James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois, in 1837. His father, Bill Hickok, played an active role in the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape from the Deep South.
Hickok moved to Kansas in 1855 and at the age of 20 was elected constable of Monticello. In 1861 he was working as a wagon master in Montana. On 12th July, 1861, Hickok opened fire on three unarmed men. David McCanles was killed and James Woods and James Gordon were seriously wounded and later died of their injuries. Hickok was also employed as a guide on the Santa Fe Trail. Later he worked on the Oregon Trail.
During the American Civil War Hickok was employed as a scout for the Union Army. After the war came to an end Hickok became a professional gambler in Springfield, Missouri. Also, for a brief time he served under General George A. Custer in his 7th Cavalry.
Hickok's reputation as a gunfighter began when he killed David Tutt in the public square of Springfield on 21st July, 1865. The two men had quarrelled over cards and decided to have a gunfight. At 6pm Hickok and Tutt arranged to walk towards each other. When they were about 50 yards apart both men drew his gun. Tutt fired first but missed. Hickok's shot hit Tutt in the heart. This was the first recorded example of two men taking part in a quick-draw duel. The following month Hickok was acquitted after pleading self-defence.
Hickok returned to his life as a gambler and in 1866 gave an interview to a journalist, George Ward Nichols about his exploits as a gunfighter. The article appeared in the February, 1867, edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Newspapers such as the Leavenworth Daily Conservative, Kansas Daily Commonwealth, Springfield Patriot and the Atchison Daily Champion quickly pointed out that the article was full of inaccuracies and that Hickok was lying when he claimed he had killed "hundreds of men".
Hickok responded to these articles by giving an interview to another journalist, Henry M. Stanley. The article appeared in the St. Louis Missouri Democrat in April 1867. It included the following dialogue: "I say, Mr. Hickok, how many white men have you killed to your certain knowledge?" After a little deliberation, he replied, "I suppose I have killed considerably over a hundred." "What made you kill all those men? Did you kill them without cause or provocation?" "No, by heaven I never killed one man without good cause."
In 1868 Hickok became sheriff of Hays City in Kansas. It was a rough city and Hickok was determined to use violence to keep the men under control. In August, 1869, Hickok killed Bill Mulvey in a gunfight. The following month he shot Samuel Strawhun dead after he caused trouble in a saloon. The people of Hays City became concerned by Hickok's behaviour and he was replaced by his deputy, Peter Lanihan.
In April 1871, Hickok was employed as marshal of Abilene. He was paid $150 a month plus a percentage of the fines. Hickok also received 50 cents for every unlicensed dog he shot. Hickok did not take his duties seriously and spent most of his time playing poker. In October 1871 he shot and killed two men, Phil Coe and a fellow officer, Mike Williams. This incident upset the city council and two months later Hickok lost his job.
Hickok now toured with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show (1872-73) before teaming up with Calamity Jane in Deadwood, Dakota. He also married Agnes Lake and for a time tried gold mining. Hickok also spent a lot of time with John Wesley Hardin.
On 2nd August, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was playing cards in Deadwood. Jack McCall, seeking revenge for the death of his brother, shot Hickok in the back of the head. At the time of his death, Hickok was holding a pair of black aces and a pair of eights, and this became known as "A Dead Man's Hand".