On August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was playing poker at a saloon in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, in the town of Deadwood. A former buffalo hunter named Jack McCall (nicknamed “Broken Nose Jack”) walked in to the saloon, sidled up beside Hickok, drew his pistol and shot Hickok in the head. Hickok was killed instantly and McCall was wrestled to the ground. McCall would later claim he was avenging the death of his brother but it was more likely a murder for hire, paid for by gamblers hoping to stave Hickok’s brand of law and order in the territories.
The cards Wild Bill held in his hand were a pair of aces and a pair of eights, all black: the hand was just one card short – still waiting to be turned over — of what is known in poker parlance as the dead man’s hand.
Just before he died, Hickok wrote a letter to Agnes Lake, his newly-wedded wife (Calamity Jane claimed she had been married to Hickok but divorced him so that he could marry his new love, Agnes). Agnes, eleven years older than Hickok, was a tightrope walker, lion tamer, and circus owner from Cheyenne. She and Wild Bill first met in Abilene, Kansas in 1871 when Wild Bill was town marshall of Abilene and her circus was traveling through. The two kept up with each other though letters and when they met again in February 1876 in Cheyenne, they decided to get married. A few months later, Hickok left to search for gold in the Black Hills.
In Wild Bill’s last letter to Agnes, he promised her that if “we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife — Agnes — and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.”
There is much to commemorate Wild Bill, including the reenactment of his death every summer evening in modern-day Deadwood, South Dakota. But it is in his last letter that we see a different side to Wild Bill Hickok: he lives on as a gunslinger always, but now as a gentle lover as well.