Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Truth about gunfighters: It was hard to tell good guys from bad guys

One of the most respected lawmen of the Old West was Wild Bill Hickok. He and his faithful sidekick, Jingles, adventured throughout the west, settling into various jobs as deputies and marshals, foiling the occasional stagecoach robbery or bank holdup.

Oh, wait, no. That was the 1950s television series, “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.” The lead was played by a handsome young actor named Guy Madison. The television folks, conditioned by the success of 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s Western movies that always included a sidekick, cast Andy Devine as Madison’s jolly but whiny sidekick, Jingles. They weren’t really gunfighters in the series, and they were ALWAYS the heroic good guys.

In real life, James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok was probably much more like the somewhat gross, scroungy portrayal Jeff Bridges gave in the 1995 movie, “Wild Bill.” The real Hickok served in the Civil War — an experience that would’ve created what we now call “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” in many of the best of men and women. (That’s not to excuse Hickok’s later bad behavior or bad character; merely an observation about the horrors of the Civil War.) As a young man, he was a stagecoach driver. He was known throughout his life as a sharpshooter, a gambler, a hard drinker, and a man with a nasty temper who was prone to hold grudges.

He served as a lawman in Kansas and Nebraska. He ran for town marshal in Springfield, Missouri, in 1866, but lost at least in part over controversy and stories surrounding Hickok’s 1865 “shootout” on that town’s public square in which he killed sometime friend and gambling cohort Dave Tutt.

Interestingly, the Hickok-Tutt shootout looked a lot like the fabled gunfighter scenario romanticized by movies and television. The two men called each other out on opposite sides of the square, about 75 feet apart. One account says Tutt shot first, firing four times, all shots going wide of the mark. Hickok then took careful aim with a two-handed grip on his Colt Dragoon and killed Tutt. A less romanticized version says the two saw each other from across the square, Hickok pulled his gun and warned Tutt not to come closer. Tutt drew his gun and fired as he advanced toward Hickok, but missed with his single shot. Hickok fired almost simultaneously — and dropped Tutt dead.

Whatever the details of that town square “shootout,” the event was picked up and romanticized, and became responsible for many of the myths surrounding the classic “two men face off in a gunfight” scenario.

Consider this: Whether “good guys” (marshals, sheriffs, etc.) or “bad guys” (contract killers, thieves, bank robbers, etc.) men, women, and children alike knew the wisdom of self-preservation. It’s highly unlikely two grown men, many of whom had gone through rounds of warfare and killing in the Civil War and post-Civil War Western era, would square off and give each other the chance to draw first. (It was said of Wyatt Earp, for instance, that the beautified long barrel gun dime novelist Ned Buntline gave him was his most cherished gun. But his weapon of choice in a killing fight was a heavy shotgun.)

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Yes indeed, there were gunfighters in the Old West. Many of them were desperate low-life folks whom we would call contract killers, even “hit men,” today. Most were not especially skilled with a “six gun” and relied on whatever firepower and whatever tactic it took to kill someone. Most also made a steady “living” from other means, both legal and illegal. And some were famous as lawmen (Hickok and Earp, for instance) at one time or another in their lives.

But none of them lived glamorous lives, and none won serious respect as “good guys” until the famous dime novels and later fiction, films, and television gave them the label.

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