A vigorous yarn concerning the man who, by Clavin’s (Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, 2017, etc.) account, set the template for the Wild West gunslinger.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876), not least why a man born James Butler Hickok called himself Bill. The “wild” part of the moniker probably dates to the Civil War, when Unionist saloon patrons threatened to harm their secessionist-favoring bartender. “Though far from sharing the man’s views,” writes the author, “Bill believed in fair fights,” and he backed the crowd down. As Clavin notes, just what Bill did during the war remains a matter of some history, but he may have served the Union while wearing a gray coat, working as a spy. Whatever the case, he was on the western frontier in time to stare down William Quantrill’s guerrillas, turn up at the battle called the “Gettysburg of the West,” and, soon after, to share friendships with Buffalo Bill Cody and George Armstrong Custer—and perhaps even with Mrs. Custer, who called him “a delight to look upon.” Mixed up with all that was the gunfighter business: Hickok was fast enough and accurate enough to deter a whole passel of bad guys, gaining notoriety when they didn’t back off, as when he had to square off with a sometime acquaintance who argued with him over a small debt and didn’t live to collect it. Clavin writes fluently and often entertainingly of a man shrouded in legend while being all too human. For example, Hickok may not have recognized the man who gunned him down in Deadwood, South Dakota, because even in his 30s, his eyes were going bad. The author also ably picks apart what is likely or actual from what is invented, including a whole tangle of tales involving a certain Calamity Jane and penny-dreadful stories that were circulating about him even while Hickok was still alive.
Good history accessibly and ably told.