Today in History: Wild Bill Hickok gets his brains blown out over game of poker gone terribly wrong
Ever heard of the “Dead-Man’s Hand?”
The West was full of bad asses. Times were tougher back then and they made tougher people. Gunslingers prowled the streets, whiskey was safer to drink than water, everyone had venereal diseases, showers were a rare treat and it wasn’t unheard of to get your head blown off over a game of cards.
Which, was exactly what happened one Wild Bill Hickok, in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, 143 years ago, today.
He went by many names: William, Bill, Duck Bill, Wild Bill, Shainghai Bill… he was called just about anything but his true name: James Butler Hickok.
And, let me tell you, this dude was about as gritty they come. He was a renowned gunman, lawman, serviceman, vigilante, bear-wrestler, actor, scout, and dueler; famous for his wit, his speed with a revolver, his flowing blonde hair and long frowning moustache.
The man, the myth, the legend: Wild Bill Hickok
No one knows exactly how many lives he took during his gunfighting days, but we know for sure he killed his first man at a train station, in “self-defense,” at 30 years old. Being a nice guy, Wild Bill paid the dude’s widow $35 for her troubles (which, in his defense, was all the money he had at the time).
Then, he went to go fight the damn rebel confederates in the Civil War, before embarking on a strange and duel-spattered career in law-enforcement. He marshalled towns, scouted, became a sheriff of Hayes, Kansas, and all the while he was busy killing fools, shooting criminals, trouble-makers, drunks, Indians and drunk Indians.
And Texans. Apparently, Wild Bill Hickok had thing against Texans (likely leftover animosity from his days fighting to preserve the Union).
Perhaps his most famous gunfight encounter was with a man named Bill Mulvey. Mulvey was drunkenly rampaging through Hays, Hikok’s town, shooting bottles and mirrors out of saloons, striking fear into the townspeople and claiming that he’d come to kill Wild Bill, himself.
Well, word of Mulvey’s debauchery reached Sherriff Wild Bill, and when Mulvey came for him, he was ready.
The drunken criminal was on horseback, charging, his rifle drawn and fully cocked, when Wild Bill stepped out into the street, waving his hands.
“Stop,” the Sherriff shouted, as if he was speaking to people behind Mulvey, “Don’t shoot him in the back, he’s drunk.”
Mulvey, hearing the Sheriff’s words, wheeled on his horse immediately, to face the fucker who would be so yellow-bellied as to shoot him from behind.
He realized Wild Bill’s trick, too late. The Sheriff pulled his gun with lightning speed, and blew Mulvey’s head straight off his shoulders.
Incidents like this seemed to follow Wild Bill everywhere he went. He was mauled by a bear once, attacked in saloons by soldiers he thought were his friends, won gun-fight after gun-fight, bested his enemies, and outsmarted those who would otherwise have him done in.
But on August 2nd (hey, that’s today!) of 1876, one of these incidents put an end to Wild Bill’s Wild West antics in a small town called Deadwood.
Bill apparently had a bad feeling when he entered that town, remarking to one of his friends as they entered it, that he thought he would be killed there.
Call it a prophecy.
On Bill’s first and last night in Deadwood (August 1st) he was hangin’ out at a local saloon. A spot opened up at a poker table and Bill sat down to play. Across from him sat the very man who would end his life, Jack McCall.
Well, McCall was apparently a pretty bad poker player. Or, at least, that night he was. Wild Bill whooped his ass so bad, that the famous gunman had to apologize to McCall, and even gave him money for breakfast the next day. Whatever people say about Wild Bill, at least he wasn’t a poor-winner.
Anyway, McCall didn’t take the loss very well. Despite Wild Bill’s apologies and breakfast donation, he was infuriated and insulted by the loss and the next night, the night of August 2nd, McCall returned to that saloon, walked right up behind his nemesis and pulled out his Colt .45 single action.
“Damn you! Take that!” McCall shouted, as he pulled the trigger.
Wild Bills head exploded all over the poker table. The bullet exited through his left cheek and hit the man sitting across from Hikok in the wrist. The famous gunslinger slumped over the table, dead, still holding his cards: two black aces, and two black eights.
A hand that would become known to history as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”
The "Dead Man's Hand."
So ended the adventures of one of the West’s greatest heroes.
That was today, in history.