Imagining Wild Bill

Imagining Wild Bill:
James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory

by Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill

“Engaging the Civil War” Series
Southern Illinois University Press,
2020

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When it came to the Wild West, the nineteenth-century press rarely let truth get in the way of a good story. James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok’s story was no exception. Mythologized and sensationalized, Hickok was turned into the deadliest gunfighter of all, a so-called moral killer, a national phenomenon even while he was alive.

Rather than attempt to tease truth from fiction, coauthors Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill investigate the ways in which Hickok embodied the culture of glamorized violence Americans embraced after the Civil War and examine the process of how his story emerged, evolved, and turned into a viral multimedia sensation full of the excitement, danger, and romance of the West.

Journalists, the coauthors demonstrate, invented “Wild Bill” Hickok, glorifying him as a civilizer. They inflated his body count and constructed his legend in the midst of an emerging celebrity culture that grew up around penny newspapers. His death by treachery, at a relatively young age, made the story tragic, and dime-store novelists took over where the press left off. Reimagined as entertainment, Hickok’s legend continued to enthrall Americans in literature, on radio, on television, and in the movies, and it still draws tourists to notorious Deadwood, South Dakota.

American culture often embraces myths that later become accepted as popular history. By investigating the allure and power of Hickok’s myth, Ashdown and Caudill explain how American journalism and popular culture have shaped the way Civil War–era figures are remembered and reveal how Americans have embraced violence as entertainment.