Finishing up our big Wild Bill Hickok package for the November issue of True West. Pulled out an earlier study and give it another layer. I'll probably use this on my editorial page to illustrate how the tall tales about Hickok sent his legend soaring.
The Nemesis of Nervous Men and Timid Women
The myths about Wild Bill Hickok are legion, but it must be said
Hickok himself sowed some of the seeds that grew into the myths that
survive to this day. His sister Lydia remembered in 1915: "I have to
laugh when I read James' stories for when we were children he was
always telling just such yarns to amuse the rest of us." She went on
to say, that James swore that one day he would do things that Kit
Carson "never thought of doing." He certainly achieved that goal. He
also had a good sense of humor. After telling a particularly
outrageous story, someone would invariably ask him, "But Bill, how did
you escape?" Poker faced, Hickok would reply, "I didn't. I was
As for his name, "Wild Bill" was a common appellation given to any
western character who was acting out. Joseph Rosa writes of one
researcher, Waldo E. Koop, who claimed to have found reference to more
than 30 individuals known as "Wild Bill," on the frontier, so it was
quite common at the time. And speaking of names, Hickok was known
around Rock Creek as Dutch Bill and some writers claim he was also
known as "Duck Bill," allegedly because of his prominent nose.
As Rosa put it in his introduction to "Wild Bill Hickok: The Man & His
Myth", "Even today, attempts are being made to turn Hickok into some
kind of a psychological freak, adding facets to his character and
behavior that were not evident during his lifetime." So, we have
Joseph G. Rosa to thank for ferreting out the hard truths about a
mythical character who actually walked the earth as flesh and blood.
Thanks to Joe, we now have a better understanding of the real Wild
Bill. Thanks Joe.
Wild Bill And The Ladies
As for the ladies, more than a few were enchanted. "He was really a
very modest man and very free from swagger and bravado." claimed Libby
Custer. In 1871 Hickok met his future wife Agnes Lake Thatcher, widow
of a circus owner. She fell in love with him and after several years
of correspondence they married on March 5, 1876 at Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Wild Bill had five months to live.
Fast On The Draw
There is a current perception, widely accepted, that Hollywood
created the "fast draw" but here is a contemporary comment on Hickok's
"The secret of Bill's success was his ability to draw and discharge
his pistols, with a rapidity that was truly wonderful, and a
peculiarity of his was that the two were presented and discharged
simultaneously, being 'out and off' before the average man had to to
think about it. He never seemed to take any aim, yet he never missed."
—Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1876
Too Bad There Were Also Dime Novel Claims Like This:
"I would be willing to take my oath on the Bible tomorrow that I have
killed over a hundred, a long ways off."
—Wild Bill, as quoted by a creative manure spreader