Daily Archives: August 2, 2009

On This Day in Criminal History: Wild Bill Hickok

Aces and Eights. The “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Few people in American History have been as popular as William “Wild Bill” Hickok. He served as a Constable, a Sheriff, a Marshall, a Union scout during the Civil War, a scout for George Armstrong Custer during the Indian Wars, a stage actor, and a gunfighter. Folklore and movies tend to highlight this last “occupation.” It helped that Bill was famous for carrying a pair of silver-plated, ivory-handled Colts. He wore one on each hip, stuffed backwards beneath his belt or sash, where they could be easily snatched with a cross-draw. Way cool.


Bill even had a groupie. Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Cannary-Burke) followed him for years and even claimed they had once married. Not true, but she is buried next to him at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.


The Hollywood cliche of two men standing in the middle of the street, facing one another, guns on hip, each waiting for the other to make a move. Then the quick draw, one goes down, the other walks away. Remember the great Gary Cooper in 1952’s High Noon? This happened only rarely in the old west, most law men and bad guys preferring an ambush over possibly getting shot themselves.

But on July 21, 1865, Wild Bill just might have been involved in the very first such showdown. He and Davis Tutt apparently had a disagreement over whether Tutt could wear Hickok’s watch, which he was holding as collateral on a $35 gambling debt. Tutt wore the watch, Hickok took offense, and the two met in the street to settle the dispute. It is believed they stood about 75 yards apart, and given the inaccuracy of handguns at that time it is a minor miracle either hit the other. Turns out they shot at about the same time and indeed Tutt missed. Wild Bill didn’t. Tutt died in the street.

Hickok was arrested for murder. The charges were reduced to manslaughter and Bill was eventually tried but acquitted, mainly because it was deem to be a “fair fight.”

On August 2, 1876, Hickok played poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, a mining town in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory (now South Dakota). Hickok’s habit was to sit in a corner chair, facing the door so that no one could sneak up on him. This day there was no seat available so he sat with his back to the door. A fatal error.

Though no one is exactly sure what the motive was, the fact is that Jack McCall walked in, aimed his .45 caliber revolver at the back of Bill’s head, and pulled the trigger. Bill fell dead. He held a pair of aces and a pair of eights. The fifth card of his hand is still debated.

McCall was tried for murder and acquitted, but he made the mistake of bragging about what he had done. He was retried, convicted, and hanged. The US Constitutional protection against double jeopardy did not apply since the Dakota Territory was not part of the US, but rather was still Indian Territory.

Wild Bill Hickok


Posted by on August 2, 2009 in Interesting Cases, On This Day

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