Wild Bill Hickok: Gambler and Gunfighter
Wild Bill Hickok is a legendary gunfighter and poker player from the mid 1800s. He had encountered many near death experiences from being attacked by a bear to having to fight off several men at once, but it was actually during a game of poker that he breathed his last breath.
Nearly a century after he passed away, Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979 for his renowned poker skills and his shear love of the game.
James Butler "Wild Bill," Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois on May 27th, 1837, to his parents, William and Polly. Hickok came from a large family, having had four brothers and two sisters. His parents expected Hickok and his sibling to spend the majority of their childhood either working on the family farm or attending church, but Hickok quickly got bored of this lifestyle.
When Hickok was eighteen years old, he headed to Kansas to work as a stage coach on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. This is when Hickok first came in contact with 12-year-old William Cody "Buffalo Bill" who would become very important to him later on in his life.
Hickok the Legend
When David McCanles, his brother, and another friend of theirs came to the trails demanding money that they didn't deserve, Hickok managed to single handedly kill all three men within a matter of minutes. The legend of Wild Bill Hickok was born in the event that later became known as the McCanles Massacre.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine released an exaggerated account of the story, where the writer claimed that Hickok had killed over ten men that day. He became an unstoppable legend that neither man nor animal could touch. Hickok once was attacked by a bear and despite being severely injured, he managed to kill the bear using only a six-inch knife.
Shortly after this, Hickok enrolled in the confederate army, where he was believed to have served as a spy. Hickok became good friends with General George Custer during his service and they often played poker together during their down time.
In 1865, shortly after the war had ended, Hickok was found in an intense poker match against Dave Tutt, a gambler from Springfield, Missouri. Hickok lost the game and was unable to pay back his debts, so Tutt took his pocket watch for security. A couple weeks later when Tutt was flaunting the watch for everyone to see at the town square, Hickok shot him point blank and swiped the watch back as quickly as he could.
Years after the incident, Hickok moved to Abilene, Kansas where he was appointed City Marshal for $150 per month, plus one-fourth of the fines he gave out. Under his position, Hickok was reportedly involved in a shootout with saloon owner, Phil Coe. In the midst of the fight, Hickok noticed someone moving towards him, so he instinctively pulled out his gun and shot twice. He unknowingly shot and killed his deputy, Mike Williams.
Hickok resigned from his position and got reconnected with his old friend, Buffalo Bill who asked him to star in his travelling Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Hickok spent the next few years travelling the world with his dear friend, but during his days off he spent the majority of his time gambling and drinking in the nearby saloons. His favorite type of poker was Five Card Draw, but he played other versions as well.
He earned nearly a thousand dollars from a lucky streak of playing poker and decided to use it to start his own show called, "The Daring Buffalo Chase of the Plains." He packed up six buffalos, three cowboys, and one monkey, and headed on a train to Niagara Falls. Unfortunately though, the show was a disaster and it lead to many serious injuries for innocent bystanders.
Hickok's Love Affairs
On the bright side, it was around this time that he met his future wife, Agnes Thatcher Lake, who owned a circus in the Wyoming territory. Only a few months later, he left her in hopes to make a fortune from the gold rush of South Dakota. He promised to return for her, but that was one promise he never kept.
He didn't find his fortune in South Dakota, but he did find the love of his life, Martha Jane Canary, better known today as "Calamity Jane." They both told outrageous stories, loved gambling, and had very unhealthy drinking habits which made them perfect for each other.
In 1876, Hickok was diagnosed by a doctor in Kansas City, Missouri, with glaucoma and ophthalmia, a condition that was the result of various sexually transmitted diseases. He may have been afflicted with trachoma, a common vision disorder at the time as well.
Hickok and Jane settled down in Deadwood, Nebraska and became regular poker players at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon. A former buffalo hunter, Jack McCall snuck up behind Hickok one evening, drew his pistol, and shouted, "Damn you! Take that!", before firing at Hickok point blank and killing him instantly. Upon his death, Hickok was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, which is why that hand is now considered to be a "Dead Man's hand."
Hickok's good friend, Charlie Utter made the funeral arrangements and bought a burial plot in a cemetery outside Deadwood. Calamity Jane insisted that a proper grave be built in honor of her lover, so a huge cast iron fence was built around the grave site to protect it and a small flag was laid beside his grave to represent the time he served during the civil war.
Author: Nicole Miller
Updated: July 2015