A few weeks back I was playing some cards and ended up with two pair: Aces and Eights. I was immediately asked by the player opposite me what the significance of these cards meant.
"I assume you are referring to the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot in the back?" I threw back at him.
He smiled broadly and said, "Yes! The dead man's hand."
This got me thinking if this was the origin of the so-called Dead Man's Hand. Off I went to do some research and realized I hadn't mention James Butler Hickok. So much has been written about Wild Bill that the facts sometimes blend with the fiction. I have done my best to shovel through the stories to present only those that have been reported by multiple references.
James Butler Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois (what we now call Troy Grove, LaSalle County) on May 27, 1837 to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler (although there are also accounts that their names were Abner and Eunice). The family farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad and James showed an affinity for shooting at an early age, perhaps picking up the skill to protect the family from the slave trackers. James perfected his marksmanship at the cost of local squirrels and raccoons. He was by some accounts being raised with the hopes that he become a Baptist Minister. Alas, this was not to the case.
Around 1855 (or 56), James and his brother Lorenzo left home and would finally settle in Monticello, Kansas Territory. James quickly secured a job driving a stage coach on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, putting his shooting skills to work protecting the state patrons. This is about the time the "Wild Bill" moniker surfaces. There are far too many theories as the origin of the name so I will not add any of my own conjecture here. Let us just assume the James didn't have a problem with the nickname and never sought to correct it. There is one tale about Wild Bill having a one on one with a grizzly bear during one of the coach runs near Rock Creek Station, Nebraska. Apparently the bear almost killed him before Bill relieved him of his life. Probably not true, but it goes to show that Bill was never found to correct any of the inaccuracies in these accounts.
During the Civil War, Bill was employed as a scout in the Union Army. For a brief time he even served under Custer in the 7th Cavalry. Because of his stature and long locks he was reportedly mistaken for Custer on several occasions. Probably the best description of Wild Bill was written by General George Armstrong Custer (at the time a Lieutenant Colonel):
"Wild Bill was a strange character, just the one which a novelist might gloat over. He was a plainsman in every sense of the word, yet unlike any other of his class. In person he was about six feet one in height, straight as the straightest of the warriors whose implacable foe he was; broad shoulders, well-formed chest and limbs, and a face strikingly handsome; a sharp, clear, blue eye, which stared you straight in the face when in conversation; a finely shaped nose, inclined to be aquiline; a well-turned mouth, with lips only partially concealed by the handsome moustache. His hair and complexion were those of the perfect blonde. The former was worn in uncut ringlets falling carelessly over his powerfully formed shoulders. Add to this figure a costume blending the immaculate neatness of the dandy with the extravagant taste and style of the frontiersman, and you will have Wild Bill, then as now the most famous scout on the plains. Whether on foot or on horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw."
The beginning of Hickok's reputation as a gunfighter began (reportedly) when David McCanles called out Bill from the Station House in Rock Creek. Wild Bill emerged onto the street and immediately drew one of his two .36 caliber SA Navy revolvers. According eye witness accounts he shot McCanles in the chest from 75 yards, killing him instantly. There were reports that the deadly shot came from another shooter much closer to McCanles (a theory supported by Hickok thereby relieving him of charges).