The Ball that Killed Wild Bill A riverboat captain becomes a living evidence exhibit for one of the West’s most notorious murders.

Wild Bill Hickok
– Illustrated by Andy Thomas –

If Wild Bill Hickok was buried in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876, why was the bullet that killed him buried in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1910?

You already know the answer if you know about Bill Massie, and if you don’t, you need to.

Massie was a Missouri River steamboat pilot who went in search of riches when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. He didn’t find metal in a mine, but in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood on August 2, 1876.

Massie preferred poker to prospecting, and he was pretty good at it too. He had been playing at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon most of the day, in a spirited game with saloon owner Carl Mann, Charlie Rich and a fourth guy who lost his stake and left. When Hickok came into the saloon, he was offered the vacant seat at the table.

Hickok hesitated. He never sat with his back to the room, so he asked Rich if he would change seats with him. But Rich liked his seat against the wall just fine. Hickok sat down, directly across from Massie.

As they played, Massie won big. Hickok finally had a hand he thought was a winner—reportedly a pair of aces and a pair of eights—but he never got a chance to play it. Jack McCall walked into the bar and shot Hickok through the head.

The ball of lead exited Hickok’s right cheek and lodged in Massie’s left wrist. Massie, at first, thought Hickok had shot him in anger. He apparently stared at Hickok in disbelief, before he realized what had actually happened.

Massie was subpoenaed to testify at McCall’s trial, but he refused. “I won’t go down there to testify! Think of the disgrace it would be for my daughters to have it in all the papers that I’d been in a poker game where a man was murdered,” he said (apparently not yet understanding the historical significance of the murder). He admitted he also feared for his job. In the end, a bench warrant was issued, and Massie was forced to appear—a living evidence exhibit, as he showed off the murdering bullet in his wrist.

Massie went back to steamboats and eventually caught on to the significance of his wrist jewelry. Whenever Massie docked in Bismarck, North Dakota, he “enjoyed swaggering around the town, reminding his friends that the ‘bullet that killed Wild Bill has come to town,’” reported Dakota Datebook, a radio program aired by Prairie Public Broadcasting.

That bullet went to Massie’s grave with him, when he died in 1910 and was buried in a St. Louis cemetery.

 

Arizona’s Journalist of the Year, Jana Bommersbach has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.

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