Dead Man’s Hand

That fateful day of August 2nd, 1876 when Jack McCall fired a fatal bullet into the back of Wild Bill Hickok’s head, a story is told that one of the gamblers at the table of the Number 10 Saloon in Deadwood put the last hand that Wild Bill Hickok held on his tombstone. That would show what was the mysterious 5th card. Is this story true?

Part of its true and most of it isn’t. Young Charlie Rich was dealing cards that day. Hickok had just lost a poker hand to Captain Wm. Massie. Hickok was heard to remark, “The old duffer, he broke me on that hand.” Those were his last words. At that moment, standing a couple of feet behind him, Jack McCall pointed his revolver at the back of his head and fired. “Damn you, take that!” he shouted.

There was complete chaos in the Number 10 as Hickok slumped to the floor. The bullet had entered the back of his head and exited through his right cheek. Death was instantaneous. Captain Massie, a colorful steamboat skipper, felt a sharp pain in his wrist. At first, he believed Hickok had been upset over losing the hand and shot him but one look at Wild Bill told him differently.

The scene became chaotic as McCall snapped his revolver, misfiring at several others, including Sam Young, the bartender who served Hickok his last drink, but all the other rounds were duds. He then ran outside, jumped on a horse but the cinch was loose and the saddle slipped. He ran into a butcher shop where he was captured.

Twenty-year-old Charlie Rich was from Miamiville, Ohio and in 1989 a Deadman’s Hand monument was placed in the Evergreen Cemetery by his descendants. There is a second monument erected at the Evergreen entrance in Rich’s memory by the Ohio Historical Society and his descendants.

The Late Joe Rosa was my “go to” guy on anything Wild Bill and he said that Aces and Eights story was first told many years later.

Rosa said, “The Man and his Myth,” in which I devote a lot of space to the story behind it. In essence: Ellis​ “Doc”​ T​.​ Peirce, a self-styled barber/surgeon and blowhard (the latter opinion I have gleaned from an examination of some of his letters) claimed in his correspondence with Frank J. Wilstach in the 1920’s that the cards Hickok held were the Ace of Spades, the Ace of Clubs, two black eights, Clubs and Spades, and the Jack of Diamonds, which became celebrated out West as “The Deadman’s Hand.” He says, “the bottom line is nobody seems to know what particular poker game they were playing at the Number 10 Saloon in Deadwood that day.”

Another Hickok author Thadd Turner wrote: “Hickok’s last poker hand, reported in later accounts as two black aces and black eights would become known as the legendary ‘dead man’s hand’. Ironically, at the time there appears to be no written account available of Hickok’s final cards……The actual cards in Wild Bill’s final hand may never be positively identified.”

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