If you’re even remotely familiar with Old West lore, you’ve heard the name of Wild Bill Hickok. He is one of the staples of Old West legends, though until recently, I hadn’t heard how he became the famous gunslinger we know today. So here’s the story.
The man known as “Wild Bill” was born James Butler Hickok on May 27, 1837, in Homer, Illinois (now Troy Grove, Illinois). By age 18, Hickok moved from there. Among his various jobs, he worked as a constable in Monticello Township, Kansas, and eventually took a job with the freighting company of Russell, Waddell, and Majors (the parent company for the Pony Express). At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Union Army and served in various capacities including scout, police detective, and a spy who went behind Confederate lines.
|Wild Bill Hickok, circa 1860's|
It was at the end of the Civil War when Wild Bill’s “stardom” came about. The war ended in April 1865, and by July of the same year, Wild Bill was haunting around Springfield, Missouri, gambling in the saloons and poker rooms there. A friend of Hickock’s from before the war, Davis Tutt, was also in Springfield. Tutt had served with the Confederate Army, which may have contributed to the tensions that would ultimately make Wild Bill famous.
On July 20, 1865, Hickok was playing poker in the Lyon House hotel when Tutt confronted him about a $35 debt Tutt said Wild Bill owed him. Hickok disagreed on the amount, stating he held a “memorandum” that showed the debt was for $25 instead. Hickok tried to produce the paper, but Tutt grabbed Hickok’s Waltham pocket watch from the poker table and promised to hold it as collateral until the issue was settled. Hickok grew irate and told him not to wear the watch, or he would be shot.
The following day, the pair argued back and forth and eventually met to discuss the issue over a glass of whiskey. While neither seemed anxious for a gunfight, they couldn’t reach a resolution either, so Tutt left in frustration. At about 6 p.m., Tutt appeared on the street near the courthouse wearing Hickok’s watch. Wild Bill stepped out from the other side of the town square, warning Davis Tutt, “Don’t come over here wearing that watch!” Tutt didn’t comply with the warning, and the two men came within about seventy-five yards of each other before they drew and fired.
|Drawing of the shootout from Harper's|
Two gunshots sounded so close together, the bystanders almost couldn’t distinguish that there were multiple shots. Tutt’s bullet flew high, missing Wild Bill all together. Hickok’s bullet struck true, lodging in Tutt’s heart. The mortally wounded man is reported to have gasped, “Boys, I’m killed,” just before he staggered a few steps toward the courthouse and dropped to the ground. In all, the deadly episode lasted only seconds.
Hickok was arrested on manslaughter charges, and the following month, he stood trial. Tutt’s friends testified that Wild Bill approached the deceased man with his gun drawn and shot in cold blood. Hickok’s allies testified that they’d both drawn their guns and shot at the same time. Tutt’s pistol was introduced into evidence, and the fact that it was missing only one bullet led the jury to find Hickok innocent within moments of being sent to deliberate.
Just weeks after the shootout, Hickok became “front page news” in Harper’s New MonthlyMagazine. Colonel George Ward Nichols wrote the article which exaggerated little in the retelling of the deadly shootout. However, in other parts of the magazine, as well as other publications, Wild Bill was painted as the stuff of tall tales and legends. Among the many falsehoods spread about him were the ideas that he’d killed over 100 men and that he fought off a gang of ten bandits singlehandedly. Dime novelists quickly found him to be great fodder for their pages.
After the trial for the Tutt shooting, Wild Bill went on to work as a wilderness scout, a lawman, a “Wild West” show performer, and a gambler. While he did participate in a few more shootouts in Kansas and Texas in the years to come, Wild Bill met his less-than-glorified end while playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota’s No. 10 Saloon in 1876. His killer, Jack McCall, sneaked up behind him and shot him in the back of the head. Wild Bill Hickok never had a chance to draw his gun or defend himself.
It’s your turn. How do you see Wild Bill Hickok? Was he a hero, a villain, or somewhere in between? Why do you feel as you do? Leave me your thoughts with a valid email address, and I will select one person to receive an autographed copy of either The Oregon Trail Romance Collection or The Convenient Bride Collection.
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.