They Called Him Wild Bill

Having just returned from South Dakota, it’s entirely appropriate I revive this retro-review from November 13, 2003.

Rosa, incidentally, is from Britain and still considered the world greatest authority on Mr. Hickok.

Review: They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok, Joseph G. Rosa, 1974.They Called Him Wild Bill

There are many figures from the American West whose lives are encrusted with legend and myth, but, with Wild Bill Hickok, the process started even before he was dead.

It was a short life, done at 39 when he was shot in the back by one Jack McCall in Deadwood, South Dakota.

In those 39 years, Hickok helped his father run a station in the Underground Railway, fought as a guerilla in Missouri, went behind enemy lines as a scout and spy in the Civil War, drove coaches and wagons, guided hunting parties, served as a detective for the U. S. government, prospected for gold, acted in a traveling stage show with Buffalo Bill Cody, gambled, and, most famously, served as a lawman in Hays and Abilene, Kansas. During that time, he killed men and exhibited a shooting skill with revolvers unmatched at the time.

I grew up not far from Deadwood, a town that has enshrined Hickok’s grave and memory, but this is the first full-length, adult biography of him I’ve read, and I found it a good, credible introduction to his life.

Rosa, the world’s leading authority on Hickok, clearly admires Hickok, but, if he refutes the debunkers of Hickok’s life, he’s also generally skeptical of all the legends around Hickok. He looks at official records, newspaper articles, memoirs, and even, when Hickok’s shooting abilities are discussed, modern attempts to recreate them, to get to the truth of Wild Bill. Rosa covers the questions of how many people Hickok killed, his weapons, his (lack of) relationship with Calamity Jane, his odd marriage to the remarkable Agnes Lake who was eleven years his senior, the extent and origin of his failing eyesight, and devotes a whole chapter to the unexplained motives of Wild Bill’s murderer. He even discusses the stories of Wild Bill’s famous horse, Black Nell. And, of course, Rosa discusses the famous gunfights in Hickok’s life including the one that started the Western legend of the showdown in the middle of the street: the killing of Dave Tutt.


The Old West page.

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