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Police History: How ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok became a police legend

When “Wild Bill” left law enforcement, he exhibited symptoms of what was referred to in those days as “Warrior’s Heart” — now called PTSD


James Butler Hickok was born May 27, 1837 and was shot and killed on August 2, 1876. (Image by D.D. Dare, Cheyenne, Wyoming (Cowan’s Auctions) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

James Butler Hickok was born May 27, 1837 to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler-Hickok in Troy Grove (Ill.). Hickok was raised to be a defender of the defenseless — the Hickok farm was a stop for run-away slaves on the Underground Railroad.

By the start of the Civil War, Hickok had already served two years as a Constable in Monticello (Kan.) and survived his first highly publicized gun fight in the defense of the Rock Creek Relay Station.

He served as a sharpshooter at the Battle of Pea Ridge, where his deadly accuracy with a rifle contributed to the decisive Union victory.

Birth of a Name
Hickok also served as a provost marshal, which was equivalent to a modern-day military policeman. While serving in this capacity in 1862 in Independence (Mo.), Hickok came across a mob bent on violence. The crowd wanted a bartender’s blood, because he righteously defended himself earlier against members of the mob.

When the crowd ignored Marshal Hickok’s order to disperse, he drew his twin Colt 1851 Navy Revolvers and fired them into the air. This inspired the mob to leave.

A female witness shouted, “Way to go, Wild Bill.”

Bill also served as a scout/spy. While posing as a Confederate Private to gather intelligence, Bill’s true intentions were discovered by a Reb Sergeant. As the Sergeant went for his pistol Bill drew his own and shot the man — after which he leapt horse and all into a river, dividing the two opposing armies.

While under heavy Confederate Fire, Bill crossed the river holding onto the tail of his horse as he shouted to the Union Sentries, “Don’t shoot!” After surviving the treacherous crossing, Bill delivered valuable intelligence about the Confederates’ intentions and dispositions.

The David Tutt Affair
In 1865, after the war had ended, Hickok found himself facing former Confederate David Tutt on the square in Springfield, (Mo.) 75 yards apart after an argument over a watch. After a momentary pause Tutt jerked out his pistol and fired.

Hickok drew second, but steadied his pistol a fraction of a moment on his left forearm, fired and shot Tutt through the heart, killing him instantly.

The homicide was ruled justified.

“His Word Was Law”
Bill went on to serve as a U.S. Deputy Marshal out of Fort Riley (Kan.) and a law man out for Fort McPherson.

Hickok rode as a scout during the Indian Wars for both Sherman and Custer. Custer once wrote of Hickok, “His influence among the frontiersman was unbounded... his word was law.”

Hays City
In 1867, Hickok took a job as U.S. Deputy Marshal in Hays City.

In September Hickok arrived at the scene of a disturbance at John Bitters’ saloon. A group of raucous cowboys had carried out all of Bitter’s glasses and left them strewn about the street and then tormented Bitter by chanting “Beer! Beer! Beer!” when Bitter had no glasses left to serve them beer in.

Hickok calmly gathered up some of the glasses and, in a friendly tone, said to the leader named Strawhun, “You hadn’t ought to treat a poor old man in this way,” referring to Bitters.

Stawhun, referring to the glasses, replied with disdain, “I’m just going to throw them out again.”

Hickok responded seriously, “Do, and they will be carrying you out.”

Strawhun went for his pistol, and Hickok drew and shot the miscreant in the head.

The local newspaper called Hickok their “guardian.”

The citizens of Abilene hired Hickok to bring peace to their town after their very able Marshal, Tom Smith, was ambushed, killed, and nearly decapitated.

Hickok brought his personal form of peace keeping to Abilene and it positively impacted the rowdy town, which seasonally experienced an invasion of wild cow hands from the cattle drives. The Mayor of Abilene described him as, “The squarest (most honest) man I have ever known.”

One saloon owner and gunfighter named Phil Coe did not admire Hickok and threatened him. October 5, 1871 he would try to make good his threat. Hickok heard a single shot come from the area of the Alamo Saloon and headed toward the sound of the shot to check it out.

As Hickok came upon a large crowd of drunken cowboys at the Alamo Saloon, Phil Coe quite deliberately stepped out from the crowd and sarcastically admitted, “I was just shooting at a dog.”

Without warning Coe fired his pistol twice hitting Hickok’s coat.

He drew and dropped Coe with two shots.

Suddenly a man with pistol in-hand ran toward Hickok, who instinctively spun and shot him dead. To Hickok’s horror he discovered he had shot his own Deputy — Mike Williams.

Wild Bill was never the same after the death of Williams. He exhibited symptoms of what was referred to in those days as “Warrior’s Heart” — now called PTSD.

Hickok turned his back on law enforcement and headed east to take a job offered by his friend Buffalo Bill — Hickok would play himself in fictional plays about his exploits. It would have been the perfect job, except he couldn’t act.

Bill drank too much and struggled with what he called living in a world where everything “seemed dark.”

Recovery from Warrior’s Heart
After searching for new purpose in a bottle and not finding one, Bill married on March 5, 1876. Agnes Lake-Hickok was a successful circus owner/performer. This relationship revived Bill’s fighting spirit.

Bill decided to reestablish himself in the world he knew best. With Agnes’s encouragement, Bill headed to Deadwood, (S.D.) to strike it rich, mining.

After Bill arrived with his friend Charlie Utter, he did very little mining. Bill spent his time instead playing cards and practicing shooting. Many historians believe that Bill went to Deadwood, hoping to be offered one more opportunity to pin on a badge and clean-up one more lawless Western town. Sadly, Bill would never wear a badge again.

While in Deadwood, Bill wrote to Agnes:

“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 and swim to the other shore.”

On August 2, 1876, Jack McCall slipped up behind Hickok, who was playing cards inside the Number Ten Saloon and shot him in the back of the head, sending Hickok swimming “to the other shore.”

Jack McCall was hanged, and his true motives remain a mystery.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.