Cowboy Biography James Wild Bill Hickock

About the famous cowboy Wild Bill Hickock, history and biography, description and crimes, famous fights, favorite weapons, and how he died.


Name: JAMES BUTLER "WILD BILL" HICKOK was born in what is now Troy Grove, Ill., on May 27, 1837, and died on Aug. 2, 1876, in Deadwood Gulch, S.D. As a young man he adopted the name William, from his father; "Wild Bill" seems to have evolved out of another nickname he had been given, "Duck Bill," for his long nose and protruding lip.

Description: Nose and lip apart, Hickok was considered an impressive figure. Henry M. Stanley, the journalist and explorer who found Dr. Livingstone in Africa, once wrote that Hickok "is as handsome a specimen of a man as could be found." He stood 6 ft. 1 in. and wore his blond, perfumed hair over his shoulders. In his heyday he sported a black frock coat, starched collar, white shirt, scarlet vest, and boots made of kid or calf.

Resume: When he wasn't busy shooting people, Hickok worked as a station attendant, teamster, wagon master, army scout, gambler, and guide. A romantic Harper's Magazine article in 1867 made Hickok famous. A few years later he was elected sheriff of Ellis County, Kans., and served four months before losing a reelection bid. A year later he was appointed city marshal of Abilene, Kans. He held office in the Alamo Saloon, spending much of his time playing poker. Though he kept the town relatively peaceful, the city council discharged him a year later. He proceeded to work as an entertainer in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, as a gambler, and as a policeman. He became a heavy drinker late in life. Among the many women with whom he had affairs, the most famous was Calamity Jane Cannary, the frontier adventuress.

Favorite Weapon: Hickok rarely if ever wore a gun holster; he usually kept two ivory-handled .44-caliber pistols in his belt, drawing them crosswise. At his death he was carrying a Smith & Wesson .32-caliber pistol; in his most celebrated killings he used a Colt 1851 Navy and a Williamson derringer, model 1866.

Speed on the Draw: No one knows how fast he could draw a pistol, but he was clearly a cool killer with a good aim.

Victims: Hickok seems to have killed seven people. The first was David McCanles, in Rock Creek, Neb., in 1861; then came David Tutt, a gambler, in 1865; Sam Strawhim and Jack Mulroy, whom he shot while sheriff of Ellis County, in 1869; an army private, John Kile, or Kelly, during a drunken fracas in 1870; and Phil Coe, in Abilene while he was marshal there, in 1871, along with his own deputy, Mike Williams, whom he shot accidentally.

Leading Fight: Hickok's most famous "fight" was probably his first, with McCanles. At the time, Hickok was working for a freight company that owed McCanles money. Apparently when McCanles, unarmed, went to collect his debt, Hickok hid behind a curtain and shot him. Hickok was arrested for murder but acquitted after pleading self-defense. McCanles's 12-year-old son, a witness to the shooting, was not permitted to testify.

Earnings: As marshal of Abilene, Hickok earned $150 a month, a nice sum in those days, and received as a bonus 50 cent for every unlicensed dog he shot within city limits. He must also have earned a good income from gambling and from his showmanship. But arrests for vagrancy at the end of his life suggest he was on the skids.

How Died: At 39, Hickok was shot through the back of the head while playing poker. His murderer, Jack McCall, was a paranoid who claimed Hickok had killed his brother. When Hickok died, according to tradition, two aces and two eights were found in his hand, which gave birth to the expression "dead man's hand." McCall was hanged.

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