Frank Tarbeaux and Wild Bill Hickok

By Andi Gladwin - Saturday, December 28, 2019

If you have read Josh's post on the history of our Dead Man's Deck, you'll know that the story of how Wild Bill Hickok was really shot is blurry; steeped in exaggerations and hearsay. Frank Tarbeaux wrote the only firsthand account that I am aware of, in his autobiography.

Before I share it, it's worth noting that you'll find some differences here between Josh's research and what Tarbeaux remembers. That's, sadly, expected in this story, which has been recounted and retold many times. While we can't say for sure that what Tarbeaux wrote is accurate (he was described by another author as someone who recounts "tall tales," after all), it does give us another view of what happened that day in Deadwood, in 1876:

"Wild Bill" Hickok was something else again. He was the greatest gunfighter in the West, Marshal of Abilene and Dodge City, killed twenty-five or thirty men, and was a hell roarer if there ever was one. He also was my pal.

I was in the poker game in Mann and Manning's saloon in Deadwood, in '76, when "Wild Bill" was shot and killed. It happened that I had gone across the street to get a bite to eat when it happened, and got back only in time to see Bill dead.

In that game were John Mann, one of the proprietors, "Wild Bill," Captain Massey, a Missouri River captain, and Charlie Rich, my partner. I early had learned that a man was better off in a poker game if he had a partner. We used to spell each other, and that gave us the edge of being fresher than the others. I would play for a while, and then Rich would take my place.

This time I had left Rich playing our hand. The man who shot Bill through the back of the head was a half-witted hanger-on, half-crazed by booze. If I remember correctly, he was one of the McCoys, and was sent to do the job by Johnny Varnes, who had it in for Bill. Bill never saw McCoy in his life. The bullet went right through Bill's head and hit Captain Massey in the arm. Right after "Wild Bill" was shot, I was in a stage station at Crazy Woman's Fork, when a stage driver came in. The waiter had been reading yellow-backed novels, I guess, and wore his hair down his back.

Said the driver: "Did you hear the news about Bill's bein' killed?" Said the waiter: "What Bill?" "'Wild Bill' Hickok. "Wal," the waiter said, "there's only a few of us left."

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