wild bill hickock becomes famous -- 7/27/20

Today's selection -- from Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin. Wild Bill Hickok was a young man with an impressive Civil War record and a victory in a shootout when articles in Harper's Magazine and The New York Herald changed his life:

"As the people moved west with the railroad, they carried tales of the famous frontiersman Wild Bill Hickok -- famous, thanks to the Harper's New Monthly Magazine article, which had finally appeared in February 1867.

"Hickok could not have known in advance the contents of the article with any certainty, so he was surprised when he heard people talking about it and questions were put to him, and even newspapers of the day began commenting on it. When people encountered Hickok, they found the man to be as described by George Ward Nichols: He was over six feet tall and wore bright yellow moccasins. A deerskin shirt hung jauntily over his shoulders, revealing, as Nichols offered, echoing Libbie Custer's bodice-ripping estimation, 'a chest whose breadth and depth were remarkable. His small round waist was girthed by a belt which held two of Colt's Navy revolvers. His legs sloped gradually from the compact thighs to the feet, which were small and turned inward as he walked.'

"The enraptured writer added, 'There was a singular grace and dignity of carriage about that figure which would have attracted your attention, meet it where you would.' On Hickok's head was a large sombrero, and out of it 'a mass of fine brown hair falls below the neck to the shoulders.'

"And there were the guns. ... With [his] pistols, the catch was filed down for hair-trigger quickness. In his side pockets, he carried .41-caliber derringers, and in his belt was a bowie knife. Later, as a lawman, he also carried a shotgun or repeating rifle. A decade later, another lawman, Wyatt Earp, would extoll the effectiveness of shooting deliberately over shooting first and furiously. Though this had worked well enough in his gunfight with Davis Tutt in July 1865, by early 1867, Hickok's approach was if forced to draw, he would do it faster than his opponent and pump out several bullets while his victim was still thinking about squeezing the trigger.

"During idle periods when he was not a scout for the army or a deputy U.S. marshal or gambling, Hickok enjoyed putting on shooting exhibitions. Especially impressive was his ambidextrous accuracy. Witnesses report seeing Hickok driving a cork through the neck of a whiskey bottle at twenty paces, splitting a bullet on the edge of a dime at the same distance, and putting as many as a dozen bullet holes in a tomato can that had been tossed in the air. No doubt Hickok enjoyed the expressions of astonishment on the faces of his ad hoc audiences, but such exercises also kept him in practice. And letting the public know he was always at the top of his game could dissuade ambitious gunmen from trying to take Hickok on. Such men may have entertained thoughts of gunfighter glory, but they weren't suicidal.

The Hickok–Tutt shootout, in an 1867 illustration accompanying
the article by Nichols in Harper's magazine

"This was the man who was on the cusp of becoming the 1860s equivalent of a matinee idol in a country whose Civil War glory was receding into history and was now looking west for new legends. ...Suddenly, Hickok had to contend with two strong and opposite realizations -- he was a heroic figure, quite out of the ordinary compared to anyone he knew (except Kit Carson), and he was a marked man. The article had implied that Hickok had killed a couple of dozen men, if not more, and he was quick on the trigger, remorseless in a fight, he'd shoot first and ask questions later, and in this new kind of dueling, no one was faster to jerk out a six-shooter and fire with calm accuracy than Wild Bill. Inevitably, there would be those who would be willing to risk their lives to instantly gain such a reputation by killing this frontier demigod.

"Thus, the Harper's article changed Hickok in dramatic ways. He made an effort to live up to the person portrayed in it, while allowing some of the stories to go undisputed. In fact, he began to repeat them in saloons and around campfires, living the life Nichols had partly been responsible for creating, becoming the famous Wild Bill the article celebrated, the kind of adventurer who could both endure and tame the American West. He also began to feel that bull's-eye on his back. As time went on, Hickok would make sure to keep his back to the wall, walk down the middle of a street instead of on the sidewalk, and develop a sixth sense for danger. For the rest of his life -- less than ten years -- he would experience the glory and tragedy of being Wild Bill Hickok.

"Included in that was being the subject of more widespread press coverage. Newspapers in Missouri and Kansas were quick to pounce on the Nichols piece for the license it took. Tarred with the same brush, Hickok was held up for some ridicule. 'The story of "Wild Bill" is not easily credited hereabouts,' intoned The Leavenworth Daily Conservative. 'To those of us engaged in the campaign it sounds mythical. The scout services were so mixed that we were unable to give precedence to any.'

"The Springfield Patriot offered that the community 'is excited' about the magazine article. 'It has been so ever since the mail of the 25th brought Harper's Monthly to its numerous subscribers here. The excitement, curiously enough, manifests itself in very opposite effects upon our citizens. Some are excessively indignant, but the great majority are in convulsions of laughter.' With a wry shrug, the writer concludes about the Nichols article, 'If it prevents any consummate fools from coming to Southwest Missouri, that's no loss.'

"Naively, Nichols was unprepared for such criticism of the article and the ridicule for its author. Covering frontier figures quickly lost its allure. He wound up in Cincinnati and lived out the rest of his days -- he died in September 1885 -- writing about music instead.

"As if the sensation caused by the Nichols piece and reactions to it were not enough, in April 1867, Hickok met Henry M. Stanley. He was a reporter for The New York Herald, a daily newspaper, who had heard the siren call of the western frontier and found it to be a reservoir of good stories about colorful characters. His forays west of the Missouri River were not the first time he had traveled to seek excitement beyond the next horizon. Though only twenty-six, Sir Henry Morton Stanley -- as he would later be known -- had already enjoyed a life of adventure.

"No doubt Stanley had read the Harper's article published three months earlier, and in May 1867, he sought out Hickok specifically when he arrived at Fort Riley. The restless frontiersman and the fearless reporter hit it off. The Fort Riley compound housed several sutlers' shops that provided liquid refreshment, and the two men frequented them together. They told tales of their most interesting experiences, and some of them were probably true. By this time, Hickok had digested Colonel Nichols's article whole. He may have repeated some of his adventures knowing they were embellished or entirely fabricated, or, especially as time went on, the line between fact and fiction narrowed until it became too thin for him to notice.

"An example can be found in the article Stanley wrote that was published in The New York Herald soon after he left Kansas. Stanley reported that he had asked Hickok how many white men he had killed 'to your certain knowledge.' After seeming to give the question some thought, Hickok replied, 'I suppose I have killed considerably over a hundred.' Stanley marveled at the number and wondered if there had been good reasons for all those fatalities. Hickok assured him that he 'never killed one man without good cause.'

"With Stanley's article appearing only a few months after the Harper's opus, and with no other frontiersman gaining a similar amount of attention, Wild Bill Hickok was further solidified in the minds of folks back east as the American westerner. He was busy blazing trails and defying savages so that Manifest Destiny could be fulfilled. If anyone got in his way and wasn't fast enough on the draw ... well, that was good enough cause to meet a bullet.

"After Stanley wrote up his article at The Herald's office in New York, he was off on more adventures. He rode as a special correspondent with a British force sent to topple Tewodros II of Ethiopia, he was the first to tell the world of the fall of Magdala in 1868, he covered a civil war in Spain, and in his most famous outing, in November 1871 near Lake Tanganyika in Africa, he found a physician who had been reported missing and queried, 'Dr. Livingstone, I presume?'

"In today's celebrity-riddled culture, it may be difficult to comprehend the figure Wild Bill Hickok now cut in frontier society. Turning thirty, he was being talked and written about like adventurers Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson all rolled into one. When Hickok was staying in a town or just passing through, people elbowed each other and pointed and whispered, 'There goes Wild Bill.'"

 | www.delanceyplace.com


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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