The Wild, Wild West


The other flaw was that the stories of oldtimers came not from personal knowledge of what happened so much as from the files of the imaginative “National Police Gazette.” Venerable nesters could be found all over the Southwest, fifty years after the timely deaths of Billy the Kid or Jesse James or Belle Starr, clamoring to testify to the boyish charm of the one, the selfless nobility of the other, and the amorous exploits of the third. Their memories were all faithful transcripts of the “Gazette’s” nonsense. Its editor’s classic formula for manufacturing heroes had so effectively retted the minds of his readers that they could never thereafter disentangle fiction from fact.

Analysis of this Fox formula for heroes reveals that it has ten ingredients, like a Chinese soup :

  1. (1) The hero’s accuracy with any weapon is prodigious.
  2. (2) He is a nonpareil of bravery and courage.
  3. (3) He is courteous to all women, regardless of rank, station, age, or physical charm.
  4. (4) He is gentle, modest, and unassuming.
  5. (5) He is handsome, sometimes even pretty, so that he seems even feminine in appearance; but withal he is of course very masculine, and exceedingly attractive to women.
  6. (6) He is blue-eyed. His piercing blue eyes turn gray as steel when he is aroused ; his associates would have been well advised to keep a color chart handy, so that they might have dived for a storm cellar when the blue turned to tattletale gray.
  7. (7) He was driven to a life of outlawry and crime by having quite properly defended a loved one from an intolerable affront—with lethal consequences. Thereafter, however,
  8. (8) He shields the widow and orphan, robbing only the banker or railroad monopolist.
  9. (9) His death comes about by means of betrayal or treachery, but
  10. (10) It is rarely a conclusive death, since he keeps on bobbing up later on, in other places, for many years. It is, indeed, arguable whether he is dead yet.

With these attributes in mind let us gather around the first exhibit—a man narrow-waisted and widehipped, with small hands and feet, whose long curly hair tumbles to his shoulders—in sum, a man who looks like a male impersonator. His label reads


James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok was born on a farm in La Salle County, Illinois, on May 27, 1837. He died on the afternoon of August 2, 1876, in Saloon No. io, on the main street of Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory, when a bullet fired by Jack McCaIl plowed through the back of his head, coming out through his cheek and smashing a bone in the left forearm of a Captain Massey, a river-boat pilot with whom Hickok had been playing poker. During his lifetime Hickok did some remarkable deeds, and they were even more remarkably embroidered by himself and by a corps of admiring tagtails and tufthunters. When he died, he held two pair—aces and eights—a legendary combination known ever since as “the dead man’s hand.” It is the least of the legends that has encrusted his reputation, like barnacles on an old hulk.

Was he brave? His most critical biographer, William E. Connelley, has said that fear “was simply a quality he lacked.”

Was he handsome? He was “the handsomest man west of the Mississippi. His eyes were blue—but could freeze to a cruel steel-gray at threat of evil or danger.”

Was he gallant? His morals were “much the same as those of Achilles, King David, Lancelot, and Chevalier Bayard, though his amours were hardly as frequent as David’s or as inexcusable as Lancelot’s.”

Had he no minor vices? Very few: “Wild Bill found relaxation and enjoyment in cards but he seldom drank.”

Could he shoot? Once in Solomon, Kansas, a pair of murderers fled from him. “One was running up the street and the other down the street in the opposite direction. Bill fired at both men simultaneously and killed them both.” Presumably with his eyes closed. Again, in Topeka, in 1870, Buffalo Bill Cody threw his hat into the air as a target. “Wild Bill shot an evenly spaced row of holes along the outside of the rim as it was falling, and before it touched the ground.” To appreciate fully this miracle of marksmanship, one must remember that Hickok was shooting black-powder cartridges. (Smokeless powder did not come into general use until about 1893.) Each time he fired, therefore, he put a puff of black smoke between himself and his target. After his first shot, he could not have seen his target. But then, nothing is impossible to the gun slinger of the Wild West.

But surely he was modest? Yes, indeed. “Faced with admirers, he blushed and stammered and fled.”