Wild Bill Hickok: Gambler and Gunfighter

Wild Bill Hickok

Anyone who is a fan of stories of the Wild West is probably familiar with Wild Bill Hickok. He was a legend of his time, known for his gunfighting abilities and sharp poker playing skills. His adventurous lifestyle is depicted in a number of well-known books and movies.

To learn more about Wild Bill Hickok and why people are still talking about him nearly 150 years after his death, please read through this complete biography.


Early Years

James Butler Hickok was born on May 27, 1837. Hickok was the 4th oldest of 7 children, having 4 brothers and 2 sisters. The family lived on a huge farm in the quaint town of Homer, Illinois. Although it has never been proven, legend has it that the family used the house as a station on the Underground Railroad. Seeing how passionate the Hickok family was about the abolition of slavery, we certainly don't deny the possibility.

When Hickok was young, his father showed him how to shoot a pistol. From the start, Hickok was an excellent marksman, hardly ever missing his target. These skills would certainly help him later on in life.

When Hickok was just 15 years old, his father passed away of unknown causes. Originally planning to stay home and take care of the family farm, his father's death made him rethink how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. A few years later, he moved to Kansas to work as a stagecoach driver on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. During his time there, he met William Cody "Buffalo Bill," who became a dear friend of his.

Wild Bill Hickok, the Legend

David McCanles and his two accomplices crossed paths with Hickok on the trails and attempted to rob him. Furious, Hickok pulled out his pistol and managed to kill all 3 men in just a matter of minutes. This event would later be called the McCanles Massacre, and it's where the legend of Wild Bill Hickok begins. (Hickok chose this name for himself in honor of his deceased father, William.)

His story hit the front page of several different newspapers and magazines, most of which made the massacre out to be worse than it really was. One article even said that he killed over 10 men that day. Soon after that story was published, another one came into light. Hickok had recently come in contact with a bear. Instead of running away from the bear like most sane people would have done, he pulled out a measly 6-inch knife and ended the bear's life. The legend continued; neither man nor animal could touch the likes of Hickok.

Hickok had already made a name for himself when he joined the Civil War in 1961. He started as a civilian scout in the Union Army before working his way up to a provost marshal. At one point during his military career, he served as a Union spy in the Confederate Army. Hickok was able to send warning of several different Confederate attacks before they happened, allowing the Union to be better prepared for battle.

Once the war had ended, he moved to Abilene, Kansas, to accept the position of City Marshall. He earned $1800 a year plus 25% of all the fines he gave out, which was actually a decent salary for the time period. Hickok was notorious for keeping his city in line, no matter what the cost. When one of the town's saloon owners, Phil Coe, started aiming his gun at an unruly customer, Hickok stepped in and started firing away. The bloody gunfight caused one of Hickok's deputies to lose his life. This tragic incident forced Hickok to step down from his position and pursue a different career instead.

Hickok got reconnected with one of his oldest friends, Buffalo Bill. After spending several hours catching up, Bill asked Hickok to join his Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Hickok worked as Buffalo Bill's assistant for several years before deciding to start his own show. He moved to Niagara Falls to open a show that involved 3 cowboys, 6 buffaloes, and 1 trained monkey. The show lasted for less than a year, as it was not well-orchestrated, and it led to several serious injuries of innocent bystanders.

Hickok and Gambling

Hickok's love of gambling started early. A few of his older siblings taught him how to play poker while he was still living at home. After they had finished all of their farm duties for the day, Hickok and his siblings would often spend their evenings playing poker together. He instantly fell in love with the game and played every opportunity he got.

Once Hickok was older, he started competing against gamblers in the saloons of whatever town he happened to be staying in. Hickok became known as a very skilled poker player that was willing to take huge risks in order to win. While he did win the majority of the time, there were a few memorable instances where luck was not on his side.

While traveling through Springfield, Missouri, he found himself in an intense poker match against a gambler named Dave Tutt. Hickok ended up losing the game and was unable to pay Tutt the money that was owed to him. Tutt took Hickok's pocket watch for collateral and started flaunting it around, bragging about how easy he was to beat. Hickok ended up shooting him in the head and taking the watch back. No one talked bad about Hickok's poker skills and got away with it.

Hickok's Love Affairs

Hickok married a woman named Agnes Thatcher Lake, who he met while exploring Wyoming. She was a tightrope walker and lion tamer that was involved in a traveling circus. After they got married, the Cheyenne Daily Sun reported on their marriage, saying, "Wild Bill of western fame has conquered numerous Indians, outlaws, bears and buffaloes, but a charming widow has stolen the magic wand. The scepter has departed and he is as meek and gentle as a lamb. In other words, he has shuffled off the coil of bachelorhood."

Many people thought that Hickok getting married would mean he would finally settle down; this was not the case, though. Shortly after his wedding, Hickok picked up his things and headed to South Dakota in the peak of their gold rush. Although he promised to return, he never saw Agnes again.

While in South Dakota, he spent his days mining for gold and his evenings playing poker at the nearby saloons. One evening, a woman named Calamity Jane entered the saloon he was at. Her stunning beauty took his breath away. She was an avid gambler who loved to tell wild stories; they were perfect for each other. Nearing Death Towards the middle of the 1870s, Hickok's health started to decline. He was diagnosed with glaucoma and ophthalmia, two diseases that are known to cause blindness. He was also said to have several different sexually transmitted diseases, which also had a negative impact on his overall health.

Hickok moved with Jane to the Black Hills mining town of Deadwood, South Dakota. On a sunny spring afternoon in 1876, Hickok made his way to a nearby saloon to play a round of poker. At approximately 4:15, a man by the name of Jack McCall stormed into the saloon and shot Hickok in the back of the head. He died instantly while still holding a pair of aces and eights in his hand. This combination of cards is now known as "The Dead Man's Hand."

A True Legend Never Dies

Hickok's adventures have been the theme of countless media productions. Some of the best-selling books written about him include The White Buffalo by Richard Sale (1975), Darlin' Bill: A Love Story of the Wild West by Jerome Charyn (1980), Aces & Eights by Loren D. Estleman (1981), Deadwood by Pete Dexter (1986), The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok by Richard Matheson (1996), as well as And Not to Yield by Randy Lee Eickoff (2004).

In 1951, a television series named The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok first aired on CBS. It ran for 8 seasons for a total of 271 half-hour-long episodes. His character was portrayed by established actor Guy Madison. The show was a huge success, attracting thousands of viewers on a weekly basis.

There were also countless films inspired by his life, including The Wildcat of Tucson (1940) Young Bill Hickok (1940), Wild Bill Hickok Rides (1942), I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (1956), The White Buffalo (1977), The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), and Wild Bill (1995) to name a few.

A Final Note When the Poker Hall of Fame was first established in 1979, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was 1 of the 7 original members to be added to its list. Hickok may have been an accomplished gunfighter who served as a spy in the Civil War and single-handedly killed a bear, but he will also always be remembered for his skills at the poker table. Like the other poker players who were lucky enough to be added to the list, Hickok's love of poker had a huge impact on his life, even until death.

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