James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok is generally acknowledged to be the foremost gunfighter of the American West – the “Prince of Pistoleers,” as one admirer referred to him. Any such judgement is, of course, subjective. After all, how can it be measured? Bodies left in the dust? John Wesley Hardin killed four or five times as many as Hickok. Does that make him the best?
There is no shortage of other claimants, some famous and some not so much – Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid. All have their supporters for one reason or another. Where Hickok unquestionably has it over all the others is the number of magazine articles, movies and television series about him – from documentaries that purport to tell the truth (as far as it can be known) to those that are pure fiction, trading on a famous name.
Being a “wild west historian” must be the most frustrating task imaginable. Outright fiction can be disregarded, but even journalistic accounts are highly suspect. There is an old Russian proverb: “He lies like an eye witness.” That seems to apply even in the most well-known and widely witnessed events of Hickok’s life.
Probably the best-known, most accurately documented, and the one in which there are the fewest contradictions is a gunfight that took place in Springfield, Missouri, on July 21, 1865. Hickok and Davis Tutt were erstwhile friends who had fallen out over a gambling debt. They met across the town square in Springfield, drew their guns and began shooting at about 80 yards. The most credible account is that Tutt fired five shots. All missed, at which point Hickok calmly raised his Colt Navy and shot Tutt through the heart.
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