Wild Bill Hickok (James Butler Hickock)

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

Unlike the Hollywood nice guy from 1950′s television, the real Wild Bill Hickok was a born killer and compulsive gambler.

Between his birth as James Butler Hickok in 1837 and his 1876 death, Hickok defined the fiercely independent Wild West peacekeeper that never stayed long in one place. Raised to anti-slavery parents in Illinois, Hickok developed a strong sense of loyalty and duty that lasted his entire life. His first job came in 1855 at age 21 when he was elected constable of Monticello, Kansas.

A Gurney carte de visite of Wild Bill Hickok. (p4A item # D9925279)

During his short life he was a scout and spy for the Union Army, an Indian scout for George Custer’s 7th Cavalry and an expert wagon master on the Sante Fe Trail. In 1856, Hickok met and befriended William Cody, later known as Buffalo Bill, but then just a boy of 10.

His quick draw, deadly accuracy and fearlessness led to his election as sheriff in Hays City, Kansas in 1870. He arrested ruffians no one else would or shot them in “self defense.” He failed to be reelected, perhaps due in part to a shootout with some members of the 7th Cavalry that resulted in the death of one of the soldiers. After a couple of months, he moved on to Abilene, Kansas in 1871, where he was hired as city marshal. In his short tenure, he selectively cleaned up Abilene: tough guys were shot or arrested while brothels and saloons were left wide open. Hickok’s favorite pistols were twin Navy Colt .36-caliber cap and ball six-shooters that he wore with the butt ends forward. He had perfected the Plains or twist draw, cocking the pistols as he drew them from their holsters or from a sash tied around his waist.

In 1873, Hickok was lured into show business by his friend Buffalo Bill Cody. A series of articles in Harpers New Monthly Magazine brought Hickok’s exploits to a larger audience. Although crowds enjoyed seeing the tall, steely eyed gunfighter with shoulder length auburn hair, Hickok thought he was making a fool of himself and left Cody’s troupe after four months.

In 1876, Hickok was murdered while playing poker in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. He was 39. His cards, two aces and two eights, are now called the “Dead Man’s hand” in his memory. Hickok’s death made former circus owner Agnes Lake Thatcher a widow; the couple had married earlier that year.

Reference note by p4A.com Contributing Editor Pete Prunkl.

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