Book Review: Wild Bill by Tom Clavin

From Tom Clavin, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dodge City, Wild Bill is the story of the first lawman of the Wild West.

What do you know about Wild Bill Hickock?

True or False.

Wild Bill was a:

  • Folk hero
  • Scout
  • Spy
  • Soldier
  • Abolitionist
  • Wagon master
  • Gambler
  • Gunfighter
  • Snazzy dresser
  • Devoted husband
  • New York City actor

Chances are, much of what you think you know about Wild Bill Hickok might be wrong. That is no fault of yours. As Tom Clavin explains in his new biography, Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter, from his first gun fight in 1865 until long after his death, stories about Wild Bill Hickok have been exaggerated and embellished to the point of often being more fiction than fact.

Tom Clavin is here to set the record straight. Or at least attempt to clear up as much as he can.   In the Selected Biography, Clavin lists fifty books, thirty articles, and forty-five newspaper archives. There are a few footnotes throughout the book, but this is not an academic biography full of cross referenced notes. It’s a readable biography for the general reader.

See More: Wild Bill: Baseball “Player”

James Butler Hickock was born on May 27, 1837, in LaSalle County, Illinois. He was a legend by the time he turned thirty and was murdered in cold blood when he was only thirty-nine. He married the love of his life, Agnes Thatcher Lake, just a few months prior to his death.

Hickok’s star, Clavin claims, was bigger than that of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson, folk heroes that young James grew up reading about. Only Buffalo Bill comes close to having equal status as an iconic frontiersman, and that’s only because he had a famous Wild West Show and out-lived Wild Bill by several decades.

Clavin traces the New England roots of the Hickok family, who first landed in Connecticut in 1635. It was Wild Bill’s father, William, who moved the family from New England to Illinois in 1831. William was an active abolitionist who worked with Quaker families that were part of the Underground Railroad. As a boy, James developed a reputation of “interposing himself between the oppressed and the oppressor.”

After father William passed away, the family considered new options. Rather than return to New England, the family looked further west. In 1856, James along with one of his brothers, set off on foot to check out Kansas as a potential place the whole family could re-locate to for new opportunities and cheaper farmland. After some time in Missouri, Hickok made it to Kansas.

These were violent times for “Bleeding Kansas” as it came to be called due to the blood-shed between anti- and pro-slavery factions and Hickok may have been involved with James Lane and the Free-Staters. During this time Hickok took any job he could find and found stability was a stagecoach driver. He volunteered to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War and worked as a guide and spy — often wearing Confederate Grey behind enemy lines to gather information.

It was his duel with his former friend, Davis Tutt, that “catapulted” Wild Bill into the American limelight. The two men quarreled over a pocket watch. Their duel, which took place on July 21, 1865, is considered the first quick-draw duel of the new American frontier. A sensational article about the duel appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Wild Bill instantly went from “local folk hero to national legend.”

As Clavin points out, it also made Hickok a marked man. Every guy who thought he was a quick draw wanted to be the one to best Wild Bill, the gunfighter who wore his two Navy Colts up high above his waist and drew across his body.

Hickok worked as a scout and served as a lawman, first in Hays City and then in Abilene. A surprising fact is that many towns did not allow guns within city limits in an attempt to cut down on violence. One of Hickok’s tasks was enforcing this law.

Another surprising fact is that Hickok started having vision problems in his thirties, which was a huge liability as both a lawman and a gunfighter with a target on his back. Hickok bathed every day, which was unusual for men of his time and place, and he liked fancy clothes.

As the few exiting photographs attest, Wild Bill Hickok’s appearance had changed little from the first descriptions of him. Henry Jameson, using J.B. Edward’s diaries as a source, reported that Hickok’s appearance in Abilene was “striking and impressive. He stood six feet, one inch, weighted 175 pounds and his graceful, straight figure, brown, wavy hair down to his shoulders, piercing gray blue eyes, fair complexion, aquiline nose, flowing mustache and always expensive dress, made him a figure to attract attention.” His in-town attire of a Prince Albert coat, checked trousers, an embroidered waistcoat, and sometimes a cape lined with scarlet silk was topped off by a low-crowned, wide black hat.

There is a lot of history attached to Wild Bill’s story. How could there not be? He was where the action was in the mid-nineteenth century American West and saw first hand many of the changes the country was undergoing: the settling of what we now call the Mid-West, wagon trains heading to the far west, the final efforts of Native Americans fighting to save their way of life, African Americans struggling to make their place in a culture that ended slavery but failed to confront its racism, the lawlessness and eventual civilizing effects of law and order as frontier towns morphed into respectable cities, and so much more.

Clavin presents an exciting overview of Hickok’s life. Even though he’s tried to strip away the sensationalism surrounding James Butler Hickok’s life, the truth is, he lived an astounding life. He is both folk hero and tragic figure, and Clavin is able to give us glimpses of the flesh and blood man whose life is legendary even without any embellishments.

Read a review of Tom Clavin’s Dodge City.

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