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A Moment in History: Who was Wild Bill Hickok?

No other personality from the days of the Wild West has triggered the imagination of so many men and woman as Wild Bill Hickok. This gunfighter, scout and poker player has inspired tales of bravery – some of them fictionalized – and has become the central figure in books, movies, comics and songs written about him.

Born in 1837 in Illinois, James Butler Hickok was a good marksman from an early age and joined the Free State Army at the age of 18. He eventually went on to become a constable, before fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War. During this time, he became known as Wild Bill Hickok.

Hickok was an avid gambler and was well know for his sharp poker talents. One story tells of his friendship with a fellow soldier, Davis Tutt, who financed his poker habit with loans. The two became firm friends until, it is rumored, Hickok began an affair with Tutt’s sister and the two had a falling out. To get back at his former friend, Tutt started financing other poker players in a bid to bankrupt him. The fued came to a head – literally – during a street duel between the two, resulting in the death of Tutt. Incredibly, Wild Bill Hickok was acquitted for murder by a jury.

In 1876, Wild Bill Hickok found his own death while playing poker in a saloon where he was shot by an ex-buffalo hunter, Jack McCall, at point blank range. Hickok’s last hand of aces and eights contributed to the ‘dead man’s hand’ term in poker. In 1979, more than one hundred years after his death, Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.

From the 1920’s, movies about the adventures of Hickok became the rage, beginning with the the 1923 movie, “Wild Bill Hickok” starring William S. Hart, up until the 1995 “Wild Bill” starring Jeff Bridges.

Novels such as Pete Dexter’s “Deadwood” (1986), as well as Thomas Berger’s “Return of the Little Big Man” (1999), also tell the tale of Hickok.

While it is difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction about Wild Bill Hicock’s adventurous life, it is safe to say that he was one of the most legendary personalities of the Wild West.

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