James Butler Hickok, later known as “Wild Bill”, was born in Homer Illinois on May 27th 1837. He is one of history’s characters whose life was more colourful than the legends that grew around him. He was a 6ft 3in tall, wide shouldered, handsome man with auburn hair worn long and down to his shoulders in the fashion of a Plainsman and contemporaries speak of his clear grey eyes that “could see right through you”. Little is known of his early life apart from him being a good shot with a pistol, but at the age of eighteen he got into a fight with a Charles Hudson, during which, they both fell into a canal. Believing he had killed Hudson, he fled to Leavenworth in Kansas where he joined General Jim Lane’s vigilante Free State Army, also known as The Red Legs. It was here that he first met William Cody, later to become famous as “Buffalo Bill Cody”, who although only twelve years old, was working as a scout for the US Army. He also met George Custer, who was later to recall that Hickok was “A strange character, a Plainsman in every sense of the word whose skill in the use of rifle or pistol was unerring”.
The origin of his nickname is uncertain; he was sometimes called “Duck Bill” in his early years due to his long nose and sweeping upper lip and grew a moustache to cover it as soon as he was able. During his time with the Red Legs he was nicknamed “Shanghai Bill” and later “Wild Bill” a name allegedly given to him by an admiring woman when he and his brother Lorenzo apparently stopped a lynch mob in Independence Missouri, and it seems that he readopted the Wild Bill tag when he later became a lawman.
In 1858, he claimed a tract of land in Johnson County in Kansas and a year later was elected as one of four constables in Monticello Township. This employment did not last and he took a job with Russell, Wadell and Majors Freight Company, the owners of the Pony Express and it was while driving a freight team from Missouri to Santa Fe that he encountered a Cinnamon bear and her cubs blocking the trail. Hickok dismounted and later described how he shot the bear in the head, but the bullet bounced off the bear’s skull. The bear attacked Hickok, crushing him and grabbing his arm with its mouth, but Hickok managed to draw his knife and fatally slashed the bear’s throat. He was however, badly hurt with crushed chest, shoulder and arm and was bedridden four the next four months. He was then sent to Rock Creek Station in Nebraska to work as a stable hand while recovered from his wounds. The station was built on land that the company had recently purchased from Dave McCanles, a local resident. McCanles had been involved in a long running feud with the company over the second instalment of the payment for the land and on 16th December, 1861, McCanles, his son William and two farmhands, James Woods and James Gordon, called at the station’s office demanding payment, threatening the manager Horace Wellman. What happened next has long been disputed, but resulted in Hickok or Wellman shooting McCanles, Woods and Gordon.
Both were tried for murder, but judged to have acted in self defence. McCanles was the first man reputed to have been killed by Hickok in a gunfight.
He is thought to have spent the next year working for the Union Army as a scout, sniper and teamster at the outbreak of the Civil War, but in September 1862 he was discharged for reasons unknown. In late 1863, he found work as a Provost Marshall in Springfield Missouri, but resigned a year later to sign on as an army scout, (Five dollars a day, plus horse and equipment) with General John Samborn. It was here that he served with General Custer. Hickok was definitely a ladies man and could dazzle women with his easy charm. He was rumoured to have had an affair with Custer’s wife Libbie, who wrote of him in her book written in 1890, “Physically he was a delight to look upon. Tall, lithe and free in every motion”. He was mustered out in 1865 and began a life of drinking and gambling in Springfield. In “The History of Greene County Missouri” it was said of him at that time that he was, “By nature a ruffian, a drunken swaggering fellow who delighted when on a spree, to frighten nervous men and timid women”.
Hickok befriended a fellow gambler Davis Tutt, an ex Confederate soldier and the pair often loaned money to each other to finance a game. They later fell out in an argument over a woman and Hickok refused to play cards with Tutt who retaliated by financing other players in an attempt to bankrupt him. During one such game, Tutt was coaching Hickok’s opponent, but could not break Hickok’s winning streak. A frustrated Tutt demanded that Hickok repay a $40 dollar loan which he immediately did. Tutt then demanded another $35 from a previous card game. Hickok refused and said that he had “a memorandum” proving that he only owed $25. Tutt grabbed Hickok’s watch from the table, claiming it as collateral against the loan and the unfazed Hickok warned him that if he saw Tutt wearing the watch, he would shoot him.
When Tutt appeared the next day wearing the watch, Hickok tried to negotiate its return but Tutt stated that he now wanted $45. The two agreed not to fight over it and went for a drink together. It is not known what was said and, but Tutt later left the saloon He returned to the town square at 6 that evening as Hickok arrived from the other direction and warned him not to approach while wearing the watch. When both men were about 50 yards apart, they drew their guns and opened fire. Tutt’s shot missed, but Hickok’s struck Tutt in the chest killing him. The event was said to be the first recorded example of a quick draw duel. Hickok carried two 1836 Navy Colt cap and ball pistols in a sash around his waist with the butts forward enabling him to “Cross draw” and fire very quickly. Hickok stood trial for the shooting, but was acquitted on the grounds of “A fair fight”.
Hickok returned to gambling, but in the East, people were beginning to take an interest in the exploits of the colourful characters of the Wild West and newspapers and magazines began running articles on the lives of these “cowboys”. He gave a tongue in cheek interview to Harper’s New Monthly magazine in which he claimed to have killed “Hundreds of men”. Other publications quickly pointed out that the article was full of inaccuracies and that Hickok was lying about his tally. It is now thought that, being bemused by the attention, he deliberately exaggerated his exploits to the interviewers wind them up. The interviewers in turn, magnified his exploits and reported that he alone killed ten men at Rock Creek Station.
He later gave another interview in which he was asked, “How many men have you killed?” and he replied, “I suppose about a hundred”.
In 1868, he became sheriff of Hayes City Kansas, a rough place that needed strong policing. He was not afraid of using violence to keep the town under control and in August 1869, he shot and killed Bill Mulvey in a gunfight. Mulvey was drunk and refused Hickok’s order to drop his gun and continued shooting at lamps, windows and anything that moved. Mulvey holstered his weapon and then tried to draw, but Hickok put two bullets in him before he had even lifted his gun. The following month he shot Samuel Strwahun dead after he and his friends caused trouble in a saloon. Strawhun refused to put down his gun and threatened Hickok with a broken bottle whereupon he was shot dead. Some of the townspeople felt that he was too violent and in the next elections he lost to his deputy Pete Lanihan. He continued in the role as Lanihan’s deputy, although in reality, he remained in charge and old timers later recalled that his presence did much to keep the violence down.