Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Old West: Wild Bill Hickok - A Coward Meets His End

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was killed by Jack McCall in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, on August 2, 1876.

On that day, Hickok walked into Mann’s Saloon No.10 and walked up to some men playing poker and twice asked another player, Charles Rich, to change seats with him so that he could sit with his back to a wall.

Rich refused to switch chairs with him, and Hickok took the only empty chair at the table.

A former buffalo hunter named John McCall, who was also known as Jack McCall and "Broken Nose Jack," walked in unnoticed.

Once in McCall then walked around to the corner of the saloon where Hickok was sitting. Under his coat, McCall is said to have had his hand on a .45 caliber pistol.

An eye witness said that McCall came up slowly behind Hickok as if he were attempting to create the impression that he was just a casual observer of the game going on. 

Then, as everyone's attention was focused on the player opposite Hickok who had just placed his bet, Jack McCall moved into position just a few feet behind Hickok. 

He pulled his pistol, shouted, "Take that!" And right there, he shot Hickok in the back of the head.

The bullet hit Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The bullet exited through Hickok’s right cheek and actually hit another player, Captain Massie who sat across from him, in the left wrist.

Supposedly Hickok had lost his stake and was broke, and that he had just borrowed $50 from the house to continue playing.

When shot, he was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, all black. Today, more than a hundred years later, that hand is known as the "Dead Man’s Hand."

It is interesting to note that though Jack McCall was said to have used a .45 caliber handgun to shoot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head while Hickok sat at that poker table in Deadwood, South Dakota - it was later reported that he used a Model 1 Smith & Wesson pistol.

If so, then the Model 1 Smith and Wesson chambered a .22 caliber bullet. If that is the case, then it explains why Hickok was not as disfigured as a he really should have been by a .45 caliber round at close range.

I've read where McCall shot Hickok twice and when asked later, "why twice?" McCall answered, "because he was Wild Bill." And though this sounds like a great line, I haven't been able to verify it.

The first newspaper report of Hickok's death was published in Deadwood's only newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer, on August 5, 1876. The headlines read:

ASSASSINATION OF WILD BILL
HE WAS SHOT THROUGH THE HEAD

BY JOHN MC CALL

WHILE UNAWARE OF DANGER ARREST, TRIAL, & DISCHARGE OF THE ASSASSIN
WHO CLAIMS TO HAVE AVENGED A BROTHER'S DEATH IN KILLING WILD BILL

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
The text read: "On Wednesday about 3 o'clock the report stated that J.B. Hickok (Wild Bill) was killed. On repairing to the hall of Nuttall and Mann, it was ascertained that the report was too true. We found the remains of Wild Bill lying on the floor. The murderer, Jack McCall, was captured after a lively chase by many of the citizens, and taken to a building at the lower end of the city, and a guard placed over him. As soon as this was accomplished, a coroner's jury was summoned, with C.H. Sheldon as foreman, who after hearing all the evidence, which was the effect that, while Wild Bill and others were at a table playing cards, Jack McCall walked in and around directly back of his victim, and when within three feet of him raised his revolver, and exclaiming, "damn you, take that," fired; the ball entering at the back of the head, and coming out at the centre of the right check causing instant death, reached a verdict in accordance with the above facts " --end article
The motive for the killing is still debated today. There are all sorts of speculations as to why McCall shot Hickok.

Some say McCall may have been paid to kill Hickok, but the fact really is that no one knows. And honestly, McCall never did fess up to why he did it.

The trial took only two-hours at a Miners Court. There McCall claimed that he was avenging his brother who Hickok had supposedly killed. 

Some say there was a Lew McCall who had been killed by in Abilene, but it is unknown if he was related to McCall. Besides, when Lew McCall was killed in Abilene, but Hickok was not a lawman there at the time.

In fact, though Hickok claimed he'd killed well over 100 men, by all account he killed 7 men.

And yes, the last man he killed was his own deputy who Hickok shot by mistake.

And what about those 11 bullet wounds or the knife wound that supposedly went clean to the bone during his battle with the fictitious McCanles Gang back in 1861 that started his legend?

Well, upon Hickok's death, other than the fatal head wound of course, there were no scares of any sort found on Hickok’s body.

There were no indications that he was ever shot or stabbed in his past.

Imagine that! All of the many times that he said he was wounded in that fictitious epic battle were all lies. That find must have been heartbreaking for those who admired him.

As for McCall, we he was acquitted of the murder.

Supposedly a mule skinner by the nickname of Calamity Jane was reported as having led a mob which threatened to lynch McCall.

But in reality, at the time of Hickok’s killing and McCall trial, Calamity Jane was being held by military authorities. Some say for stealing horses.

McCall was subsequently re-arrested later after bragging about what he had done in Deadwood.

It just shows that when you've gotten away with murder, you really should keep your mouth shut.

A new trial was held. The authorities did not consider this to be Double Jeopardy situation.

Their reasoning was that at the time of his first trial, Deadwood was not recognized by the U.S. as a legitimately incorporated town because Deadwood was in Indian Territory the Court was a Miners Court and not an established Federal, State or Territorial Court.

This time McCall was found guilty and hanged.

It is said that Hickok was shot through the back of the head by a coward.

Many agree that Jack McCall was a coward, someone who was so afraid of Hickok because of his reputation - that he felt that it would be suicide to go up against him face to face.

For me, my opinion is that Jack McCall was certainly a coward. 

But, in a way, I also think that they were both two of a kind in that they were both cowards.

Hickok was a murdering coward for the way he shot an unarmed David McCanles in an ambush from behind a curtain in 1861.

That murderous act made Hickok famous. His so-called battle against the alleged McCanles Gang is what made him a legend.

But friends, there was no gang. He was never wounded as he claimed. He shot an unarmed man and two others both unarmed. That's a coward's way of doing business. 

Since I've had to come on here and defend how I see it, yes, to me, when Hickok shot an unarmed man from behind a curtain that act made him nothing more than a lowdown coward who didn't have enough cojones to face McCanles face to face.

When Jack McCall came up and shot him in the back of the head, it seems to me that it was just karma finally coming around to Hickok. The irony is that McCall was a cowardly as Hickok was back in 1861.

Hickok was a coward, someone who was so afraid of McCanles - because of his size and strength and reputation - so much so that he felt that it would be suicide to go up against him face to face.

Maybe McCall felt it would have been suicide to meet a dangerous man like Hickok? Who knows why assassins kill from behind.

It is nothing new in Old West History, look at John Wesley Hardin who was shot in the head from behind.

John Wesley Hardin, one of the truly bloodiest killers of the Old West, he was the real deal, and he was murdered by an off-duty policeman John Selman in a saloon in El Paso.

Selman went looking for Hardin. He found the famous gunman throwing dice at the bar of the Acme saloon. So without a word, Selman walked up behind Hardin and killed him with a shot in the head.

McCall did the same thing. Instead of meeting Hickok face to face, McCall choose to bushwhack Hickok.

I find it interesting that like Hickok getting away with murdering David McCanles years before - and that McCall had actually gotten away with murdering Wild Bill and evaded the hangman's noose as well. 

But unlike Hickok, McCall's mouth ran away with him and he was hung later after a second trial.

Hickok murdering McCanles made Hickok famous. McCall murdering Hickok made McCall famous. 
The Dead Man's Hand

They had something in common: They would become famous for killing someone that they couldn't face and had to take the coward's way out to kill.

My grandfather used to say, "God doesn't sleep!"

To me, the killing of Wild Bill Hickok was just a case of long overdue justice for the McCanles family - especially the boy who watched the whole thing take place. 

I find it interesting that justice for the McCanles Massacre of 1861 was brought to Hickok by someone just like himself - a back shooter.

More on the McCanles Massacre of 1861

Old West: Wild Bill Hickok - Frontier Hero or Bushwhacking Coward?

Tom Correa

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