Aug. 2, 2022

The Murder of Wild Bill Hickock

The Murder of Wild Bill Hickock

August 2, 1876. At a poker table in the town of Deadwood, a buffalo hunter turned prospector named Jack McCall murders the legendary gunslinger, frontiersman, and folk hero, Wild Bill Hickock.


Cold Open - The Legend of Wild Bill

It’s the evening of August 22nd, 1869, in Hays City, Kansas.

Inside a local saloon, standing tall at the bar, is the town’s lone lawman: Marshall James Butler Hickock; or as he’s known by many, Wild Bill.

Bill takes a fiery shot of whiskey and grimaces as he wipes his mustache with the back of his hand. As he takes a deep breath to cool his throat… he hears gunshots popping off from the streets outside. Bill watches as a local store owner comes running in the saloon's front door.

Store owner barrels through the crowd, and makes his way over to Bill. In between panicked breaths, the wide-eyed store owner points outside and mutters a single word: Mulvey.

Wild Bill grimaces again. He knows Mulvey, an infamous murderer from Missouri. And he’s certain Mulvey’s come to town to challenge him. One Bill is tempted to accept. 

As soon as Bill steps outside, he spots Mulvey, who sits on his horse in the middle of the street gripping a lever-action Winchester Rifle. Seeing Bill, Mulvey aims his weapon square at Bill’s chest. 

Bill knows he’s in a terrible situation. If he reaches for his pistols, he’s as good as dead. So instead of drawing them, he assumes a calm demeanor and tries to de-escalate the situation.

In the most gentle manner possible, Wild Bill asks Mulvey to lower his gun and step off his horse. But Mulvey isn’t interested in making peace. He scowls, adjusts the rifle on his shoulder, and slides his finger toward the trigger. Bill knows his life is in danger. But he has a plan. Bill suddenly points over Mulvey’s shoulder and calls out, “don’t shoot him in the back, he’s drunk!”. As Mulvey wheels around to check his flank, Bill draws one of his revolvers… and sends a single round through Mulvey’s skull.

By 1869, frontier icon and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickock is among the most famous figures of the American Old West. After serving the Union during the Civil War, Wild Bill went on to make a name for himself as a scout, a marksman, and a tough-as-nails lawman. But his legendary status made him a frequent target of violent criminals, like the murderous Mulvey who tried to take Bill’s life in Hays City. But the shootout in Kansas only adds to Bill’s already growing reputation, and to the perception that when it comes to combat, Wild Bill is unbeatable.

But years after gunning down Mulvey, Wild Bill’s winning streak will come to an end. A fatal mistake will spell the end of Wild Bill’s career as a lawman and send him into a spiral of alcohol and gambling; a path of ruin that will lead Wild Bill to his demise on August 2nd, 1876.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 2nd, 1876: The Murder of Wild Bill Hickock.

Act One: A Fatal Mistake

It’s October 5th, 1871, five years before Wild Bill’s murder.

Deputy Marshal Mike Williams and his boss, Wild Bill Hickock, patrol the streets of Abilene, Kansas. It’s a calm, cool autumn night. But Mike is not relaxed. He knows Wild Bill has a target on his back.

Last year, the local Marshall in Abilene was murdered by gunslingers. And not long after, the Mayor brought in Wild Bill as the new Marshall to restore order. For a while, things were relatively quiet, thanks to Bill’s unique brand of lawmaking: a mixture of congeniality and brutal efficiency with a pair of 36-caliber Colt Revolvers. But lately, Bill has been receiving a flurry of threats. It seems every ex-gunslinger or outlaw within a fifty-mile radius is hell-bent on being the one to take down the famous lawman. Lately, the biggest source of trouble has been an ex-confederate from Texas named Phil Coe.

Phil moved to Abilene, Kansas to get in on a local business venture; a new saloon on the edge of town; and the rowdiest place in Abilene. After Wild Bill’s arrival, it didn’t take long for Phil and Bill to butt heads. The two men have had a series of tense run-ins, and they’ve exchanged their fair share of fiery words, in no small part because they were both after the same woman. Tonight, Phil and several of his hired guns are out on the town, drinking and cavorting. So as Mike and Wild Bill patrol the streets, they keep their hands on their holsters, ready for whatever trouble might come.

And soon enough, Mike and Bill hear the crack of a six-shooter coming from down the street. Bill tells Mike to stay put. Mike protests but Bill won’t hear it. Saying, “I’ll be right back”. And then he disappears into the night.

As Mike waits for Bill to return, he feels a wave of fear and anxiety. To calm his nerves, he sits down and rolls a cigarette. But as he searches his coat pockets for a match, he hears another gunshot. He tosses the cigarette aside and rushes on foot toward the scene.

As he runs down the street, he hears a rally of four more shots. He fears he’s too late; that perhaps Phil Coe and his hired guns got the drop on Bill. Mike shakes off the thought and rushes forward, his pistol is drawn. As he approaches the scene, Mike sees Phil Coe doubled over in the dirt, gut shot, and clutching his stomach. Then he sees Bill standing tall over his fallen foe, pistols in hands.

Mike breathes a sigh of relief. It seems Phil tried his luck and failed. But just as Mike is about to call out to his boss, Wild Bill suddenly turns on him and fires two quick rounds into Mike’s chest. Confusion and terror flood Mike’s face as he collapses to the ground.

Wild Bill is equally confused. In the midst of the chaos, he thought Mike was another of Phil’s men. Now he realizes his mistake. But it’s too late. Mike is mortally wounded. Bill is devastated, but there’s no time for mourning. The streets outside the saloon are filling with people, including many of Phil’s hired guns.

Bill holds up his pistols and calls out, “if any of you want the rest of these pills, come and get them!” Terrified, Phil’s men quickly mount their horses and ride off into the night. Bill notices that Phil Coe is still alive, though just barely. He sends for a local preacher to take care of him until he passes away. And then he picks up Mike, slings his body over his shoulder, and carries him inside the saloon where he places him on a large poker table.

Realizing there’s nothing to be done, Wild Bill loads his pistols, grabs his shotgun, and marches off into the night. Word quickly gets out that Phil is gutshot and dying, and that Mike is dead, and that Wild Bill is out for blood. Soon, Phil Coe's entire outfit has fled town, and the streets of Abilene are quiet and peaceful.

The next day, Bill sends Mike’s mother news of his death and enough money for her to make the trip to Abilene from Kansas City. To make further amends, he pays for a casket and the cost of shipping it back home.

But Wild Bill will never be the same. He falls into a depressed state that doctors at the time called “the warrior’s heart” - what we might know today as PTSD. Devastated by the tragic accident, Wild Bill gives up his badge and turns to the bottle.

Before long, Bill’s health starts to decline; most notably his eyesight. And left with few options, Bill travels North to perform in a series of Wild West Shows. He also acts in a hugely successful stage play with his old friend, the famous Buffalo Bill Cody. Bill spends three years in New York and makes a decent living. But he is deeply unhappy, relying on drinking and gambling to cope. 

Eventually, he grows fed up with life in the city and makes his way to Wyoming Territory. There, he reconnects with a woman named Agnes Lake Thatcher, a traveling circus performer who captured his heart half a decade before. In the spring of 1876, Bill and Lake are married. But with a new wife comes new responsibility.

And Bill is desperate to find a way to provide for her. Soon, Bill hears rumors of gold in the nearby Dakota Territory. So in 1876, like thousands of other Americans, Bill goes off in search of riches and finds himself in the town with an ominous name: Deadwood.

Act Two: Wild Bill Meets His Murderer

It’s the summer of 1876, not long before Wild Bill’s murder.

Wild Bill strolls through the streets of Deadwood, on his way to drink and play cards in the Number Ten saloon.

Since arriving in town, Bill’s dreams of riches haven’t panned out. Instead of prospecting for gold, Bill has spent most of his time here in the Number Ten Saloon drinking and gambling. But once again, Bill has a target on his back. There’s only a skeleton of government here in Deadwood, and no official Marshall. Rumors have been swirling that Bill is here to create the job and clean up the town, just like he’d done in Hays City and Abilene, Kansas. But Bill doesn’t want any part of law enforcement. Right now, all he wants to do is get drunk and play cards. 

As he makes his way through town on the way to Number Ten Saloon, a group of men approach in the streets. Bill’s eyesight is bad and he struggles to make out their faces. But he can see enough to know the men are armed and they probably mean him harm. They’re either here to kill him or to run him out of town. Bill stares them down with cold, icy eyes. But deep down, he feels the unfamiliar tinge of fear. He knows that if the situation calls for it, he can't gun them all down. But he is determined to hold his ground, and not show any sign of weakness.

Without hesitation, Bill draws his revolvers and says he will not be intimidated by a bunch of cheap, wannabe gunfighters. Sneering through clenched teeth, Bill tells them if they don't back off there will shortly be “a number of cheap funerals in Deadwood”. Bill does his best to put an end to the rumors about his intentions in town. He tells the six men that he has come to this town not to court notoriety as a lawman, but to live in peace. But, he promises, "I do not propose to stand for insults.” Cowed by Wild Bill’s strong words, the six men turn on their heels and walk away from the confrontation.

But still, the rumors that Wild Bill has come to Deadwood to serve as a lawman persist. Bill does his best to ignore them. Instead, spending his days and nights drinking whiskey and playing cards.

And that's what he's doing on August 1st, 1876, perched at a poker table in the Number Ten Saloon. As always, he sits with his back against the wall so he can see the entire room, and spot any dangerous characters who walk through the front door. But today, Bill is focused on his fortune at the poker table. After a streak of winning hands, Bill is starting to feel good for the first time in a long while.

But as he signals the bar owner for another whiskey, young man sitting across the table from him slams his fists down on the table, sending cards flying everywhere.

Wild Bill doesn’t know this young man. But he can tell he’s got a quick temper. And when the young man complains that Bill has taken all his money, Bill sits up in his chair cautiously. He knows there’s no Marshal to come to his aid. So Bill tries to calm everyone down. He gestures to the bar and offers to buy the young man a hot meal. The young man reluctantly accepts.

When Bill returns to the card game, he is relieved, another tense moment has passed. And he plays cards late into the night. Then Bill leaves the saloon and heads to his camp outside of town to get some sleep. As he lays down, Bill is grateful he avoided another potentially violent confrontation. But Bill won’t be able to escape violence for long. 

The young man Bill helped is former buffalo hunter turned prospector. He’s used many aliases throughout his life. But came to Deadwood using the name Bill Sutherland. His real name is Jack McCall.

Unlike Wild Bill Hickock, McCall is not a famous man. He’s merely a wanderer from Jefferson County, Kentucky; a hot-tempered, prideful man with a double chin, and crossed eyes. And even though he was offered a hot meal, McCall will seek revenge for his loss at the card table and his wounded ego, taking drastic action that will make his name live on in infamy.

Act Three: A Cowardly Assassin

It’s about four in the afternoon on August 2nd, 1876.

Jack McCall walks the streets of Deadwood on his way to the Number Ten Saloon to confront the man who stung his pride. 

Last night, McCall accepted Bill’s charity. But he was furious over the entire exchange. After stewing all night, McCall decided to head to the saloon to pay Bill back for his kindness.

And when McCall steps in the front door, he sees Bill sitting at his usual table. But McCall smiles when he notices where exactly at the table Bill is sitting. Normally, Bill sits with his back against the wall. But today, another player is sitting in Bill’s usual seat, leaving Bill exposed in oblivious. McCall doesn’t know why Bill would be so careless, but he doesn’t care. He plans to take full advantage. 

McCall grabs the seat at the bar. His eyes dart over to Bill’s poker table where the dealer hands out a fresh hand. McCall’s heart races. Beads of sweat form on his brow. So, he takes a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves. Then McCall stands up and slinks towards Wild Bill. He aims his pistol at the back of Bill’s head and pulls the trigger.

As he feels the violent recoil of the firearm in his hand, he shouts “Damn you, take that!” Bill crumples over the cards he’s holding. Allegedly two black aces and two black eights. Or as it’s now known: the dead man’s hand.

As Wild Bill topples out of his chair and onto the floor, McCall waves his gun at the other men in the saloon. He continues to pull the trigger, but miraculously all the other rounds are duds. McCall sprints outside. He tries to escape on horseback, but he falls off and is captured by a group of men who witnessed the murder.

At his impromptu trial, McCall spins a tale to try and save his skin. He tells the jury he shot Bill as revenge because Bill murdered his brother. But it’s a lie. For one thing, Bill never killed anyone related to McCall. For another, McCall doesn't have a brother. But the jury believes McCall’s yarn and sets him free.  

Over the next few weeks, McCall will travel around the West boasting of how he took down the legendary Wild Bill. Eventually, his big mouth will catch up to him. In late August of 1876, McCall will be captured by a US Marshal before being tried, convicted, and hanged.

But despite McCall’s act of violent cowardice, the legend of Wild Bill Hickock lives on. Over the years, Wild Bill will be the subject of countless books, articles, films, and television shows. He is remembered for his work as a soldier, a lawman, a gambler, and a showman; a heroic and iconic frontiersman who tamed some of the most lawless towns in the West until his life came to a tragic end on August 2nd, 1876. 


Next onHistory Daily: August 3rd, 1492. Christopher Columbus sets out on his first voyage to what will come to be known as the New World.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Shane Cearnal.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.