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Mythbuster: Wild Bill Hickok

James Butler Hickok was born on May 27th 1837 and was later known as “Wild Bill” Hickok. He is a legend of the old American west and was known for being a scout, a great marksman, and a lawman. In his later years he became a professional gambler, drank a lot and often got into brawls over card games. This is what would lead to his death. Hickok was playing poker in a Dakota Territory saloon and was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall. McCall’s reasoning for killing Hickok was because of a dispute over $50.00. “Wild Bill” is a legend of folklore and has been featured in many dime novels of his time. Though he had adventures and was known for killing hundreds, how much of the story is fact?
Wild Bill Hickok

An article written by George Nichols appeared in Harpers Weekly in February, 1867. Nichols wrote an exaggerated story about “Wild Bill” and how he was known for killing hundreds of men. Nichols tells the story of Hickok fighting a man named Dave Tutt over a game of cards. It was stated that both Bill and Dave walked into the square of town and drew their weapons, whereupon of their fates would be sealed. “Bill never shoots twice at the same man, and his ball went through Dave’s heart.” [1] Bill was known for his great marksmanship and was not afraid to kill.

“Wild Bill” was portrayed as a hero, and an amazing marksman, his legend was that he had killed and had sworn that he killed over 100 men, either in self defense or in a performance of official duty. Though he proclaimed his murders, it is clear that 20 to 30 killings seem more reasonable. Only seven killings have been confirmed by Joseph G. Rosa, who has written 3 books on “Wild Bill”. Rosa writes, “His reputation as a man-killer has been grossly magnified…at this date the record shows seven known victims and several probables.” [3] Rosa has invested time in to researching all he could on James Hickok and has only found documents to confirm seven killings by Hickok.

James Hickok was known to be a man peaceful, mild-mannered, and courteous man. Because Hickok was a generally nice, peaceful person to be around, it gave others reason to doubt that “Wild Bill” was a real man. They focused more on his adventures and stories than on the man he really was. He was actually very popular with the ladies as well; he was a tall thin man, with broad shoulders and attracted attention from many. Hickok’s name spread and was known because of the “dime novel”. He was ultimately knows as one of the first dime novel hero’s. The adventures that were portrayed through the dime novels made Hickok seem heroic, untouchable, someone children could look up to. The stories told were highly exaggerated by Hickok. The writers printed stories that the public wanted to hear.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was a man who traveled the west, got into brawls, and played professional poker. He was gentle and nice, yet was known for shoot outs and for being a great marksman. Though many wanted to believe in the folklore and the stories told, about “Wild Bill”, the exaggeration of the truth leaves us with fantasy. It is not fully denied that “Wild Bill” has killed hundreds, yet not all 100 killings can be accounted for, and may never be accounted for. Was “Wild Bill” a ruthless killer? Just how exaggerated are the stories? What we do know is that he was a man who was loved by many, a man who killed for reason, not fun.

Author: Andrea Punch

Works Cited

[1] George Ward Nichols and the Legend of Wild Bill Hickok Author(s): Joseph G. Rosa Source: Arizona and the West, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), pp. 135-162 Published by: Journal of the Southwest. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40168620

[2] Hart, Louis. “WILD BILL HICKOK HAD A WAY WITH SIX-SHOOTERS, AND A PAIR OF IVORY-HANDLED NAVY COLTS SUITED HIM BEST.” Academic search complete. Weider History Group, Apr. 2000. Web. 8 Nov. 2009. .

[3] Rosa, Joseph G. They called him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1974.

[4] “Wild Bill Hickok.” “Wild Bill” Hickok. Web. 08 Oct. 2009. <http://www.abacom.com/~jkrause/hickok.html>.

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