Wild Bill Hickok
A legend during his life and considered one of the American west’s premier gunfighters, James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok was born May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, Illinois. The son of William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok, he was by all accounts a master marksman from an early age.
Hickok moved west in 1855 to farm and joined General James Lane’s Free State (antislavery) forces in Kansas. He was later elected constable of Monticello Township in Johnson County, Kansas.
For the next several years, Hickok worked as a stagecoach driver. During the Civil War he found employment as a teamster and spy for the Union Army.
Wild Bill Hickok’s iconic status is rooted in a shootout in July 1861 in what came to be known as the McCanles Massacre in Rock Creek, Nebraska. The incident began when David McCanles, his brother William and several farmhands came to the station demanding payment for a property that had been bought from him. Hickok, just a stable-hand at the time, killed the three men, despite being severely injured.
The story quickly became newspaper and magazine fodder. Perhaps most famously, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine printed an account of the story in 1867, claiming Hickok had killed 10 men. Overall, it was reported that Hickok had killed over 100 men during his lifetime.
During the Civil War, Wild Bill Hickok served in the Union Army as a civilian scout and later a provost marshal. Though no solid record exists, he is believed to have served as a Union spy in the Confederate Army before his discharge in 1865.
In July, 1865, in Springfield, Missouri’s town square, Hickok killed Davis Tutt, an old friend who — after personal grudges escalated — became an enemy. The two men faced each other sideways for a duel. Tutt reached for his pistol but Hickok was the first to draw his weapon, and shot Tutt instantly, from approximately 75 yards. This is 3/4 the length of a football field.
Wild Bill Hickok’s legend only grew further when other stories about his fighting prowess surfaced. One story claimed he killed a bear with his bare hands and a bowie knife.
The Harper’s piece also told the story of how Hickok had pointed to a letter “O” that was “no bigger than a man’s heart.” Standing some 50 yards away from his subject, Hickok “without sighting his pistol and with his eye” rang off six shots, each of them hitting the direct center of the letter.
On March 5, 1876, he married Agnes Thatcher Lake, an owner of a circus in Cheyenne, Wyoming territory. He left his wife a few months later to seek his fortune in the goldfields of South Dakota. It was here that he supposedly became romantically linked to Martha Jane Canary, also known as “Calamity Jane,” but most historians discount any such amorous relationship between the two.
Wild Bill Hickok was buried in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876, why was the bullet that killed him buried in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1910?
You already know the answer if you know about Bill Massie, and if you don’t, you need to.
Massie was a Missouri River steamboat pilot who went in search of riches when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. He didn’t find metal in a mine, but in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood on August 2, 1876.
Massie preferred poker to prospecting, and he was pretty good at it too. He had been playing at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon most of the day, in a spirited game with saloon owner Carl Mann, Charlie Rich and a fourth guy who lost his stake and left. When Hickok came into the saloon, he was offered the vacant seat at the table.
Hickok hesitated. He never sat with his back to the room, so he asked Rich if he would change seats with him. But Rich liked his seat against the wall just fine. Hickok sat down, directly across from Massie.
As they played, Massie won big. Hickok finally had a hand he thought was a winner—reportedly a pair of aces and a pair of eights—but he never got a chance to play it. Jack McCall walked into the bar and shot Hickok through the head.
The ball of lead exited Hickok’s right cheek and lodged in Massie’s left wrist. Massie, at first, thought Hickok had shot him in anger. He apparently stared at Hickok in disbelief, before he realized what had actually happened.
Massie was subpoenaed to testify at McCall’s trial, but he refused. “I won’t go down there to testify! Think of the disgrace it would be for my daughters to have it in all the papers that I’d been in a poker game where a man was murdered,” he said (apparently not yet understanding the historical significance of the murder). He admitted he also feared for his job. In the end, a bench warrant was issued, and Massie was forced to appear—a living evidence exhibit, as he showed off the murdering bullet in his wrist.
Massie went back to steamboats and eventually caught on to the significance of his wrist jewelry. Whenever Massie docked in Bismarck, North Dakota, he “enjoyed swaggering around the town, reminding his friends that the ‘bullet that killed Wild Bill has come to town,’” reported Dakota Datebook, a radio program aired by Prairie Public Broadcasting.
That bullet went to Massie’s grave with him, when he died in 1910 and was buried in a St. Louis cemetery.
Arizona’s Journalist of the Year, Jana Bommersbach has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.