Recognized authority on James Butler Hickok, Joseph Rosa, offers the following:
Immortalized as “Wild Bill,” James Butler Hickok was well known in Springfield, Missouri during the period 1861-1866. His reputation as a pistol shot, gambler and Union scout and spy is now a part of the city’s early day history. At that time he was known variously as James Hickok, William Hickok and, by the middle 1860’s, as William Haycock. He had been known in Kansas as “William Hickok” as early as 1858, but no one knows why. However, by the end of the Civil War Hickok was generally called “Wild Bill.” Those who served with him or knew him well, claimed that this was because of his actions against Confederate guerrillas and for his exploits as a scout and spy.
By the 1920’s, many old-timers recalled his real and imaginary exploits in and around Springfield, and were only too anxious to talk to newspapers or interested parties about their personal recollections of Hickok. Only in recent years has it been possible to confirm that many of them lied–in some instances they were not even born when Hickok had his now legendary duel on the Public Square with Davis K. Tutt.
Hickok left Springfield in January 1866 at the request of his former Quartermaster Richard Bentley Owen (immortalized in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine as “Captain Honesty”) who had been appointed Acting Quartermaster at Fort Riley, Kansas, where Hickok was appointed as a government detective to hunt down deserters or stolen horses or mules. From then on, his reputation was furthered by stints as a deputy U.S. Marshal, scout for the 7th and 10th Cavalry regiments and, in 1869, as acting sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas, headquartered at Hays City, and as Marshal or Chief of Police at Abilene in 1871.
In the fall of 1872, Hickok returned to Springfield and boarded at the St. James Hotel where he remained in residence until August 1873 when he went East to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s theatrical Combination. There is no firm evidence that he ever returned to Springfield, or if he did, it was because he was passing through.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Hickok was still in Kansas, where he was about to terminate his employment with Jones & Cartwright, the freighting company that rivalled Russell, Majors and Waddell. In July, he was involved in a fracas at a place called Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory, where he became involved in the “McCanles Massacre” during which he is alleged to have killed ten men in hand-to-hand combat. In reality, only three men died and there is doubt that Hickok killed any of them. In the fall of 1861, James Hickok signed on as a teamster for the Union Army at Sedalia, Missouri, but within weeks was employed between Rolla and Springfield, and by the end of the year he was a wagonmaster.
Hickok remained in that position until September 1862 when he was dropped for an undisclosed reason and disappeared for almost a year before he turned up at Springfield as a member of the “detective police” employed by the Provost Marshal of South-West Missouri. The missing period is still under investigation and, it is hoped, evidence will be found to provide details of his alleged forays into Confederate territory as a spy.
As a detective, Hickok had his share of hazardous moments, but at times he must have been bored to death. His duties included visits to saloons within the city of Springfield to note the number of troops in uniform who were drinking whilst on duty, or to check on the owners to see if they had liqor licenses. Other tasks involved long treks to places as far away as Little Rock, Arkansas, to arrest or obtain sums of money from individuals in debt to the Union. On one occasion he and some other policemen were not paid. Hickok then resigned or, perhaps, was ordered by General Sanborn, in command of the District, to report to him, who then hired him as a scout. Paid five dollars a day, Hickok was provided with a horse and equipment. In later years, the general wrote that he was the best man he had.
In June 1865, Hickok and other scouts were mustered out, and he spent some time in and around the city gambling or earning a sparse living. It was during this time that he and Davis K. Tutt, a former Confederate soldier who had let his enlistment expire, or deserted, became friends and were noted gamblers.
On July 20, 1865, the pair fell out over a game of cards, which left Hickok in debt to Tutt who took his prized Waltham watch as security for payment. Tutt claimed that Hickok owed him $35 but Wild Bill said it was only $25 since he had paid him the other $10 some days before. Tutt, according to the stories circulated later, said that he would sport Hickok’s watch on Public Square the next afternoon, and Hickok told him that if he did it would become a shooting matter.
At 6 p.m. on the 21st, Tutt appeared with the watch and Hickok advised him not to cross the square. Dave’s response was to draw his pistol and open fire on him. Wild Bill drew and shot Tutt through the heart. Arrested and charged with manslaughter, Hickok was put on trial and was found not guilty on his plea of self-defense. From then on it was up to the legend builders, and a number of local and distant liars, but Hickok’s reputation as both a pistol shot and gunfighter was firmly established.
There the matter might have rested but for a remarkable discovery in the early 1990’s of the original Coroner’s Inquest Report into the death of Davis K. Tutt at the hands of James B. Hickok. It was a heart-stopping moment for historians and others, and was due largely to the late Delbert Bishop, then the newly appointed Archivist of the Greene County Archive who determined to search the large number of “boxes” stored in parts of the building. He was assisted by Robert Neumann, who was to succeed him, and between them they discovered many documents relative to Hickok and others, but the most important find was the Coroner’s Inquest record.
It destroyed the credibility of many of the old-timers whose prolific “recollections” had enthralled readers of the local press or others for more than a hundred years. For not only did it set the record straight, but the report divulged that witnesses claimed that neither Hickok nor Tutt wanted the fight, and it is still a matter of conjecture why Dave pulled his pistol on Hickok.
Witnesses stated that friends of both men had spent some hours during the morning and afternoon of July 21 trying to persuade Dave to accept Hickok’s version of events, and one reported that Hickok said that he would rather have a fight with any man on earth rather than Dave for “you have accommodated me more than any man in town for I have borrowed money from you time and again, and we have never had any dispute before in our settlement.” Tutt agreed and said that he did not want any trouble either, but after a drink he left and later appeared outside the Court House prepared to cross the square. Hickok then urged him not to, but Dave set off, pulled his pistol and fired. Hickok also drew and fired, both shots sounding like one according to several of the witnesses. Dave missed, but Hickok’s ball went through his heart.
A doctor examined Tutt’s body and declared that the ball from Hickok’s pistol had entered at his fifth rib on the right side and exited through the fifth rib on the left, passing through his heart. This meant that Tutt was standing sideways on, or duelling fashion, when he and Hickok fired. By actual measurement, based upon old city maps, they were 75 yards apart when they opened fire, which means that Hickok’s shot was either very lucky, or his reputation as a marksman was not il-lfounded. The distance between both men when they opened fire has proved controversial, but it should be pointed out that the Colt’s Navy revolvers used by Hickok and others were accurate at up to 200 yards, but were rarely fired in anger at that distance!
Hickok was arrested and charged with murder, but the charge was reduced to manslaughter. A number of his friends put up his $2,000 bail and the trial was set for August 5th, His Hon. Judge Sempronius Hamilton Boyd Presiding. A number of witnesses were called, but unlike the Coroner’s Inquest Report, none of their statements have been found, and neither has there ever been any trace of a transcript of the trial. Hickok’s defense attorney was Col. John S. Phelps who had known and employed him during the late War.
The prosecutor, R. W. Fyan, urged the jury to find Hickok guilty as the aggressor, but in his summing up, the judge pointed out that Tutt had made threats against Hickok and “was a fighting character.” He also noted that he was “a dangerous man,” and Hickok’s plea of self-defense had to be considered because no man should be expected to stand with his arms folded without offering some resistance. The jury agreed and took only ten minutes to accept Hickok’s plea of self-defense, and found him not guilty and he was discharged.
A number of points remain unanswered even with the help of the Coroner’s findings. Tutt, only a day before the shooting, had been in court charged with illegal gambling some months before, and fined $100 dollars. Unable to pay his fine, Tutt was jailed, but Thomas Martin, Hickok’s erstwhile scouting “mate” in the War, paid his fine and he was released. This indicates that Dave was in need of money before the fateful card game. But for reasons only he knew, Tutt did not disclose this fact to Hickok. In view of their previous relationship, Hickok would most probably have helped him. Rather, he kept quiet perhaps because of pride or some other reason now lost to history. What should have only been a minor disagreement between friends turned into a tragic confrontation that ended in a gunfight.