At 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday, August 2, 1876, in the middle of a poker game at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, a shot rang out. The bullet from a Colt Peace Maker fired by Jack McCall, went through the head of one card player and into the arm of the man sitting across from him. Western legend, James Butler Hickok, known as “Wild Bill,” slumped to the floor, dead at thirty-nine.
In his hand, the story goes, he clutched the ace of spades, the ace of clubs, the eight of clubs and the eight of spades. While there is no source documenting his exact hand, aces and eights is the accepted version, although even that wasn’t noted until the book “Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers,” by Frank Wilstach was published in 1926. In it he documents a letter he received from Ellis T. “Doc” Pierce who at the time of the killing was the town barber and undertaker.
“Now, in regard to the position of Bill’s body,” writes Mr. Peirce, “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 know as ‘the dead man’s hand’ in the Western country.”
Even so, what then was the fifth card?
There is some speculation that in since they were playing Five-Card Draw Poker, Hickok had discarded one card and hadn’t yet received his fifth card from the dealer before he was killed.
Historical displays in the town of Deadwood show the nine of diamonds as the fifth card. The historic site of the Nuttal & Mann Saloon shows a jack of diamonds as the kicker, in his hand. The Adams Museum displays what they claim is the actual hand Hickok held, an ace of diamonds, ace of clubs, eight of hearts, eight of spades and the queen of hearts. Other claims state that the fifth card was the queen of diamonds. Less common speculation includes the five of diamonds, the nine of diamonds, the queen of clubs and the king of spades.
While it is not clear exactly what the fifth card was, or even if the other cards were aces and eights, from that time forward, anyone holding aces over eights is said to be holding a “Deadman’s Hand.”
McLoughlin, Denis, Wild and Wooly An Encyclopedia of the Old West, Barnes &Noble, Inc., 1975
Moulton, Candy, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900, Writer’s Digest Books, 1999
Rosa, Joseph G., Age of the Gunfighter Men and Weapons on the Frontier 1840-1900, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993