Wild Bill The true story of the American frontier's first gunfighter

Thomas Clavin

Book - 2019

In July 1865, "Wild Bill" Hickok shot and killed Davis Tutt in Springfield, MO--the first quick-draw duel on the frontier. Thus began the reputation that made him a marked man to every gunslinger in the Wild West. James Butler Hickock was known across the frontier as a soldier, Union spy, scout, lawman, gunfighter, gambler, showman, and actor. Wild Bill became a legend, crossing paths with General Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody, as well as Ben Thompson and other young toughs gunning for the sheriff with the quickest draw west of the Mississippi.

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2nd Floor 978.02092/Hickok Checked In
2nd Floor 978.02092/Hickok Checked In
New York : St. Martin's Press 2019.
Main Author
Thomas Clavin (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xiii, 320 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 297-301) and index.
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

To succeed as a gunfighter in the American West, it helped to have a competitive advantage. Being fast on the draw was essential - and removing a revolver from a stiff leather holster was never as easy as Hollywood made it seem. But possessing good aim in an age of faulty, smoky ammo and inaccurate weaponry helped even more. The best shot in the early days of the era was the taciturn James Butler Hickok, who for no good reason earned the sobriquet Wild Bill. He boasted another advantage: He was ambidextrous, which meant he could fire off a hail of 12 rounds to the six by an ordinary mortal. His supremacy as a shootist is evident early in "Wild Bill," Tom Clavin's new biography of the gunslinger. Hickok not only survives all of his walk-and-draw contests, he becomes a bona fide celebrity in the process. His good looks surely help: Over six feet tall, blue-eyed, long-nosed and mustachioed, he is as lithe as a tiger, and blessed with wavy auburn hair that he wears shoulder-length, like a rock star. His in-town get-up consists of calfskin boots, checked trousers, embroidered waistcoat, Prince Albert frock coat and black sombrero. No wonder The St. Louis Republican refers to him as "a dandy at all times in attire - a regular frontier dude." Clavin's chief objective in retelling this story is to entertain us. An equally meritorious goal is to peel away the myth and folklore to reveal the historical truth beneath, a real challenge given that most of the record consists of sensationalized press reports and fictitious dime novel versions of the events. It's like trying to pry a presidential biography out of the pages of a comic book. And the drawback to the fact-versus-fiction strategy here, as in Clavin's recent book "Dodge City," is that, freed from their mythification, these jackalope-like gunslingers emerge for the most part - Bat Masterson being the exception - as shiftless, talentless young men with poor educations and lousy career prospects, whose scruffy, Hobbesian lives play out exactly as you might expect. Undaunted, Clavin, who is a wily veteran of the writing trade, tacks up the truth like wanted posters in every chapter, while simultaneously savoring a few of the more fanciful falsehoods along the way, a neat trick in which he displays some ambidexterity of his own. Perhaps aware that a focus on shootouts might fall flat in this age of mass killings and gun-control debates, he detours into the skirmishes of the Civil War and into such historical arcana as the origins of the Pony Express; the adventures of the 10th Cavalry, whose enlisted men were all black; the early days of the circus; and the backgrounds of the bad guys. In one such pencil-sketched interlude, we watch Hickok umpire an early baseball game between the Kansas City Antelopes and the Atchison Pomeroys. Hickok's steadying presence is needed because the previous contest had ended in fisticuffs and a Kansas City headline that read "The Town Is Disgraced!" Hickok crouches behind home plate; his single-action Colt six-shooters, famously worn cavalry-style with their butts jutting forward, dangle from their holsters. The Antelopes win by the astonishing score of 48-28. Next come the jobs as a scout, deputy United States marshal and sheriff, and the famous Kansas gun battles at Hays City and Abilene, in a career that is largely over before it begins. At 35 and going blind, possibly from secondary syphilis, Hickok tries his hand at show business, first by cofounding and codirecting a touring production called "The Daring Buffalo Chase of the Plains" (which goes wrong when the bison panic and stampede), and then by joining the cast of his friend Buffalo Bill Cody's "Scouts of the Prairie," which The New York Herald describes as "so wonderfully bad it was almost good." Hickok, playing himself, understandably finds his role ludicrous and his dialogue lame: "Fear not, fair maid! By heavens, you are safe at last with Wild Bill, who is ever ready to risk his life and die, if need be, in defense of weak and defenseless womanhood!" So, it's back to Cheyenne and an unlikely marriage to an aging circus impresario 11 years his senior, before galloping into the Black Hills in hopes of a long-shot score as a prospector or gambler. Clavin has fun debunking an alleged romance between Hickok and Calamity Jane, who appears in a late cameo as an insufferable drunkard and braggart. Not all of the scenery here is interesting, not all of the events are credible and we may even suffer a few mental saddle sores from blunt transitions and dull Wikipedia-like prose, but for the most part this is a pleasant enough trail ride of a book. Just don't expect this quarter horse to prance like a Tennessee Walker. The story ends predictably (even Wild Bill predicts it) at a card table in the mining town of Deadwood. Hickok is almost cleaned out at the time and remarks, "The old duffer broke me on the last hand" - moments before Jack McCall puts him down like an old dog. In his open coffin, Hickok makes a handsome corpse, his hair still hanging in auburn ringlets. The Deadwood locals line up, eager for one last look. Christopher knowlton is the author of "Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 23, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Clavin (Dodge City, 2017) looks behind the legend of gunfighter and lawman James Wild Bill Hickok, a central figure of Wild West mythology. The son of a farmer and abolitionist, Hickok was an ace marksman early on, which proved useful after the family's move to Bloody Kansas, the pre-Civil War hotbed of political violence and outlaws. At times a scout, spy, stagecoach driver, compulsive gambler, and marshal, his fame grew alongside contemporary frontier icons like Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody. After an 1867 profile in Harper's about his possibly embellished exploits, Hickok turned from a mere sharp-eyed shootist into an American frontier legend. (Even the dead man's hand he held when killed during a poker game at a Deadwood saloon became legendary.) Well written, full of vivid characters, and detailed, but built largely from existing literature, this is an accessible celebration of Hickok's life rather than a rigorous deconstruction of his romantic mythos. Casual fans of the Old West and the HBO show Deadwood will appreciate the wild ride.--Chad Comello Copyright 2019 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Clavin (Dodge City) portrays the legendary James "Wild Bill" Hickok as a sometimes trigger-happy gunman who became a 19th-century celebrity, in this rollicking but vaguely sourced biography. Hickok, born in 1837 Illinois, landed his first job in law enforcement at 20 as the town constable for Monticello, Kans. While working for a stagecoach company in Nebraska, he killed for the first time, defending his boss in a violent business dispute. Hickok served the Union during the Civil War as a scout and spy, and afterwards he shot and killed Davis Tutt, an acquaintance and romantic rival, in an argument about gambling debts; he was acquitted of murder, but gained a wide reputation as a fast draw. Press accounts turned him into a nationally known figure and made him a target for those seeking to prove their gunslinging skills. Hickok served as a marshal in Kansas, where he burnished his reputation as a gunfighter, although his habit of reflexive firing killed his own deputy, Mike Williams. Ultimately, Hickok was murdered, shot in the back of the head by someone he had not considered a threat. The absence of detailed source citations and Clavin's acknowledgment that many writings about Hickok are embellished or unverifiable suggest that this is less a sober work of history than an entertaining tale of the man and the legend. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

As a legendary lawman, gambler, army scout, actor, and gunfighter, Wild Bill Hickok is as synonymous with the image of the Wild West as are Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer, Dodge City, and Deadwood. As the legend surrounding Hickok grew, so did the myths. Each legend, from his involvement in the first quick-draw duel on the frontier to his death while playing cards, is carefully explored against numerous confirmations and other fact-checking. Clavin (Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West) combines almost poetic turns of phrase with the numerous details of a serious academic. Johnny Heller's entertaining, articulate narration is simply amazing. Verdict Highly recommended for anyone looking for adventure stories or tales of Wild West history. ["Fans of Dodge City and general readers will find this detail-laden volume appealing": Xpress Reviews 12/21/18 review of the St. Martin's hc.]-Scott R. DiMarco, Mansfield Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A vigorous yarn concerning the man who, by Clavin's (Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, 2017, etc.) account, set the template for the Wild West gunslinger.There's a lot we don't know about Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876), not least why a man born James Butler Hickok called himself Bill. The "wild" part of the moniker probably dates to the Civil War, when Unionist saloon patrons threatened to harm their secessionist-favoring bartender. "Though far from sharing the man's views," writes the author, "Bill believed in fair fights," and he backed the crowd down. As Clavin notes, just what Bill did during the war remains a matter of some history, but he may have served the Union while wearing a gray coat, working as a spy. Whatever the case, he was on the western frontier in time to stare down William Quantrill's guerrillas, turn up at the battle called the "Gettysburg of the West," and, soon after, to share friendships with Buffalo Bill Cody and George Armstrong Custerand perhaps even with Mrs. Custer, who called him "a delight to look upon." Mixed up with all that was the gunfighter business: Hickok was fast enough and accurate enough to deter a whole passel of bad guys, gaining notoriety when they didn't back off, as when he had to square off with a sometime acquaintance who argued with him over a small debt and didn't live to collect it. Clavin writes fluently and often entertainingly of a man shrouded in legend while being all too human. For example, Hickok may not have recognized the man who gunned him down in Deadwood, South Dakota, because even in his 30s, his eyes were going bad. The author also ably picks apart what is likely or actual from what is invented, including a whole tangle of tales involving a certain Calamity Jane and penny-dreadful stories that were circulating about him even while Hickok was still alive.Good history accessibly and ably told. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.