After being fired as town marshal of Abilene, Kansas, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok lived another five years. But they weren’t good ones.
Unlike William F. Cody, Hickok couldn’t adjust to the changing West.
It was becoming less wild. His scouting days were over—the Indian wars were rapidly coming to an end.
(In June, 1876, barely two months before his own death, the Sioux and Cheyanne would wipe out the other famous “Long Hair” of the plains–George Armstrong Custer–at the battle of Little Bighorn.)
And most towns, like Abilene, increasingly had little use for lead-slinging lawmen like Hickok.
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok
Worst of all, he was going blind—either from a venereal disease he had contracted or from the glare of too many prairie sunrises.
In 1873, Hickok tried his hand as an actor in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But he was a terrible performer—and knew it.
The fault, however, did not lie entirely with him. Even Laurence Oliver would have rebelled at spouting lines like: “Fear not, fair maiden, for you are ever safe with Will Bill, who has sworn to defend to the death your maidenly virtue.”
Not that the audiences cared. They had come to see legendary plainsmen–such as Hickok and Cody–in the flesh, not great theater.
Hickok asked Cody to release him from his contract. Cody refused. So Hickok once again turned to his guns for a solution.
In this case, it meant shooting blanks into the legs and buttocks of “dead” Indians who suddenly sprang to life and rushed off the stage. And one night, Hickok put a real bullet through a stage light that was hurting his already sensitive eyes.
That, finally, convinced Cody that Hickok’s acting days were over.
In March, 1876, he married Agnes Lake Thatcher, a circus acrobat several years his senior.
In April, he told Agnes he was heading for the gold rush country of Deadwood, South Dakota. After he made his fortune, he would send for her.
But she never saw him again.
Deadwood was the sort of town the National Rifle Association wants to see replicated across modern-day America. Everyone wore a gun, and there was no town ordinance against doing so. Nor were there any law-enforcers like Hickok to protect the public from the kill-crazy antics of liquored-up gunmen.
Grave of “Wild Bill Hickok”
Worse for Hickok, he had two strikes against him: His reputation as a matchless gunfighter had preceeded him–and his failing vision put him at a disadvantage in backing it up.
Arriving in Deadwood, he quickly decided that the strenuous life of a gold-miner was not for him. Instead, he would seek his fortune as he often had—in saloons as a gambler.
And, as he had so often, he spent more of his time losing money than making it.
On August 2, 1876, his long trail of bad luck finally ran out.
He had always sat with his back to a wall, as a precaution against ambush. On this afternoon, he found his preferred seat taken by another gambler named Charles Rich. Hickok asked Rich to trade places with him, but when the latter refused, Hickok didn’t press the matter.
Hickok paid no attention as a whiskey bum named Jack McCall walked around to the corner of the saloon to where the ex-lawman was playing.
The previous night, Hickok had won considerable money from McCall in a poker game–and had generously given him back enough to buy something to eat.
(The 1995 movie, Wild Bill, depicted McCall as Hickok’s illegitimate son seeking vengeance on the father who had abandoned him. But this was completely false. The one saving grace to this otherwise absurd film was Jeff Bridges’ gritty performance as Hickok.)
Suddenly, McCall pulled a double-action .45 from under his coat, shouted “Take that!” and shot Hickok in the back of the head.
Hickok died instantly. He was 39.
As he slid from the table, he dropped the cards he had been holding—a pair of eights and another pair of Aces, which has ever since been known as “the dead man’s hand.”
McCall was “tried” by a mining court. He claimed that Hickok had murdered his brother and he had sought revenge. He was acquitted.
He headed for Wyoming, where he incessantly bragged that he had killed the famous “Wild Bill” Hickok.
McCall was arrested in Laramie and charged with murder. The trial in Deadwood was found to have been invalid—owing to the town’s being in Indian territory and outside the reach of United States law.
Once again forced to stand trial, McCall found himself convicted. On March 1, 1877, he was hanged. Later, it was discovered that McCall had never had a brother.