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Wild Bill Hickock and the Dead Man's Hand

Wild Bill Hickock was a western frontier hero who was murdered in the town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory while playing poker. Legend tells us that on that fatal day in 1876 when he was shot in the back of the head, he was holding two Aces and two Eights. Ever since, the poker hand Aces and Eights has been referred to as the Dead Man's Hand. In fact, the legend is based on reality and even now Western movies and TV shows perpetuate the story.

Western movies generally have a few essential elements, one of which is the Saloon. By nature saloons were places where lonely or trail weary men could come and spend their hard earned cash. They could take a bath, enjoy the company of the lively saloon girls and they could also play a game of cards. As a central element of western storytelling, the irresistible story of a poker hand associated with a murder in a saloon is a story that just won't die.

The legend of Wild Bill Hickock's murder is told in the introduction of the B-Western Aces & Eights, as well as the recent hit TV show Deadwood, in which Hickock played an important role in the early part of the first season. The great director John Ford used Aces & Eights to foreshadow the death of the character holding it in the movies Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

So many tall tales were told about Wild Bill that it's hard to know what's really true. Even the 1990s TV show The Young Riders inaccurately depicts him as a Pony Express Rider. But James Butler Hickcock (aka Wild Bill Hickock) was a real-life figure and the legend of the Dead Man's Hand is one of the few that is actually based on the truth. Hickock was born in Illinois and went West on the run from the Law after he mistakenly thought he had killed a man in a fight. A colorful individual, Wild Bill worked as a stagecoach driver, served in the Union Army during the Civil War and later became a lawman and professional gambler. His peace officer duties included a stint as marshal of Abilene, Kansas.

In 1876 Hickock decided to seek his fortune in the gold fields of Deadwood, Dakota territory. As depicted in the TV series Deadwood, he arrived in Deadwood with Calamity Jane as part of Charlie Utter's wagon train. Just a few weeks after his arrival in the town, Wild Bill Hickock was playing poker when he was shot in the back of the head by the former buffalo hunter Jack McCall. Although he normally sat with his back to the wall, on that day he had his back to the door because nobody was willing to change places with him. The cards Hickock was holding when he died were the Ace of Clubs, Ace of Spades, Eight of Clubs and Eight of Spades. What the fifth card was has always been disputed.

Wild Bill Hickock had shot 36 men to death by the time he died and his murder and the trial of Jack McCall are regularly reenacted in the modern day town of Deadwood, South Dakota. In 1979 Hickock was recognized as one of the world's most famous poker players and inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.