The Dead Man’s Deck: The Real Story

By Joshua Jay - Friday, April 5, 2019


Some of you will realize that the (Dead Man's Deck) is based on the real story of Wild Bill Hickok and the hazy details surrounding his death. This is the detailed story of how this deck came to fruition.

I have a tepid relationship with the playing card craze. In some respects I find the whole industry fascinating and puzzling. I’m excited by the exquisite designs and innovations of some of my favorite decks. I follow and support my favorite deck designers, and I’m often thrilled with deck projects that feel weighty or have an interesting backstory. But some of the most popular deck designs I find quite unattractive, and some of the most popular card brands seem overly simplistic and uninteresting. It’s just my taste. To each their own. The variety is, of course, what makes it fun to collect.

When we had the chance to devise our own deck, I wanted to return to the grit and romance of the Old West and celebrate this in a deck of cards. The obvious story is that of Wild Bill Hickok, who was famously shot in the back while playing cards. He was killed on August 1, 1876 by Jack McCall. The reasons are unclear; some say it was a poker dispute, and some say it was because Wild Bill “gifted” Jack a small amount of money for breakfast, which Jack found insulting.

The story goes that Wild Bill had not yet played his poker hand when he was shot, and that he was holding Aces over Eights. This has come to be known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”

It’s likely all or part of this story is known to you; it’s an interesting tale to spin for many card presentations. But how do we celebrate it with a deck of cards?

Our idea was to design a classic back design using the methods available in the late 17th century. We commissioned an artist to ink the back design, which is based on a popular design in the American West. While many playing cards didn’t have indexes at all at that time, we decided to include the numbers and letters because the practical use of the cards without indexes would be limited. However, the font and size of the indexes is consistent with the time period.

And then, of course, we have to treat the Dead Man’s Hand. The black Aces and Eights are bloodstained to commemorate the death of this Wild West legend. And to cap it all off, we’ve arranged with the playing card manufacturer (Expert Playing Card Company) to have a hole resembling a bullet hole “shot” through the entire pack of cards. In the recess of this hole in each pack of cards is…a musket ball.

I hope you enjoy the thematic elements, the design, and the novelty of the Dead Man’s Deck, and as you use it, I hope it will remind you of this fascinating, gruesome moment in American History.


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