the gunfights of wild bill hickok -- 6/15/20

Today's selection -- from Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin. Gunfights in the Old West were not nearly as frequent as Hollywood movies would suggest. Nevertheless, they happened, especially in the towns of Kansas and other states associated with the end of the drives of Longhorn cattle from Texas after the Civil War. One such town was Leavenworth, and one of the most famed and successful lawmen to try and bring order to these towns was Wild Bill Hickok:

Wild Bill Hickok in 1869; the unsheathed
knife is likely a photographer's prop.

"The next man to take on Hickok was Samuel Strawhun ... Only twenty-four in September 1869, Strawhun already had a reputation as a man-killer, though his actual occupation was cowboy. In Hays City, he'd already caused considerable trouble that summer, particularly his connection to the shooting death of the deputy U.S. marshal Joe Weiss. Yet Strawhun had been one of the men who had petitioned Governor Harvey to appoint a new sheriff of Ellis County. Still, his behavior was such that the Vigilance Committee had ordered him to leave. His response was to confront Alonzo Webster once again and this time to pistol-whip him, and no one had done anything about it. However, when Hickok was hired as marshal, Strawhun left town. There was a collective sigh of relief, and it was presumed he would not return to Hays City as long as Wild Bill patrolled its dusty streets.

"Thus, there was fear and disappointment when on the twenty-sixth of September, Strawhun was back and had brought eighteen cowboy colleagues with him. They didn't care who was in charge; it was simply time to raise hell. They got off their horses and parked themselves in John Bitter's Leavenworth Beer Saloon, determined to cause as much of a ruckus as they could while drinking it dry. Strawhun was heard to declare, 'I'm going to kill someone tonight just for luck.'

"As The Leavenworth Times and Conservative would report, 'It appears that Stranghan [sic] and a number of his companions being "wolfing" all night, wished to conclude by cleaning out a beer saloon and breaking things generally. "Wild Bill" was called upon to quiet them.'

"It was close to 1 A.M. on the twenty-seventh as Hickok approached the saloon. Glasses were flying out into the street, tossed by Strawhun and his cowboy pals. There was quite a commotion inside the saloon; as The Leavenworth Daily Commercial reported in its October 3 edition, 'The noise was fearful, all the men crying at the top of their voices, beer! Beer! And using the most obscene language.'

"Hickok picked up several of the glasses that had not broken and carried them inside. Sizing up the situation, he said, 'Boys, you hadn't ought to treat a poor man in this way.' When Strawhun vowed to take the glasses from Hickok and throw them out into the street again, the marshal replied, 'Do, and they will carry you out.'

"Strawhun made a sudden move, either for a glass or for his gun. In any event, suddenly blood gushed from his neck, spewing from the hole Hickok's bullet had left. He would be buried later that day in the city's cemetery. Though severely outnumbered, Hickok, with both pistols now out, went unchallenged as the crowd inside the saloon backed down.

"A coroner's inquest was held at nine o'clock that morning. There was some contradictory testimony, probably owing to many of the witnesses having been inebriated when the shooting occurred. Hickok's terse defense was he had 'tried to restore order.' The jury agreed, declaring the death of Samuel Strawhun justifiable homicide. The Leavenworth Daily Commercial concluded its account: 'Too much credit cannot be given to Wild Bill for his endeavor to rid this town of such dangerous characters as this Stranhan [sic] was.'

"The news of such quick and rough justice spread fast, and during the following weeks, there was no more gunplay in the county. Still, Hickok had to be constantly on the alert for an ambush. For those who disapproved of Hays City becoming less rowdy and lawless, the easiest solution would be to get rid of the marshal. The eyesight that made him such a good marksman was in full use as he strode down the middle of the street. Few were allowed to approach him, especially from behind. If it sounded like activities in a saloon were getting out of hand, Wild Bill Hickok pushed through the doors, then, with his back to the bar, calmly said what he wanted to say. With his hands poised near the handles of his Colts, he passed back through the crowd to the street."



Tom Clavin


Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2019 by Tom Clavin


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