Those old enough to recall television of the early 1950s will remember Guy Madison’s portrayal of Wild Bill Hickok as a clean-shaven, well-shorn, clear-eyed lawman. This character was based−in name only−on the real James Butler Hickok, whose life is described in Tom Clavin’s latest book, “Wild Bill: The True Story of America’s First Gunfighter.”
The real Wild Bill was a much less savory individual: he was a gambler, a heavy drinker, and a womanizer. Born (1837) in Illinois into an abolitionist family, young Hickok fled west to Kansas at age 18, fearing himself to be a fugitive from justice after mistakenly believing he had killed an acquaintance in a fight. In Kansas he joined a vigilante group, tried his hand at farming, worked for a precursor to the Pony Express, and, when the Civil War broke out, signed on with the Union Army as a scout and a spy.
After the Civil War, Hickok’s reputation as a tough and fearless gunslinger led him to law enforcement jobs in various communities throughout the rapidly burgeoning American West. His most notable and best-remembered position was as marshal in Abilene, Kansas, a job he held for less than a year. He was relieved of his duties after mistakenly shooting and killing one of his own deputies, an event that persisted in his memory for the rest of his days.
The last four years of his life, following his stint in Abilene, his health and eyesight deteriorated. Hickok drifted from town to town in the western territories, trying, with only modest success, to earn a living as a gambler. He was shot to death (1876) in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota) while playing poker in a saloon, and was buried there.
Author Clavin’s book is based on extensive research, both from primary and secondary sources. This research is reflected in the rich detail of the narrative. Although at times the profusion of names, both personal and geographical, seems as confusing as a Russian novel, Clavin keeps his story moving forward at an engaging pace.
In his relatively short lifetime Wild Bill encountered many personalities whose names are deeply ingrained in the lore of the frontier: “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Kit Carson, and Calamity Jane, to name but a few. And Hickok’s career took him to places whose names today conjure memories of the Old West: Abilene, Dodge City, Cheyenne, and others. Clavin’s description of these people and places is detailed enough to be entertaining and enlightening, but not so much as to seem ponderously academic.
“Wild Bill” will appeal to readers with a fascination for American history, particularly those with an interest in post-Civil War westward expansion. But to a wider audience that has grown up with a romanticized and possibly sanitized version of this slice of America’s story, Clavin’s book will offer a well-researched, entertaining, and more realistic version of America’s past.