One of the most famous lawmen of the Old West, James Butler Hickok (1837~1876), was also an avid gambler, whose untimely death came while playing a hand of poker. He was murdered, shot in the back, in a Deadwood saloon on August 2, 1876. That killing became so well known that the cards Hickok was holding—two pair; Aces and eights—are now known as the “deadman’s hand.” But that’s just part of the legend of the man known as “Wild Bill.”
The Gambling Gunfighter
Born in Homer, Illinois (now Troy Grove) on May 27, 1837, Hickok distinguished himself as a marksman at a very young age. He had a particular proficiency with pistols and was something of a local celebrity while still in his teens. In 1855, Hickok had a fight with boy named Charles Hudson that ended with both of them falling into a canal. Thinking Hudson dead, Hickok fled to the Kansas Territory, where he became a vigilante.
It was in Kansas that Hickok got his first nickname, “Duck Bill,” on account of his “sweeping nose and protruding upper lip.” He grew a moustache and took to referring to himself as “Wild Bill,” a moniker that stuck after 1861 when he killed the outlaw David McCanles in a shootout at Rock Creek Station.
Thereafter, Hickok signed on as a teamster for the Union Army in Missouri and served briefly (some say as a spy) in the Civil War. By 1865, he was mustered out of the service and settled in Springfield, Missouri, where he took up gambling as his profession. However, a “quick draw duel” over a gambling debt ended David Tutt’s life and caused Hickok to be arrested and tried for murder. Following an acquittal on the grounds of “a fair fight,” Hickok prudently left Missouri and headed back to Kansas, where he served several years as a Deputy U.S. Marshal.
The Latter Years
Hickok was elected City Marshal of Hays, Kansas and concurrently Sheriff of Ellis County in 1869. In his first month, Wild Bill killed two men in gunfights. There were other shootouts after that, including a gunfight with disorderly soldiers from the 7th U.S. Cavalry. Fed up with all the violence, the citizens failed to reelect Hickok in 1870, so he moved on to Texas, where he was elected Town Marshal of Abilene in 1871. There, too, the bullets would fly.
A shootout with Abilene saloon owner Phil Coe ended in tragedy, when a deputy ran toward Hickok to help out and the Marshal shot and killed him by mistake. The gunman gave up law enforcement shortly thereafter to take up less dangerous pursuits—acting as a marksman in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and playing cards to supplement his income.
In early 1876, at the age of 38, Hickok married Agnes Thatcher Lake, a 50-year-old circus proprietor in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. But a few months later he left his new bride to join a wagon train heading for the gold fields of South Dakota. It was there, in Deadwood, that he would seek his fortune, either in prospecting for the precious yellow metal or winning it from other prospectors at the card table.
Hickok had a habit of always sitting with his back to the wall when he gambled. On that fateful afternoon in August, the only seat available when he joined the poker game was a chair that put his back to a door. Twice Hickok asked another player to change seats with him; on both occasions he was refused. The rest is history. Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame upon its inception in 1979, and today poker is the game most closely associated with the Wild West.