POKER players will know the card hand of two aces and two eights as the ‘Dead Man’s Hand’. It was the hand that Wild Bill Hickok was playing in a saloon in Deadwood City, South Dakota, when he was shot in the back by a man named Jack McCall. There is no mention of what the fifth card was.
Will Bill, even in his own lifetime, had been a Wild West legend. When Dime Novels started, Hickok became one of the very early heroes. He was the equivalent of the modern Batman or Superman and similarly many of his exploits were greatly exaggerated or even totally invented. He had been a stage coach driver, hunter, army scout, gunfighter and marshall.
James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois in 1837. From an early age, he was an outstanding marksman and his life was defined by a gun. Each episode ended with some incident that caused Hickok to move on. It is said that he killed more than 30 men during his life. At 18, he got into a fight with a neighbour and, thinking he had killed him, Hickok moved to Kansas where he met up with another young man, an army scout, William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.
One of his early jobs was with a freight company, an early version of the pony express. While with them, he is reputed to have killed a bear but was seriously injured. While recovering, he looked after one of their stations in Nebraska. Evidently, this had not been fully paid for and when the owner, David Mc Canles, arrived looking for full payment, he was shot by Hickok. He became Hickok’s very first victim. One of his more famous fights was in Missouri over gambling debts with a man named Tutt. As with McCanles, Hickok was charged with murder but again acquitted.
During the Civil War, he was a wagon master and scout with the Union Army and then disappeared for about a year, during which time he was said to have been a spy in the Deep South. After the war, he drifted around the West, quite often working as either marshall or sheriff and other times devoting all his time to gambling. However, he was sometimes described as a drunkard and was arrested several times for vagrancy.
Twice he tried earning a living on the stage. His first play, The Daring Buffalo Chasers of the Plains, was a flop and he went quickly back to being sheriff. Some years later, he joined Buffalo Bill in a play, Scouts of the Plains, but did not continue on to join his Wild West Show.
He married in 1876 but a few months later, went west again following the discovery of gold in South Dakota. It was there he was dealt aces and eights. He always sat with his back to the wall but when he entered the saloon, the only chair left was with its back to the door. Nobody would agree to change places with him. It was there that Crooked Nose Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
Wild Bill Hickok, hero of the Wild West, played his last game of poker in Deadwood City on August 2, 1876 – 137 years ago this week.