wild bill

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin (History/Biography, February 2019).

Tom Clavin, a best-selling and multiple award-winning historical writer, ably follows up his history of one of the Wildest of the Wild West’s cow-towns (Dodge City) with this carefully researched and entertainingly written account of James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok. Clavin sifts through all the tall tales, myths and outright dime novel lies about this singular figure of western lore to convey the facts (which are impressive enough on their own) about this legendary gunfighter, federal marshal, gambler, Civil War veteran and army scout.

In a snappy yet detailed prologue, Clavin tells of Hickok’s gunfight with Davis Tutt shortly after the Civil War. It was the very first quick draw duel-to-the-death west of the Mississippi River and, hyped by eastern newspapermen after exciting frontier stories, was the beginning of the man’s popular legend.

From there the author doubles back with chapters investigating the truth about the man’s ancestors (some of whom leased and worked English farmland owned by none-other than William Shakespeare in earlier centuries). After tracing the Hickok family’s eventual coming to and spreading out across eastern America, including the frequent changes in the surname’s spelling in that era of minimal education, we find James growing up (and growing bored with farming life) in Illinois.

Like many of his generation, Hickok itched for excitement and went west to find it.

Accompanying a less-excitable brother on one journey, he picked up the nickname he would become famous under. The brother eventually headed back to what would soon be known as the Land of Lincoln while Hickok took part in that violent lead-up to America’s Civil War, Bleeding Kansas. His family and Hickok himself were anti-slavery and so when full-scale war erupted he joined the Union army. His exploits in the war as a scout, a dispatch rider and at times a spy behind Confederate lines were often exaggerated in the breathless follow-up coverage of the showdown with Tutt.

This would be the pattern in building up the myth of the unstoppable Wild Bill Hickok and the other Wild West icons that followed. Yet what can be verified about the man was impressive enough to make for fascinating reading here, even stripped of all the nonsense.

It should be noted that Hickok mostly enjoyed the hype around him and soon added tall tales of his own, cooperating with the writers to enhance his fame. But while much of his legend was exaggerated (if not outright invented, like the later ‘romance’ with Calamity Jane), his enduring friendship with Buffalo Bill Cody was very much the real thing. And indeed, Wild Bill lived an exciting life and knew many other western stalwarts.

Clavin shows Hickok to be a significant part of Great Plains history, while contrasting his style and substance alike with notable figures of the same time. I found the actual facts of Wild Bill’s one actual serious love, mostly long distance relationship (and sadly brief marriage) with pioneering circus star and owner-operator Agnes Lake of particular interest.

We also learn intriguing facts about Hickok’s failing eyesight (and his attempts to cover it up), his reluctant and brief flirtation with an acting career (unlike his old pal Cody, who took to it right away), and what was behind his ultimately fatal decision to give the new boomtown of Deadwood a try. In the end, it seems the mostly well-earned (if by then outdated) reputation as a town-cleaning lawman led to his death in that unruly place.

The book concludes with a suitable epilogue. Clavin details the ultimate fates of Hickok’s relatively few intimates (Cody, California Joe Milner, Charley Utter and of course Wild Bill’s widow, Agnes). And of course the hard-drinking, publicity- craving Calamity Jane who was buried next to Wild Bill in Deadwood some years later, more or less, we’re told, as a posthumous joke on Hickok (who’d actually found her annoying at best).

Then, 60 years after Hickok’s death, came the now-classic western movie The Plainsman. Its utterly fictional account of a passionate love for Jane cemented the idea of their ‘romance’ in the public mind.

It’s the final example of how myth-making has obscured so much of Wild Bill’s true story (and that of so many figures of his time and place). All of which makes this carefully factual yet utterly readable account that much more valuable and welcome.



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