Wild Bill Hickock

wb-hickock.jpgTwo weeks ago we blogged about Calamity Jane.  Here, as promised, is a portrait of the man she claimed to be the love of her life—Wild Bill Hickock. Sadly, perhaps, Calamity is barely mentioned in sketches of Wild Bill’s life.  We can only guess that their fabled romance was either one-sided, on Calamity’s part, or mostly invented by the dime novel writers of the day—the same writers who transformed Wild Bill into an American legend. 

James Butler Hickock was born May 27, 1837 in Troy Grove, Illinois. In the years prior to the Civil War, he worked as a hunter, a muleskinner, a bodyguard and as a wagonmaster on the Santa Fe trail. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he became a civilian scout at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  Wild Bill’s legendary career began in 1861 when he was tending stock at a station for the Overland Stage.  When three men came to collect money owed them by the station’s owner, a fight broke out.  Bill and a fellow worker brutally killed the men who’d come to get their cash.  They were tried and acquitted on grounds of self defense.  Four years later, a writer would turn this incident into a heroic stand, with Bill holding off a gang of terrorists and receiving eleven bullet wounds in the process.  Similar encounters dogged Bill for the rest of his life.  He was a brave man, but reckless and prone to violence.  In many cases, his exploits were blown up to serve as fodder for the pulp fiction market of the day.  Bill swiftly became an American pop star.  Between 1867 and 1871 Wild Bill served variously as a lawman and army scout. Sometimes his tactics were too much for the townspeople.  In 1869 he was appointed sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas.  After killing two men he was voted out of office.  In 1871 he was appointed marshal of Abilene.  After a gunfight in which he accidentally shot and killed his own deputy, Wild Bill turned in his badge and began to drift.  For a time he toured with Buffalo Bill’s show, but he hated acting and left to become a professional gambler.In 1876 he returned to Cheyenne where he married Agnes Lake Thatcher, the owner of a circus.  From there he went to Deadwood, hoping to strike it rich in the gambling saloons.On August 2, 1876, he was playing poker when a drifter named Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head.  At the time he died, Wild Bill was holding two black aces, two black eights and the jack of diamonds—to be forever known as the “deadman’s hand.”  He was buried in Deadwood.  His famous Sharps rifle was buried with him. Many actors have played Wild Bill in films.  Who’s your favorite?  Which portrayal seems most accurate?  Who would you like to see play Bill in a movie about his life?

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17 thoughts on “Wild Bill Hickock”

  1. Elizabeth, it IS sad that Wild Bill doesn’t appear to return Calamity Jane’s love. That seems to be carried out through the fact they both went on to marry different people, but she clearly carried a torch for him the rest of her life.

  2. I painted a picture once of the Dead Man’s Hand and, oddly enough, wrote a song about it too.
    My friend still has that picture hanging in her house…which was a high school art exercise copied for another picture just exactly like mine…so not original work.
    Also, flat cards with spades, no doubt traced, was about the extent of my artistic ability. Still, this story kind of touched a chord.
    It’s funny that you use words like ‘pop icon’ such a modern word, but even back then they had their tabloid news.

    Aces and eights were the deadman’s hand old Wild Bill Hickock held.
    As he sat that day with his back to the door this giant of a man was felled.

    Okay, that’s the song. I can’t remember anymore. When I try to find it buried in my brain, for some reason I just go into the chorus of the theme song to Davy Crockett…that isn’t right.

    Wild Bill…Wild Bill Hickock
    King of the wild frontier.


  3. It’s amazing how dime novels brought some of the Wests more colorful characters to life and immortalized them. But then that’s the power of words and the pen.

    Good information!

  4. Wish I could hear your song, Mary. It would be fun. FYI, I did find and watch the TV movie, Buffalo Girls, with Angelica Houston as Calamity. The movie twisted some facts (such as making Bill the father of Calamity’s child–in reality, he’d died years earlier). Still it was good, and Angelica did a great job. Sam Elliot appeared just briefly as Wild Bill but he was dang near perfect. Loved his voice.

  5. Elizabeth, I’m with you about Sam Elliot being a great Wild Bill. Sam just has that ability to bring larger than life characters to the screen. Big sigh. Sam gets my vote.

    As far as Wild Bill’s true character, I choose to believe that he had some inherent good in him and a wish to do the right thing. That’s exhibited by his work as a lawman. Maybe he just got caught in bad situations or maybe his weakness for the bottle got in the way of his job. Whatever the case, he has been immortalized for some reason. I loved our trip to Deadwood about three years ago. A very historical and interesting town. I soaked it all up.

    Great post! 🙂 I love reading about historical figures.

  6. Someday I’ve gotta visit Deadwood, Linda. Seeing the country where so many legendary stories took place would just give me shivers. Thanks for your insights into Wild Bill’s character.

  7. Sam Eliott WOULD be a great Wild Bill! I just love him, anyway. *grin* I think Jeff Bridges did a pretty good job of playing him, too.

    Those of you who had the opportunity to visit Deadwood are so lucky-I’m so jealous! Maybe one of these days I’ll get there.

  8. Very fascinating. I have always been fascinated with western figures and life. I think one of my favorite portrayals (and what contributed to my fascination of the west) was Josh Brolin on the tv show The Young Riders…a VERY fictional take on Wild Bill though with very little factual story. In it, he was a young pony express rider named James (Jimmy) Hickock who gradually earned a reputation as being good with a gun and the nickname Wild Bill. I was young, the actors were cute, and it got me curious about the west (leading to a love of western romances) so I guess it wasn’t too bad that none of it was probably accurate.

    I also loved Sam Elliot as Wild Bill in Buffalo Gals. I love his voice.

  9. Hmmm. I know Kevin Costner played Wyatt Earp. Did he play Wild Bill, too? Could be. Does anyone out there remember?
    And although Sam Elliot is my favorite, I’ll admit to a soft spot for Howard Keel, who played him in the musical. No authenticity there, but he was fun, and I was at such an impressionable age then…

  10. Elizabeth, I was thinking of that musical too. I loved “Calamity Jane” even if it wasn’t authentic! Of course, I am a fan of Doris Day movies so that was why I originally watched it. But Howard Keel is a fave of mine…loved “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” too.

  11. Everytime anybody mentions that musical, Doris Day’s voice starts up in my mind…
    “Oh, the Deadwood Stage is a comin’ in over the plains…” and all the rest of it. So much fun. And I loved “Seven Brides,” too. Bet I’ve seen it half a dozen times.

  12. Ladies, our 2 sons loved Seven Brides on TV when they were young, probably the athletic, rollicking dancing. I too enjoy DD and her musical of C Jane.

    We enjoyed one night in Deadwood on the way back from Yellowstone in ’94- a girlfriend had a 2 room suite in an old-fashioned hotel and the boys watched Tremors while she & I talked late into the night in a poster bed. My memory is vague about the town.

    Sam Elliot as ANYONE! Be still my heart. Jeff is a favorite, as is Kevin and either Brolin, father and son.

    Agree about the Power of the Pen!

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