Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Aces and Eights

by James McManus |  Published: Aug 15, 2007


He ain't the Wild Bill I once knowed. I'll swear to that. But maybe he'll change if he begins to win at poker.

- Little Big Man

When the war ended in 1865, the industrialized North was flourishing, while gray-coats trudged home to a shattered economy. Food was so scarce that northerners had to organize charity drives to keep some of their defeated countrymen from starving. Two-thirds of the value of Confederate assets had been destroyed, including most of the railroads and factories. The slave-labor force had been emancipated, and much of the white population was angry and demoralized. In Alabama, the Montgomery Advertiser noted that a "spirit of lawlessness seems to pervade the town. Men seem the prey of reckless despair, and, forgetting the laws of God and man, to give way to the phrensy of wild beasts."

The offsetting news was that recent discoveries of gold and silver out West had spawned a more human, if no less wild, phrensy. Along with freed blacks and other Union veterans, tens of thousands of southerners lit out for the mining camps of Nevada and California. Virtually all of them were battle-hardened gamblers armed with repeating six-shooters and plans to strike it rich overnight. As their stampede impinged further on Native American hunting grounds, the tribes naturally took fierce exception, and the U.S. Army set about "pacifying" these vast tracts of land.

Though George Armstrong Custer graduated at the very bottom of the West Point class of '61, he turned out to be a talented cavalry officer at Gettysburg and other key battles. Having bestowed the nickname "Wolverines" on his Michigan Brigade and married the beautiful Elizabeth Bacon, the flamboyant Custer was promoted to general when he was only 23. After the war, he led cavalry raids against the Arapaho and Cheyenne, including at least one – the Battle of Washita River – that ended in a massacre of women and children.

In 1874, Custer's 7th Cavalry was dispatched to the Lakota Sioux reservation in the Black Hills of Dakota. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had awarded the Sioux "absolute and undisturbed occupation" of the territory, but Custer had orders from Gen. Philip Sheridan to establish an outpost and investigate rumors of gold. Though his party found only modest traces of the metal, the glory-mongering Custer reported that "paying quantities" were gathered "at an expense of but little time and labor," implying that hard-working miners could probably find a lot more. His report helped to launch another gold rush, with one eastern paper's headline declaring, "The National Debt to be Paid When Custer Returns." A mighty horde of prospectors, gamblers, and other optimists thundered out to "them thar" Black Hills, making tiny Deadwood a boomtown, complete with painted ladies in the ornate saloons, though most of its housing consisted of tents. About 5,000 white men staked claims, trespassing on Sioux burial grounds and disrupting their seasonal hunts. Led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Sioux finally took their revenge on Custer's Cavalry on June 25, 1876, near the Little Big Horn River. Custer's naked but unscalped body was found alongside the mutilated corpses of the rest of his men. A fortnight later, the longhaired gunman who once may have been his wife's lover rode a tall horse into Deadwood.

James Butler Hickok was born on a farm near Troy Grove, Illinois, in 1837. His parents operated a station of the Underground Railroad and instilled in their children a strong abolitionist spirit. After learning to hunt wolves for bounty and deer for the family table, James headed for the Rockies at 18 and spent the next six years as a hunter and trapper. When the war broke out, he volunteered as a Union marksman, performing effectively at Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and elsewhere. Dispatched by Gen. Samuel R. Curtis to infiltrate Sterling Price's army, Hickok spent five months pretending to be a rebel cavalryman. "I never let on that I was good shot," he reported. "I kept that back for big occasions; but ef you'd heard me swear and cuss the blue-bellies, you'd a-thought me one of the wickedest of the whole crew." After sussing out crucial aspects of Price's troop dispositions, Hickok escaped back to Union lines, where Curtis heartily thanked him "before a heap of generals."

In 1867, Hickok scouted for the 7th Cavalry, impressing both George and Libbie Custer. "Whether on foot or on horseback he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw," gushed the equally longhaired general. "His skill in the use of the rifle and pistol was unerring." Hickok's perfect manhood made him irresistible to women, of course, and gossips insinuated an affair soon commenced between the scout and Mrs. Custer. Whether or not this was true, even the least salacious among us is likely to find the rumor believable when reading Libbie's description of Hickok: "He was a delight to look upon. Tall, lithe, and free in every motion, he rode and walked as if every muscle was perfection … I do not recall anything finer in the way of physical perfection than Wild Bill when he swung himself lightly from his saddle, and with graceful, swaying step, squarely set shoulders and well poised head, approached our tent for orders. … The frank, manly expression of his fearless eyes and his courteous manner gave one a feeling," and so on.

When Libbie first laid eyes on him, Hickok had just been lionized in a long, vividly illustrated profile by Col. George Ward Nichols in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Nichols meets Hickok in the summer of 1865 near Springfield, Missouri, where embers of the war are still crackling, the merest remnant of a blue or gray uniform being enough to spark a gunfight. Nichols reports that Hickok stands "six foot and an inch in his bright yellow moccasins" and has "the handsomest physique" he has ever seen. A deerskin shirt hangs "jauntily over his shoulders, and revealed a chest whose breadth and depth were remarkable. … His small, round waist was girthed by a belt which held two of Colt's navy revolvers," with which he has killed, according to Hickok, "hundreds of men." But when virtually all veterans go about armed with similar weapons, how has Wild Bill – a nickname derived from his fearlessness – won every gunfight? "I allers shot well," Hickok tells Nichols, "but I come to be perfect by shootin at a dime for a mark, at bets of half a dollar a shot." His latest victim is Davis Tutt, a professional gambler who had impugned Bill's honor over a poker debt. Nor had Tutt's status as a diehard Confederate boosted his actuarial odds. "Do you not regret killing Tutt?" Nichols asks. "You surely do not like to kill men?"

"As ter killing men, I never thought much about it. The most of the men I have killed it was one or t'other of us, and at sich times you don't stop to think. As for Tutt, I had rather not have killed him, for I want to settle down quiet here now." Settling down quiet remained Hickok's goal all his days, though it's difficult to imagine how a gun-fighting, lady-killing, poker-playing sheriff ever could hope to accomplish it.

Appointed chief of police of Abilene in 1871, his salary came to $150 a month plus a percentage of the fines he invoked and 50 cents for every unlicensed dog he shot. Though the dogs couldn't read, the sheriff had posted fair warning to Abilene's mangier humans: "Leave town on the eastbound train, the westbound train, or go north in the morning." By north he meant up to Boot Hill. On June 8, the Abilene Chronicle expressed its approval: "The Chief of Police (Bill Hickok) has posted up printed notices, informing all persons that the ordinance against carrying fire arms or other weapons in Abilene, will be enforced. That's right. There's no bravery in carrying revolvers in a civilized community. Such a practice is well enough and perhaps necessary when among Indians or other barbarians, but among white people it ought to be discountenanced."

Other sources tell us that Hickok was mainly discountenanced by interruptions to his drinking and gambling – that his headquarters was actually a poker table in the Alamo Saloon. Even so, the Chronicle of Oct. 7 rated his performance quite highly. "The Marshal has, with his assistants, maintained quietness and good order – and this in face of the fact that at one time during the season there was a larger number of cut-throats and desperadoes in Abilene than in any other town of its size on the continent." Yet later that month, after Hickok had gunned down more men, including – by accident – one of his deputies, the city council decided to fire him.

By this point, the 34-year-old marksman was developing eye trouble, probably glaucoma from all the time he had spent in the sun. While doing his best to keep this a secret, he set about making poker his main source of income. Less than eight months later, he went broke in a Kansas City game, which by all accounts was neither the first nor last time this would happen. Nor can glaucoma have helped in spotting creases and marks on the pasteboards, especially in poorly lit saloons whose decks were very seldom replaced with a new one. It was almost certainly the reason he'd mistaken his deputy for an outlaw.

Unlucky in poker and marshalling but suddenly lucky in love, Bill married Agnes Lake on March 5, 1876, in Cheyenne. Recently widowed – though not by Bill's hand – Agnes was famous in her own right as a tightrope walker, lion tamer, and equestrienne. She now owned a lucrative circus, so neither of them would have to work anymore. But after a two-week honeymoon in the bride's hometown of Cincinnati, Bill took a train back out West to try to make some serious money, thinking it would be unmanly to live off his wife's income. He arrived in Deadwood looking to earn enough in its gold-infused poker games to support Agnes in the style to which she had become accustomed.

A bartender at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10 recalls it was "the middle of July [when] my old friend Wild Bill arrived in Deadwood. A more picturesque sight than Hickok on horseback could not be imagined. He had never been north of Cheyenne before this, although many in Deadwood knew him, some only by reputation. A good many gunmen of note were in town and his arrival caused quite a commotion." Carl Mann greeted Bill with enthusiasm "and asked him to make the saloon his headquarters. This meant money for Mann, as Hickok was a great drawing card. Hickok agreed."

Resident cardsharps and gunfighters were unsurprisingly irked that Hickok might make trouble for them, and a crew of blacklegs associated with Johnny Varnes plotted to murder him before that could happen. Varnes first offered the job to seasoned quick-draw artists, all of whom remained unaware of Bill's vision problems and therefore turned down the offer. Finally convinced that no one would risk a showdown with Bill, Varnes decided a sneak attack was the only alternative. "Crooked Nose" Jack McCall, an unimposing local who did odd jobs for Mann, was put upon to do the big deed. Besides ample blood money, McCall was given to believe that Hickok had killed his loudmouthed brother Lew back in Abilene, so he also had revenge as a motive. Yet there is evidence, too, that McCall acted on his own – to avenge his brother and/or out of spite for what he took to be a condescending offer from Hickok on Aug. 1 to give him back enough money for breakfast after McCall had lost his last dime playing poker. Perhaps McCall also resented Bill's general handsomeness and charisma, since one reporter described McCall this way: "His head, which is covered by a thick crop of chestnut hair, is very narrow as to the parts occupied by the intellectual portion of the brain, while the animal development is exceedingly large. A small sandy mustache covers a sensual mouth. The nose is what is commonly called 'snub,' cross eyes, and a florid complexion, and the picture is finished."

Meanwhile, his physical specimen of a target was being courted by a variety of Deadwood molls, including one "Calamity Jane" Cannary. The new groom stayed true to his bride, though, at least if his letters to her can be trusted. On July 17 he wrote, "I know my Agnes and only live to love her. Never mind, pet, we will have a happy home yet, then we will be happy." Then again, on Aug. 1, as he sensed death closing in: "Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot I will gently breathe the name of my wife – Agnes – and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim for the other shore." He signed it, "Wild Bill."

The very next day, at around 4 p.m., he went as usual to play some high draw at No. 10. The other players were Mann, the gunman Charles Rich, the Irish-born wrestler (and future marshal of Deadwood) Con Stapleton, and Captain Willie Massie, a Missouri steamboat pilot. A brief conversation at the bar with a man named Harry Young caused Hickok to be the last one seated at the table. Since the only chair left had its back to the door, he politely asked Rich to change places. Rich only laughed at the notion.

No one paid McCall much attention when he entered the saloon. He soon began moseying toward the back of Hickok's chair, ostensibly to watch a few hands or converse with his boss. Some say that Massie was indulging his habit of sneaking peaks at the discards and that Bill was encouraging him to knock it off. In the meantime, a sizable pot had developed. The players were fingering coins or taking second peeks at the cards pressed against their chests when a Colt .45 appeared at the end of McCall's raised right arm. When it boomed, Hickok's upper body, preceded by splinters of bone and enamel and pink shreds of brain, pitched forward across the table, scattering cards and gold coins as the report ricocheted off the room's varnished walls. What the coroner found appeared on the front page of the Aug. 3 Deadwood Traveler: "A pistol had been fired close to the back of the head, the bullet entering the base of the brain, a little to the right of the center, passing through in a straight line, making its exit through the right cheek between the upper and lower jaw bones, loosening several of the molar teeth in its passage, and carrying a portion of the cerebellum through the wound. From the nature of the wound, death must have been instantaneous."

While several men chased down McCall, someone picked up the cards from Bill's hand off the floor. Every witness agrees they included two pair, aces and eights, and some say the fifth card was the nine of diamonds. Whatever the kicker was, aces and eights have been known ever since as The Dead Man's Hand. No real or fictional hand of poker – not Yancey Howard's unlikely straight flush to bust the Cincinnati Kid, not Jimmy the Greek's jack in the hole against Johnny Moss, not even Henry Gondorf's double cold deck that gave him four jacks to Doyle Lonigan's four nines, or even that other Doyle's immortal ten-deuce, with which he won consecutive World Series of Poker championships – is anywhere near as notorious. As a piece of Americana, it can only be compared to, and probably surpasses, the Giants' Bobby Thompson's pennant-clinching home run off the Dodgers' Ralph Branca in 1951.

On a homier note, it also may be said that after their honeymoon, Hickok should have "settled down quiet" with his well-to-do wife in Cincinnati, where as the years went by he always could have found enough poker action to keep body and soul together – but that that would have made him Mild Bill.


Related Articles