The Dead Man's Hand is one of the classic Wild West legends. It is reputed to be the hand that “Wild” Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot to death by Jack McCall in Deadwood's Saloon Number 10 on August 2, 1876.
“Wild” Bill Hickok – Hickok was one of the most colorful characters that the early West produced. While he had a number of strings to his bow – stagecoach driver on the Santa Fe Trail, army scout and spy during the Civil War, professional gambler, US Marshall and sheriff, Wild West Show performer, and gold prospector – he was probably most famous as a gunman with a deadly eye.His adventures were truly the stuff of legends. While a stagecoach driver he was attacked by a bear, which he managed to kill using only a knife (or a knife and a pistol, depending on which version you read).
But his exploits as a gunfighter were the basis of aura that came to surround him. The myth seems to have begun with his shooting of Dave McCanles over a Pony Express station. Hickok apparently killed McCanles and two others, but the story was exaggerated and ended with 10 deaths being attributed to him.As word spread, his stature assumed larger than life proportions. Because of this it is often difficult to separate the man from the myth, something that he readily exploited, growing a wild mane of hair and actively cultivating his image as a flamboyant yet very tough customer.
His time as a scout in the Army further served to embellish Hickok's reputation, in particular the tale of his single-handedly breaking through a force of 350 Kiowa braves surrounding 40 men of the 3rd Infantry Battalion from Fort Russell in Colorado, in order to summon rescuing reinforcements.
After his stints in the army he held law-enforcement positions in various towns, and became a professional gambler and card player, as well performing in the Wild West Show.
It was at the card table that his past caught up with him. His reputation had naturally ensured that there was any number of men seeking revenge for dead friends, or to enhance their own stature, by gunning him down. In the end it was a fatal error on Hickok's part, which allowed a small-time thief by the name of Jack McCall to shoot him from behind as he was playing. Although Hickok always insisted on sitting with his back to the wall, facing the door, to prevent an ambush from behind, for some reason he accepted a chair with his back to the door. This allowed McCall to step up behind him and shoot him in the back of the head.
The actual cards have long been lost, so the composition of the hand cannot be proved absolutely, but it is universally accepted that it consisted of two pairs – Aces & Eights. Most agree that they were the black suits – clubs and spades.The kicker (5th card) is another matter altogether. This card is hotly debated; the favorite candidates are:
- Jack of Diamonds : according to the transcripts of McCall's trial, a witness claims that this was the card.
- Five of Diamonds : the town of Deadwood purportedly has this card on display, claiming it to be the actual card.
- Nine of Diamonds : according to supposed eyewitness accounts at the time.
- Queen of Clubs : Ripley's Believe It Or Not has this card on display.
Movies, documentaries and plays have variously portrayed it as the King of Spades, Jack of Spades and Queen of Spades.
Although perhaps we will never know for sure exactly what cards “Wild” Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot, you're on pretty safe ground claiming that you have the Dead Man's Hand if you're dealt black Aces and black Eights.