For eight seasons back in the 1950s kids were captivated by The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, a shoot-'em-up western starring the dashing Guy Madison. The show brought Hickok, already a wild-west legend, to life as a buckskin-and-white-hat-clad US Marshall, fighting for law and order in the dusty untamed Midwest. The opening of every episode showed his 300-pound comic-relief sidekick Jingles, played by Andy Devine, riding his galloping horse far behind Bill screaming, "Hey, Wild Bill, wait for me." Ahead of him Hickok rode his trusty snow-white steed full-tilt as he fired his six-shooter repeatedly at an unknown target ahead of him. What kid could turn the TV off after seeing action like that?
The production almost certainly did more to shape our perceptions of Hickok than any history book. Like so many of the westerns back then – Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Bat Masterson and others – the show didn't exactly portray an accurate depiction of its real-life legendary hero.
James Butler Hickok was born May 27, 1837, in Homer, Illinois, to William Alonzo Hickok, and his wife, Polly Butler. "Wild Bill" was one of his many nicknames and most likely has its derivation from his father's name. The TV series was accurate in that he did, in fact, serve as deputy US Marshall in Hayes, Kansas and eventually city Marshall there and in Abilene. He also served as Sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas for a few months in 1869.
In addition to his career as a lawman, Hickok at various times was a soldier, a scout, a wagon master, and a professional gambler. He put together his own wild west show and later teamed up with Buffalo Bill Cody. He even tried his hand at acting but… well… the reviews were not good.
His exploits as a lawman contrasted with his TV persona and were not exactly squeaky clean. While in office he reportedly killed Bill Mulvey, Samuel Strawhun, John Kyle, Phil Coe and others, all under suspicious circumstances hardly construed as self-defense. When, in 1871, he accidentally killed Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams the town summarily fired him.
His reputation as a gunfighter was part of the reason he became a frontier legend and folk hero. The details of his gun fighting exploits are sketchy but Hickok claimed dozens of victories. In contrast, one of his biographers pointed out, "Wild Bill may have only killed six or seven men in gunfights." Even that number would be enough to convince anyone he was a legitimate gunfighter.
On August 1, 1876 he played in a poker game in Deadwood, South Dakota, where a drunken Jack McCall suffered heavy losses. Hickok encouraged him to leave the game and gave him money for breakfast. McCall took the money, but considered Hickok's offer an insult.
The following day Hickok joined another game. As a gunfighter it was his custom to sit with his back to a wall where he could see the room, but only a chair facing away from the room was available. During the game McCall walked in, shouted, "take that," and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. When onlookers checked his cards they reportedly found him to be holding two aces and two eights, now infamously known as "the dead man's hand." McCall was hanged for the crime and, when his body was moved in 1881, the noose was found to be still around his neck.
Hickok's murder and McCall's capture are reenacted annually at the Deadwood Masonic Temple. So was Wild Bill Hickok a Freemason? It would not be out of the question to think the wild west legend, folk hero and lawman would have been a member of the fraternity. A check of Denslow's 10,000 Famous Freemasons, however, comes up empty. With the amount of time Hickok spent in Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri, it would be unlikely Denslow would overlook his membership. Also, no other records exist to indicate he ever joined or even petitioned for membership. So, perhaps even regrettably, we would have to conclude James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was not a Freemason.
For the Whence Came You podcast, this is… uh… uh oh… wait a minute. I forgot to tell you something.
There is a simple chair encased in plexiglass in the Masonic Museum in Columbia, Missouri. It has a tan wicker seat, a basic wooden frame and three slats running across its back. Except for the seat, the chair is painted black. Presented by the Brothers of Savannah Lodge 71, it is said to be one of the chairs Wild Bill Hickok may have sat in during one of the frequent times he attended Lodge meetings there.