THE MURDER OF WILD BILL HICKOK
& The Hanging of the Dirty Coward Jack McCall
On this date, January 3, 1877, a man named Jack McCall was sentenced to death in Yankton, Dakota Territory for the murder of one of the most famous men in the west, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. By the time he went to the gallows, McCall was one of the most hated men in the country. Sadly, though, Hickok may have seen it coming – for legends abound that he had eerie premonitions of his own death.
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok – one of the first of what became known as the “gunfighters” of the Old West
James Butler Hickok was born on a farm near Homer (now Troy Grove), Illinois and was raised with a taste for danger, having been exposed to it throughout his life. His father, William Alonzo Hickok, was an ardent abolitionist and allowed his farm to be used as a station on the Underground Railroad. As a boy, Hickok often helped lead slaves to safety.
In 1855, he traveled with his brother, Lorenzo, to St. Louis and then on to Kansas, which was then being torn apart by pro-slavery and anti-slavery militias. Hickok joined the ranks of Jim Lane, leader of an anti-slavery group known as the Red-Legs. Learning that their mother was ill, Lorenzo returned home to Illinois, but Hickok stayed on, serving as the constable of a small town called Monticello.
There was little work for Hickok there, aside from locking up an occasional drunk. He kept busy by homesteading and then took a job as a stage driver on the Santa Fe Trail. In 1860, he became a freighter and one day, along the Raton Pass, he was attacked and mauled by a bear. Hickok managed to kill the beast with two guns and a knife but he was badly injured. He recuperated in Kansas City and then went back to work at the Rock Street Station in Nebraska. While he was working for the freight line there, he befriended a hunter and cavalry scout named William Cody, who went on to become known as the famous Buffalo Bill. They became great friends and Hickok often visited the Cody home in Leavenworth, Kansas.
In October 1861, Hickok hired out as a freighter for the Union army, based in Sedalia, Missouri. He later worked as a spy for General Samuel R. Curtis and served under General John C. Fremont. It was said that Hickok greatly impressed his friends and officers by showing a deadly speed and accuracy with a gun. At the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862, he was said to have picked off 36 Confederate soldiers in a matter of minutes. It was during the war that Hickok earned his nickname Wild Bill. One report has it that he was given the name to distinguish him from his brother, Lorenzo, who was known as “Tame Bill.” Another story has it that Hickok stopped a lynch mob from hanging a young man and a woman shouted, “Good for you, Wild Bill!” Regardless of how he earned it, the name stuck and it followed Hickok to the grave and beyond.
After the war was over, Hickok settled in Springfield, Missouri, and during his time there, he made history. Hickok was playing cards on July 20, 1865 and got into a quarrel with a former friend named Dave Tutt. During the altercation, Tutt took Hickok’s prized Waltham pocket watch and refused to give it back. He stated that he would wear it the next day in market square and Hickok promised him that if he did, he would pay for it with his life. The following day, Tutt strolled down the street, wearing the watch. He stood in the dusty road, about 75 feet away from where Hickok waited, leaning against a porch post. Hickok warned the other man, “Don’t come any closer, Dave!”
Tutt kept coming and he reached for his gun as he did so. Tutt fired first but the shot went wildly into the air. It was said that Hickok’s hand moved so fast that it blurred. He cleared leather with his right hand, steadied the pistol with his left, and fired one shot. The bullet struck Tutt in the chest and he died instantly. It was said Tutt was dead before his body hit the street.
The American West had just seen its first recorded showdown.
The pistol remained in Hickok’s hand. He turned to where several of Tutt’s friends stood watching and spoke to them, “Are you satisfied, gentlemen? Put up your shooting irons or there will be more dead men here.” None of the others dared face him. Hickok reclaimed his pocket watch from the dead man’s coat and he surrendered himself to the local sheriff. He was cleared of all charges on August 5.
The following month, Hickok ran for marshal of Springfield but lost the election. On that same day, a writer for Harper’s Magazine named Colonel George Ward Nichols arrived in town, looking for material for an article that he was writing about the West. He was introduced to Hickok and told the story of the gunfight. Nichols published the story, now very sensationalized, in February 1867. Later that year, a story called "Wild Bill the Indian Slayer" appeared and caught the attention of the public, whose thirst for Western adventure was beginning to grow. It wasn’t long before Wild Bill Hickok became a household name.
Unfortunately for Hickok, though, fame didn’t put food on the table. He ran for the Ellsworth County Sheriff’s office in November but was defeated again. After that, he turned to scouting and worked briefly for Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. In early 1868, he joined William "Buffalo Bill" Cody to supervise prisoner relocation from Fort Hays to Topeka, Kansas. He left the service in February 1869 and worked at various jobs in the Colorado Territory.
Hickok eventually became a lawman. He drifted to Hays City, Kansas, and in the summer of 1869, he was elected sheriff. On August 22, a local tough named Bill Mulvey started to shoot up the town. Hickok, determined to show the lawless element that he meant business, ordered Mulvey to surrender his guns or be arrested. The drunken Mulvey, who was accompanied by a number of friends who were just as intoxicated, shouted that he would never be arrested. He fumbled for his gun and Hickok shot him. Mulvey was rushed to the doctor’s office but he died the next morning.
Hays City was a wild town in those days, serving as a freight and cattle center, and it attracted some of the most bloodthirsty gunmen in the region. Murders were common, justified or not. Hickok’s time in Hays City ended in July 1870. Aside from the cattlemen, teamsters and gamblers, he also had to contend with drunken cavalrymen from nearby Fort Hays. On July 17, Hickok was in a saloon when seven intoxicated troopers jumped him and held him down. One of them placed a six-gun next to Hickok’s head and pulled the trigger but the gun misfired. Hickok managed to get to his feet and he pulled his pistols, shooting Private Jerry Lanihan through the wrist and knee and another trooper, John Kile, in the stomach. The rest of the troopers backed off and Hickok backed out of the saloon. Lanihan survived his wounds but Kile died the next day. General Phillip Sheridan, commander at the fort, was furious with the gunfighter and ordered Hickok arrested. By that time, though, Hickok had already left town.
He ended up in Abilene, Kansas, following the card games and the rich pockets of the inebriated cowboys who ended up in town after months on the trail. Hickok found easy pickings for his card-playing skills. Abilene was one of the roughest towns in the west at the time, so it’s no surprise that Mayor Joseph McCoy tapped Hickok to serve as the town’s sheriff. He was appointed with a salary of $150 a month, which supplemented his poker games. His first act as sheriff was to ban firearms within the city limits.
On October 5, 1871, a dangerous gunman and gambler named Phil Coe led about 50 cowhands into Abilene, where they proceeded to start drinking and generally raising hell. Hickok warned Coe and the others to behave themselves but at about 9:00 p.m., a shot was fired outside the Alamo Saloon and Hickok went to investigate. When he arrived, he saw a dozen of the cowhands, including Coe, with guns in their hands. Coe admitted that he had fired the shot after a stray dog had nipped at his ankle. Hickok drew his guns, ordering Coe to give up his pistols. Coe drew his own guns and immediately fired twice at Hickok from a distance of about 15 feet. Both bullets cut through Hickok’s coat. Hickok only fired one time but his bullet plowed into Coe’s groin. He was carried away and died in agony three days later.
In the confusion, Hickok’s friend Mike Williams rushed to help. Hickok saw only a flash of movement and thought that he was being ambushed by one of the other cowhands. He spun and fired and shot Williams dead by mistake. Hickok paid for his friend’s funeral and plunged into a dark depression. He was said to have never fired another shot at any man.
By 1872, Hickok was both famous and broke. He decided to try and cash in on his image and he launched a theater production in Niagara Falls, New York, called "The Daring Buffalo Chase of the Plains." It boasted a number of western characters, Indians and even real buffalo, but no audience. The show soon closed and Hickok sold six of the buffalo to pay train fare home for the Indians who retired from show business.
The following year, Hickok joined up with Buffalo Bill Cody for a stage show called "Scouts of the Prairie." This endeavor proved to be much more successful and Hickok stayed with the show for seven months. Although steadily working, Hickok took to drinking, depressed at the idea of having to “play act” to earn a living, and he soon left the show.
Although no one knew it, Hickok’s drinking was likely due to other reasons than just depression over stage acting. He was also losing his vision to glaucoma. He drifted across the West, playing poker and winning enough money to stay just ahead of the game. In 1874, he was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, when he ran into an old flame named Agnes Lake. The two of them were married on March 5, 1876, but after a short honeymoon in Cincinnati, they parted ways. Hickok was off to hunt gold in the Dakota Territory and in April 1876, rode into Deadwood.
The wild streets of Deadwood, Dakota Territory
Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory, was sometimes referred to as the "wildest gold town in the West." It was a place where murder was sometimes a daily occurrence and many a man had his life cut short in the streets, saloons and brothels of this violent town. It was incorporated in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory in 1876. The city was named for the dead trees that were found in the narrow canyon (Deadwood Gulch) and homes and building were constructed along the steep sides of the canyon.
Deadwood came into existence thanks to the Black Hills gold rush of 1874. At the time, the Black Hills belonged to the American Indians and trespassing and prospecting in the mountains were forbidden. Thanks to secret incursions by soldiers and gold hunters, though, it was soon learned that the Black Hills were rich with gold. Soon, packs of men were squatting illegally in the region and had to be removed by the authorities. The military realized that it was impossible to keep the prospectors out, so the government embarked on another round of treaties with the Indians. They tried to postpone the settlement of the area but the onslaught of gold hunters made it impossible. Eventually, the land was simply seized and the Indians were moved out.
The prospectors flooded the area and settlement came to Deadwood Gulch. Tents and shacks began to sprout up in the area and were quickly serviced by saloons, suppliers, opportunists and prostitutes.
Legend had it that Hickok had a premonition of death as soon as he arrived at the rough and tumble mining camp. He reportedly said to his friend Charlie Utter, "Those fellows over across the creek have laid it out to kill me. And they’re going to do it or they ain’t. Anyway, I don’t stir out of here unless I’m carried out."
Hickok friend, Calamity Jane – Martha Jane Cannary
Hickok had several friends with him in Deadwood, including Utter and the famed military scout, Martha Jane Cannary, who was best known as “Calamity Jane.” Jane had been born in Missouri but spent her formative years in Wyoming, raising her younger siblings after the death of their mother. She received little or no formal education but was literate and spent most of her life in the wilderness. In 1870, Jane signed on as a scout and adopted the uniform of a soldier. She mostly lost touch with her siblings after that, preferring to live a wild and unsettled life fighting in campaigns with the American Indians. In 1875, Jane’s detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River, under General Crook. Carrying important dispatches, she swam across the Platte River and traveled 90 miles to deliver them, despite the fact that she was exhausted, soaked and cold. Not surprisingly, she became very ill afterward and spent weeks recuperating at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. In July 1876, she joined in with Charlie Utter’s wagon train, heading to Deadwood. It was here that she first met Wild Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims. While living in Deadwood, Jane sometimes worked as a prostitute for Madam Dora DuFran, and later worked for her as a cook and in the laundry.
Hickok had earned himself many enemies over the years, working as a lawman, but none of them hated him as much as a small, cross-eyed man named Jack McCall. On August 1, McCall lost $110, his entire savings, to Hickok in a card game. Even though Hickok loaned the man enough money to have breakfast, McCall swore revenge.
The “dirty coward” Jack McCall, who lost money to Hickok and vowed revenge. He shot him in the back the next day and got away with it – for a time.
On the afternoon of August 2, Hickok walked into the No. 10 Saloon and found a game in progress between Carl Mann, the owner of the establishment, Charles Rich and an ex-riverboat captain named William R. Massie. They invited Hickok to sit in and Wild Bill said he would if Rich, who had the seat against the wall, would give up his seat to him. He was always uneasy when he was unable to get a seat that faced the door. Rich made a joke about it and rather than pursue the issue, Hickok sheepishly took a chair with his back to the door.
By late afternoon, Hickok was losing badly to Massie. Still, he held a promising hand: two black aces, two black eights and a jack of diamonds. Just a little after 4 p.m. Jack McCall entered the saloon and ordered a drink at the bar. He slowly walked up behind Hickok, pulled out an old six-gun and aimed it at Hickok’s back. He shouted, “Damn you, take that!” McCall then jerked the trigger.
The bullet slammed into the back of Wild Bill’s skull, exited just under his right cheekbone and struck Captain Massie’s forearm, just above his left wrist. (Massie never had this slug removed and carried it with him until his death in 1910. It is now buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis) Hickok died without knowing what had happened to him. He fell forward onto the table and his cards, known today as the "Dead Man’s Hand," slipped out of his fingers and fell to the floor.
McCall turned his pistol on the onlookers and dared them to come after him. He ran out of the rear door and cries of anger and dismay followed him into the alley. Hickok’s friends found McCall hiding in a butcher shop less than a half-hour later. A trial was organized by the following morning, only to adjourn in the afternoon for Hickok’s funeral. When the hearing went back into session, McCall claimed that Hickok had killed his brother in Hays City in 1869, but could offer no proof of this. Regardless, a jury found him not guilty, to the dismay of Hickok’s friends and the prosecutor, a lawyer named May.
McCall remained in Deadwood a free man, but he became nervous thanks to threats from Hickok’s friends and angry local residents. May claimed that the jury had been paid off in the trial and he harassed and followed McCall everywhere. He would not rest, he vowed, until justice had been done.
May tracked McCall to Laramie and had him arrested. He had found a loophole in the law that said that since Deadwood wasn’t supposed to exist because of the Indian treaties, no court decision made there was actually legal. A new trial was held in Yankton, Dakota Territory, and on January 3, 1877, McCall was sentenced to death. He appealed the sentence but President Grant refused to intervene. McCall went to the gallows on March 1, 1877. He stood trembling on the scaffold, begging for someone to save him, and he cried out just once before he dropped to his death.
Hickok was buried in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery but the local legends say that he does not rest there. Many believe that because he died unaware of what was about to happen to him, his confused and angry spirit still walks in Deadwood.
Steve and Charlie Utter (right) at Hickok’s grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery
It has even been suggested that Hickok knew that he might die soon and that if possible, he planned to return to this world. A short time before that fateful day in the No.10 Saloon, Hickok posted a letter to his wife, Agnes. In it he wrote:
Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife--- Agnes---and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.
Was he planning to stay behind? Whether he planned it or not, some say that he has remained here. In the years since 1876, a shadowy figure has frequently been reported inside the old No. 10 Saloon, which remains a landmark in Deadwood. Others claim to have glimpsed a figure in the doorway of the building, looking out and perhaps seeking someone. It is believed this mysterious figure is that of Wild Bill Hickok, still in Deadwood after all these years.