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Todays Casino Legends article is about possibly the most famous poker player of all time, Wild Bill Hickok.
This legend may be known for holding the most famous hand ever. But Gambling was something Bill only took up later in life, as he was really known for his sharpshooting skills.
The Dead Man’s Hand
Photo Via Tage Olsin
In August of 1876, Hickok was playing poker in the Saloon No 10 in Deadwood, South Dakota. Wild Bill had a reputation for always sitting with his back to the corner, dating back to his days as a sheriff and a fear of enemies sneaking up on him. On the evening of August 2nd, Charlie Rich was sitting in Bill’s preferred seat. Hickok decided to join the table with his back to the open door and the bar. A drunken Jack McCall walked around behind Bill and shot him point blank in the back of the head. The cards is his hand were black Aces and Eights. This became known as the Dead Man’s Hand.
The gun only worked correctly for that one deadly shot. McCall tried to follow up the murder by shooting others in the saloon, but all the other bullets were duds. The reasons McCall shot Hickok were never known. Some theories are that it was a revenge killing, or a poker grudge. No matter the reason, McCall was tried, convicted and executed shortly thereafter.
Colorado Charlie, a close friends of Bill’s placed a marker with this inscription on his grave:
“Wild Bill -J.B. Hickok, – Killed by the assassin Jack McCall – Deadwood, Black Hills – August 2, 1876 -Pard we will meet again in the – Happy Hunting Grounds to part no more – Good bye – Colorado Charlie, C. H. Utter”
Hickok was born in 1837 in Homer, Illinois to William and Polly Hickok. Even as a child he was considered an outstanding marksmen. By age 18 he joined a vigilante group called the Jayhawkers where he first met William Cody, who would later be known as “Buffalo Bill.” After the Jayhawks, Hickok worked multiple jobs including constable, and a freight rider on what would later be known as the pony express. He joined the Union Army during the Civil War in 1861, but was mysteriously discharged in 1862 and disappeared. In 1863 he resurfaced as a detective for the Springfield Missouri police.
Gunfights and Notoriety
The beginning of Hickok’s fame comes from a shootout in July 1861, named the McCanles Massacre in Rock Creek, Nebraska. David and William McCanles and some of their farmhands appeared, demanding payment for a property they had no right to. Hickok was a stable hand for the property and ended up killing three men, even while suffering a severe injury himself. Harper’s Monthly would put the death toll at 10.
In Springfield, Missouri in July 1965 Hickok would kill again. An old friend turned enemy, Davis Tutt challenged Wild Bill to a “quick draw” duel. Hickok was the first to turn and fire, killing Tutt.
After the Civil War, he moved on to Kansas, becoming sheriff of Hays City and Marshall of Abilene. The area was well known as an outpost for the rougher sorts, populated with many outlaws and ruffians. Later he got in a gunfight with troopers Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kyle, wounding Lonergan and killing Kyle. As sheriff of Hays he shot and killed two men in gunfights, Bill Mulvey and Samuel Strawhun. In Abilene he shot Phil Coe, had run-ins with John Hardin, and accidentally killed his own deputy. The increasing town violence and Hickok’s increasing drinking and gambling eventually led to his dismissal.
After leaving Missouri, Wild Bill survived on his fame. He first tried creating his own show, but ended up joining Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. His marksmanship thrilled the crowds, but his acting was terrible. Between this and the drinking, he was encouraged to part ways from the show and head west.
Hickok eventually found his way to the fateful Deadwood, South Dakota. As his eyesight began to fail, so did his fortunes. He was often arrested for vagrancy, and relied upon gambling to provide an income. His failing eyesight was diagnosed as glaucoma and ophthalmia, but many rumored his health problems to be the result of something slightly more scandalous. It is during this period that he was rumored to have become involved with Calamity Jane. Wild Bill was well known in the media during his own time, and has one of the strongest media presences of characters from the old west. Played by actors such as Roy Rogers and Sam Elliot, the legend of Wild Bill lives on.