In the late 19th century, “Wild Bill” was a sheriff, an exceptional marksman, and a living legend.
His reputation as a gunslinger continued well past his death on August 2nd, 1876, when he was killed while playing Poker at the Number Ten Saloon in South Dakota.
It’s been widely reported in popular culture that Wild Bill (real name: James Butler Hickok) was shot while holding four specific cards, which have become known as “the dead man’s hand.”
Most versions of the story claim that the dead man’s hand consists of the Ace of Spades, Ace of Clubs, Eight of Spades, and Eight of Clubs. The identity of the fifth card varies.
Although it’s true Hickok was shot and killed on that day, conclusive evidence is sorely lacking to prove what exact cards Wild Bill was holding at the time of his death. To date, no contemporary accounts have been discovered that might reveal what the hand was, or if there even was a hand in progress at the time.
The term “dead man’s hand” has been used in Western lore since 1886, but that early citation wasn’t in reference to Bill’s hand. The story of Hickok’s final hand doesn’t actually appear in print until 1926. For those of you keeping score, that’s fifty years after the actual shooting occurred. This mystery will likely never be solved.