A whole generation might never have known of Wild Bill Hickok or his death if the World Series of Poker had not surged starting in the 90s. Because as any good Texas Hold ‘Em player or circuit fan will tell you, Hickock died August 2, 1876, playing what would come to be known as “the Dead Man’s Hand,” black aces and black eights. Sadly, that’s unproven folklore that got going around 1926. What is known is that notorious gunfighter and general badass who was born James Butler Hickock did meet his end sitting at a card table. Here’s what went down that day at the Number Ten Saloon in South Dakota:
The early life of Wild Bill
Born in 1837, in Troy Grove, Illinois, Hickok was a deadly shot even as a kid. He did stay on the side of law and order, though. He moved to the Wild West at age 18 as a farmer. From agrarian beginnings he quickly became a force on General James Lane’s antislavery forces in Kansas, followed by work as a constable and then a stagecoach driver. When the Civil War broke out, Hickok was a Union Army teamster and spy. His breakout shootout happened in Nebraska when he was 24 and working as a stablehand. He shot and killed three men who jumped him, even though injured. From there’ his reputation grew as he cleaned up two lawless towns as sheriff, Abilene and Hays City in Kansas. But Hickok stopped gunfighting when he accidentally shot his own deputy in 1871.
Did Hickok hold the Dead Man’s hand?
At the time he was murdered, Wild Bill Hickok was suffering from glaucoma and living mostly by his wits as a card player. On the day of his demise, he took a seat with his back to the door, an unusual move for him. A man who would be forever remembered as a cowardly punk, gunslinger Jack McCall slunk into the saloon, came up behind Hickok and shot him dead. As further proof that Hickok’s luck had really run out, all the rest of the cartridges McCall shot were blanks. The drifter was captured, convicted and hanged.