WILD BILL: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN FRONTIER’S FIRST GUNFIGHTER
By Tom Clavin
St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 326 pages
The Wild West quick-draw showdown, a duel and test of speed, accuracy and grit, with two gunfighters facing each other on a dusty street in a Western frontier town, is a staple feature of nearly every Western cowboy film and TV series since the beginning of motion pictures.
This scene rarely happened, as gunfights on the American frontier were generally a more spontaneous affair of firearms drawn on the spot of the disagreement with shots fired wild and a few finding their mark. But James Butler Hickok, better known as “Wild Bill,” did face off famously against a man on a Springfield, Missouri, street in July 1865.
Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt had a gambling dispute and Tutt took Wild Bill’s gold pocket watch in lieu of a gambling debt he thought he was owed. Wild Bill, then a former Civil War Union soldier and scout, wanted his watch back and faced off against Tutt in the street with townsfolk watching the gunfight from a safe distance. Wild Bill’s speed, accuracy and courage won the duel and he killed his opponent with his Colt pistol. This was the first recorded quick-draw street duel in history.
Wild Bill Hickok faced a trial and he was subsequently found not guilty of murder. After the trial, he met Col. George Ward Nichols, a fellow Civil War Union veteran and former newspaper reporter, who was then a correspondent for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. His interview and profile of the victorious “shootist” and frontiersman would do much to create the Wild Bill Hickok legend.
“It even contained a few facts,” Tom Clavin writes in his book, “Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter.”
Mr. Clavin, who also wrote “Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West,” writes in his author’s note of “Wild Bill” that before the heyday of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holiday and other iconic frontier figures, there was arguably the most iconic figure of all: James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok.
Mr. Clavin goes on to note that he was indeed the first gunfighter on the expanding American frontier, and he was indeed the first post-Civil War celebrity of the West. With his long flowing hair, buckskin outfit or more formal town attire, and his two Colts with handles facing outward, the young and handsome Wild Bill always stood out. There had been legendary frontier figures before Wild Bill, Mr. Clavin points out, such as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Kit Carson, but in the view of the author, Wild Bill was bigger than all of them.
“He was an American legend by the time he was thirty years old, and by the end of the nineteenth century, only his good friend Buffalo Bill Cody, who transformed from army scout and hunter to shameless showman, and outlived Hickok by four decades, came close to Wild Bill’s legendary status in the public imagination,” Mr. Clavin writes. “And during the finest years of his all-too-brief life, which ended at thirty-nine, there wasn’t a man alive who could beat him.”
Even discounting the exaggerated and fictious stories about him, Wild Bill led a fascinating and exceptional life. Born in LaSalle, Illinois, in 1832, the son of a general store owner, the future frontier legend was raised in a family of abolitionists who helped runaway slaves. Even as a young man, he was a skilled woodsman and was comfortable and proficient with firearms. He had a limited education, but he enjoyed reading pamphlets about the adventures of Daniel Boone and Kit Carson.
At 17, he headed west to California. Like his family, he was strongly anti-slavery and he later joined the Union Army at the start of the Civil War. He served as a scout and as a spy behind Confederate lines. After the war, Wild Bill roamed as a gambler, served as a sheriff in Abilene, Kansas, and a deputy U.S. marshal, and later joined Buffalo Bill in a traveling show. He met Kit Carson, Gen. Custer and other famed men in the West, and he fell in love with Agnes Lake, the owner of a circus. He was not involved romantically with Calamity Jane, and in fact he disliked her.
With his eyes failing him, he knew his gunfighter days were ending. Shortly after his marriage, he traveled to the Deadwood settlement in Indian country to make money as a gambler. As he played poker there, he was shot in the back of the head by a coward named Jack McCall.
“Wild Bill” is a well-written and well-researched tale of a most interesting American frontiersmen, lawman and shootist. Those interested in the true story of the life and times of Wild Bill Hickok will enjoy this book.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.