Wild Bill Hickok is remembered for his services in Kansas as sheriff of Hays City and marshal of Abilene, where his ironhanded rule helped to tame two of the most lawless towns on the frontier. He is also remembered for the cards he was holding when he was shot dead -- a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights -- since known as the dead man's hand.Early Years
A legend during his life and considered one of the American west's premier gunfighters, James Butler ("Wild Bill") Hickok was born May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, Illinois.
The son of William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok, he was by all accounts a master marksman from an early age.
Hickok moved west in 1855 to farm and joined General James Lane's Free State (antislavery) forces in Kansas. He was later elected constable of Monticello Township in Johnson County, Kansas.
For the next several years, Hickok worked as a stagecoach driver. During the Civil War he found employment as a teamster and spy for the Union Army.Birth of a Legend
Hickok's iconic status is rooted in a shootout in July 1861 in what came to be known as the McCanles Massacre in Rock Creek, Nebraska. The incident began when David McCanles, his brother William and several farmhands came to the station demanding payment for a property that had been bought from him. Hickok, just a stable-hand at the time, killed three men, despite being severely injured.
The story quickly became newspaper and magazine fodder. Perhaps most famously, Harper's New Monthly Magazine printed an account of the story in 1867, claiming Hickok had killed 10 men.
In July of 1865, in Springfield, Missouri's town square, Hickok killed Davis Tutt, an old friend who -- after personal grudges escalated -- became an enemy. The two men faced each other sideways for a "quick draw" duel, where each quickly turned and drew their weapons before firing. Hickock was the first to draw his weapon, and shot Tutt instantly, at a close range.
Hickok himself did little to diminish the attention. His legend only grew further when other stories about his fighting prowess surfaced. One story claimed he killed a bear with his bare hands and a bowie knife. The Harper's piece also told the story of how Hickok had pointed to a letter "O" that was "no bigger than a man's heart." Standing some 50 yards away from his subject, Hickok "without sighting his pistol and with his eye" rang off six shots, each of them hitting the direct center of the letter.
Press reports increased after he was romantically linked to Martha Jane, also known as "Calamity Jane," who'd become famous for her riding and shooting skills.Final Years
Following his Civil War service, Hickok moved to Kansas, where was appointed sheriff in Hays City and marshal of Abilene. Both towns had become outposts for lawless men before Hickok arrived and turned things around.
Overall, it was reported that Hickok had killed more than 100 men during his lifetime.
But the frontier called to him, and Hickok returned. During a heated poker game in 1876 in Deadwood, South Dakota,
he was shot and killed by Jack McCall, whose motives for the murder were never revealed. McCall was convicted for murder and hanged.
Meanwhile, even in death, Hickok's legend grew. The cards he was holding at the time -- a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights -- came to be known as "the dead man's hand."