American Wonder Wild Bill Hickok Shot and Killed From Behind on This Day in History

Wild Bill dead of a gunshot wound to the head, see one of his guns at a new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Wild Bill Hickok
Wild Bill Hickok's present-day gravesite in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, SD Courtesy Flickr user Travis S.

Always sit with your back to the wall. Always. And especially in the American Old West. Had Wild Bill Hickok, the legendary gunfighter, Army scout, lawman and avid gambler not violated this cardinal rule in order to snag the last remaining spot at a poker game in a Deadwood saloon, I wouldn’t be writing this post today.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (1837-1876) was the archetypical Wild West character. At six-feet tall, draped in buckskins and with long, flowing hair, blue-gray eyes and a straw-colored moustache, Hickok cut a striking figure.

And his weapon of choice? More than one, actually. He carried a pair of ivory-handled .36 caliber Colt 1851 Navy Revolvers in an open-top, dual-holstered rig. Hong Kong film director John Woo would have been proud. (See one of his guns on display in the new American Art Museum exhibition, “The Great American Hall of Wonders.”)

Though Hollywood has created an highly idealized version of the iconic Old West quick-draw gun duel, Wild Bill’s infamous deathblow to Dave Tutt on July 21, 1865, in Springfield, Missouri, is likely the first duel that comes closest to Tinseltown standards.

Tutt, a Confederate-turned-Union soldier—and a good shot himself—confronted Hickok in the town square from approximately 75 yards away. Tutt drew first. The two gunmen fired at nearly the same time, with Tutt’s shot straying while Hickok’s found its mark.

Though Hickok bragged about the number of men he had killed (hundreds), he likely exaggerated (six, maybe seven). But his expert marksmanship needed no embellishing. In a February 1867 interview, Harper’s Monthly writer Colonel George Ward Nichols recounts how Hickok drew a letter ‘O’ on a sign-board against a wall, “no bigger than a man’s heart,” wrote Nichols.  And then from 50 yards away without even “sighting the pistol,” Hickok fired six shots from his Colt revolver into the center.

“Hickok typified the era of the man-killer or shootist, better known today as the gunfighter–a term in use as early as 1874 but not popularized until post-1900,” wrote Joseph G. Rosa, the gunman’s biographer in the June 2006 issue of Wild West magazine.

So here’s what went down 135 years ago today. Wild Bill was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood in the Dakota Territory. Though he usually sat with his back to the wall, Hickok was forced to take the only seat available and no one would switch seats with him.

John “Crooked Nose Jack” McCall was able to get the drop on him.

McCall strode into the saloon, drew his pistol and shouted, “take that” and fired a a bullet into Wild Bill’s head, killing him instantly.

Hickok was holding a black pair of aces and a black pair of eights, which eventually became known as the “dead man’s hand.” Some claim the assassination may have been a paid hit; however, McCall later said that Wild Bill had killed his brother several years earlier.

McCall was arrested and brought to trial, but was acquitted by a jury of miners. After bragging about killing Hickok following his release, McCall was re-arrested, tried again, found guilty, and then hanged. Double jeopardy, you ask? Not applicable in this case, Deadwood was not a state and was located in Indian country. One final victory for Wild Bill.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.