Two 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?