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Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter

Review

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter

Bestselling author Tom Clavin (THE HEART OF EVERYTHING THAT IS, DODGE CITY) has turned his attention to one of the frontier’s best known characters: a heroic gunslinger whose exploits became fodder for news, legends and movies, his name almost synonymous with the West he grew up with.

James Butler Hickok was a farm boy, barely out of his teens but fully able to wield a rifle, when the Civil War drew him into service for the Union Army, his father having run a spur of the Underground Railroad and his loyalties to abolitionism quite clear. But as James warred, he wandered, heading to rumors of gold. A gambling dispute resulted in a gunfight worthy of Hollywood, and Hickok, now known as Wild Bill (William had been his father’s name), soon gained a reputation. A journalist recalling Wild Bill’s prowess wrote that “Hickok handled a pistol with the speed of lightning.” The young man, who was a fair writer himself, once wrote home, “I will tell you a few lyes,” avowing that he had quit swearing, drinking, dancing, chewing tobacco, “and I don’t speak to girls at all.”

"Since much of Hickok’s life is layered in unsubstantiated lore, Clavin has done a masterful job of organizing the bits and pieces into a comprehensible, credible biography, as charming in its way as the man himself."

They were indeed “lyes,” as Wild Bill was ever enamored of shady ladies and strong drink. He dressed like a frontier fop with a wide hat, long mustache and rakish buckskins. His short life was remarkable for his direct contact with the movers and shakers of the day --- Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, General Custer, the James brothers, and Calamity Jane, with whom he was presumed to have been romantically involved (though some said otherwise). He may have married Jane, who wound up buried beside him (some said as a twisted prank) and certainly wed Agnes Lake, who was distinguished not just for being his wife but also for being the first and one of the only female circus owners at a time when that business was in its heyday.

It’s clear that Clavin was taken with his subject, a man bigger than the tales spun about him, who lived within and occasionally outside the law, who managed to make a living as a skilled gambler, an indifferent actor, a fierce and feared lawman. Wild Bill’s rather short life ended in a tragic mishap, a gambling disagreement not unlike the one that incited his original reputation. His murder at a card table was probably facilitated by his rapidly failing eyesight, a disability that certainly dropped the curtain on his fame as a shootist. Clavin believes that Wild Bill “sensed that the American West was passing him by” and “died with his era.”

Since much of Hickok’s life is layered in unsubstantiated lore, Clavin has done a masterful job of organizing the bits and pieces into a comprehensible, credible biography, as charming in its way as the man himself.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 8, 2019

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter
by Tom Clavin

  • Publication Date: February 5, 2019
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250173795
  • ISBN-13: 9781250173799