Wild Bill Hickok's original marker in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, said it plain: He was murdered by cowardly assassin Jack McCall on Aug. 2, 1876.

Letter From Wild West — August 2019

By Gregory Lalire    
5/23/2019 • Wild West

JACK McCALL’S MYSTERIOUS CALLING

Wild Bill Hickok bested Davis Tutt in a gunfight in Springfield, Missouri, on July 21, 1865. Anyone who has looked beyond Hollywood shootouts to delve into real Wild West history knows that dramatic confrontation was a rare one-on-one, face-to-face quick-draw duel worthy of fictional Marshal Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke TV fame. Even Hickok vs. Tutt, though, has been overshadowed by Wild Bill’s assassination in Deadwood on Aug. 2, 1876. “In the Wild West era,” writes Aaron Robert Woodard in our August 2019 cover article [“The Coward Who Shot Wild Bill], “Hickok’s death rates in notoriety with the 1881 killing [in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory] of Billy the Kid by Sheriff Pat Garrett and the 1882 assassination [in St. Joseph, Missouri] of Jesse James by that ‘dirty little coward’ Robert Ford.”

Of course, the former was just a case of a lawman doing his job. But true assassins lurked in corners or around bends across the Old West. Think of the deadly work done by such hired killers as Jim Miller and Tom Horn. Think of the unknown assailant who killed “Bandit Queen” Belle Starr from ambush with blasts from a double-barrel shotgun on Feb. 3, 1889. Think of lawman turned outlaw turned lawman John Selman shooting dice-playing gunman John Wesley Hardin in the back of the head at El Paso’s Acme Saloon on Aug. 19, 1895. And think again of James’ assassin Ford, who himself fell victim to an assassin when one Edward O’Kelley fired both barrels of a shotgun into Bob’s neck at Ford’s tent saloon in Creede, Colo., on June 8, 1892.

One aspect the assassinations of Ford and Hickok have in common, aside from occurring in saloons, is that to this day no one is certain what motivated the assassins. O’Kelley knew Ford and even hailed him, “Hello, Bob,” before pulling the trigger. Some speculate O’Kelley was an admirer of James and had vowed to kill the man who had killed Jesse, or perhaps the Missouri-born assassin sought recognition by die-hard Southern supporters of the James brothers as “the man who killed the man who.” McCall’s motivation is murkier. It has been suggested his beef with Hickok centered on heavy losses in an earlier card game. At his Deadwood trial (which was technically extralegal, as the town itself had no legal standing on what the U.S. government had designated as Indian land) McCall claimed he shot Hickok because Wild Bill had killed his brother back in Abilene, Kan. Hickok had done no such thing, but a miners’ court acquitted the assassin. O’Kelley was not as fortunate in court in the summer of 1892. Convicted of murdering Ford, he initially received a life sentence. Though pardoned and released in 1902 after just nine years in the Colorado State Penitentiary, he was shot down by an Oklahoma City police officer in a nasty street fight on Jan. 13, 1904.

But McCall, as Woodard relates here and in his 2018 book The Revenger: The Life and Times of Wild Bill Hickok, didn’t get away with murder for long. After openly boasting about his dastardly deed, he was again brought to trail, in Yankton, the Dakota Territory capital. Convicted and sentenced to hang by Judge Peter C. Shannon, McCall became, on March 1, 1877, the first man legally executed in the territory. “The killer,” Tom Clavin writes in his 2019 book Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter, “was interred in a Catholic cemetery in Yankton. Fourteen years later, when the cemetery was being moved to make room for an insane asylum, McCall’s body was exhumed. The noose was still around his neck. He was reburied, but the location remains unknown.” The name Jack McCall remains well known, though, for he was the dirty little coward who shot Wild Bill Hickok. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly, and his Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 is due out in July 2019. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. His article about frontier baseball in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America, earned him a 2015 Stirrup Award.

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