The Life & Legend of Wild Bill Hickok

As Luke Hemsworth steps into the role of Wild Bill Hickok on the big screen, we take a look at the dramatic life of the legendary gunslinger.
Wild West legend Wild Bill Hickok

Wild West legend Wild Bill Hickok

With Luke Hemsworth set to hit the big screen as the legendary Wild Bill Hickok in Hickok today, here’s a look at the man who was Superman, Thor and Spider-Man rolled into one back in his days of patrolling the frontier:

Not Far From the Tree

Hickok is often portrayed as a man who stood up for the oppressed, which, if true, is a trait he inherited from his dad: William Alonzo Hickok was a staunch abolitionist, even using his cellar at the family home in Homer, Illinois, as a stop on the Underground Railroad. It was dangerous business shielding runaway slaves in the decades before the Civil War, and while no specific tales exist of a young Bill's scrapes with lawmen or bounty hunters, the experience undoubtedly honed his sense of how to handle potentially perilous situations.

Grin and Bear It

An early checkpoint in the legend of Wild Bill is his mano a mano victory over a bear circa 1861. As the story goes, Hickok shot a bear that was blocking a road, and, after the enraged animal charged him, he slit its throat with a bowie knife to avoid getting utterly mauled. It is true that Wild Bill was seriously hurt during this period, but there are no contemporary accounts of him duking it out with a bear, and the source of his injuries remains a mystery. Noted Wild Bill biographer Joseph Rosa attributes this embellished tale to Western writer James W. Buel, who may have come across the anecdote of a fight between a bear and a Cheyenne Indian chief during his time as a newspaper editor, and later lifted it to burnish his accounts of Wild West heroism.

About That Nickname . . .

Hickok's given name was James Butler, which begs the question of how we got from there to "Wild Bill." It's believed he picked up the nickname during the Civil War; one repeated account points to his success in stopping a Missouri lynch mob in 1862, prompting a woman to shout from the crowd, "Good for you, Wild Bill!" It may seem a little off that his nickname sprung from this moment, as if the disembodied voice could have changed the course of history by yelling out, "You get 'em, Crazy Steve!" However, Hickok apparently was already known as "Bill" in some circles, so the addition of "Wild" wasn't much of a stretch for someone who was rapidly developing a reputation for toughness.

The Other Woman

It was long believed that Wild Bill was romantically attached to rootin' tootin' frontierswoman Martha Jane Cannary, a.k.a. Calamity Jane, although historians have debunked that idea. However, he was attached to a remarkable woman in her own right: Agnes Lake Thatcher was a circus performer who walked the high wire and tamed lions as part of her act, and later successfully managed the production. Already a widow when she met Wild Bill in 1871, Agnes married the famed gunslinger and ladies' man in March 1876, only to be widowed again when he was killed in Dakota Territory in August. She was ultimately buried next to her first husband in Ohio, leaving the door open for Calamity Jane to claim a cemetery spot next to Wild Bill and advance the incorrect narrative about their relationship.

Icons of the Wild West: Martha Jane Burke ('Calamity Jane'), full-length portrait, on horseback, c. 1901

A portrait of Calamity Jane on horseback, circa 1901.

Give Him a Hand

The story of Wild Bill's death has long been etched in lore: Engrossed in a poker game in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in the outpost of Deadwood, his back to the door, the aging gunslinger took a bullet in the back of the head as he was about to play the "dead man's hand" – two aces and two eights. Or was he? This version of events can be traced to Frank J. Wilstach's 1926 biography of Hickok, in which former Deadwood barber Doc Peirce names the slain gambler’s cards. Many have questioned the identity of the fifth card in Hickok’s hand, but considering that the "definitive" account of this story comes from the half-century-old recollections of an aging man, it’s valid to wonder about the other four cards as well.

Wild Bill Hickok Monument

The original stone monument dedicated to Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota

Hall of Famer

Of all the legends and rumors surrounding the life of Wild Bill, this one is very much true: In 1979 he became a charter member of the Poker Hall of Fame. According to its website, criteria for induction include participation in "high stakes" games against "acknowledged top competition." It's unclear what sort of competition Hickok generally faced in saloons littered with drunken cowboys and farm hands, but as he was killed in the midst of a game, there can be no question about the stakes involved. Besides, a guy with a name like "Wild Bill" clearly deserves a spot among poker's cherished icons. "Crazy Steve" would've been just fine, too.