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Wild Bill Hickok: Villain or Hero?

During his short life (he died at 39) he was a federal scout, army spy, Indian fighter, professional gambler, and U.S. marshal. Somewhere along the way he also acquired the nickname Wild Bill and a reputation as a fearless hero, peerless gunfighter, and charming womanizer, renowned for his fashionable clothes.

Wild Bill Hickok: Villain or Hero?

By Mr Ghaz, January 31, 2010

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Wild Bill Hickok: Villain or Hero

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The exploits of James Butler Hickok are legendary. During his short life (he died at 39) he was a federal scout, army spy, Indian fighter, professional gambler, and U.S. marshal. Somewhere along the way he also acquired the nickname Wild Bill and a reputation as a fearless hero, peerless gunfighter, and charming womanizer, renowned for his fashionable clothes.

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Wild Bill Hickok died in 1876, shot through the back of the head by a coward- a coward who had so feared Hickok’s reputation as a gunfighter that he felt it would be suicide to meet him face to face.

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But shortly after Hickok’s death, rumors started that his great reputation was founded on exaggeration, and sometimes downright lies.

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Hickok first became famous in 1867, when Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an article about him. It told of an incident in 1861 when Hickok had pitted himself against a man called McCanles and his gang of “desperadoes, horse thieves, murderers, and regular cut- throats.” It was said that Hickok had killed six men with the six bullets in his gun, then the remaining four with a knife. He had survived, despite being riddled with bullets and stab wounds. The article was the foundation of Hickok’s heroic reputation; afterward he was constantly besieged by journalists who wanted more tales of his daring deeds.

McCanles Massacre

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To some people, however, the “McCanles massacre” raised some doubt as to Hickok’s behavior. Hickok had met McCanles when he was at Rock Creek Station, working for the pony Express Company, which owed McCanles money. McCanles was putting pressure on Wellman, the station superintendent, to pay up.

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On July 21, 1861, McCanles went to Wellman’s ranch house with his 12- years- old son and two employees to demand a settlement. Wellman, suspecting trouble, summoned Hickok to the house.

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During an argument outside between McCanles and Wellman, Hickok stepped inside the house and behind a curtain. When McCanles yelled at him to come out, Hickok shot him through the curtain. The McCanles gang came to help, and Hickok shot them too. McCanles died from his wounds, but the others were killed by Wellman and his men.

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But another version of the story claims that it was Wellman who shot McCanles, and that Hickok killed the other men. There was also some dispute as to the part played in the affair by McCanles. Some people believed that he was a bully, but not a killer, and that he had been unarmed when Hickok shot him. And why should a man expecting trouble take his son along? Others argued that McCanles had always been armed before; why not then?

Bill Hickok is Still a Hero

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At the trial it was the world of McCanles Junior against Hickok that his father had been unarmed. The truth was ever conclusively established, but the court accepted the plea that Hickok, Wellman, and another man had acted in self- defense in the protection of company property.

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Hickok’s detractors may say that he acted like a coward. But the general view is that the original story was essentially true, if exaggerated. To most people Wild Bill Hickok is still a hero of the Wild west- brave, fearless, and honest to the end.

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  1. Susan

    On January 31, 2010 at 11:30 am


    How very odd that he is considered a hero based on how many men he killed.

  2. drelayaraja

    On January 31, 2010 at 12:29 pm


    Interesting write..

  3. patampar

    On January 31, 2010 at 10:37 pm


    well,great

  4. Jenilia12

    On January 31, 2010 at 11:27 pm


    good stuff, interesting to read

  5. Frances Lawrence

    On February 1, 2010 at 4:34 am


    An interesting read.

  6. albert1jemi

    On February 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm


    interesting one

  7. STEVE666

    On February 1, 2010 at 3:21 pm


    Didn’t realise he was so old. Great stuff, Mr Ghaz!

  8. revivor

    On February 5, 2010 at 6:20 am


    was he really 93 when he died?

  9. standingproud

    On February 6, 2010 at 6:27 pm


    Oh Wild Bill Hickok.
    In what any form he made a name for himself.

  10. Phill Senters

    On February 9, 2010 at 12:09 am


    Very interesting tale of the old west Mr G.

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