“Dead Man’s Hand”—Christie Yant

Deadwood, Dakota Territory, 1876

The whisper of the cards as they’re shuffled is a deception, a ritual enacted to make you believe that your hand will be fairly dealt.

The fly that lands on the whiskey glass by the dealer’s hand means that the deck is cut three cards deeper than it would have been. The hand you’re dealt is not the one that would have been dealt a moment before.

Your cards are dealt anew every moment of every day. So are the cards of the other players.

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Black Hills Weekly Pioneer
A.W. Merrick
Deadwood, Dakota Territory
August 2, 1876

J.B. “Wild Bill” Hickok Shot Dead at the No. 10 Saloon

A somber mood has gripped the town of Deadwood tonight, with the news that notable gunman and showman “Wild Bill” Hickok has been shot and killed. A shot was heard throughout the bustling community at 4:15 this afternoon, drawing a crowd of the concerned and curious to the door of the Number 10 Saloon owned by Mssrs. Nuttal and Mann. The body of James Butler Hickok was discovered therein, dead of a gunshot to the head.

Local miner Jack “Broken Nose” McCall approached Hickok from behind, drew his pistol, and fired the bullet that instantly took Hickok’s life. McCall has claimed the act was a matter of blood debt, Hickok having killed his own brother in Kansas.

Hickok was well known amongst frequenters of the No. 10 to always sit with his back to the wall and facing the door, lest enemies made during a notable life on the plains exploit a lack of vigilance. On this day it is said that the only seat available at the table faced away from the door, and it was thus that McCall was able to enact his craven deed.

The scene of the murder was one of solemn reflection and practical determination, as the saloon proprietors and townspeople of Deadwood sought to put the shooting behind them. After Hickok’s remains had been cleared away, there remained only a grim still life to mark the event: on the floor beside the seat lately occupied by Wild Bill lay the dead man’s hand—two pair, aces and eights—a good hand, this reporter is told, but one which brought him no luck at all.

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Black Hills Pioneer Gazette
Albert Merrick
Deadwood Gulch, D.T.
March 1, 1877

“Wild Bill” (James) Hickok Hanged for Murder

After a decade of outwitting the law, no amount of ill-gotten gold could tip the Scales of Justice in favor of the legendary outlaw and gunman James Butler Hickok, best known by the infamous moniker “Wild Bill.” His last ride has ended in Yankton, Dakota Territory, at the end of a rope.

On August 1, 1876, the Bella Union Saloon was the scene of violence as a man was callously murdered over a debt in the amount of two dollars and fifty cents. The night had proceeded in the usual fashion, until it was learned that local miner Jack McCall, sometimes known as Sutherland, was unable to cover a hand lost to Hickok. Despite a promise to pay the following day, Hickok reportedly grew incensed, and bellowed, “A man ought never overbet his hand. That’s no way to play cards!”

Captain William Massey, who had also been at the table, attempted to intervene, despite warnings from bystanders. “I told him not to get in Bill’s way when he gets like that,” Mr. Tom Miller, proprietor, recalled. “But he wouldn’t listen. He’d been an officer in the Union Army once, and I think that stayed with him.”

Hickok drew his gun and aimed it at McCall’s heart. Once a sharpshooter of world renown, Hickok’s sight had reportedly been failing in recent years, driving him off the trail and into the saloons to make a meager living as a card player. His first shot missed McCall entirely, and the bullet instead struck Captain Massey, who Dr. McKinney says will carry it ’til his dying day.

Wild Bill’s second shot aimed true, however, and McCall was killed instantly.

Hickok affected an escape by way of a rear door to the property and the theft of a horse. It was thought that with no sheriff yet elected in Deadwood the notorious outlaw had once again escaped justice, but he was apprehended a week later in the city of Laramie, Wyoming by one Deputy Marshal Balcombe.

On the night of the murder this reporter made a survey of the scene and there discovered the very cards that had cost an honest man his life. McCall’s losing hand had been scattered across the table amid the other discarded hands, but in the place where Hickok had been seated, five cards remained fanned out in a characteristic display of arrogance. Not being well versed in the complexities of games of chance, this reporter consulted Mr. Mann on the likelihood of Hickok’s cards winning the game.

“It’s a good hand, and hard to beat,” Mann said. “But I hope I don’t see those cards come my way any time soon.” With a shudder he added, “That’s a dead man’s hand.”

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Deadwood Weekly Pioneer
Albert M. Werrick
Deadwood Pines
August 5, 1876

Heroism in the Black Hills

It was civilian justice in the form of local businessman Bill Sutherland, who with a single bullet put an end to the threat of violence that Deadwood has lived under since infamous outlaw J.B. “Wild Bill” Hickok arrived in town.

Uncowed by Hickok’s brazen demeanor and deadly reputation, Mr. Sutherland strode into the Progressive Hall Saloon at 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday past and took vengeance for the death of his brother, one Jack Sutherland, also known as McCall. Witnesses claim that Mr. Sutherland drew his gun and said only, “Damn you, take that!” before the report from the gun echoed through the town. Mr. Sutherland immediately turned his weapon over to Ed Durham, proprietor, and waited peacefully while a miners’ jury was assembled, Deadwood as yet still being without an elected sheriff.

Mr. Durham, responsible for restoring the scene to order, has told this reporter that in the aftermath he gathered the cards from the table, with the intention of presenting them to Mr. Sutherland upon his inevitable acquittal, in token for his heroism. When asked what the dead man had been holding, he told this reporter that he would only reveal the content of the dead man’s hand to Mr. Sutherland, the hero of the Black Hills.

Hickok’s remains will be returned to his widow in Cheyenne. No services are to be held in Deadwood. May God have mercy on his soul.

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Black Hills Chronicle Weekly
A. William Merwick
Deadwood, Dakota Territory
August 5, 1876

Local Miner Dead in Shoot-out at No. 10 Saloon

On the afternoon of August 2, the fragile peace of Deadwood Gulch was broken by gun fire, and afterward a man lay dead.

Drawn to the scene by the sound of a gunshot, this reporter was approached by Captain James “Will” Massey who emerged from the saloon in some distress, cradling his bloody hand.

“Wild Bill shot me!” he exclaimed. The accusation was happily learned to be unfounded, though he can be forgiven for his confusion in the face of pain and violence.

Inside the saloon the scene was a gruesome one. Witnesses say that a game of poker was underway when local miner Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall suddenly rose from his seat. McCall, under the heavy influence of drink, was heard to say “Damn you, take that!” as he aimed his pistol at renowned lawman and gunslinger James “Wild Bill” Hickok. Before McCall could pull the trigger, Hickok—with reflexes honed on the prairie as a scout for the Union Army—drew his own weapon, and with the marksmanship that is his claim to fame, put a single shot through McCall’s crossed eye.

McCall’s gun discharged as he fell to the floor. This led Charles Rich, also seated at the table, to draw in self-defense, and in the confusion fired his own weapon, resulting in the injury sustained by Captain Massey.

“It was over in no more than the blink of an eye,” said Carl Mann, one of the saloon’s proprietors.

Hickok, in full view of this reporter, stood and swept up the cards he had held moments before, along with the unturned hole card, and tucked them inside his vest pocket.

“A souvenir to send to my wife,” he explained, referring to his wife of seven months, Agnes Lake Hickok, lately of Cheyenne. He paused, and turned over the cards that lay at McCall’s place at the table: two pair, aces and eights. “That right there is a hand you don’t want,” he said. “A dead man’s hand.”


Author’s Note: The “Dead Man’s Hand” as it is known today is comprised of “aces and eights,” but there have been as many hands by that name as the coward Jack McCall had alibis and aliases. The earliest reference to aces and eights—rather than a full house of jacks and tens, or jacks and sevens—appeared in 1900, and the phrase wasn’t connected to Hickok until the 1920s, nearly fifty years after his death.