“Wild Bill” Hickok, one of the greatest gunfighters of the American West, is murdered in Deadwood, South Dakota.
Born in Illinois in 1837, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok first gained notoriety as a gunfighter in 1861 when he coolly shot three men who were trying to kill him. A highly sensationalized account of the gunfight appeared six years later in the popular periodical Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, sparking Hickok’s rise to national fame. Other articles and books followed, and though his prowess was often exaggerated, Hickok did earn his reputation with a string of impressive gunfights.
After accidentally killing his deputy during an 1871 shootout in Abilene, Kansas, Hickok never fought another gun battle. For the next several years he lived off his famous reputation. Occasionally, he worked as guide for wealthy hunters. His renowned eyesight began to fail, and for a time he was reduced to wandering the West trying to make a living as a gambler. Several times he was arrested for vagrancy.
In the spring of 1876, Hickok arrived in the Black Hills mining town of Deadwood, South Dakota. There he became a regular at the poker tables of the No. 10 Saloon, eking out a meager existence as a card player. On this day in 1876, Hickok was playing cards with his back to the saloon door. At 4:15 in the afternoon, a young gunslinger named Jack McCall walked into the saloon, approached Hickok from behind, and shot him in the back of the head. Hickok died immediately. McCall tried to shoot others in the crowd, but amazingly, all of the remaining cartridges in his pistol were duds. McCall was later tried, convicted, and hanged.
READ MORE: The Original Wild West Showdown
What Happened To The Man Who Killed Wild Bill Hickok?
It's kind of a rule of thumb that if you commit a crime in front of witnesses and by some miracle beat the rap, you shouldn't start bragging about it. Especially not where a peace officer can hear you and do something about it. On the other hand, there's nothing in the history books that says Jack McCall was particularly bright.
The summer of 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was in Deadwood to make money. He already had fame and a reputation as one of the deadliest shootists on the frontier. (The man even fought a bear to the death. The bear's death, not his.) He'd been a peace officer, responsible for taming cow towns in Kansas, until accidentally shooting and killing one of his deputies. His eyesight was starting to fail — perhaps glaucoma, perhaps something more social — and he had recently married for the first time. He came to Deadwood, a boomtown mining camp, to prospect, perhaps gamble — put together some cash for married life. That was the plan, anyway.
Biography tells us that on August 1, Hickok was playing cards in Nuttall and Mann's No. 10 Saloon. With his reputation — others seeking revenge, or seeking their own reputation — he erred on the side of caution, sitting with his back to the wall in public. As Tom Clavin writes in Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter, Hickok hadn't been on a winning streak, but another player, Jack McCall, was doing worse.
A showdown creates a legend
But it wasn't a bear that made Hickok's reputation. The McCanles Massacre cemented his iconic gunslinger status. The general story goes that David McCanles and a few of his posse — family and farmhands — got into a confrontation with Hickok at a Pony Express station on July 12, 1861 when they tried to collect a debt from the manager, Horace Wellman. Hickok allegedly killed three men.
History.com offers a version of the tale. That report has Hickok working as a stock tender at the Rock Creek Station, a stagecoach depot, and that McCanles frequently taunted him, calling Hickok "Duck Bill" and a hermaphrodite — someone with both male and female sexual characteristics. Rumor speculates that the fight involved a woman, and that Hickok had taken a mistress away from the married McCanles. The day of the deadly argument, McCanles threatened to beat Hickok. "There will be one less son-of-a-b**** when you try that," Hickok replied, according to History.
The story became larger than life, according to Biography, when Harper's New Monthly Magazine released a much-exaggerated story six years later that credited Hickok with 10 deaths.
Its account cast Hickok as an accidental hero, visiting Wellman's wife, a good friend. While there, the McCanles attacked her home, where Hickok took them out wielding both his gun and knife. Historians say that the actual event included Wellman, Hickok and the wife — who allegedly killed someone herself with a grub hoe — collaborating on the defense. Hickok faced murder charges but the verdict ruled that he acted in self-defense.
Agnes Lake was eleven years older than Wild Bill
Despite the fact that Lake was 11 years his senior, they were immediately attracted to each other. Both moved on, and they did not reunite until five years later, in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
They married on March 5, 1876, per Cowgirl Magazine, when Wild Bill was 39 and Lake was 50. The not-so-young couple didn't get to spend much time together before their marriage was tragically cut short. Just two months after tying the knot, Hickok left Cheyenne for the Black Hills of the Dakotas in search of gold, hoping to soon be able to make arrangements to set up a ranch home for himself and his new bride. The couple planned to reunite sometime in the near future, and in the interim, they exchanged letters. In a letter mailed just two weeks before Hickok's death, he wrote: "Pet, we will have a home yet then we will be so happy," via the Times.
Unfortunately, their happy home would never come to be. Hickok was murdered, shot in the back of the head by the drunkard Jack McCall in a Deadwood barroom while playing cards. Bill was holding aces and eights, now known as the Dead Man's Hand. Agnes Lake Hickok lived to be 81 years old. She died in New Jersey in 1907, and was laid to rest in Cincinnati, next to her first husband.
– Courtesy William B. Secrest –
– Courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society –
– Massie Courtesy William B. Secrest Hickok courtesy Greg Martin Auctions, June 16, 2003 –
– Courtesy The Russell –
How was Wild Bill Hickok killed? James Patrick Gaines Orangevale, California Shortly past noon on&hellip
A bar in Hays City, Kansas, on July 17, 1870. Two 7th Cavalry troopers jump&hellip
Wild Bill Hickok frequently carried a pair of matched revolvers. But there’s no evidence he&hellip
Arizona’s Journalist of the Year, Jana Bommersbach has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.
Which Cards was “Wild Bill” Hickok Holding when He was Murdered?
Legend says James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok held the Dead Man’s Hand, or aces and eights, when Jack McCall shot him in the No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876. Here’s how Hickok biographer, the late Joseph Rosa, explained it:
“Ellis T, Peirce, a self-styled barber-surgeon and blowhard…claimed in his correspondence with Frank J. Wilstach in the 1920s that the cards Hickok held were the Ace of Spades, the Ace of Clubs, two black eights, Clubs and Spades, and the Jack of Diamonds, which became celebrated out West as the Dead Man’s Hand. Some, however, have claimed that the ‘kicker’ was not the Jack, but the Queen of Diamonds, but no proof has been produced.
“Wild Bill” Hickok – Courtesy Robert G. McCubbin Collection –
“Some years ago, I was told by a poker expert that Hickok could have had a full house (that is three of a kind plus a pair) or, mathematically, he could have drawn a low hand. However, the only [contemporaneous] reference to cards Hickok may have held that I have found appeared in Harry (Sam) Young’s book Hard Knocks. Young was the bartender at the No. 10, and he claimed that Capt. [Bill] Massie, the former Missouri Riverboat pilot, had ‘…beat a king full for Bill with four sevens, breaking Bill on the hand.’ Young then said that he had brought Hickok $50 worth of checks. As Young returned to the bar, McCall shot Hickok. Young’s more matter-of-fact reference makes more sense than Peirce’s claim. Others will doubtless disagree, but it is arguments that make horses race!”
I believe, with so much chaos—gunfire, blood, smoke, shock—that nobody bothered to check his hand.
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. . His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at [email protected]
Did “Wild Bill” Hickok have a sidekick named Jingles? Jeanne Miller - Clarksville, Tennessee. Jingles, played&hellip
Who succeeded “Wild Bill” Hickok as marshal of Abilene, Kansas? Kerry Bulls Winlock, Washington James&hellip
What pistol did “Wild Bill” Hickok use to kill Davis Tutt in 1865? Ron Bolza — Slatington,&hellip
On the evening of August 1, 1876, Hickok was playing poker with a group of men. One of the men, Jack McCall, was an infrequent poker player and had been playing poorly. After McCall had lost his final hand, Hickok returned some of his losings and suggested he get something to eat with the money. It has been reported that McCall may have taken this gesture to be condescending. 
The following afternoon, Hickok entered Nuttall & Mann's Saloon and, while drinking at the bar, was invited to join the poker game. Hickok always preferred to sit with his back against the wall to avoid being vulnerable to attack from an adversary. However, the only seat available at the table had its back to the door of the saloon. Hickok asked one of the players, Charlie Rich, to switch seats but was refused. He reluctantly took the vacant seat. Subsequently, McCall entered the saloon, calmly walked up behind Hickok and shouted "Damn you! Take that!" as he shot him in the back of the head with a .45 caliber revolver.  The bullet exited through Hickok's cheek and hit Capt. Massie, another poker player, in the wrist. McCall fled, while a few people attempted to revive Hickok. The attempts were futile, as he likely died instantly from the bullet wound to the head. The poker hand Hickok was holding when he was shot was reportedly a pair of eights and a pair of aces–all black–which has become known as the "dead man's hand" of today.  
Jack McCall was apprehended as he attempted to flee town, and the next day was given an impromptu trial in which he was acquitted of the murder, claiming he was avenging his brother's death.  However, less than a month later, McCall was re-charged with the murder after bragging about what he had done while in the Wyoming Territory.  He was brought back to the capital of the territory, Yankton, for arraignment. At his re-trial, McCall was found guilty of the murder of Hickok and was executed by hanging on March 1, 1877.  He was buried with the noose still around his neck.
The original building at the site burned down in 1879. The I.H. Chase Building, which housed a clothing store, was built on the site in 1898. When Chase moved out, Frank X. Smith opened a beer hall. The building later housed the Eagle Inn, the sign of which still hangs on the upper portion of the building. The building (at 624 Lower Main St.) formerly housed the "Wild West Casino." It then was a vacant building until a couple bought it in March 2013 and re-opened it in July 2013 as "Wild Bill's Trading Post" where antiques and souvenirs are sold. The owners are remodeling the basement into a recreated scene of the shooting of James Butler Hickok by Jack McCall. The building displays a sign that says it was the actual location at which Hickok was shot. 
A saloon of the same name later opened in a different location on Main Street, along with many of the original site's decorations (including the chair in which Hickok was supposedly sitting when he was shot, although this has never been verified), and renamed the Saloon #10. The two are not related in any way but name.
Wild Bill’s Brawl with Two of Custer’s Troopers
For a brief stint in 1869 James Butler &ldquoWild Bill&rdquo Hickok was sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas. A year later, in July 1870, Deputy U.S. Marshal Hickok revisited the bustling county seat, Hays City. He was drinking in one of the saloons when two troopers of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer&rsquos 7th U.S. Cavalry suddenly accosted him. In the ensuing struggle Hickok mortally wounded one soldier and severely injured another with a pistol shot to his knee. The cause of the brawl is unknown, though it was most likely triggered by a confrontation the wounded trooper had had with Hickok when Wild Bill was county sheriff. Hickok was lucky to escape the 1870 fight alive. The soldier who eventually died had reportedly pressed his Remington pistol to Wild Bill&rsquos ear and pulled the trigger, only to have it misfire.
Contemporary newspaper accounts differed about how many soldiers were involved and exactly what happened. False accounts have since surfaced repeatedly in the growing Hickok literature, a biographer here and there embellishing the narrative, further submerging the truth in the miry bog of myth.
Some authors have suggested Wild Bill was wounded. In the first Hickok biography, published in 1880, J.W. Buel wrote that the fight involved 15 soldiers and began in Paddy Welch&rsquos saloon on North Main Street, a few doors east of Tommy Drum&rsquos saloon. According to Buel, a drunken sergeant challenged Wild Bill to a fight in the street. Hickok was easily winning when 14 of the sergeant&rsquos comrades joined in and pummeled Wild Bill until the saloon owner handed the marshal his revolvers. Hickok killed one soldier, shot dead three more and mortally wounded two others. Hickok took seven wounds&mdashthree shots in his arms, three in the legs and a flesh wound in his side. Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, claimed Buel, was so incensed that he ordered Wild Bill be brought to justice, dead or alive.
In all likelihood Hickok was not wounded in the saloon fight. Annie Gibson Roberts, who was visiting nearby Fort Hays at the time of the brawl, wrote in her diary of reports Wild Bill had been shot. Other than her diary entry, however, no contemporary accounts confirm his having been wounded. Indeed, within a week Hickok was again performing his duties as a deputy U.S. marshal, and in September he traveled to Abilene, Kansas, to arrest a counterfeiter.
Tracing the two soldiers&rsquo lives has been a long process. No one had confirmed their actual names&mdashJeremiah Lonergan and John Kile&mdashuntil Hickok biographer Joseph G. Rosa turned to military records almost 50 years ago in search of the truth surrounding the brawl. An accurate account of their military careers has remained hidden until now.
Most people writing about Hickok continued to use Buel&rsquos embellished account until 1933 when biographer William Connelley changed the story and delivered the mythical coup de grace in Wild Bill and His Era: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok. In it Connelley asserted the greatest conceivable fiction as fact: The real perpetrator of the brawl was not a sergeant but rather Colonel Custer&rsquos younger brother, a wild and drunken 1st Lt. Thomas Custer. According to Connelley, Tom liked to get drunk in Hays City when Hickok was serving as sheriff in 1869. On one such spree Tom ran his horse into a saloon. When he couldn&rsquot get it to jump on the billiard table (something he had seen Hickok do with his own horse), Tom angrily shot his horse dead. Hickok arrested him. It was then, Connelley claimed, the brash lieutenant vowed revenge and enlisted three soldiers to kill the sheriff. While Wild Bill was drinking in a saloon on New Year&rsquos Day 1870, one soldier jumped on his back and pinned his arms while another leaped upon him to hold him down. Hickok managed to free one of his six-shooters and fire behind him, instantly killing one soldier. He then shot and killed another soldier who&rsquod taken aim at him. Finally, he fired over his shoulder again, killing the third soldier. Hickok then fled, knowing the entire 7th Cavalry would seek revenge.
Eugene Cunningham enshrined this fantastical Tom Custer connection in his classic 1941 book Triggernometry: A Gallery of Gunfighters. There was no longer any need to create new myths in the brawl. The legend had become fact&mdashand it would mask the truth for decades. Connelley provided no documentation for the incredible tale in his book, but among his papers in the Western history collections of the Denver Public Library the author reveals that his account follows very closely a letter he received in 1925 from a Kansan named Rolla W. Coleman. But Coleman was not even born until seven years after the brawl, and he had waited until he was nearly 50 before sharing his account with Connelley. A weaker source could not be found. Further, if there were a grain of truth in this ridiculous account, one would find supporting documentation in the many surviving letters and accounts of the 7th Cavalry officers and enlisted men. George and Tom Custer had their detractors within the regiment, but not one of them hints at such a possibility.
The truth of the brawl began to unfold in 1964 when Rosa published They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok. From untapped records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Rosa set straight exactly when the brawl happened&mdashJuly 17, 1870&mdashconfirming the date in Annie Roberts&rsquo diary, and established that only two troopers were shot, one fatally. This version is supported by the first publication to mention the brawl, W.E. Webb&rsquos 1872 travelogue Buffalo Land.
When Rosa put out his second edition in 1974, he had learned a bit more, with the discovery of an obscure 1909 newspaper account of the brawl in The Newton (Mass.) Circuit by 7th Cavalry veteran John Ryan. Ryan had served 10 years in Custer&rsquos cavalry and was the sergeant of Company M, to which the troopers involved in the brawl were assigned. Unlike others, Ryan really was there in 1870, and he knew both soldiers. He identified Jerry Lonergan as the soldier wounded. Ryan added interesting details about the soldier Hickok killed, noting the man had earlier deserted from Company M under the name John Kelley but upon reenlistment had gone by another name, which Ryan spelled as Kyle (a misspelling of the soldier&rsquos real name, John Kile). Further, Ryan made clear the saloon in which the brawl happened was that of Tommy Drum, not Paddy Welch, as noted in Buel&rsquos biography.
Ryan&rsquos newspaper account was more fully fleshed out in his personal memoirs, which were lost for many years before being discovered in 2000 and edited and published by Sandy Barnard as Ten Years With Custer: A 7th Cavalryman&rsquos Memoirs. In the memoirs Ryan claimed Lonergan and Hickok &ldquohad some trouble once before, which caused this action.&rdquo
From Ryan we learn that the troopers snuck into town from Camp Sturgis, near Fort Hays and across the river from Hays City, after the bugler had sounded tattoo. At their favorite haunt, Tommy Drum&rsquos saloon, they became very drunk and no doubt boisterous, probably from two to four hours of merrymaking. Seeing Hickok standing at the bar, Lonergan threw himself upon the back of Wild Bill, quickly taking him down and holding him from behind to prevent the marshal from using his arms. But Lonergan couldn&rsquot keep Hickok from pulling a revolver&mdashWild Bill had a reputation for placing his six-shooters backward in his belt for easy retrieval in cases just like this&mdashand pointing it behind him. Kile, seeing Hickok gaining the advantage on his buddy, pulled his Remington pistol from his belt and put the barrel against Hickok&rsquos ear. To Wild Bill&rsquos fortune the gun misfired&mdashRemingtons were notorious for misfires and, on occasion, blowing up&mdashand before Kile could get off a second shot, Hickok pulled his trigger, striking Kile in the wrist. A second shot followed, piercing Kile through his stomach. With Kile mortally wounded, Wild Bill got off yet a third shot, this one striking Lonergan in the knee and thus freeing the marshal from the soldier&rsquos grasp. With that, Hickok sprang to his feet and smashed through a window into the night, never again to appear in Hays City.
Had Kile&rsquos revolver not misfired, few people today would know the name Wild Bill Hickok. Instead, the drunken Kansas brawl marked one of Hickok&rsquos many violent encounters on his way to lasting fame as probably the most accurate, brave and lucky of the plainsmen who endure in the legacy of famous gunfighters.
Scholars and enthusiasts know the rest of Hickok&rsquos life story, including his last moments at a card table in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in August 1876. But a fuller picture of the two soldiers who participated in the Hays City brawl has only recently come to light via records in the National Archives.
Jeremiah Lonergan, born in Cork, Ireland, and 22 when he enlisted in New York City on December 26, 1867, again found himself in serious trouble just six months after his fight with Hickok. In a drunken rage after taps he repeatedly kicked at a sleeping corporal, yelling: &ldquoGet out of that bed, you Dutch son of a bitch, you bastard.&hellipIf I had a revolver, I would kill every Dutch son of a bitch in the quarters.&rdquo He then drew a knife and threatened the company first sergeant. In addition, according to his court-martial record, he did &ldquowith forethought and malicious intent, commit a nuisance in the quarters of his troop.&rdquo One soldier testified that Lonergan threatened, &ldquoHe would s___ in the room [barracks] if he had a mind to, and nobody would say a word to him.&rdquo Indeed, continued the soldier, &ldquoHe [Lonergan] stopped and done his business in the quarters, [making] a deposit of man manure on the floor.&rdquo
When 1st Sgt. Frederick Thies told Lonergan he was going to the guardhouse, the quick-tempered soldier replied, &ldquoBefore I go to the guardhouse, I shall give you some more trouble.&rdquo Thies quickly put on his belt and pistol and then ordered him to the guardhouse. Lonergan drew a clasp knife from his pocket, opened it and threatened, &ldquoIf you say another word to me, I&rsquoll cut the guts out of you.&rdquo The sergeant then drew his pistol, subduing Lonergan.
Convicted by court-martial, Lonergan was sentenced to nearly three years at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas&mdashthe rest of his initial five-year enlistment&mdashand then given a dishonorable discharge. While in prison he sought to have his sentence commuted. His poorly spelled request reads: &ldquoI hereby ask for a remission of sentence and to be again restored to duty, if such is possible, having bin in the U.S. service since &rsquo61 and endured all the hard ships of a soldier&rsquos life during the late rebellion, suffered the hard ships of Southern prison as a prisoner of war for eight months. Upon being discharged, I again joined the Regular Army and have served honorably ever since, until the misfortune of being court-martialed befell me. I have no disliken to become a soldier again, having never deserted the Army. I feel my self capable of doing the duty of a soldier in every respect.&rdquo
Superiors turned down Lonergan&rsquos request with this comment: &ldquoHe is probably a coarse blackguard, when sober, yet the record makes it apparent that the words and acts for which he was tried and sentenced were the result of intoxication. His threats were the boasts of a drunken man.&rdquo The service wanted nothing more to do with him, and after being sentenced, he disappeared from history. Ryan&rsquos memoirs erroneously reported that Lonergan deserted and was later killed by an infantryman during another drunken brawl at another saloon somewhere in Kansas.
John Kile&rsquos military career was more complex&mdashmarked by desertions, courts-martial, prison sentences, heroic actions and manipulations of the military system (see chart). Kile first enlisted as a teenager in the 5th Cavalry on December 9, 1865. On November 20, 1866, he deserted. Three days later he reenlisted as John Kelley into the 7th Cavalry, serving in Company M with John Ryan. On June 20, 1867, he deserted the 7th Cavalry&mdashsurprisingly, with Ryan, who omitted the incident from his memoirs. On July 24 he reenlisted as John Kile into the 37th Infantry. On May 1, 1868, he was court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge as well as a three-year prison sentence, from which he escaped. He then turned himself in on August 19, 1868, to face a court-martial for his earlier 5th Cavalry desertion. He was sentenced to eight months of hard labor. After finishing in May 1869, he participated in the 5th Cavalry Republican River Expedition.
On July 8, 1869, he had a fight with Indians, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, receiving it on August 24 but with his name given as &ldquoKyle.&rdquo The misspelling came from Lieutenant William Volkmar&rsquos itinerary report that Brevet Maj. Gen. Eugene A. Carr used to write the MOH recommendation. On May 17, 1870, Kile finished his 5th Cavalry enlistment as a first sergeant, a soldier described as having good character. Two weeks later he reenlisted&mdashusing the misspelled name John Kyle&mdashinto the 1st Infantry in Buffalo, N.Y. But he deserted the next day and then reenlisted one last time, back in the 7th Cavalry, on June 9, as John Kile. He reported for duty at Fort Hays on June 26 and just three weeks later had his fatal brawl with Hickok. Even this short version of Kile&rsquos career is confusing and begs for further elaboration.
Kile&rsquos early service with the 5th Cavalry dealt with the Federal occupation of the Southern states at the close of the Civil War. In late fall 1866 he was part of a detail that escorted citizen prisoners, guerrillas, etc., from Mitchellville, Tenn. (north of Nashville), to Louisville, Ky. Kile rode the train north and delivered the prisoners, but on November 20 he missed the return train from Louisville (he was probably drinking) and was charged with desertion. Three days later he enlisted in the 7th Cavalry under the alias John Kelley. He was soon promoted to corporal of Company M and in the summer of 1867 participated in George Custer&rsquos Hancock Expedition as well as Custer&rsquos first independent Indian campaign (see &ldquoCuster&rsquos First Fight With Plains Indians,&rdquo by Jeff Broome, in the June 2007 Wild West). He again deserted when Custer&rsquos command was in Nebraska. The military records vary as to the exact date he disappeared, but in all likelihood he was discovered missing on the morning of June 20. He then reenlisted a month later as John Kile in the 37th Infantry.
Because of Kile&rsquos 1866-67 7th Cavalry stint as John Kelley, he was immediately recognized as a deserter when he returned to the regiment in 1870 (more on what happened in between later). Ryan&rsquos memoirs recount what happened next, but they do not mention Ryan&rsquos desertion with Kelley/Kile. In fact, superiors had exonerated Ryan from his 1867 desertion, buying his argument that while going to retrieve water for several canteens at a stream not far from Custer&rsquos Fort McPherson command, he had become hopelessly lost in a dense fog. (He&rsquod turned himself in two months after disappearing.) That same alibi would now work for Kelley/Kile, since he and Ryan both were corporals when they deserted together.
Ryan wrote that upon his friend&rsquos return in 1870, he took Kelley/Kile to Custer. &ldquoGeneral,&rdquo Ryan told Custer, &ldquoI have brought a man to you by the name of Kelley. He has surrendered to me as a deserter.&rdquo Ryan recalled: &ldquoThe general asked me what company he deserted from, and I told him Co. M.&hellipHe also asked me what kind of man he was, and I told him that he was a very good soldier and a corporal in my company.&hellipDuring the time that Kelley had been away from the 7th Cavalry, he enlisted in the 5th U.S. Cavalry and served under General [Eugene] Carr over in the Department of the Platte and had some meritorious papers from that general.&rdquo Custer replied, &ldquoWell, Sergeant Ryan, you take him back and report him to the 1st sergeant of his company for duty.&rdquo Not sure which company to take him to, Ryan said to Custer, &ldquoKelley deserted from Co. M, my company, and he was now assigned to Co. I.&rdquo Custer, according to Ryan, then told him to take Kelley &ldquoback to the 1st sergeant of Co. M and turn him over for duty.&rdquo
National Archives records confirm that Kelley/Kile was actually the same person, a question that had troubled Rosa and other writers. When Kile was killed, the company commander filled out a standard form explaining the cause of death. Captain Myles Keogh, commander of Company I, filled out that form: &ldquoDeath of pistol shot received July 17, 1870, at Hays City, Kansas. Died in post hospital at Fort Hays, Kans, July 18, 1870.&rdquo Headquarters sent back Keogh&rsquos statement, as he had failed to indicate whether the death was in the line of duty. Keogh amended the form, explaining that Kile died &ldquoat Fort Hays, Kans. (in post hospital), by reason of pistol ball wound received July 17, 1870, in a drunken row at Hays City, Kans., and not in the line of duty. Private Kile (alias Kelley) was originally a deserter of Troop M of this regiment and on reenlisting was assigned to Troop I but attached and doing duty with Troop M at the time he was killed.&rdquo The form provided another clue about Kile when Keogh added: &ldquoLast served in Co. M, 5th U.S. Cavalry. Discharged May 17, 1870.&rdquo The 5th Cavalry muster rolls confirm this soldier enlisted December 9, 1865, and deserted November 20, 1866.
After his 1867 desertion from Custer&rsquos command, Kelley/Kile enlisted in the 37th Infantry&mdashas John Kile&mdashwhere things took a downturn. He was assigned to Company C and sent to northern New Mexico Territory, where his company was to construct a new camp, later named Fort Lowell. On Christmas Day 1867 Kile was arrested for being drunk and, worse yet, accused with two other soldiers of breaking into the sutler&rsquos store and taking more than $600 in merchandise, including clothes and boots. Kile was found guilty of all charges, sentenced to a dishonorable discharge and ordered to serve three years in the federal prison in Jefferson City, Mo.
Though records are unclear exactly how Kile avoided his sentence in Jefferson City, he certainly did. Penitentiary records show he was never admitted. Since Fort Lowell was literally in the middle of nowhere, it was a few weeks before an escort could take him from New Mexico Territory to Missouri. The Company C, 37th Infantry muster roll for June 1868 states that Lieutenant [John W.] Jordan was removed from command of his company for leaving &ldquothe company in charge of prisoners.&rdquo It can be surmised that Kile escaped from his escort.
Kile next appeared before military authorities in Gallatin, Tenn., where he voluntarily surrendered for his November 20, 1866, desertion from the 5th Cavalry, his initial enlistment into the Army. At this second court-martial for his first desertion, he pled guilty and asked for consideration from the court in sentencing, noting that his &ldquointentions were not bad&rdquo when he deserted. Kile gave an interesting statement regarding why he deserted:
"When I went to Louisville, I turned over the prisoners and went up in town and expected to be back in time for the train in company with some of the men of the detachment. I did not mean to stay but stayed until after the train left and the detachment went away. I stayed a considerable time over my time, and was afraid to come back on account of punishment, and thought Captain [Edward H.] Leib was down on me, as a few days previous to that he had threatened to have me driven out of the company. That was one reason I did not come back. Afterward I was sorry for what I had done, and seen [sic] that I was wrong, and came back and reported. I hope the court will be just enough to give me a just and fair trial, as my intentions were not bad when I left."
By May 1869 he was back serving in his company and soon promoted to corporal. Carr&rsquos Republican River Expedition engaged in several fights with the hostile Cheyenne Dog Soldiers under the leadership of Tall Bull, and Kile distinguished himself in each one. In one skirmish he fought alongside 23-year-old scout Buffalo Bill Cody. The Indians, smarting from their losses, went into north-central Kansas and conducted a series of retaliatory raids against outlying settlements and stage stations, killing several settlers and capturing two women (see &ldquoDeath at Summit Springs: Susanna Alderdice and the Cheyennes,&rdquo by Jeff Broome, in the October 2003 Wild West).
Shortly after the women&rsquos capture, Carr again went in pursuit of the Indians. In early July, as Carr moved from Nebraska into Colorado Territory, he sent nearly half of his command under Brevet Major William Bedford Royall to follow one trail west, roughly along the Republican River, while he stayed with the rest of his command and crossed the Republican in a southwest direction following the Arikaree River. Royall&rsquos command, including Kile&rsquos Company M, had a brisk skirmish with a few warriors, killing three. Running out of rations, Royall rejoined Carr. When the two forces came together on July 7, Carr withdrew the command to a campsite very close to where the 1868 Battle of Beecher Island had been fought.
The next day Corporal Kile and two privates volunteered to retrieve a horse Royall had abandoned. They found the horse and were returning to camp when a dozen Dog Soldiers charged into them. Lieutenant Volkmar wrote that the men &ldquowere attacked by a much superior force of Indians, of whom they killed and wounded three and made their escape.&rdquo
Carr reported that the soldiers killed the lame horse for defense and repelled the Indians. &ldquoCorporal John Kyle [Kile], Company M, 5th Cavalry, was in charge of the party he showed especial bravery on this, as he had done on previous occasions.&rdquo Another officer with Carr, George Price, later wrote that Kyle/Kile &ldquohad a brilliant affair at Dog Creek,&rdquo in which the Indians&mdash13 of them&mdashsurrounded the small party but soon lost three killed and departed.
The biggest fight in Carr&rsquos expedition, however, happened three days later at Summit Springs in northeast Colorado Territory&mdashamong the most significant and underrated battles of the entire Indian wars era. There, in the early afternoon of July 11, 1869, Carr&rsquos command surprised an unsuspecting Cheyenne village of 84 lodges. When the 5th Cavalry&mdashKile and Cody included&mdashcharged in with a contingent of Pawnee Indian scouts, they routed the village. Though most of the nearly 500 Cheyennes escaped, the troopers and scouts killed anywhere from 52 to 73 Dog Soldiers, including Chief Tall Bull. Only one soldier was wounded. A warrior killed captive Susanna Alderdice when the fight began. Captive Maria Weichel was shot in the back but recovered.
Kile was discharged on May 17, 1870, his enlistment having expired. Within two weeks he surfaced in Buffalo, N.Y., and reenlisted on June 2 in the 1st Infantry. In Kile&rsquos era, when a soldier reenlisted within 30 days after finishing an earlier enlistment, he would receive an additional $2 per month in pay throughout the reenlistment. Another $2 was given to anyone issued a Certificate of Merit, an official recognition of acts of bravery short of receiving the Medal of Honor. Kile&rsquos MOH papers more than qualified him for the extra $2 per month.
But he enlisted as John Kyle, rather than under his real name of Kile, and within a day deserted. He then went to Chicago and on June 9 re-enlisted yet again, this time back into the 7th Cavalry, as John Kile. Information written on both enlistment papers verifies his earlier enlistment with the 5th Cavalry, proving that Kyle/Kile was the same man.
Why did Kile use the name Kyle when he enlisted in New York, and why did he immediately desert? Army regulations at the time mandated no large bonuses for reenlistment, so that cannot be the reason.
Kile&rsquos use of the name Kyle was probably to avoid detection, as Kile had a 37th Infantry bad conduct discharge and had escaped a prison sentence. If he enlisted under his real name, the records could potentially catch up to him, and if caught, he faced years behind bars and the end of his military career. Kile may have deserted so quickly because he recognized an officer who would remember him from New Mexico Territory. The prospect of arrest would have convinced him to desert. Desertion had served his needs in the past, so why not again?
Kile obviously wanted a military career and apparently loved Army life. Thus he reenlisted one week later, hoping to continue his chosen career. He avoided the infantry and instead enlisted back into the cavalry as John Kile, the only name he could use and remain eligible for the monthly reenlistment and Medal of Honor bonuses, since he had just deserted under the name Kyle. But, as destiny proclaimed, he was assigned back to the 7th Cavalry. It was fortuitous that John Ryan recognized him almost upon arrival, for it was then very easy for George Custer, given Ryan&rsquos testimony, to exonerate Kile (Kelley) for his 1867 desertion. Kile&rsquos 5th Cavalry papers revealing both the coveted Medal of Honor and his former rank of first sergeant was gravy on the meat. Custer had every reason to believe Kile was a meritorious soldier and would perform well back in his regiment. Kile no doubt felt likewise.
The deadly Hays City brawl on July 17, 1870, finally brought an end to John Kile&rsquos long string of desertions and reenlistments. Events seemed to have played out that night the way they often did in frontier saloons when men drank too much. Lonergan and Kile annoyed the wrong man, one who knew how to use a six-shooter better than almost anyone and who was fully prepared to defend himself. Kile&rsquos killer, Wild Bill Hickok, went on to an equally violent demise six years later in Deadwood&mdashfatally shot from behind by drifter Jack McCall on August 2, 1876. That June, of course, George and Tom Custer, Keogh and many other 7th Cavalry officers died at the Little Bighorn.
One can only wonder what history would reflect had Kile&rsquos service revolver not misfired that night he brawled with a frontier legend. Certainly Kile would be much better remembered today&mdashas the Medal of Honor recipient who killed Wild Bill Hickok. Instead, Kile died at 24. Today Kile&rsquos remains are interred at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. His headstone bears the insignia and gold trim of an MOH recipient and, after more than 130 years, his real name. He at least deserves that.
Jeff Broome of Colorado is writing a book about Hickok and the 1870 Hays City brawl. Also see They Called Him Wild Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, Gunfighter, both by Joseph G. Rosa.
Birth of a Legend
Wild Bill Hickok&aposs iconic status is rooted in a shootout in July 1861 in what came to be known as the McCanles Massacre in Rock Creek, Nebraska. The incident began when David McCanles, his brother William and several farmhands came to the station demanding payment for a property that had been bought from him. Hickok, just a stable-hand at the time, killed the three men, despite being severely injured.
The story quickly became newspaper and magazine fodder. Perhaps most famously, Harper&aposs New Monthly Magazine printed an account of the story in 1867, claiming Hickok had killed 10 men. Overall, it was reported that Hickok had killed over 100 men during his lifetime.
During the Civil War, Wild Bill Hickok served in the Union Army as a civilian scout and later a provost marshal. Though no solid record exists, he is believed to have served as a Union spy in the Confederate Army before his discharge in 1865.
In July, 1865, in Springfield, Missouri&aposs town square, Hickok killed Davis Tutt, an old friend who –ꂯter personal grudges escalated –me an enemy. The two men faced each other sideways for a duel. Tutt reached for his pistol but Hickok was the first to draw his weapon, and shot Tutt instantly, from approximately 75 yards.
Wild Bill Hickok’s legend only grew further when other stories about his fighting prowess surfaced. One story claimed he killed a bear with his bare hands and a bowie knife. The Harper&aposs piece also told the story of how Hickok had pointed to a letter "O" that was "no bigger than a man&aposs heart." Standing some 50 yards away from his subject, Hickok "without sighting his pistol and with his eye" rang off six shots, each of them hitting the direct center of the letter.
American Wonder Wild Bill Hickok Shot and Killed From Behind on This Day in History
Always sit with your back to the wall. Always. And especially in the American Old West. Had Wild Bill Hickok, the legendary gunfighter, Army scout, lawman and avid gambler not violated this cardinal rule in order to snag the last remaining spot at a poker game in a Deadwood saloon, I wouldn’t be writing this post today.
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (1837-1876) was the archetypical Wild West character. At six-feet tall, draped in buckskins and with long, flowing hair, blue-gray eyes and a straw-colored moustache, Hickok cut a striking figure.
And his weapon of choice? More than one, actually. He carried a pair of ivory-handled .36 caliber Colt 1851 Navy Revolvers in an open-top, dual-holstered rig. Hong Kong film director John Woo would have been proud. (See one of his guns on display in the new American Art Museum exhibition, “The Great American Hall of Wonders.”)
Though Hollywood has created an highly idealized version of the iconic Old West quick-draw gun duel, Wild Bill’s infamous deathblow to Dave Tutt on July 21, 1865, in Springfield, Missouri, is likely the first duel that comes closest to Tinseltown standards.
Tutt, a Confederate-turned-Union soldier—and a good shot himself—confronted Hickok in the town square from approximately 75 yards away. Tutt drew first. The two gunmen fired at nearly the same time, with Tutt’s shot straying while Hickok’s found its mark.
Though Hickok bragged about the number of men he had killed (hundreds), he likely exaggerated (six, maybe seven). But his expert marksmanship needed no embellishing. In a February 1867 interview, Harper’s Monthly writer Colonel George Ward Nichols recounts how Hickok drew a letter ‘O’ on a sign-board against a wall, “no bigger than a man’s heart,” wrote Nichols. And then from 50 yards away without even “sighting the pistol,” Hickok fired six shots from his Colt revolver into the center.
“Hickok typified the era of the man-killer or shootist, better known today as the gunfighter–a term in use as early as 1874 but not popularized until post-1900,” wrote Joseph G. Rosa, the gunman’s biographer in the June 2006 issue of Wild West magazine.
So here’s what went down 135 years ago today. Wild Bill was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood in the Dakota Territory. Though he usually sat with his back to the wall, Hickok was forced to take the only seat available and no one would switch seats with him.
John “Crooked Nose Jack” McCall was able to get the drop on him.
McCall strode into the saloon, drew his pistol and shouted, “take that” and fired a a bullet into Wild Bill’s head, killing him instantly.
Hickok was holding a black pair of aces and a black pair of eights, which eventually became known as the “dead man’s hand.” Some claim the assassination may have been a paid hit however, McCall later said that Wild Bill had killed his brother several years earlier.
McCall was arrested and brought to trial, but was acquitted by a jury of miners. After bragging about killing Hickok following his release, McCall was re-arrested, tried again, found guilty, and then hanged. Double jeopardy, you ask? Not applicable in this case, Deadwood was not a state and was located in Indian country. One final victory for Wild Bill.
The murder of Wild Bill Hickok
August 2, 1876
Deadwood, Dakota Territory (present day South Dakota)
Gunfighter, showman, marshal, and soldier of the American Old West, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok is killed while playing cards
Hickok had apparently insulted Jack McCall the day before his death McCall had hit a losing streak while playing cards and Hickok suggested McCall quit to recoup his losses and offered to buy him breakfast. McCall accepted, though insulted. The next day, as Hickok played another hand of cards, McCall came up behind Hickok, said “damn you! Take that!” and fired a shot into Hickok’s head. The shot exited Hickok’s cheek and struck another card player’s wrist.
McCall claimed he killed Hickok in retribution for his brother being killed by Hickok, though little evidence exists to support this claim. He was tried by an informal jury and acquitted. However, he was retried in a more formal court, found guilty, and hanged.