Suppose you are driving cross-country and you decide to stop in Abilene, Kansas, on a hot summer’s day. There are a few attractions where you can get into the air conditioning and buy a postcard. There’s the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum, which you would probably need to pay me to visit, and the Museum of Independent Telephony, which is more interesting than you might think, as it reveals a whole world of small-town technological and societal infrastructure. You can almost taste the wheelings and dealings that led Abilene’s Brown Telephone Company to become one of America’s larger corporations. And then there’s the Dickinson County Historical Museum, which devotes much space to Abilene’s most famous lawman, Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok was variously an army scout, an Indian scout, a gambler, a performer, a prospector, a marshal. He had a reputation for being deadly with a pistol and a way with the ladies. He was one of the most famous shootists in the West, thanks to a report written by Harper’s Monthly‘s George Ward Nichols (who later became an art critic and patron of the arts). At his peak, he was quite possibly one of the most famous men in America, capable of reducing the African explorer Henry Stanley (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame) to stammering ineffectualness through presence alone. His twin ivory-handled revolvers tucked into a red sash, his famous, unfashionably long hair — a remnant of his days as an Indian scout — and dark coat blowing in the wind, he must have been quite a striking figure as he walked through the streets of Abilene. He was a friend and perhaps lover of Martha Canary, better known as Calamity Jane. And yet the only thing I knew about him until I drove through Abilene was that he died playing poker, holding the "dead man’s hand": two pair, aces and eights.
And yet, a hundred years after his death, I know at least that fact about a largely unremarkable man: a drunk, a Union spy of no great accomplishment, a mediocre lawman shot in the back of the head by the brother of a man he killed in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. But Wild Bill Hickok was the first celebrity man of the West. After the end of the Civil War, the West — neither North nor South but something on which history had yet to be written — became its transformation into the geographical center of the American myth. It was a place ruled, in the popular imagination, not by the ranchers, farmers, miner owners and railroad men, but by hard men, men with shadowy pasts who enforced their own harsh brand of justice. That makes for a popular and lasting story — even today, statues of Hickok have repeatedly been vandalized by souvenier hunters. It wasn’t until after Hickok’s story had made a sensation back East that the dime novelists decended. Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid have replaced Hickok as the exemplars of the old West, but Hickok was the subject of more than a dozen movies.
In fact, Hickok seems balanced between the two. Billy the Kid was a man relentlessly propelled onward by his own myth. Everyone from Rebecca Ore to Michael Ondaatje ("Poor youn William’s dead / with blood planets in his head / with a fish stare, with a giggle / like he said.") to Emilio Estevez has taken their own stab at the kid, because he created a myth that he couldn’t control. Was he a heartless killer? An innocent young man railroaded by the system? A self-aggrandizing lover and leaver of Mexican women? Call him what you will: Henry McCarty, William H. Bonney, Austin Antrim, Henry Antrim, Billy Antrim. He was a man shot dead by a New Mexico sheriff who now has a New Mexico scenic byway named for him. Meanwhile, Wyatt Earp — a smaller figure at the time than either William Bonney or Bill Hickok — lived to shape his own myth, spending years at the turn of the last century trying to put his story in front of the public on his terms. Earp eclipsed Hickok and the Kid for decades as the preeminent character in Western films.
Hickok arrived early and was perhaps unready for the attention he received. He failed as a performer in Buffalo Bill Cody‘s Western show (too drunk). He failed as a gambler (too drunk). Had he survived his encounter in Deadwood and returned to his wife, whom he left after their honeymoon to seek his fortune, I have no doubt that he would have failed as a husband. He had been reduced at one point to shooting stray dogs for the bounty. His tale-spinning (to shoot thirty Confederates in thirty shots with a Civil War-era rifle, as Hickok claimed he once did, is perhaps up there with Baron Munchausen’s celebrated fifty brace of ducks killed in one shot) and dandyish dress produced a reputation that he doesn’t seem to have known how to (or perhaps really wanted to) exploit. Bill Hickok did as much as any person to create the myth of the West, but like so many people swept up in history, he never seemed to control the stories he sparked. Nobody knows why he was called "Wild Bill". Nobody knows if he really married Calamity Jane. He was holding the dead man’s hand, but nobody can name the fifth card.