The dead man's hand

Wednesday, August 02, 2006 at 11:11 AM

One hundred and thirty years ago today, gunfighter Wild Bill was famously murdered by Crooked Nose Jack. That might sound like an episode of Deadwood -- the fourth episode of the first season, to be exact -- but the murder of James Butler Hickok by Jack McCall was, of course, fact before it became fiction.

Never one to let his guard down during a poker match, Hickok (Wild Bill) always sat with his back to the wall -- protecting himself from outlaws who might attack from behind. But on August 2, 1876, the seat in his preferred position wasn't available, and Hickok was facing the wall with his back to the door when he was shot in the head.

You can find details about the murder in an 1888 book, Our Pioneer Heroes and Their Daring Deeds. Legend has it that Hickok died clutching his poker hand: a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights. That part of the story is recounted in the Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen and Outlaws and elsewhere. Today, poker books like this one refer to this set of cards as the "Dead Man's Hand," and the gravestone of Charlie Henry Rich -- the dealer who dealt Hickok's famous last hand -- pays tribute accordingly.

If you ever find yourself en route to the real Deadwood, South Dakota, Frommer's Exploring America by RV can help you catch a reenactment of the shooting, as well as find Wild Bill's own gravesite at Mount Moriah Cemetery. (And if you're not planning a trip anytime soon, you can see a photo in Tombstones: 75 Famous People and Their Final Resting Places.)


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