Wild Bill Hickok was a legendary figure of the American West, a gunslinger turned lawman who was known for the lightning speed and accuracy with which he drew and fired his Colt revolver. But his very fame and notoriety made him a target, and he met his end at the hands of a man whom most people at the time considered to be a nonentity.
A Growing Reputation
Wild Bill was born James Butler Hickok in a small Illinois town in 1837. His parents operated a way station on the Underground Railroad, helping smuggle slaves from the South, so it was probably here that young Hickok acquired a taste for gun play and adventure. By the time he moved out West in 1855 to drive a stage coach, he was a crack shot. His bravery and prowess led him to a job with the famous Pony Express in Rock Creek, Nebraska, where he killed three men who were harassing him. After working for the Union Army as a scout during the Civil War, Hickok returned to the West, and gained a further reputation as a hard-drinking gambler and dead-eyed shot, who continuously skirted the line between lawman and gunfighter. By 1876, in his late 30s, he had moved to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, married, and was seeking to settle down when he ran into a man named Jack McCall.
Jack McCall was the opposite of Wild Bill -- a decidedly nondescript man with a double chin and red face, who sometimes went by the pseudonym Curly Jack. Born in Kentucky in 1851, he was a sometimes-buffalo hunter, gold miner and possible cattle rustler who hung around saloons in Western mining and railroad towns. Like Hickok, he was a hard drinker and gambler. McCall ended up in Deadwood in the summer of 1876 and sat down, the fateful night of August 1, to play poker in a saloon with a group of men who included Wild Bill Hickok.
McCall was drinking heavily and lost badly, and, though Hickok staked him money for dinner, McCall apparently hungered for revenge. He returned the next night, walked up behind Hickok -- who had broken with his usual rule about never sitting with his back to the door -- and shot him once in the back of the head. Hickok fell over, holding the famous “Dead Man’s Hand”: Two black aces and eights, and the Jack of diamonds. McCall tried to run, but was apprehended by passersby and held for a trial, which took place the next day in a local theater.
Surprisingly, McCall was acquitted after telling the miners who tried him that Hickok had killed his brother. (It later turned out that McCall did not have a brother.) But, in any event, the impromptu “court” had no legal standing, since Deadwood and the Black Hills were not yet a part of the United States, but on the Sioux Reservation. McCall then left Deadwood and made his way to Wyoming, where he was finally arrested, legally, tried and convicted, and sentenced to hang. He went to the gallows on March 1, 1877, in the town of Yankton. When his body was exhumed years later, the hangman’s noose was discovered still around his neck.
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