Which Cards was “Wild Bill” Hickok Holding when He was Murdered?

ATM_Marshall-Trimble-Logo-with-backgroundWhich cards was “Wild Bill” Hickok holding when he was murdered?

-Michael Weirens of Sartell, Minnesota

Legend says James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok held the Dead Man’s Hand, or aces and eights, when Jack McCall shot him in the No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876. Here’s how Hickok biographer, the late Joseph Rosa, explained it:

“Ellis T, Peirce, a self-styled barber-surgeon and blowhard…claimed in his correspondence with Frank J. Wilstach in the 1920s 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 Dead Man’s Hand. Some, however, have claimed that the ‘kicker’ was not the Jack, but the Queen of Diamonds, but no proof has been produced.

ATM_Wild-Bill-Hickok-chekered-pants-and-cape_McCubbin_scaled
“Wild Bill” Hickok – Courtesy Robert G. McCubbin Collection –

“Some years ago, I was told by a poker expert that Hickok could have had a full house (that is three of a kind plus a pair) or, mathematically, he could have drawn a low hand. However, the only [contemporaneous] reference to cards Hickok may have held that I have found appeared in Harry (Sam) Young’s book Hard Knocks. Young was the bartender at the No. 10, and he claimed that Capt. [Bill] Massie, the former Missouri Riverboat pilot, had ‘…beat a king full for Bill with four sevens, breaking Bill on the hand.’ Young then said that he had brought Hickok $50 worth of checks. As Young returned to the bar, McCall shot Hickok. Young’s more matter-of-fact reference makes more sense than Peirce’s claim. Others will doubtless disagree, but it is arguments that make horses race!”

I believe, with so much chaos—gunfire, blood, smoke, shock—that nobody bothered to check his hand.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. . His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen; History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write:  Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at  marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu

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Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu or Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327.