Imagining Wild Bill

ECW is pleased to welcome our friend Paul Ashdown, co-author of the newest book in our Engaging the Civil War Series, published in partnership with Southern Illinois University Press: Imagining Wild Bill: James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory.

Edward Caudill and I have completed the fifth book in what we like to call our Manticore Quintet series. We began the series about 20 years ago while we were teaching journalism at the University of Tennessee. (We’re now retired.) We combined our interests in media history, American history and literature, the Civil War era, popular culture, memory and mythology, and our experiences as working journalists. The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend (2002), a selection of the History Book Club, was published by Scholarly Resources Press in 2002 as part of The American Crisis Series: Books on the Civil War Era. That series was continued by Rowman and Littlefield: The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest (2004); Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory (2008); Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend (2015).

So often, the demise of a man was the birth of a legend.

Hickok is one of those enduring figures, coming out of the history books to inspire, entertain or maybe embarrass us. In a 1953 televised speech, President Eisenhower recalled Hickok as his boyhood hero in Abilene, Kansas. As long-time marshal of Abilene, Eisenhower said, Hickok lived up to an unwritten code that required facing an opponent straight on. You could not “sneak up on him from behind or do any damage to him” without suffering public scorn. Eisenhower seemed to have Sen. Joseph McCarthy in mind.

But Hickok served as marshal for less than a year, a controversial tenure that ended shortly after he accidentally shot and killed his own special deputy during a confrontation with a saloon owner. Eisenhower told his audience that if they didn’t know much about Hickok they should “read your Westerns more.” That was terrible advice — if you wanted to learn about the real guy.

Eisenhower loved Western novels. He, and the rest of America, mixed up the heroic fictional Hickok with the more ambiguous gunfighter who was murdered in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876, shot from behind in a saloon by “Broken Nose Jack” McCall. He died, appropriately if you are sloshing about in reality, gambling and drinking.  Inappropriately if you prefer heroic sagas. Our book explains how wild stories about Wild Bill first were compiled in 1865 by a Union Army colonel and journalist who published them in a national magazine. That made Hickok a gun-slinger celebrity for 19th century newspapers and publishers of dime-novels written by moonlighting journalists who embellished the stories. In the 20th century, these stories evolved into the Western pulp fiction devoured by Eisenhower and millions of readers.

Next, movies, comic books, radio and television programs celebrated Hickok and other Wild West characters. Active and former journalists, as often as not, wrote the scripts that gilded the Hickok mythology. You might think biographers and historians would have come along to set the record straight. There was not much of record.  So most of them just accepted the early newspaper and dime-novel accounts at face value and just gave the legends a pseudo-factual gloss. Credibility, in other words. One British biographer, Joseph Rosa, fell under the spell of Wild Bill as a child when he saw a Hickok film, then spent most of his professional life trying to sort out fact and fiction. His work is essential reading for those after the real story.

But Rosa’s footnote-laden history couldn’t compete with the myth. How many men did Hickok kill? Hundreds, or maybe fewer than ten, take your pick. Aces and eights, the “deadman’s hand?” Never happened, but it’s a good story. A romance with Calamity Jane? Hickok knew her only briefly and by many accounts he couldn’t stand her. Where evidence was thin, the myth was fat.

The Hickok Myth, however, is an important part of Western cultural history, and some first-rate novelists, including Pete Dexter, Jerome Charyn and Thomas Berger, have written about him. Some entertaining films and television series have been produced, too, including Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (1951-1958), Purgatory (1999), the first season of Deadwood (2004), and Hickok (2017).

The Hickok Myth also has a dark side. It celebrates violence and makes killing a professional viertue. Each new mass medium intensified the violence and raised the body count. The 1995 film Wild Bill was unabashedly barbaric, to the point of parody. Hickok shot, slashed, choked, pummeled, stomped, butted, bit or decanted at least three dozen men in 94 minutes of blood-splattered cinema marked by feral – but entertaining — violence. An accurate death count was impossible due to the oscillating camera and cascading carcasses, although by the end of the film 22 men appeared to have been sufficiently riddled with bullets or concussed never to rise again. Hickok was cartoonishly quick on the draw, so accurate with his multi-directional firing that the whooping barroom bystanders had no fear of being ventilated in the crossfire.

We ponder this Wild Bill fantasy and contrivance as a part of the national fascination with violence, celebrity and the Wild West. The mediated myth won’t be debunked for the larger culture, so smitten with violence that it is a sure path to celebrity, whether merely by drama or actual felonies.

This is an interesting time to be talking about how journalists work. The journalists of the 19th century were a rowdy lot of “ink-stained wretches” who had to scramble to make a living with the pen. The line between news and literary entertainment was as thin as a mayfly wing. Think Mark Twain. We looked at a great many provincial newspapers to see how the Hickok story developed. These days many journalists live in literary limbo, moonlighting on the fringes of the gig economy, doing contract work for morphing mainstream media platforms, writing celebrity biographies, political tomes, histories and potboilers, and editing newsletters for services such as Substack.

We’ve come full circle. We’re not that far from the Wild Bill Wild West era and out of this vortex many modern ‘Hickoks’ emerge.

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