Deadwood wild bill grave

By Mike Keleher

Dateline: Deadwood, SD. One hundred forty-two years ago.

On August 02, 1876, western celebrity James Butler Hickock, was shot in the back of the head by a mentally deranged gunman Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall. Wild Bill Hickock died instantly from the single shot to the back of his head. At the time of the shooting, Hickock was playing poker in the gold camp’s No. 10 Saloon with his back to the door. McCall approached Hickock unobserved, and purportedly announced “Damn you, take that!” before shooting Hickock and fleeing the saloon.

McCall was apprehended just up the street and subjected to an unofficial miner’s court the next morning where he claimed Hickok shot his brother who was foraging for food in Abilene, KS a year before. The miner’s court found McCall not guilty and released him.

The Dakota Territorial authorities seeking some semblance of government and respect did not let this injustice stand and in November of 1876 indicted, tried and later hung McCall, especially in light of the fact he had no brother! Other theories for the shooting included doing it for the perceived fame of killing Hickok-and McCall bragged openly of killing him “in a fair fight”, and other theories included McCall being put up to it by bottom dwellers of Deadwood who feared Hickock may decide to clean up the mining camp of card cheats and pull the lucrative gambling rug out from under them.

Deadwood no 10A

Wild Bill Hickock was quite the wild west celebrity, and a century and a half later most American’s know his name and some of his legacy. He was widely known as “The Prince of Pistoleers” and generally credited with being one of the best, if not the best pistol gunfighter in the old west.

He was a cowboy, a Civil War Scout and Spy, Army Scout, famous lawman, Deputy U.S. Marshal, and even trod the boards of Broadway for most of one winter season as an actor at the behest of his lifelong pal Buffalo Bill Cody (Hickock hated it and quit.) Custer thought Hickock was the finest specimen of an outdoor he-man he ever knew, Buffalo Bill praised his marksmanship and Wyatt Earp thought highly of him and in one much maligned tome claimed Hickock taught him shoot when they were lawmen in Dodge City, KS. Another Feared gunman John Wesley Hardin, wrote to his wife “no braver man [than Hickock} ever drew breath.”

Hickock left us with two of the earliest bits of gunfighting tactics that hopefully have trickled down through the ages. The most obvious is “Don’t sit with your back to the room.” The other is “Be deliberate.”

Don’t sit with your back to the room. Wild Bill was reputed to have been emphatic about this. Always have a view of a room and the entrance-if you can’t, then switch places or be more vigilant to include paying attention to sound levels and sharp noises. A mirror is a substitute to having eyes on the room but is not the same, and you won’t watch a mirror for very long before becoming bored.

Hickock was once attacked by two soldiers in a Kansas barroom as he faced a mirror, narrowly averted being killed and had to shoot both of them off of him.

McCall had been in a poker game the day before the attack and lost all of his money. Hickock is supposed to have given him money for breakfast along with the advice to not play any more cards until he could cover his debts. Some sources relate McCall came into the saloon the next day and Hickock saw him and half raised from his seat with his hand on his gun, then sat back down when he decided McCall was no threat. This account does not quite add up when coupled with the fact Hickock was not facing the door.

Why did Hickock violate his own rule about facing the room on the day of his death? He was in the Dakotas seeking fortune in conjunction with the Black Hills gold rush. He and Charlie Utter travelled to Deadwood and in six weeks found neither enjoyed heavy work digging in the ground much, and thus Hickock looked to card playing with the money heavy miners as his real ticket to fortune. He was slowly losing his eyesight from glaucoma and probably had a lot of high range hearing damage from shooting guns with no ear protection, and at 39 years of age knew he was past his glory days. He married a semi-famous woman equestrian earlier in the year, but she remained in Cheyenne, WY while he struck out to try and gather one last fortune.

On the day of his murder, Hickock wanted to join a high stakes poker game in progress in the No. 10 Saloon, and the only available seat was with his back to the door-and he took it.

Deadwood chair

The second gunfighter tactic Hickok is credited with, and probably the foundation to all gunfighting success, is his advice for us all to be deliberate in a gunfight. Hickok was quoted in Harpers New Monthly Magazine in 1865 and said “Whenever you get into a row be sure and not shoot too quick. Take time. I’ve known many a feller to slip up for shootin’ in a hurry.”

This tenet, to be deliberate and hit what you aim at, has been repeated in numerous ways in current training regimen’s like “Smooth is fast” and “You can’t miss fast enough to win” and the “fastest draw is not necessarily the winning draw.”

Hickock was known far and wide for his prowess with pistols and routinely took on shooting match challenges for money. He captured robbers, wild Texas cowboys and ruffians single handedly in rough cow towns of Dodge City, Abilene, Hays KS and Nebraska. On the odd Sunday, he would put on precision pistol shooting exhibitions with his black powder pistols to include a famous double draw after throwing a tomato can in the air and hitting it three times before it fell-twice with his right-hand gun and once with his left. The same reporter also witnessed Bill draw both guns and shoot two telegraph poles 176 feet apart at the same time.

Later in life he carried a variety of pistols which were converted to shoot percussion rim-fire metallic ammunition, but most of his rough days were conducted with Navy Colt black powder guns-hardly the most accurate to ever come down the pike.

Hollywood style duels in the street at high noon are mostly fanciful portrayals of old west legends. The wild west rarely saw an in the street- face-to-face duels. However, in his documented gun fights, Wild Bill Hickock was actually engaged in one honest to goodness duel in the street-which he won.

Hickok’s best known deliberate shot was an actual high noon gunfight against Dave Tutt in Springfield, MO on July 21, 1865, over a gambling debt and unresolved Civil War issues. Tutt purportedly picked Hickok’s watch off a card table and said he would keep it until Wild Bill paid him a disputed thirty-five-dollar debt (Hickock said it was only $25) and would walk across the town square at noon.

Hickock and Tutt faced each other with many Tutt supporters and cousins in attendance. Hickock purportedly said “Dave, don’t cross that square with my watch.” Tutt started to draw first, side-on in dueling fashion, and fired missing Hickock completely. Hickock did not miss. At a range widely reported to have been 75 yards he fired, hit Tutt in the chest, then turned and faced down Tutt’s friends who had already drawn their pistols. “Put up your shootin-irons, or there’ll be more dead men here.” Tutt died in minutes and there were no other attempts to challenge Wild Bill Hickock that day.

Some additional tactics employed by Hickock included a great deal of practice with his guns to include derringers supposedly shot out to 50-75 yards. He was a marksman, first, last and always. He also paid meticulous care of his guns, cleaning them daily-as if his life depended upon them. Wild Bill made his own lead balls and loaded each chamber meticulously insuring the best possible detonation if needed.

Wild Bill’s speed and marksmanship cannot be easily disparaged- even if some have been inflated over time. Ed McGivern-a multi-world record revolver shooter endeavored to duplicate some of Hickock’s known shootings, and he cited there could be little doubt about Hickock’s abilities.

Hickock was known to be cool under pressure when bullets were flying and deliberate with certain and deadly aim. Accuracy combined with trained muscle memory. Two traits that are not easily learned away from the combat arena. He was quite a marksman and proficient with his pistols-to include shooting two at once, using cross draw techniques with butts forward as well as reverse draws turning wrists inside butt forward guns and drawing them out with a twisting motion. He also routinely carried pistols in a sash instead of holsters-a fashion which has luckily disappeared!

Most of Wild Bill’s shootings occurred at “modern distances” between eight and twelve feet just like most of today’s pistol gun fights which average eight to twenty-one feet.

He is also credited with distracting a gun wielding Kansas bad man during an attempted arrest with an announcement similar to “There’s someone behind you!” Bill Mulvey’s attention was momentarily diverted and Hickock shot and killed Mulvey. You probably didn’t know this was the original incident which inspired and has been repeated regularly in corny dime novels and Hollywood westerns down through the years.

Hickock survived Indian fights, the Civil War, and all the wild west could throw at him with numerous shootings and narrow escapes including during a barroom fight having a gun pressed to his head that failed to fire. But on that last day in Deadwood, he let down his well-known guard while holding a hand full of black aces and eights and was murdered by a fame seeking deranged “nobody”.

Historical accounts vary on McCall’s motives that day, but the chance to kill this celebrity and in turn make his own life “matter” remains as the most likely motivation for the killing. McCall certainly bragged upon it-before he was tried and hung.

The celebrity murder pattern still repeats itself from time to time, and there are very stark similarities between the Hickok death and the murder of Former Navy SEAL “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield by a well-documented miscreant named Eddie Ray Routh on February 02, 2013.

Routh’s mother hooked her former Marine son up with Chris Kyle as Kyle was working doing volunteer with PTSD and other issues suffered by former military members. Kyle offered to take Routh to the shooting range to shoot some guns-hopefully a relaxing time. Routh waited his chance and shot and killed Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield in cold blood then ran away.

Through subsequent investigations we know a lot more about Eddie Lee Roth than we ever did about Jack McCall. Routh claimed PTSD although he did not see combat, he had drug induced psychosis based upon habitual drug abuse and diet of beer and cannabis according to the VA. Routh had been in mental hospitals, and in the past had a schizophrenia diagnosis. He declined in-patient treatment, and like all modern-day spree killers and school shooters had stopped taking his medication at the time of the murders. Chris Kyle knew nothing of this background when he agreed to help Roth. Roth’s own defense attorneys claimed he was insane, and he told a psychiatrist his co-workers were planning to eat him.

With the publication of his “American Sniper” book, Chris Kyle was widely known as the most successful American Military Sniper in history and was arguably the most famous and revered gunman in America in 2013. He was the modern icon equivalent of Wild Bill Hickok. Eddie Lee Routh, a low functioning individual with no prospects for a better life decided to make his mark, just as Jack McCall did one hundred forty-two years ago by shooting the celebrity gunfighter.

With good work by local police, the Texas Rangers and NCIS, Eddie Lee Routh was sentenced to life in prison. His story, like McCall’s will go down in history as being notorious, but pales in comparison to the huge lives led by Wild Bill Hickock and Chris Kyle who were actual American heroes as well as famous deadly gunmen.

Inspiration for this anniversary piece resulted from a very enjoyable trip to Deadwood this month, and from some excellent period piece books like “Wild Bill Hickock Gunfighter” by Joseph G. Rosa, “Triggernometry” by Eugene Cunningham, “Buffalo Bill’s Story of the Wild West” by William Cody, “Wyatt Earp Speaks” by Richard Stephens, “Wyatt Earp” by Stuart M. Lake, “Gunfighter. The Autobiography of John Wesley Hardin” by John Wesley Hardin and “My Life on the Plains” by George Armstrong Custer. Additional insight into the Chris Kyle/Chad Littlefield murders was provided by retired NCIS Special Agent Amanda Kopke, the NCIS agent who was assigned to assist the Texas Rangers throughout the investigation and trial.

If you are ever in Deadwood, go up to the Mt. Moriah Cemetery and see Wild Bill’s grave next to Calamity Jane. Modern “mourners” leave many items on Bill’s grave like plastic flowers, small change, dollar bills, dice, cards and empty whiskey bottles among other mementos…

Deadwood momento


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