Friday, March 18, 2022

Was Wild Bill Too Good for His Own Good?

March 18, 2022

    In the annals of the Old West gunfighters, one name stands head and shoulders above all the rest and that is this guy. 

Wild Bill Stands Tall

By all accounts he walked the walk and almost single-handedly created the legend of the town-taming lawman who was quicker on the draw than all his adversaries put together. It is a known fact, that Hickok put on numerous shooting exhibitions, so we know that he was a crack shot and several contemporaries of his testified that he was very quick in retrieving his pistols. But was he perhaps too fast for his own good?

The Town Tamer
   He was a lawman as early as 1858, being elected constable of Monticello township, Kansas. And, so all thru the 1860s he acted in one capacity or another as a lawman. He quickly caught on, what he needed to do to survive. Hickok was appointed as a lawman in Hays City, Kansas in August of 1869. He escaped several assassination attempts and he becomes cautious when patrolling the streets of the roaring cowtown. He avoids sidewalks and especially dark alleys. He allows no one to get too close or approach him from the back. He takes to walking down the center of North Main Street, eyes scanning the saloons for potential trouble.

August 24, 1869
   Newly elected Hays City Marshall, Wild Bill is accosted by Billy Mulrey, who levels two pistols at the lawman. Before he can fire Hickok waves his hand past Mulrey and yells, "Don't shoot him in the back! He's drunk!" When Mulrey turns, Wild Bill shoots him dead. In September Hickok shoots another miscreant Sam Strawhim who is breaking up a saloon in a rage. The townspeople, perhaps tired of the violence and shootings, do not re-elect Hickok.

July 17, 1870
   Hickok gets in a fight with 7th Cavalry Troopers in Paddy Welch's Saloon in Hays City, Kansas. While one of the soldiers comes up from behind and bear hugs Wild Bill and throws him to the floor, another soldier, John Kile, whips out a hidden Remington pistol and puts "the muzzle into Wild Bill's ear and snapped it." The pistol misfires. Hickok manages to retrieve one of his pistols and fires hitting Lonnegan in the wrist and then the knee. Hickok scrambles to his feet, makes tracks to the back of the saloon and jumps thru a window, taking the glass and sash with him. . ."

April, 1871
   Hickok takes the job as city marshal of Abilene, Kansas at a salary of $150 a month. In June he puts up printed notices informing all persons that the carrying of fire arms in Abilene, will not be tolerated and that the ordinance will be enforced.

The Last Gunfight

   The 1871 cattle season in Abilene has been rough with cattle drovers facing financial losses. Some have pushed their herds on to Waterville, while some stay in Abilene hoping for higher prices. Wild Bill Hickok has been the town marshal for eight months with a spotless record. But, of course, he is not liked by the visiting Texans because he shut down all the brothels, the month before on the order of the city council. On the evening of October 5, 1871, some 50 idled Texas cowboys want to attend the Dickinson County Fair, but heavy rains sully that venue, so the boys wander from saloon to saloon on the main drag, bullying and intimidating patrons into buying them drinks. It was called "Hurrahing" and the boys would round up some unsuspecting bystander and raise him up over their heads like a conquering king and rush him up to the bar to salute him. The unspoken but implied message was for the newly crowned king to buy everyone a drink. There are some accounts that the cowboys pulled this on Hickok and swept him off his feet and carried him into the Alamo Saloon where he humored them with a round of free drinks.

   There had been rumors that Texas gambler Phil Coe had sworn to get Wild Bill "before the frost." It is not known what exactly prodded Coe into making this pronouncement but Hickok being a Yankee lawman was probably enough justification for the provocation.

   At about 9 p.m. Wild Bill hears a shot fired outside the Alamo Saloon. Having already warned the cowboys against carrying firearms, he goes out the swinging doors to investigate. He immediately spots Phil Coe with a drawn pistol in his hand and quite a few cowboys around him.

   Coe claims he fired at a stray dog, but as he says this, he pulls another pistol and fires twice at Hickok, one ball going through Wild Bill's coat and the other thudding into the boardwalk between the lawman's legs. Hickok reacts in a flash and "as quick as thought," as the Abilene Chronicle put it the next day, Wild Bill pulls his two Colt Navy revolvers and fires both, hitting Coe in the stomach. Coe lurches about until he collapses, and a couple of the cowboys standing behind him are also hit and they react. In the pause that follows, Wild Bill is on high alert as he looks to see who else among the cowboys will take up the fight. He hears footsteps coming rapidly from his right and as he turns he sees the harsh outline of another assaillant with a pistol in his hand, and Hickok instantly fires, killing Michael Williams, a personal friend and the city jailer, who had responded to the shooting and was hurrying to see if he could help.

   Wild Bill orders all the cowboys to disperse and, incredibly they do, carrying off Coe and the other wounded cowboys. Hickok carries the dying Williams into the Alamo and lays him on a pool table. As his friend lay dying, Hickok, in a rage, turns and orders all the Texans to clear out of town, immediately. Within an hour the entire place is deserted.

Eulogized Or Demonized

   As is usual in these kind of affairs, the press takes up the Coe-Hickok gunfight, and the two participants are either demonized or eulogized, depending on which side is doing the telling. In the Kansas newspapers Coe is described as "a red-mouthed, bawling. thug plug ugly, dangerous beast," but in Texas Coe is described as "a kind and generous hearted man well thought of by all who knew him." Hickok is describe as a "blood thirsty wretch," in the Texas telling, 

Wild Bill's Remorse

   In addition to paying for William's funeral and personally apologizing to Mike's widow, Wild Bill doesn't resign, but he is relieved of his duties in December as city marshal and never works as a lawman again. He has five years to live.

    His greatest strength turned out to be his greatest weakness: his speed became a deadly liability. Five years later, his luck ran out and his celebrity standing brought him down and ended his life.

   The moral being, sometimes you can be too good, for your own good.

"For everything you gain you will lose something. For everything you lose you will gain something."

—Old Vaquero Saying

  But in the end, the thing I love the most about Wild Bill is that he had a great sense of humor.

"Pretty near all these stories are true."

—Wild Bill Hickok

   Given what we now know about the Prince of The Pistoleers, that is hilarious.

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