Chronology on Life of James Butler (Wild Bill) HICKOK
The Kansas Heritage Server would like to thank John Richard for contributing the following article about James Butler Hickok. It should not be quoted or retransmitted without a full citation to the author and website address, and should not be put into print without the author's express permission.
James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois, on May 27, 1837. Troy Grove was then, and is now a small clean agricultural community. Mr. Hickok was assassinated in Deadwood, South Dakota on August 2, 1876. Deadwood was then, and is now, a town with basically one main street running through it. Deadwood however, has gone through many more changes than Troy Grove. Deadwood recently authorized gambling, Las Vegas style, and might, in time, be once again the wild and wooly town of Hickok's day. Hickok's gravesite is also in Deadwood. It rests in a peaceful and quite beautiful cemetery known as Mt. Moriah. Deadwood gives a person the impression that were it not for the brief period of Wild Bill Hickok's visit, the town would not have enjoyed the notoriety it has enjoyed these many years.
When Hickok was born Troy Grove was known as "Homer". However, by the early 1860's it was known as Troy Grove. Hickok's father, William Alonzo Hickok, came from Vermont. He met Hickok's mother, Polly Butler, in New York State. Together, they would produce their first child, Oliver Hickok, who was born in May 1830. A second son, named Lorenzo Butler Hickok, was born in October of 1831 but died soon thereafter. The next child, also named Lorenzo Butler Hickok, was born in November of 1832. Horace Hickok was born in October of 1834. The family did some moving around during this time period and the next child, James Butler Hickok, was born in May of 1837. Two more Hickok children were eventually born, Celinda Hickok in September of 1839, and Lydia Hickok in October of 1842. This was a good sized family for the frontier, and reflects the character and strength of the family. Most of the family never went far, or for very long, from the Troy Grove area. I have been to the cemetery, in Troy Grove, and the family still rests side-by-side in the quiet, and very peaceful older section of the town's cemetery.
The adventures that so characterized Hickok's later life began early. Long before the Civil War began, talk of the abolition of slavery got William Hickok both interested and involved. He joined a Quaker group that was involved in the business of assisting escaped slaves. One of the escaped slaves, identified as "Hannah", liked the Hickok family so much she stayed with them for many years. According to Hickok biographer Joseph G. Rosa, the Hickok family still has a tintype photo of Hannah in their possession. It is known that the Hickok home even had a hidden cellar, which was used to hide the escaping slaves. This was dangerous work, even in these early days before the Civil War, but the Hickok family was made of stern fibers. To this family the lines between right and wrong were not as blurred as they are today.
Oliver Hickok had, by this time, gone to California for the Gold Rush. While Horace and Lorenzo took over the regular chores of running the family farm, young James took over the job of furnishing some of the food for the family. With his already evident skill in shooting , James brought in local game to add to the family larder. He also took a job working for a neighbor with a last name of Carr. One day, while swimming with some friends in a stream that ran through the property, a local bully started picking on one of his friends. The bully frightened his friend and James, always a defender of the weak, promptly picked the bully up and then threw him into the water. The future character of the one eventually to be known as "The Prince of the Pistoleer's" was slowly emerging.
By 1854 Hickok's father had died and he was bored with both farming and life in Troy Grove. He took a job in Utica Illinois, working as a wagon driver on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. This job came to an end when James threw his employer into the canal for mistreating his horse team. The pattern of his life was hardening into the life long habit of interposing himself between the oppressed, and the oppressor. By 1856 James was in Kansas territory with his brother Lorenzo. At this time two very different factions were forming in the Kansas territory. Immigrants from Missouri, supporting slavery, were settling in the hundreds. Other settlers, opposing slavery, were also pouring into the area. Eventually, some of the more aggressive followers formed into groups. One was known as the "Missouri Border Ruffians" who were pro-slavery, and the "Kansas Free Staters" anti-slavery. After taking a trip to St. Louis, James ended up in Leavenworth Kansas. It is reported that he joined the "army" of General Jim Lane, one of the Kansas Free Staters, eventually becoming the personal bodyguard of General Lane.
Apparently, the joining of the Kansas Free Staters was not a full time occupation for young James. The election results of Monticello Kansas show Hickok being elected as "Constable", in 1858. This would be the first recorded time he assumed the office of a law enforcement officer. He also did some farming again during this period of his life. It is interesting to note, during this time period, that young Hickok had some concerns about what his mother thought of his behavior. He wrote to his brother, in a letter dated August 14th 1858, that he hadn't had a "drink" in over a year! And, that he hadn't "gambled" in two years! Hickok wanted his beloved mother to know he was behaving himself. Not exactly the image some "historians" have given us concerning this fearsome gunfighter, but true none the less.
During the years 1859-60 Hickok drove freight wagons, and coaches along the Santa Fe Trail. It is said he met the famous frontiersman Kit Carson while so employed. Sometime between 1860 and early 1861 Hickok was injured, some say in a confrontation with a bear, and the freight company put him on light duty status at the Rock Creek Station in the Nebraska territory. This assignment would eventually bring about an incident, that would bring Hickok to the attention of the West, the nation, and the world.
In the course of his duties at the Rock Creek Station, Hickok met a man named McCanles, or sometimes spelled McKandles. Hickok and McCanles did not get along. McCanles formed the habit of calling Hickok "Duck Bill", due to some perceived facial characteristics. Hickok, naturally, did not care for the comment. At this time McCanles was the leader of a local "gang" that considered themselves "desperadoes". He was also a notorious bully. One incident led to another, and one day McCanles and at least two other men came to the Station. Different versions of what occurred that day exist, depending upon which side one relies on. The most reasonable, and the one most often related is as follows. McCanles and his friends came to the station looking for trouble. Words were exchanged between Hickok and McCanles, which led to gunplay. At the end of the incident three men were dead, McCanles and his two friends. There was also overtones of a "woman" being involved in the problem between McCanles and Hickok. That woman was "Sarah Shull". Shull, at the age of ninety-three,related the following version. Shull said that McCanles was a "horse thief stealing horses for the Confederacy. She said he had boasted of his going to "clean up on the people at the station". Shull said that Hickok killed McCanles in "self-defense". Apparently, this was also the opinion of the local court, that looked into the matter, since no charges were brought against Hickok. It is also interesting to note, that court documents concerning the incident refer to Hickok as "William B. Hickok". This is the first known time he was referred to as "William". After Hickok was cleared of wrong doing the incident passed into history, but not out of controversy. McCanles' young son accused Hickok of being the murderer of his father for many years, unfortunately he had no evidence to prove the accusation, other than his opinion.
The year is now 1861 and Hickok, recovered from his injuries, joined the horror known as the Civil War. After the Rock Creek incident Hickok went to Leavenworth Kansas and enlisted in the Union Army. He enlisted as a civilian scout. He took part in the battle of "Wilson Creek" in Missouri. The Union side lost this battle, and their commander was killed. In a letter to his brother Hickok admitted that this was the first time, under fire, that he was scared. Although the historical records are scarce, they do exist and incidents of Hickok's bravery are numerous during his war duty. By 1862 he was made the "chief wagon master" in his unit. During this period of time an incident occurred that, it is claimed resulted in the "Wild Bill" sobriquet. While wandering around the town of Independence Missouri, Hickok noticed a large crowd gathered outside a saloon. Apparently, a local bartender had bested a group of local toughs in a fight. Friends of the beaten toughs now wanted to even the score, and had attracted a large crowd of sympathizers. According to the story, Hickok placed himself between the crowd and their intended victim. He then drew his revolvers, fired over the heads of the mob, and stated he would shoot the first man to move. The entire mob instantly suffered from an inability to move forward, and gradually the crowd dispersed. At the conclusion of the incident a woman's voice was heard to shout, "good for you Wild Bill"!
Howard Hickok had another version of the incident that resulted in Hickok's being called Wild Bill. His version has Hickok and brother Lorenzo transporting a wagon load of supplies, near a small town between Rolla and Springfield Missouri. In this town there was a young man, in jail, being threatened by an angry lynch mob. The young man was a Union sympathizer, and the crowd was Confederate. Lorenzo, and brother James, decided to take a hand,in the matter, and prevented any harm coming to the young man. Sometime during this incident the name "Wild Bill" was applied to Hickok.
Another version of how Hickok obtained the "Wild Bill" title is given by Mr. George Hance, a resident of Rolla Missouri, who knew both Lorenzo and James Hickok. According to Hance, Lorenzo was known as "Tame Bill", and James as "Wild Bill". Although the true version of how, or when, Hickok acquired the sobriquet may never be known, it is known that in this area of the country, during this time period, James Butler Hickok began being known as "Wild Bill Hickok"!
The war continued and during the year 1863 a lot of Hickok's duties involved "spying" for the Union army. By 1864, however, he seems to be more concerned with police work. Several official documents, still in existence, show Hickok being paid for services rendered to the Provost Marshal's office. It is also during this time that Hickok's trademark characteristics are recorded for the first time. He is described as wearing a broad brimmed hat, a pair of ivory handled revolvers at his waist, wearing a long drooping mustache, and having long flowing hair that fell to his shoulders. Molded by war, and many dangerous adventures, Hickok survived the Civil War. He was now unemployed however, and needed to find a means of supporting himself. Springfield Missouri, and another date with destiny was where he headed next.
In those days, Springfield Missouri was a rough place filled with rough dangerous individuals. Some were ex-Union soldiers, some were ex-Confederate. All had been hardened by five years of terrible bloodshed in the War. While in Springfield Hickok ran into an old acquaintance. The man, Dave Tutt, had been on the Confederate side during the war. He had also served in some of the same areas Hickok had served with the Union. The two men did not like each other, and trouble between them was inevitable. One story tells of Hickok having a relationship with a woman named Susannah Moore. They had a falling out, and Tutt stepped in to console her. While Tutt was consoling Moore, Hickok struck up a relationship with Tutt's sister! This offended both Tutt and Tutt's mother who also didn't like Union people. The trouble came to a head during a card game, in which both Tutt and Hickok were involved. Hickok was winning, which irritated Tutt, and words were exchanged. Tutt grabbed Hickok's pocket watch, supposedly as payment for a debt Hickok disputed. Tutt walked off with the watch, but nothing further occurred at this time. Later Hickok heard that Tutt was bragging about having seized his watch, and added that he would parade down the town square wearing the watch. Hickok warned him not to do that or there would be "trouble". Tutt ignored the warning and at the indicated time began to walk into the town square, towards Hickok who was on the opposite side of the square. Hickok again warned him not to cross the square, but again Tutt ignored him. As Tutt walked toward Hickok he pulled his pistol. Hickok pulled his pistol, and almost simultaneously both fired their pistols at each other. Without waiting to see the results of his shot, Hickok turned on his heel and faced an angry group of Tutt's friends, who had taken a position behind him. He calmly told them that if they didn't return their pistols to their holsters, which they had drawn them from, there would be more "dead men" in the square. Tutt's friends complied with Hickok's suggestion. They had seen Hickok calmly shoot Tutt through the heart, at a distance of between 75 to 100 feet, and then turn on them instantly confident of his shot to Tutt. After the incident Hickok was arrested, but later set free due to the courts decision the fight was fair and Hickok had acted in self-defense.
The above "gunfight" is the first recorded of a classical type of western shootout. Two men walk towards each other across a dusty western town square. They pull their guns and shoot. Each taking an equal chance of living or dying. No unfair advantage taken by either party. The better "gunman" wins. Thousands of future books, movies, and TV shows would replay this scene in one fashion or another. Hickok's fight with Tutt set the mold for the classic, although rare in reality, western gunfight and gunfighter image. Hickok's image,however, with the town of Springfield was not all positive, and many did not care for him or his ways. Hickok left Springfield and opened a new chapter in his life.
After Hickok left Springfield it is told he was appointed deputy United States Marshal, in Fort Riley Kansas. Historians dispute this story, however, due to the lack of historical records to substantiate the information. Regardless of this, however, there are official records to show that Hickok was hired, by the Fort, to recover stolen mules. After this Hickok was transferred to Fort McPherson, in the Nebraska territory, to act as scout for the famous General William Tecumseh Sherman. While acting in this capacity Sherman's command stopped in a small Kansas town. While they were in this town, Hickok is said to have taken a friend's daughter bullfrog hunting! It is well known that Hickok got on very well with children. Instinctively, he liked them and they liked him. The records show that Hickok, master gunfighter, killer of men, scout of the wilderness, eagerly chased bullfrogs all day long with a small girl! The young girl cherished the memory all her life.
Hickok returned to Fort Riley after his duties with Sherman were concluded. At this time a regiment was being formed. This particular regiment was destined to become immortal. The regiment was none other than the famous "7th" Cavalry, led by the equally famous Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer! The two men, Hickok and Custer, became good friends. Hickok continued his duties hunting horse thieves and illegal woodcutters, for the Army. There is a very complimentary description of Hickok, by Mrs. Libby Custer, during this time period that further illustrates the friendship between the Custer family and Hickok. Hickok made the acquaintance of another individual at the Fort, also destined for fame, Will Cody later known as "Buffalo Bill".
Sometime toward the end of 1867 records show that Hickok was in Hays City Kansas, working as a deputy U.S. Marshal and, apparently, no longer working with the Army. In September of 1867 Hickok was involved in one of his most famous shootouts. A man named Samuel Strawhun, a well known Hays city ruffian, decided to "clean out" one of the local saloons. As city Marshal Hickok moved in to stop the trouble. Hickok warned the armed and dangerous man to cease causing trouble. Strawhun refused, made a move for his gun and was promptly shot through the head by Hickok. Hickok had to shoot another man, in performance of his duties, named Mulvey who was another town troublemaker. In neither of these actions was any blame laid upon Hickok. On the contrary, he was applauded. Many attempts upon Hickok's life were made during these days. He developed habits, of personal safety, to protect himself. He would walk down the center of the street, eyes darting back and forth. No one was allowed to get too near. If he noted a lot of noise and disturbance coming from a saloon, he would turn sharply from his path, push the saloon doors open hard enough to cause them to slam back against the walls, and then faced the noisy crowd. He would then inform them to quiet down, and then leave as suddenly as he had arrived. Seldom did he have to repeat himself. The local newspaper wrote, "Hays city is under the guardian care of Wild Bill, is quiet, and doing well". There is also a confrontation, between Hickok and five cavalry troopers, that is somewhat in dispute as to the exact facts of the event. It is generally conceded by historians that Hickok was attacked by the five troopers. The result of that attack is that one, possibly two, of the troopers were killed by Hickok. How or why the confrontation occurred, and the exact sequence of events are in not known. Since no official action was taken by the Army, against Hickok, it must be assumed that he acted in self-defense.
In the summer of 1868, while pursuing a horse thief, Hickok rode into Atchison KS. Here he met a 12 year old boy named Bill Tilghman. Tilghman would later become a famous western Marshal himself. Many years later Mrs. Zoe Tilghman submitted a copy, of some of her husbands notes concerning this meeting. Tilghman wrote; "He was mounted on no prancing charger, only a sturdy government mule, but he rode with the easy grace of a Plainsman. Tall, he was over six feet, splendidly built, and his face as handsome as his form, with strong clear-cut features and keen dark blue eyes, long drooping mustache and hair curling upon his shoulders". Mr. Tilghman then continues, "He spoke in a slow assured manner". "Good morning boys and young ladies", he said to the group of young children. He then asked them some questions concerning the man he was tracking. This incident had a profound impact on young Bill Tilghman. Hickok became his hero and he strove to emulate him in many ways during his life. Eventually, Tilghman became one of the premier law enforcement officers in the West.
Hickok's term as city Marshal of Hays ended, and in 1870 he decided to visit an old friend in Topeka Kansas. The man's name was H.C. Lindsay, and he and Hickok knew each other from old Indian campaign days. One day while walking in town, near the intersection of Sixth and Kansas streets, a local man decided to insult Hickok. The man continued to annoy Hickok, so he knocked the man down. This ended the insulting, but not the incident. Hickok is on record as being fined, for participating in the altercation.
The winter of 1870-71 passed peacefully for Hickok. In March or early April of 1871 the city of Abilene Kansas offered him a job as city Marshal. Abilene was a rough and rowdy cowtown, in those days. After looking the city over, Hickok decided to accept the position. On April 15th 1871 he was sworn in as Marshal at a salary of $150 dollars a month. He immediately began to break up all the unfair gambling practices, currently implemented in the saloons. When patrons became too drunk to gamble he stopped the game, to protect them from losing their money while inebriated. Mayor McCoy said of him, "He was the squarest (most honest) man I ever saw". Hickok was offered the position of Marshal after the previous one,Tom Smith, was killed in the line of duty. Marshal Smith had chosen to enforce the law, in Abilene, with his fists and strength of character. This proved to be not a very practical method. Marshal Smith was struck with an ax and almost decapitated while attempting to enforce the law at a local rancher's home. A gruesome tale, but illustrative of the type and character of the town Hickok had come to tame. The rowdy cowboys and criminals of Abilene would soon learn, however, that Marshal Hickok was a very different person from Tom Smith. They would learn that the new Marshal was of iron will, expert with guns, fearless in the performance of his duties, and possessed of a well earned reputation as a killer of men when necessary. In short, Abilene was in for a very rude awakening.
News of an arriving cattle herd was met with conflicting emotions in old Abilene. It meant money for shopkeepers, saloon owners and brothels. It also meant fear and alarm to the common citizen, who had to deal with the drunken dangerous cowboys. In 1936 an old woman was interviewed about her recollections of old Abilene, and Hickok, during this time period. She spoke kindly of the Marshal who came to her dad's farm to visit. On these visits the Marshal would bring candy for her and her siblings. She recalled how Hickok loved little children, and especially how tenderly he treated her. One day, after hearing that a cowherd was approaching, she remember how fearful she and her family became. Normally, as a cowherd approached Abilene, riders from town were sent out to warn the local farms. This was done to allow the farmers time to bring their families into town for safety. This was necessary because the cowboys would sometimes kill the farmers, whom they didn't like anyway, on their way into town. On this occasion however, she recalls her family cowered in fear because they had not been warned of the approaching cowherd. Suddenly, the family saw a lone rider approaching their farm. Knowing they could not escape, the family awaited their fate. As the rider approached, she recognized the lone rider. Her father cried out "Children we're safe, it's Marshal Hickok they'll not harm us now!" And the family remained in complete safety while the cow herd, and the cowboys, passed by the ranch. The old woman had tears in her eyes, recalling the incident, even after all the passing years. She said, "Oh, I tell you, I tell you, he was a grand man was Marshal Hickok, a grand man!" This isolated snapshot of Hickok's life is revealing. Was he a killer of men? Yes, if it was necessary. But also he was a man of gentleness and tender caring for the weak and helpless.
Many years after Hickok's death, a famous gunman named John Wesley Hardin wrote an autobiography. In this autobiography he relates an interesting piece of fiction concerning Hickok and Abilene. According to Hardin's biography Hickok came to disarm Hardin one day, for violation of the gun carry laws enacted in Abilene. Hardin says that he backed Hickok down using a maneuver called the "road agents spin". In this maneuver, a person hands their gun/s to the unsuspecting party butt's first. The person keeps his trigger finger/s in the trigger guard/s however, and when the other party reaches for the gun/s they are suddenly spun back into the hand/s of the gunman ready to be fired. According to Hardin, Hickok taken by surprise at the maneuver, offered to compromise the situation over a drink in the saloon. The problem with this ''recollection" of Hardin's is that there is absolutely no evidence it ever happened. It is ridiculous at face value. First, Hickok was an experienced gunfighter and the trick was old and well known at the time. Secondly, Hickok knew of Hardin and his reputation. It is likely that when Hardin reached for his gun/s to hand them over, Hickok would have shot him dead for making a move toward his gun/s. Thirdly, there is no such occurrence mentioned in any town record or newspaper file. There was no such recollection, of the incident, in the minds of old Abilene residents. Hickok never mentioned it in his statements. And finally, Hardin never made such a statement while Hickok was alive. There is however, a record of Hardin leaving town in a hurry after shooting a man. The reason he left town in a hurry was because he knew Hickok would be coming to arrest him. After Hardin left town he and Hickok did not meet again.
During this time, in Abilene, gamblers and prostitutes came to town in ever increasing numbers. City councilmen instructed Hickok to close down the various houses of "ill repute", and some of the gambling houses. This Hickok did, with the aid of his deputies, although both he and his men were openly cursed for doing their duty. The citizens of Abilene soon learned that they had nothing to fear, from the rowdy trail herd cowboys, with Wild Bill on the job. Hickok did not make a continuous patrol of the streets, as did his predecessor Tom Smith, but instead did it only a couple of times a day. When he did go on patrol he would walk down the center of the street, rarely using the sidewalks. When he got a shave he kept a shotgun in hand and his eyes open. He usually kept his back to walls, and avoided open doorways and windows. Hickok had only three deputies and himself, to control upwards of five thousand rowdy citizens. He was constantly aware of the hatred felt towards him by the Texans, many of whom had sworn to "get" him. Hickok was not a 20th century lawman. He enforced the law as he saw fit. He thought nothing of running a man out of town, rather than locking him up in jail. A friend of Hickok's, Charles Gross, recalled that Hickok didn't even trust the women he consorted with from time to time. It was during this time period, however, that Hickok met his future wife Agnes Lake who had come to town with her traveling circus show, but more of than later.
One of the gambling/prostitution establishments in particular caused Hickok much trouble. The owners of this establishment were the famous gunfighter Ben Thompson, and a man named Phil Coe. There are many stories concerning why there was bad feeling between Coe and Hickok. The truth is no one knows for sure. In any event, things came to a head in October of 1871. On the night of the 5th Coe and a large group of friends were in an ugly drunken mood. When they reached the "Alamo" saloon Coe drew his pistol and fired it. Hickok, with his good friend Mike Williams, heard the shot. Hickok told Williams to stay where he was, and then took off in the direction of the gunshot. When he got to the place where Coe and his friends were he demanded to know who fired the shot. Abilene's town gun laws did not allow this type of activity. Coe told him that he had shot at a stray dog. Hickok interrupted him and then proceeded to tell the entire mob what he thought of them, and it wasn't complimentary. The told them that the June ordinance concerning firearms was still in effect, and that they should give up their guns and leave town. This, of course, incensed the mob. Hickok though continued to focus his attention on Coe. Accounts differ on what happened next. The available facts, consisting of eyewitness accounts and some contemporary newspaper accounts, indicate that Coe shot at Hickok. Hickok quickly drew his pistols and fired back at Coe. At this same moment deputy Williams, in direct violation of Hickok's instructions, came running around the corner, and into the line of fire. Hickok had put two bullets into Coe's abdomen,but seeing someone else running into the gunfight, with a drawn gun, Hickok fired again not recognizing his friend. Thus Hickok,inadvertently, killed his good friend Mike Williams who had been running to his aid. Hickok became enraged, both at the death of his good friend, and at the mob who had been the cause. He now turned on the mob. He told them to mount their ponies and ride out of town "damn quick". The mob didn't utter a sound. They were immediately sobered up and struck dumb with fear. They quickly and quietly left town. Now the citizens of Abilene were to witness a transformation. The legendary lawman now became flesh and blood. Like a sleeping tiger suddenly awakened, Hickok's fearsome character emerged with a vengeance. Like a man possessed, Hickok purposely strode through the roughest and most dangerous parts of Abilene. He kicked in doors of all the saloons, ordered everyone out, and shut them down. Those who complied fared well. Those who objected or resisted were knocked through, or out, the doors and into the street. Each person who looked into the eyes of Hickok this night saw death in them and fled in fear. Hickok's deputies did little to assist him, there was no need. In Abilene Kansas that night a few hundred drunken,lawless cowboys looked into the face of one man and backed down. That man was Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok had been called a "terror to evildoers" by a reporter of the Junction City Union newspaper. Hickok more than proved that title during that night. In December of 1871 Abilene discharged Hickok as city marshal, after he had made one of the most lawless towns on the frontier safe for decent people.
It is now time to deal with a myth that has plagued Hickok's memory and his legend. That myth involves a woman of questionable character, morals, and honesty. It involves a woman that, in life, had almost nothing whatever to do with him, except share the same area of the country for a brief time. That woman was delicately known as "Calamity Jane". Reported claims of her having had a relationship with Him would have produced laughter, if spoken during his lifetime, or in front of family or friends. Instead, this ridiculous woman, supposedly claimed not only to have known Hickok, but to have had an affair with him! Naturally, all such claims were made long after Hickok was dead.
In the early 1870's a man named John Hunton saw Calamity Jane and gives us a description of her,while on a visit to Fort Laramie in Wyoming. He said, "Her achievements have been greatly magnified by every writer I have ever met, for she was among the commonest of her class". She seems to have had a passion for male clothing, and frequently dressed as a man. In 1941 a woman named Jean Hickok McCormick told a story to the Billings Montana Gazette. She claimed to be the daughter of Calamity Jane. In the "story" she also claimed to have a "diary" and a "confession",alledgedly written by Calamity Jane, that told of an "affair" Calamity had with a "cousin" of Hickok. This "cousin" she claimed was her father. According to the premier biographer of Hickok, Mr. Joseph G. Rosa, some odd things then began to happen. After the story was published McCormick's story changed. Now, instead of her father being just a "cousin" of Hickok's, Hickok himself was her father! Of course there was not a shred of evidence or documentation to verify this outlandish claim. However, the Columbia Broadcasting System got interested in the claim and broadcasted it on a program known as "We the People". With this notoriety,McCormick now received offers to appear in rodeo's and parades as the "daughter" of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane! One of Hickok's friends, White Eyed Jack Anderson, said that he had seen Calamity back in 1879. At that time she was claiming to have been the wife of some man named Cosgrove, but never Hickok.
In another portion of the "diary" McCormick claimed Calamity had wed Hickok aboard a steamship named the "Madagascar", by it's captain named "O'Neil". The ship and the captain supposedly were in the "Cunard" steamship line. Unfortunately, for the forger of the ''diary'', the Cunard steamship line has always maintained highly detailed records. A request for any/all information on either the ship or the indicated captain, from the Cunard line, was submitted by Mr. Rosa in 1957. The request produced two very interesting results. First, the Cunard line never had a ship named the "Madagascar". Second, they never had a captain named "O'Neil" in the list of their ships captains! Recently, a "photo" of the mysterious Captain O'Neil surfaced. Again, unfortunately, Cunard Steamship Company quickly identified the photo as that of a Captain A.C. Greig, who served with them from 1906 to 1945.
The above few examples are typical of the numerous inconsistencies, inaccurate facts, and downright falsehoods connected to the Calamity Jane/Hickok stories. The sad, but true, ending to this story is that in the 1940's a woman named Martha Dewey came forth. She was a legitimate niece of Hickok, and approached the Billings Gazette and told them McCormick was a fraud and imposter. Subsequently, McCormick admitted that she had not even been born until 1880, four years after Hickok's death. Of course, this information never got the circulation the false claim had received. In August of 1903 Calamity died from complications of alcoholism. Before the internment,however, some of her "friends" conceived the plan to bury her next to Wild Bill. Strange, because never in the twenty-seven years she outlived Hickok did she ever voice such a desire. In fact she hardly even spoke of him. Finally, her "friends" decided to also change the date of her death. Jane had died on the 1st of August 1903, but they changed it to August 2nd 1903 to correspond to the anniversary of Hickok's death. As Hickok biographer Joseph Rosa states, in his definitive book "They Called Him Wild Bill", "thus the two were linked together in a relationship in death which had never existed in life".
It is recorded that before "Buffalo Bill" developed his "Wild West'' show, others had attempted similar productions. Two of these early entrepreneurs were P.T. Barnum, and a man called Colonel Sidney Barnett of the Niagara Falls area of New York state. Hickok is recorded as appearing in the show developed by Mr. Barnett. A humorous, if somewhat dangerous, incident occurred during an appearance by Hickok. The plan was to see if a full grown buffalo could be roped and captured from horseback. Hickok successfully roped the animal, however, the rope slipped back of the buffalo's hump. This gave all the advantage to the buffalo. Not only could the horse not hold the animal, it was flipped head over heals! This caused Hickok, the greatest gunfighter in the West, to be unceremoniously dumped face first into the dirt, and to see his horse being dragged away by the buffalo. The Barnett show eventually proved to be a financial disaster, causing Mr. Barnett serious monetary problems. So ended Wild Bill's first attempt at "show business".
Hickok later would return to the east for another attempt at show business. This time with the group of actors recruited by the famous Buffalo Bill. Hickok didn't seem to feel comfortable with all the "make believe" and never quite fit in. He didn't do well living in the East either. One night while wandering around New York City he came into a pool room. Inside were several local thugs playing pool, and when they saw the long haired frontiersman come in they thought they would have some sport with him. One thing led to another and soon five or six of them lay unconscious on the pool room floor. When asked about the incident by Buffalo Bill, Hickok said "I got lost among the hostiles", drawing a parallel between the pool room thugs and being caught by Indians on the plains. Eventually, Hickok tired of all the show business stuff and left for the West he so loved.
Hickok met his true and only wife while Marshal of Abilene. She had come there with her traveling circus show. Agnes Thatcher Lake was a truly remarkable woman. She was a world renowned horsewoman, tightrope walker, dancer, sometime actress, lion tamer, and could speak several languages! Her first husband, William Thatcher Lake later just known as Bill Lake, was a circus clown. Together they joined a traveling circus show, and eventually Agnes had a child. They toured Europe for a while and then returned to the United States. Bill Lake was shot to death in 1869, but Agnes continued with the traveling show. She arrived in Abilene in 1871.
Agnes fell deeply in love with Hickok on sight. Hickok was somewhat undecided though, thinking Agnes would return to the East after her show closed and he greatly preferred the West. They continued to correspond,however, and letters still exist to prove their mutual love and respect. Agnes Lake and James Butler Hickok were finally married on March 5th, 1876. After honeymooning back east, Hickok returned to the West. He ended up in Deadwood South Dakota where gold had been discovered. Here he hoped to make a "strike" and bring Agnes out West.
This tale of romance came to a sad end on August 2, 1876. Hickok was playing cards with group of friends in Deadwood's "Number 10" Saloon. Usually, Hickok always sat with his back to a wall. On this occasion however, his friends teased him about his habit and wouldn't let him sit with his back to the wall. Hickok could see the front door to the saloon, but not the back door. In through the back door walked a cowardly little man named "Jack McCall". He walked up to Hickok and calmly shot him in the back of the head, killing Hickok instantly. At the time of his death Hickok was holding black aces and eights with the fifth card the Jack of Diamonds. For ever after this hand would be known as "The Dead Man's Hand". McCall was eventually tried and convicted of Hickok's murder, and was hanged. His motive was never really known, but some folks thought the criminal element in Deadwood feared the famous lawman and decided to eliminate him. Whatever the truth was it died with Jack McCall on the gallows.
Agnes Lake had, in her possession at the time of Hickok's death, a letter. In the letter Hickok reveals a premonition of his death. 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." In these few, but eloquent compassionate words is revealed true man among men, a true hero, and another glimpse into the character that became a legend. For the thirty-seven years Agnes survived Hickok she never remarried. She died on August 21st 1907.
Lesser men, in a safer time, have sometimes judged Hickok harshly. They quibble over meaningless points, and judge him with the values of another time and another place. They have even doubted accomplishments for which there is ample documentation. In my opinion, these would be the "cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat", in the "arena" of life, spoken of by Theodore Roosevelt. But in the final analysis does their opinion matter? I think not. The men, women, and children of his own time echoed the words of that old woman of Abilene, "He was a grand man, Marshal Hickok, a grand man".
By John P. Richard