A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was Wild Bill Hickok holding the "dead man's hand" when he was slain?

May 5, 1978

Dear Cecil:

On a recent pilgrimage to Troy Grove, Illinois to visit the home of Wild Bill Hickok, one of our company happened to mention that according to legend Wild Bill was shot while holding "black aces and eights." This hand has come to be known as the "dead man's hand." Is the story apocryphal, and if it is true, what was the fifth card in Wild Bill's hand?

Cecil replies:

You've settled on one of the few bits of Western lore that has some basis in fact. Wild Bill was indeed holding black aces and eights when he was plugged by Jack McCall on the fateful day of August 2, 1876, in the charming suburb of Deadwood, deep in the Dakota Territory. Bill's fifth card was the deuce of spades, which must have made for a pretty grim-looking hand. I'm surprised he didn't commit suicide.

John Ford got things a little confused when he tried to lay the curse of the Dead Man's Hand on one of the heavies in the movie Stagecoach. Poor Luke Plummer found himself holding the appropriate black eights, but one of his aces was red — diamonds, to be specific. Luke's fifth card was the queen of hearts, all of which made for a much nicer composition than the real thing. John Wayne offed him anyway.

Update

Further investigation has cast doubt on whether Wild Bill Hickok was holding the "dead man's hand." SamClem of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board provides this report:

The idea that Wild Bill Hickok was holding black aces and eights when he was killed comes to us from Frank J. Wilstach, whose biography Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers was published in 1926. Wilstach's was the most throughly researched and accurate account of Hickok's life that had appeared up to that time. He corresponded with people who had known Hickok, including Ellis T. "Doc" Peirce, who at the time of the killing was the Deadwood town barber. After Hickok was shot, the authorities locked the doors to the saloon in which the killing occurred and called on Peirce to prepare the body for burial. Wilstach writes:

In his letter to the writer Mr. Peirce gives several details that have not heretofore been revealed.  Doc Peirce was the impromptu undertaker who took charge of the remains and looked after the details of the burial.

“Now, in regard to the position of Bill’s body,” writes Mr. Peirce, “when they unlocked the door for me to get his body, he was lying on his side, with his knees drawn up just as he slid off his stool.  We had no chairs in those days — and his fingers were still crimped from holding his poker hand.  Charlie Rich, who sat beside him, said he never saw a muscle move.  Bill’s hand read ‘aces and eights’ — two pair, and since that day aces and eights have been know as ‘the dead man’s hand’ in the Western country. It seemed like fate, Bill’s taking off. Of the murderer’s big Colt’s-45-six-gun, every chamber loaded, the cartridge that killed Bill was the only one that would fire.  What would have been McCall’s chances if he had snapped one of the other cartridges when he sneaked up and held his gun to Bill’s head? He would now be known as No. 37 on the file list of Mr. Hickok.”

This account, published 50 years after the murder, was the first to link Hickok to the "dead man's hand." It remains the only indication we have of what cards he was holding — no corroboration has ever turned up. In Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and his Myth (1996), Joseph Rosa, a prolific Hickok biographer, writes:

Despite some intensive research, no contemporary reference has been found to the hand of cards Hickok was holding when he was shot. In later years, however, the hand was to become immortalized as the "Deadman's Hand" and was reported to consist of the ace of spades, the ace of clubs, two black eights, clubs and spades, and the jack of diamonds. But the last card is disputed — some sources suggest it was the queen of diamonds …

The origin of Hickok's Deadman's Hand may be found in the correspondence between Ellis T. Peirce and Frank J. Wilstach. According to Peirce, "Bill's hand read 'aces and eights' — two pair, and since that day aces and eights have been known as 'the dead man's hand' in the western country." Further research into the legend of the Deadman's Hand has revealed an ongoing argument between vested interests in the Black Hills and others interested in perpetuating an air of "destiny" or "fate" concerning Hickok's poker hand.

The expression "dead man's hand" appears to have had some currency in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although no one connected it to Hickok until the appearance of Wilstach's book. Members of the American Dialect Society have collected numerous cites from newspapers and books, the earliest from 1886:

1886 — Dead Man's Hand = three jacks and a pair of tens (Grand Forks [Dakota Territory] Daily Herald, July 1)
1898 — jacks and eights (Eau Claire [Wisconsin] Leader, November 3)
1900 — tens and treys (Trenton [New Jersey] Times, May 22)
1900 — aces and eights are called "the gambler's hand" (Waterloo [Iowa] Daily Courier, April 25)
1900 — dead man's hand = aces and eights (Cedar Falls [Iowa] Gazette, May 1)
1903 — "Jacks and sevens are called 'the dead man's hand.' In a poker game, it is very unlucky to hold them and win the pot" (Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences, volume 2, Cora Linn Morrison Daniels et al, editors)
1907 — "Dead man's hand. Jacks and eights, at poker" (Hoyle's Games)
1922 — "'Yes," he said slowly, 'aces and eights. That was queer, wasn't it? The dead man's hand'" (The Boy Grew Older by Heywood Broun)
1924 — "He picked up his cards, two black aces, two eights of the same color, and a red queen. The dead man's hand, in the game's parlance" (Everybody's Magazine, volume 50).

The fact that there was no agreement on the cards in the "dead man's hand" until late in the day makes it unlikely anyone had definite knowledge of what cards Hickok held. Possibly Peirce's original letter would shed more light; it may be among Wilstach's papers, which are in the New York Public Library. So far, no one has looked. (Posted September 14, 2010)

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