Woods, and then Mrs. Wellman, crazed, screaming, “Kill them! Kill them all!” attacked and killed the injured Woods with a grubbing hoe. She then made a rush at McCanles’s son, Monroe, 12, who ran away and escaped. The other McCanles partisan, James Gordon, received a shot in the body, it is not clear from whom, and staggered away. Two company men, Doc Brink and George Hulbert, pursued him and one of them killed him with a shotgun beside a creek. Thus three men had died, one of them possibly, but not certainly, killed by Hickok. In a subsequent hearing, Hickok was cleared of murder. Mrs. Wellman was not even charged and appeared as a witness.
Immediately, the affair was written up, discussed and exaggerated and Hickok’s reputation as a deadly gunman was established.
Mr. Rosa has uncovered a lot more than was previously known about Hickok’s role in the Civil War. Although he joined the Union Army as a teamster, Hickok soon became a scout and spy behind enemy lines. He was especially active in the Battle of Westport in 1864.
He became celebrated for his daring and it was during the war that he became known as Wild Bill.
In July 1865, about a month after being mustered out, Wild Bill got into a gunfight with Davis K Tutt in Springfield, Missouri. They had been on bad terms for some time. One theory says that Bill had got Tutt’s sister pregnant. Another says that Hickok and Tutt were rivals for the affections of Susannah Moore. Owed money by Bill after card games, Tutt took Bill’s watch. Bill warned him not to wear it but Tutt flaunted it the next day on the public square. Bill warned Tutt not to cross the square but he did. They both pulled pistols and fired as one. Tutt’s shot missed but Hickok’s hit him in the heart.
Wild Bill fights Dave Tutt in Springfield Missouri, 1865
A warrant was issued for Hickok for the killing though the charge was later reduced to manslaughter. Bill was tried and acquitted. Juries held to the Western code of a fair fight. Press reaction was, however, quite negative to Bill.
Added to the McCanles affair of four years earlier, the killing of Dave Tutt made Wild Bill’s reputation grow by leaps and bounds. This surge in notoriety received a huge boost when Bill met a certain Colonel George Ward Nichols, who later wrote up Bill’s life in lurid and exaggerated terms in an article for the widely-read Harper’s Weekly magazine. For years afterwards, Bill was known in the press as ‘Wild Bill, of Harper’s fame.’ He was a celebrity.
Deputy US Marshal Hickok
In 1866 Wild Bill was appointed a deputy US marshal at Fort Riley and captured deserters and mule thieves. He signed on as a scout for General Sherman and also acted as a guide for tourists on the plains. At this time he got to know California Joe (Moses Milner), scout, gunfighter, trapper, gold digger; the Welsh-American journalist and explorer HM Stanley; and General George Armstrong Custer, for whom he scouted in ’67.
Henry Morton Stanley
Bill Tilghman as a young man (he was a buffalo hunter at 15)
In 1869 Bill was wounded by Indians and left the scouts. He made his base in Hays and in August was elected sheriff of Ellis County. In August he fatally shot Bill Mulrey (or Mulvey) and in September he killed Samuel Strawhun in a saloon brawl. In October he prevented a lynching in Hays. But in November he lost the election to succeed himself and left for Topeka.
In 1870 he was back in Hays and got into a fight with some 7th Cavalry troopers in which he killed one and wounded another. He left town in a hurry ahead of irate citizens, and gambled in Topeka.
In April 1871 he accepted the job as marshal of the booming and lawless cattle town of Abilene. Although one of his predecessors was a certain Tom Smith, Mr. Rosa is not sure that this was in fact the famous ‘Bear River’ Tom Smith, as is usually thought.
John Wesley Hardin
Hickok’s tenure lasted barely seven months but in that period at different times he came up against Texas gunmen John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson and Phil Coe. Mr. Rosa discounts the story that Hardin got the drop on Hickok with a ‘border roll’, putting it down to Hardin’s boastful autobiography. There was no love lost between Ben Thompson and Hickok and it is possible that Thompson tried to get Hardin to brace the marshal. In any case, Thompson left for Texas to get his wife but was involved in a bad buggy accident and never returned.
Bill kept the lid on Abilene, enforcing a no-gun ordinance and confining the worst excesses to the area known as the ‘Devil’s Addition’ north of the tracks. He was admired by many grateful Abilene residents but did enough to earn the hatred of the Texans who regarded Abilene as ‘theirs’.
6 foot 4 inch Phil Coe deserted from the Confederate army after one day, having struck an officer, and went to Mexico to fight for Maximilian. There he met and befriended fellow Texan Ben Thompson. Coe became a saloon man and eventually arrived in Abilene. On October 5, he was with a mob of Texans outside The Alamo saloon. There Coe discharged his revolver. Marshal Hickok came running and demanded to know who had fired in contravention of the no-gun law. Coe said he had shot at a stray dog. The marshal told the mob to disperse and when they roared in protest he shot Coe twice in the abdomen (he died in agony two days later). Just at that moment a friend of Hickok’s, a special deputy (though not Hickok’s deputy) named Mike Williams, rushed round the corner and Hickok instantly and instinctively fired again and Williams was killed.
Once again, reports were magnified and erroneous. Hickok had “shot down two policemen in cold blood”, and so on. Texans put a price on Hickok’s head. Bill foiled three would-be murderers on a rail trip to Topeka. Bill was crushed by what he had unwittingly done and it was not long before he left Abilene. In any case the anti-cattle-trade reformers were gaining ground and there was a strong anti-Hickok party forming. He was dismissed on December 13.
In 1872 Bill was in Georgetown, Colorado with his loyal friend Charley Utter and he then went to Kansas City where he met Col. Sidney Barnett who persuaded him to take part in a 'grand buffalo chase', a sort of Wild West show, in Niagara Falls at the end of August. In September he visited the Kansas City Exposition where he enraged some Texans by refusing to let the band play Dixie. Rosa discounts, however, the story that he foiled Jesse James’s raid on the box office – the James gang got clear away.
The person on the left has been variously identified but is most commonly thought to be Colorado Charley Utter, Wild Bill's good friend
The murder of Chief Whistler
Later that year Wild Bill was blamed for the murder of the Indian chief Whistler and two other Indians but Rosa is clear that the ‘Wild Bill’ concerned was not Hickok. There were several ‘Wild Bills’ on the frontier.
In the fall of 1873 Hickok was persuaded to join Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro back East on the stage in their enormously popular shows about life on the plains. Hickok was a poor actor and disliked making an exhibition of himself. In 1874 he left the show.
Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody at the time of their theatrical collaboration
Bill had first met Agnes Lake Thatcher, an accomplished circus equestrienne, in Hays but while she had been enthusiastic, he had been less so. Now, however, they took up together, and they continued a long correspondence when Bill left again for the plains. He acted as guide for rich tourists and by 1875 was gambling in Cheyenne. There his name appeared on a list of those liable to arrest for vagrancy. His eyesight was giving him trouble and Mr. Rosa discusses all the possible causes. Bill appears to have been photophobic and he started wearing tinted glasses.
Agnes Lake Thatcher, Mrs. JB Hickok
In March 1876, Bill and Agnes were married by a Methodist minister in Cheyenne. They honeymooned in Agnes’s home town of Cincinnati and then Bill, eager to make money, left again to make a strike in the Black Hills. Together with Charley Utter and Charley’s brother Steve, they set off for Deadwood, where they arrived in July ’76. Bill wrote genuinely tender letters to Agnes while there.
Mr. Rosa completely discounts the story of a romance between Martha Jane Cannary, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill. Still less is it likely that they married. There is no evidence at all for any relationship and it is improbable in the extreme. In any case Jane was not in Deadwood when Bill was killed (as many movies show).
On Wednesday, August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head while playing cards in Nuttall & Mann’s No. 10 saloon by one ‘Bill Sutherland’ whose real name turned out to be Jack McCall. Wild Bill was supposed to have been holding aces and eights, ever after known as the dead man's hand.
Dead man's hand
No one will ever know the complete truth about why Wild Bill was killed. Jack McCall took the secret to the gallows with him. But it seems likely that he was paid to do it, possibly by one John or Johnny Varnes. At one point McCall named Varnes, who had once fallen foul of Hickok in Denver and the animosity was increased by a confrontation over a game of poker in Deadwood when Bill had interfered in a dispute between Varnes and another man. A marshal was sent to find Varnes but he had disappeared. The matter was never pursued and no one knows what happened to Varnes. After being acquitted by a miners’ kangaroo court in Deadwood right after the murder, McCall was properly tried in Yankton and hanged there in March 1877.
The only known picture of Jack McCall
Bill received a proper funeral in Deadwood paid for by his pardner Charley Utter.
The Prince of Pistoleers
Wild Bill Hickok thus lived a short but remarkable life and one wonders why it should be necessary to invent nonsense about him in movies. Scout, spy, lawman, gambler, marksman supreme, his life was charged with excitement, danger and action.
We still await the true Wild Bill on the screen. Sadly, it is too late now to have Joseph Rosa as historical consultant on the set.
In a later post, Wild Bill Hickok in fact and fiction, part 2/2: the fiction, we’ll look at how Wild Bill has been presented to us in serious novels, pulp fiction and on the screen.