Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wild Bill Hickok, the lawman who tamed the West

The true story of Wild Bill Hickok.
     His name wasn't Bill. But he was wild. And on August 2, 1876, Jack McCall assassinated Wild Bill Hickok, who was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota. The game was five-card draw. Hickok had two pair, aces and eights. We will never know what that fifth card was. McCall shot him in the back of the head.
     So ended the life of a scout, armed abolitionist, lawman, quick draw gunfighter, and poker player. He was quick with the gun, quicker with his wits, and one of the exceptional Americans who in the last half of the 19th century settled a vast wasteland called The West.
     Born in Homer, Illinois, (now Troy Grove) on May 27, 1837,  James Butler Hickok showed prowess with a firearm early on. In the 1850s, he got to use his expertise in Kansas. Under the Compromise of 1850, Congress left it up to setters to decide if new territories were free or slave. Neither side particularly cared if the battle were won by bullets or ballots. Hickok had fled Illinois after falsely believing he had killed a friend in a fistfight.
     Hickok joined James Henry Lane's army of armed abolitionists at Leavenworth, Kansas, called the Jayhawkers. After serving a term in Congress representing Indiana's fourth district, Lane had moved to Kansas and formed his army. The Jayhawkers were a marauding group that quickly turned into a gang that robbed and killed people with little to do with abolition. Nevertheless, when Kansas gained statehood, it sent Lane back to Washington as a senator.
     While with the Jayhawkers, Hickok met a 12-year-old boy who was scouting for the U.S. Army in the Mormon Wars -- William F. Cody, who grew up to become Buffalo Bill, they became friends. Souring on the Jayhawks, at 20, Hickok ran for constable of Monticello Township, Kansas, and won on March 22, 1858.
     In 1859, Hickok went to work for Russell, Waddell, and Majors a freight company which began the Pony Express the next year. Cody would ride in the Pony Express, but not Hickok after he had an encounter with a bear. He shot it to little avail, finally subduing the beast with his knife. Bloodied, he spent four months recuperating. The company gave him a job at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska, where Hickok encountered a ne'er-do-well named Dave McCanles, who took an unliking to Jim Hickok and had begun taunting him as Duck Bill, saying he was a hermaphrodite.
     On July 12, 1861, McCanles confronted Hickok and threatened to drag him outside and thrash him.
     Hickok replied, “There will be one less son-of-a-bitch when you try that.”
     McCanles foolishly tried to reach Hickok who fired and dropped him dead. Two gunmen burst in after McCanles. Hickok shot one man twice and killed him, and winged the other man. He colleagues finished him off. Hickok was wrong. There were three fewer sons-of-a-bitch. Hickok, the station manager and another employee subsequently were acquitted of murder.
     In the Civil War, Hickok worked as a scout, a teamster, a provost marshal, and a spy for the Union Army. But his real action occurred after the war when on July 21, 1865, he had the first western shootout in the town square of Springfield, Missouri. His antagonist was Davis Tutt, who had been a friend. Tutt grew up as a child during a feud in Arkansas between his family, who were Whigs, and the Everett family, who were Democrats. The families fought intermittently for six years until Governor Thomas Drew sent in the state militia.
     The shootout stemmed from a poker game, which Hickok won big. Tutt was not a player but wanted $40 from the pot to payoff a previous debt. Hickok paid, but then Tutt said Hickok owed $35 for a past card game. Hickok said it was $25. Tutt took Hickok's prized possession, his Waltham Repeater gold pocket watch, as collateral. This made Hickok appear as a man who did not honor his debts, which would ruin his reputation -- even though he owed Tutts no money. When Tutt's friends said he planned to wear the watch on the town's square. Hickok replied, “He shouldn't come across that square unless dead men can walk."
     Around 6 p.m. the next day, Hickok walked through the square carrying his 1851 Colt navy revolver. Tutt walked from the other end of the square. The crowd scattered. At a distance of 75 yards apart, Hickok warned his opponent, “Don't you come across here with that watch."
     The two men faced each other sideways in the dueling position. The former friends hesitated briefly, then Tutt reached for his pistol and Hickok reached for his and fired,mortally wounding him. On August 3, 1865, his trial for manslaughter began and after 22 witnesses and three days, the jury acquitted him under the principle that it was a fair fight. The decision wasn't popular, and Hickok fled town before the talk of lynching him became more than talk.
     On September 13, 1865, Colonel George Ward Nichols, a writer for Harper's, tracked Hickok down and later wrote an account of the gunfight, which made Wild Bill Hickok a legend. Hickok resumed his budding career as a lawman, working as a deputy U.S. Marshal, then as a sheriff of Hays City, Kansas, and then Abilene, Kansas. Hickok was a reformer. He broke up poker games if one of the players became inebriated, which alienated him with some people, but kept the games clean. He had long blond hair and a forbearance -- and reputation -- as a man you would not wish to mess with.
     Unfortunately, men did. In his first month as sheriff of Hays City, he killed two men. One, Bill Mulvey, got the drop on Hickok, who shouted as if someone was behind Mulvey, “Don't shoot him in the back; he is drunk,” When Mulvey turned, Hickok shot the man dead. There was no one behind him. The other man he killed was Samuel Strawhun, who confronted Hickok and a deputy at 1 a.m.
     In Abilene, a gambler named Phil Coe owned a saloon called the “Bull's Head,” and adorned it with a large painting of a Texas Longhorn, which definitely was male. The townspeople complained and town sheriff Hickok stood with a shotgun while painters adulterated the painting. This began a feud. Coe sold the saloon and stayed in town as a gambler -- which was really Hickok's profession as well. On October 5, 1871, Coe shot a dog. When Hickok showed up to investigate, Coe shot at him. He returned fire, dropping Coe dead. Hearing footsteps, Hickok turned and fired --  killing Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams who had come to help the sheriff.
     That ended Hickok's career as a lawman. He returned to gambling. In 1873, he joined Buffalo Bill Cody on a tour of an early wild west how. But glaucoma and trachoma hindered his vision. On March 5, 1876, Hickok married  a 50-year-old circus owner, Agnes Thatcher Lake, and settled down in Cheyenne, Wyoming. But it did not last. By summer he was in the Dakota Territory prospecting for gold, which is as good euphemism for gambling as any, which led to his death at the hands of Jack McCall.
     A jury acquitted McCall because he said he was avenging his brother's death. But McCall had no brothers and he made the mistake of bragging about killing Hickok. Authorities arrested him again. The court ruled the first trial invalid and gave him a second trial, which he lost. On March 1, 1877, the territory of Dakota hanged Jack McCall for murdering Wild Bill Hickok.
     Martha Jane Canary -- Calamity Jane -- claimed she was once his wife, but her pallbearers claimed he had no use for her. As a joke, they buried her next to him at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.

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