What is the Dead Man’s Hand?

On August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota. Suddenly, a pistol fired. Hickok died instantly. His hand at the time, ”aces and eights,” has become known as the Dead Man’s Hand. But is that a legend? Or is it real?

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok
Date: Unknown
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wild Bill Hickok

James Butler Hickok was originally known as “Duck Bill,” apparently due to a large nose and an upper lip that jutted out from his face. Eventually, he grew a mustache and in 1861, adopted the moniker, Wild Bill.

His exploits in the Old West were legendary. He was a skilled scout and an expert marksman. He fought and killed a bear with his bare hands, suffering severe injuries in the process. He killed Davis Tutt in the first known “quick draw duel.” He acted in a play called Scouts of the Plains with Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro. Calamity Jane, the famous American frontierswoman, claimed to have married him.

In July 1876, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota via wagon train. Some say he had a premonition of sorts regarding his impending death.

“Well, as to that, I suppose I am called a red-handed murderer, which I deny. That I have killed men I admit, but never unless in absolute self-defense or in the performance of an official duty. I never in my life took any mean advantage of an enemy. Yet, understand, I never allowed a man to get the drop on me. But perhaps I may yet die with my boots on.” ~ Wild Bill Hickok to Mrs. Annie Tallent, Several months before his death, Pioneer Days in the Back Hills, John S. McClintock

On August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok entered Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10. He usually sat with his back to the wall. However, the only available stool required him to put his back to the door. He sat down and started to play five-card-draw. But he was uncomfortable with the arrangement and twice, asked another player named Charles Rich to switch stools with him. Rich refused.

Dead Man’s Hand

During the game, a former buffalo hunter named John McCall strode into the saloon. He parked himself a few feet away from Hickok and drew his pistol. “Take that!” he shouted as he fired it. The bullet careened through Hickok’s skull and Wild Bill died instantly.

According to popular legend, Hickok held two black aces and two black eights at the time of his death. The fifth card, or kicker, is a source of mystery. Some claim it was the queen of clubs. Others say it was the nine of diamonds, the jack of diamonds, the five of diamonds, or the queen of hearts. Still others say no fifth card ever existed, suggesting Hickok was in the middle of drawing a new card when he was murdered.

But what about the “aces and eights” part? Is that accurate? Well, no contemporary sources exist that indicate what cards Hickok was holding at the time of his death. “Aces and eights” was provided by Frank J. Wilstach in his 1926 book, Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers. Wilstach quoted “Doc” Peirce, the town barber, who was asked to serve as an “impromptu undertaker.”

“Now, in regard to the position of Bill’s body, 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 known as ‘the dead man’s hand’ in the Western country.” ~ Ellis T. “Doc” Peirce, Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers

This account was published 50 years after Hickok’s death. It has yet to be collaborated by any outside source.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Take

If Peirce was right, then aces and eights was known as the dead man’s hand in “the Western country.” However, newspapers from that location and period tell a different story. The first known mention of a Dead Man’s Hand, a July 1, 1886 article in the Grand Forks Daily Herald, not only disagrees with the Hand itself but also its origin.

“I was present at a game in a Senator’s house one night and saw him win $6,000 on one hand. It was the dead man’s hand. What is the dead man’s hand? Why, it is three jacks and a pair of tens. It is called the dead man’s hand because about forty seven years ago, in a town in Illinois, a celebrated judge bet his house and lot on three jacks and a pair of tens…When his opponent showed up he had three queens and a pair of tens. Upon seeing the queens the judge fell back dead, clutching the jacks and tens in his hand, and that’s why a jack-full on tens is called the dead man’s hand.” ~ Grand Forks Daily Herald, July 1, 1886

Later accounts show different versions, including jacks and eights, tens and treys (threes), and jacks and sevens. Regardless, none of these articles connect the Dead Man’s Hand to Wild Bill Hickok.

At this point, the definitive origin of the Dead Man’s Hand remains an unsolved mystery. If the Wild Bill Hickok story could be proved by contemporary sources, it would be the oldest known version of the legend. For those of you in the New York area, consider taking a trip down to the New York Public Library. That’s where Wilstach’s papers are located. Perhaps there’s some additional information in “Doc” Peirce’s letter. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s some other evidence waiting to be found. If you find anything, let us know and we’ll cover your discovery right here on Guerrilla Explorer. Who knows? You just might solve one of history’s most puzzling unsolved mysteries!

 

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7 Responses to What is the Dead Man’s Hand?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Maybe you check the NYT online archive for the phrase “Dead Man’s Hand”. IIRC their records go back to the mid-19th century.

  2. David says:

    Thanks for the suggestion!

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