Who is Wild Bill?
The name tells it all. A rare reader would hope for a happy end of a story with such a malicious character. Especially those who watch popular series Deadwood.
American folk art tells a tale about Wild Bill. This personage is accountable for the bad fame of aces and eights. The real name of this man is James Butler Hickok. Everyone knew him as a cruel gunman who operated on the American border. Hickok’s life was very ordinary for that time, he worked on his father’s farm until he was 18, and then worked as a cabman. Two years later, he managed to acquire 160 acres of land in Kansas, but he did not have time to deal with agriculture, as he was appointed Sheriff of Kansas. After some time, in 1861, he was transferred to Nebraska, where he managed to neutralize a gang of dangerous criminals, which instantly made him a respected person. His first nickname was Duck Bill because he has a rather long nose and bulging lips. To make his appearance more threatening he started to wear a mustache. People still tell many stories about his adventures on the frontier. He did all in his power to protect the settlements where there was no law system at that time. He was a regular participant of gunfights and that rude behavior made him well-known is a very short time.
The stories tell that he was strong enough to kill a bear in New Mexico. Of course, all these legends may have a lot of invented facts. But some people eye-witnessed that he returned with a broken chest, damaged shoulder and crashed hand. And others confessed they saw how he cut the animal’s neck.
Wild Bill always said that he had never taken any single advantage of his enemy. After he became so well-knows the press was watching his every step. They tried to make sensations of all his activity. The newspapers were telling that he had killed almost 100 people. But then his official biographer rejecter that information advising that there were only six or seven victims.
But who knows the truth? His life remains a big mystery.
The Dead Man’s Hand.
At the age of 39 Bill was actually finishing his career. It was in 1876. Bill was a very successful gambler. But the health was letting him down more and more often. Bill married Agnes Lake,an ownerof the circus. She was 10 years older than him. Soon after it he left his wife in Cheyenne and went to look for the luck in the gold mines of South Dakota.At a new place he found another woman, known as Calamity Jane (her real name was Martha Jane Canary). Though all these facts are only memoirs of one frontier woman, so nobody can tell how true they are.
The recollections of Bill prove that he was always mentioning his wife Agnes with great care, deep love, and respect.
In 1875 they reached Deadwood town. Wild Bill was a frequent guest to the local bar. He was an excellent poker player and could be proud of numerous wins. One day he got a historical win playing with Jack McCall. A buffalo hunter lost everything, the next day he could only buy a breakfast with the money he had received back from Bill. You may consider it a generous action but the scenario of the following day was dreadful.
Next day Bill came to the saloon again but his favorite seat was occupied. He was very angry he could not take the seat with the back to the wall. Another position made him vulnerable to everybody who came in. And when Jack McCall came back to the saloon later he took the gun and released it at Wild Bill’s head.
Wild Bill fell off the chair but kept holding his cards. He was playing 5-card poker, and his four cards could be seen. The witness who took the cards later advised they were all aces and eights. But nobody could see the fifth card. Some sais it was the queen of hearts. But others were sure it was the jack of diamonds. Till now nobody can say if Bill has a winning card combination. It forever remained a secret. But that fatal game gave a very bad reputation to the aces and eights for many years.
It is a very rare case for similar stories to end with the deсease of the main hero. His name did not disappear from the newspapers after he was killed. The trial proceedings were very much delayed. And finally, the killer received a very unexpected verdict. He was found not guilty. Before that Jack McCall told the jury that it had been an act of revenge for his brother’s death. The jury believed that story knowing the real nature of Wild Bill. The court let him go. But Jack took it easy and started to boast everywhere how he has killed Wild Bill. So he was detained again. A new trial was merciless. And they hanged Jack in 1877.
But still that story does not shed any light on the question if the popular expression has any relation to the main character’s tragic death. The mysterious story links his name to a certain card combination, though that association started to work in the 1920s and it was almost 40 years after the tragedy with Wild Bill. The source of information was mainly local population. Meanwhile, the professional biographer of Hickok’s life Joseph Rosa says there were no obvious proofs what exactly Wild Bill kept in his hand during the last minutes of his life.
Historians say that the phrase Dad Man’s Hand had been known long before that accident in the bar. It can be read in the newspapers from 1886 and the participants of the story were other people. The paper portrayed the accident with the Illinois court representative in the 1840s. He was in a very miserable financial state and suggested his hand as a bet in a game. A frightening type of a bet, though poker history has even more dreadful examples. During the game, the judge was ready to celebrate his victory having three jacks and two tens. But the opposer showed three queens with a pair of tens. And the judge fell down without signs of life.
This is how it really happened!
So the first memory of the famous nickname was in the 1880s in the newspaper, and only in twenty years it was associated with jacks and eights. But much later, in 1926 after publishing Hickok’s storyline the gamblers started to be superstitious about this card combination.
The Dead Man’s Hand in Cultural Life
No matter how the famous phrase originated, it became very widespread and was always connected with the cruel crime against Hickok.
It was mentioned in many fiction stories:
- In James Patterson’s novel, the main character Jezzyreveals how her dad got his first pistol with a magic card combination –the words Aces and Eights are also used as a secret code for her computer.
- This phrase was used to name apartof the Wild CardsTV series.
- In Flying Over the Cuckoo’s Nestone personage had a tattoo showing the malicious image.
The phrase is met in songs of many world famous singers. It is often heard in famous Tom Ford’s movies. And the meaning everywhere symbolizes death. You can meet it also in many computer games.
But the biggest spread this phrase gained in gaming industry.
The place where James Hickok had been killed was transformed into a casino. It is called Saloon 10 and is known as the tiniest casino of the globe. It displays the combination of the Dead Man’s Hand like four cards and the fifth one as nine diamonds. It was made intentionally as this card has also a bad reputation. Gamblers call it ‘The Curse of Scotland’. The place can offer you to test your luck by participating in the game. But you may visit it just to look around.
The bad fame of the Dead Man’s Hand is alive even today, but these cardsusually symbolizea positive sign in card games. Plus,a long experience shows no one has ever been killed drawing this combination.