Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(5) (1995) 106-122
University of Osnabruck, Germany
** Revised version of a paper presented at the Twenty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association (Chicago, April 6-9, 1994). I am particularly indebted to Gary Yoggy, Corning Community College (Corning, New York). [End page 106]
Briefly stated, the term "gunfighter nation" summarizes Slotkin's hypothesis that the violent frontier has continued to provide patterns of identification and legitimization for American society up to the present day.
Despite the pivotal function which he ascribed to the cult of the gunfighter, Slotkin judged that figure a recent addition to the pantheon of frontier mythology. He spoke of a "subject ... distinctly marginal" until the Cold War years (principally, the Fifties), claiming that:
"'gunfighting' (as) a kind of art or profession ... is the invention of movies like The Gunfighter ... the reflection of Cold-War era ideas about professionalism ... exaggerat(ing) this aspect of (the protagonists') lives."
A source that, in contrast, had earlier portrayed a "gallery of gunfighters" - Eugene Cunningham's Triggernometry, published in 1934 and reprinted in 1941 - was dismissed by Slotkin as marginal. [End page 107]
However, the "evolution" of dime and nickel novels had already proceeded during the 1880's and 1890's from portraying "Revolutionary patriots" and frontier scouts to "two-gun men", "pistol dead shots", even "Wild West duelists." Two more instances should suffice to demonstrate that, around or shortly after the turn of the century, and definitely before the Great Depression, the gunfighter of fact and fiction had come into his own:
Paradoxically, he may be the more right in asserting that (1) the myth of the violent frontier - in fact, the saga of the gunfighter - has evolved into a "venerable tradition", and (2) for this reason continues to guide the American society's collective perceptions of present and future courses of action.
Locating the origins of the gunfighter mystique in the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century should provide an opportunity for testing Slotkin's hypothesis by examining the factual and the legendary career of a sufficiently "prominent" case. We propose to look at the ways the myth has swerved from reality in such a specific case, attempting to diagnose if and how it provides those patterns of identification and legitimization central to Slotkin's argument. [End page 108]
Sponsored by the Kansas State Department of Education, even a 1939 "guide to the Sunflower State" - one of a series compiled during the Great Depression by the WPA Federal Writers' Project - had referred to Hickok as "the best-known gunman in the old West."
One supposed reason for Hickok's fame is mentioned in the entry written by biographer Richard O'Connor for Collier's Encyclopedia:
"Hickok's reputation as one of the greatest of the peace officers of the post-Civil War West was built in the years from 1868 to 1871, when he was sheriff at Hays City and city marshal at Abilene, during the wildest days of their history. Unaided, he kept the cowtowns under control, walking the streets with .44 revolvers on his hips ... establish(ing) himself as the prototype of the iron-handed marshal who held the line until civilization caught up with the frontier ..."
Now consider the facts:
The entry suggests several years of uninterrupted and unaided service. Hickok's actual peace-keeping activities, however, were limited to four and a half months during 1869 in Hays City and eight months during 1871 in Abilene. During 1868 and 1870, he did not serve at all in any such function. Rather (and even while he held his offices), he pursued a gambling career. He had one deputy in Hays City. The Abilene City Council appointed three deputies to assist him. They did most of the patrolling. Hickok "stayed ... at his games ... If wanted, (he) had to be looked up." [End page 109]
O'Connor was aware of these facts. In his own earlier biography of Hickok, he had even quoted the deputies' names. And he had painted a much more realistic picture of his protagonist when commenting on Hickok's murder by Jack McCall, remarking that "a slightly different shift in circumstances" might have made a McCall of Hickok: "The revolver was their common denominator."
Yet O'Connor preferred to construct for Collier's an image of Hickok as a lone, dedicated agent of law and order. This is in stark contrast to the judgment passed on the gunfighter by Stuart Henry, brother of Abilene's first mayor, the later Kansas "wheat king" T. C. Henry:
"He acted only too ready to shoot down, to kill out-right, instead of avoiding assassination when possible as the higher duty of a marshal. Such a policy of taking justice into his own hands exemplified, of course, but a form of lawlessness."Doubtlessly, O'Connor was aware that a tradition idolizing Hickok as the peace officer incarnate had already been fashioned by a succession of magazine articles, dime novels, books, and movies. A particularly influential piece of myth-making had originated, a generation earlier, from William E. Connelley, secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society. It was Connelley who had eulogized Hickok as a plainsman beating "the dark forces of savagery and crime." And he had carried the argument to Homeric heights:
"(Hickok) contributed more than any other man to making the West a place for decent men and women to live in."Yet in Hays City, Hickok was defeated after his brief time as sheriff in the November 1869 election by his deputy. Two years later in Abilene, the City Council dismissed him without a word of thanks. He had worked for Russell, Majors and Waddell before the Civil War, driving wagons, stagecoaches, tending stock; had been employed as an army wagon master and government scout; had, after 1865, gambled for a living, worked as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, and scouted for the U.S. Cavalry. After his discharge in Abilene, his uncertain income for the remaining five years of his life again came from gambling, interrupted by a brief attachment [End page 110] to the "Buffalo Bill Combination", playing to audiences in the East. His services as a lawman, consequently, were mere biographical episodes.
A first device by the use of which the gunfighter myth operates should now have become apparent: It attaches historical "sense" to an otherwise disjointed biography, permiting individual identification with acts supposedly committed in the fulfilment of a "mission."
That mission - and, consequently, the purported sense of Hickok's life on the frontier - consists of "taming" the West in order to permit progress by violence. Without the Hickok's, the Earp's,and the Masterson's bringing "order out of chaos", there would be no pioneers like those evoked by Walt Whitman:
"the rivers stemming, vexing,This interpretation transforms the gunfighter into a true pioneer himself. Stimulated by "that onward-thrusting, high-flaming spirit of the Pioneer", Hickok emerges as a necessary element of westward expansion. In the last instance, it is none other than the gunfighter who guarantees "that civilazation may be free to take another step forward on her march of progress." Such a combination of devotion and boldness certainly invites identification.
piercing deep the mines within,
the surface broad surveying,
the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!"
Subsequently, three violent incidents in the career of Hickok(the facts as well as the legend) will be reviewed. This will demonstrate that the overall mechanism just diagnosed works no less conspicuously in detail, each level reinforcing the other. Moreover, a second modus operandi adding to the myth's persuasiveness will be identified as the analysis proceeds.
The incidents to be discussed below are the so-called "Rock Creek Massacre" - the quarrel, in fact, that ended with Hickok killing his first man; a fight with troopers from the Seventh Cavalry in Hays City; and, finally, the last shooting in which Hickok was involved, with two men dying under his bullets. The factual events will be outlined first. In a second step, the idealizations will be contrasted with the [End page 111] actual outcomes and prevalent motives.
This is salient because Harper's New Monthly Magazine was, of course, anything but another National Police Gazette. Founded in 1850 as a literary, popular science, and travel digest, it rapidly attained the largest circulation among periodicals published in the East - not least because its concept also appealed to a large readership in the West. According to a contemporary report, it could be found even "in the humblest (western) cabins." Unavoidably, more and more texts were published by Harper's that dealt with the - albeit largely romanticized - frontier. During the second half of the sixties, the magazine rapidly regained its pre-Civil War circulation of close to 200,000 copies. (The American population at the time numbered just under 40 million.) A 12-page article, profusely illustrated, including a full-page engraving of Hickok, could be quite literally expected to attract attention across the whole country.
The truth about the incident was brought to light by Charles Dawson in 1912. Hickock was employed as a stock tender for Russell, Majors and Waddell at Rock Creek Station in Jefferson County, Nebraska. In July 1861 he shot and killed David C. McCanles, the station's erstwhile owner. Two of McCanles' employees, whom he wounded, were subsequently dispatched by other agents of the stage line.
McCanles had come resolved to either collect an outstanding debt from the (unknown to him, already bankrupt) company or to reclaim his property, evicting the occupants by physical force. Trusting in his strength, McCanles was very probably unarmed. At the most, he may have had a shotgun strapped to his horse's saddle which, however, he did not attempt to seize before being shot by Hickok. [End page 112]
A personal feud already existed between McCanles and Hickok, who had become enamored of the former's mistress. McCanles is also supposed to have acted tyrannically toward the much younger and physically inferior Hickok. When matters came to a head, Hickok killed him from behind a curtain. One of McCanles' wounded companions was hacked to death, the other riddled with buckshot. Neither Hickok nor his accomplices received even a scratch. While they were arraigned in court on a charge of murder, the preliminary examination did not, for various reasons, result in a trial. Hickok left the region, enlisting in the Union Army as a civilian scout.
Nine years and three killings later ("not counting Confederates and Indians", as the saying went), Hickok returned to Hays City, which he had departed after failing to be re-elected for sheriff. In a saloon, he was attacked by two drunken soldiers, one of whom pulled him down, the other placing a pistol against his head that misfired. The assailants ended up on the barroom floor, seriously wounded by Hickok's bullets. One trooper died, later receiving a passing mention in Custer's My Life on the Plains, the other recovered.
If Hickok and his opponent had been rivals for the same woman in the circumstances that resulted in his first killing, and liquor generating heedless courage had played a prominent part in the Hays City affray, both ingredients were involved in Hickok's last shooting scrape that occurred in Abilene. This was at the height of the Texas cattle trade, when Southern drovers or gamblers and Yankee marshals heartily despised each other, colliding in the Kansas cowtowns more often than not. A particular enmity concerning a prostitute named Jessie Hazel evolved between Texas gambler Phil Coe and Marshal Hickok. At the end of the 1871 cattle season the Texas cow hands went on a final drunken spree. When Coe defied the firearms ordinance by shooting his gun, Hickok and he came to a confrontation. "Wild Bill" killed not only the Texan, but also a special policeman who accidentally rushed into the line of fire.
The personal feud - the drunken brawl - the services of a prostitute: these were the motives that provided the principal reasons in every shooting. Such encounters were as stupid and meaningless, as they were common on a frontier where, "like firearms, whiskey was always within reach and more or less constantly imbibed." Violence, when it erupted, was usually [End page 113] devoid of any higher purpose. It fell to the myth to invent such a purpose by first distorting the actual events and then, in a second step, interpreting not a real, but a fictitious conflict.
"This murderous gang had killed more than a score of innocent men and women for the purpose of robbery, and yet their power was such that no civil officer dared undertake their arrest ... After this dreadful encounter, ... the people of that section worshiped Bill as no other man. He had civilized the neighborhood."When Hickok shot and killed Phil Coe a decade later, Buel interpreted the latter's death in similar terms as "a most fortunate event for the better class of citizens of Abilene, because it at once improved the morals of the place."
Hickok's clash with two drunken troopers that occurred a year earlier in Hays City had to wait two generations longer for an analogous "explanation." Buel sensationally magnified the incident. He not only blew it up into "a fight with fifteen (!) soldiers", but had Hickok literally wading in his own blood that "filled ... his boots" from the multiple injuries he had suffered while allegedly killing four of his intoxicated opponents. Frank Wilstach, in his 1926 life of the "Prince of Pistoleers", adhered to Buel's version, even if toning it down considerably. However, it could not but impress the reader as a vulgar brawl, meaningless except that it displayed the hero's prowess under the most adverse circumstances.
It fell to Connelley to discover a "mission" behind Hickok resorting to his guns by distorting the actual proceedings. This distortion is achieved by [End page 114] shifting the events back in time to Hickok's last (!) night in office as Sheriff of Ellis County, and having him foil a plot engineered by Captain Tom Custer, George Armstrong Custer's troublesome brother. An arrogant officer, the younger Custer - or so Connelley would have his readers believe - "thought his military connection made him immune from arrest by civil authority." When Hickok nevertheless took him into custody for some offense, Tom Custer swore revenge:
"He selected three reckless and desperate ruffians and accompanied them into town with the understanding that they would kill Wild Bill. It was planned that one soldier would leap upon his back and force him over, while another was to pinion his arms. The third man was then to kill him."Vestiges of what actually took place may be recognized in the presentation. Of course, Hickok prevented the trio from executing their conspiracy in, according to Connelley, "probably the most famous incident of coolness, nerve and shooting the world has known."
Comparing his rendering of the incident with the earlier version offered by Elizabeth B. Custer in her book Following the Guidon, published in 1890, provides an additional idea of the methods by which Connelley proceeded. Ms. Custer's narrative is quoted on the left, Connelley's on the right:
"Three desperate characters "It was planned that (from the Seventh Cavalry one soldier would leap decided) to kill Wild upon his back and force Bill ... It was planned him over, while another that one soldier should was to pinion his arms. leap upon his back, and The third man was then hold down his head and to kill him. Bill was chest, while another should found in a small saloon pinion his arms. It is so imperfectly lighted impossible in the crowded that it was almost little dens, imperfectly impossible to lighted, and with air dense distinguish one person with smoke, always to face from another. This a foe. Wild Bill was enabled them to attacked from behind, as approach him. One had been planned. His powerful soldier leaped broad back was borne upon him, bearing him down by a powerful soldier, over, and the second and his arms seized, but clasped him round to only one was held in the pinion his arms. Bill[End page 115]
clinching grasp of the wrested one arm free. assailant. With the free With his left hand hand the scout drew his Bill drew his pistol pistol from the belt, and fired backward over fired backward without his shoulder at the man seeing, and his shot, even forcing him down. The under these circumstances, soldier fell from was a fatal one. The Bill's back a dead man. soldier dropped dead, the In a minute Bill was citizens rallied round erect. He shot the Wild Bill, (and) the troops soldier who was waiting were driven out of the in front of him with town." drawn pistol. Then he fired over his shoulder and killed the man who had pinioned his arms and who had his pistol drawn ... A number of soldiers (brought) to aid these select three if they should fail ... were driven from the town ... (by) the citizens."Connelley's version was also preferred by O'Connor two and a half decades later, reckoning - as it did - with Hickok's now accepted social function. Acting once again as the advancing civilization's deadly instrument, he punished the infringements of "desperadoes in uniform", whom "the civilians unfortunate enough to live in their vicinity found ... not much preferable to the savages they were being protected from." Equally important, in Connelley's and O'Connor's fictionalized account, Hickok's real foe, other than the nameless rowdy troopers, acquired an identity: Captain Custer with his brazen claim to immunity personified licence, where Hickok stood for order.
In the same vein, Connelley managed to cope with the problem presented to Hickok glorifiers after Dawson's book had reduced the Rock Creek "massacre" to its true dimensions of another squalid frontier brawl. Dawson had also pointed out that, although David McCanles, Hickok's victim, was apt to act tyrannically and overbearingly, and had embezzled money before establishing himself at Rock Creek, he was a rugged pioneer rather than a rascal. He had never committed either homicide or murder. Undaunted, Connelley maintained that McCanles' life "had been one of [End page 116] progressive degeneracy." To leave not the slightest room for doubt, he added that "if ever a man deserved killing, it was McCanles at Rock Creek Station." Although Nichols' and Buel's tall tales about Rock Creek had finally been deflated, a killing "for which almost any fair jury would have given (Hickok), at the least, a long penitentiary sentence". Killings which very probably sprang from both hate and panic, continued to be presented in terms of an act by a man of "intrepidity" who "killed when he was compelled to kill in the line of duty."
Such black-and-white stereotypes encourage a restricted understanding of social - past no less than present or future - realities. Against this simplified background, violence comes to be perceived not merely as indispensable, but as morally adequate. When savagery challenges civilization, there need be no hesitation, no complicated, drawn-out negotiating process. The quick bullet is the legitimate and easy response.
Writing about the killing of "M'Kandlas" by Hickok, Nichols did not even mention the name "Rock Creek." In fact, the prelude to events proper was quite different from Buel's account, with Hickok allegedly relating how "it was in '61, when I guided a detachment of cavalry ... in South Nebraska", continuing to recount that he had early known "M'Kandlas and his desparados ... in the mountains":
"This was just before the war broke out, and we were already takin(g) sides in the mountains, either for the South or the Union. M'Kandlas and his gang were border-ruffians in the Kansas row, and of course they went with the rebs." [End page 117]There is a significant shift of emphasis in the way lines are drawn here: Wild Bill, "Yankee" and scout for the Union, confronts McCanles, gang leader and rebel combined. Again, it was Connelley who took up the thread, asserting that:
"... the Southern Confederacy ... exerted a powerful influence on (McCanles') life ... His associates were the Southern or border-ruffian element ... The fight ... in which he was killed prevented McCanles from becoming a Confederate soldier."After the tone had thus been set, Connelley pursued the Civil War subject further:
"In scouting ... for the military ..., Wild Bill put his life in jeopardy daily for more than four years ... to preserve the Union in the Civil War. He became a spy, and put his life in forfeit time after time by entering Confederate camps."Connelley then proceeded to Hickok's role in the next phase of American history - the Indian Wars:
"As valuable as were his services ... in saving the Union, they were fully equalled by his work on the frontier ... No other scout rode through such dangers... He rode by night and watched by day for years ... from fort to fort, from post to post."And finally, on to the cowtown frontier: Here Hickok "ruled with an iron hand, presenting the unique spectacle of one man, by his courage and skill, holding at bay all the lawless element." The archetypal gunfighter myth thus constructs, in the form of an epic, allegedly biographical narrative, a comprehensive pattern of the stages through which, and the indispensable means by which, the American nation is supposed to have progressed:
Such fatal continuity indeed permits, as suggested by Richard Slotkin, to speak of a "gunfighter nation" with regard to patterns of attitude and behavior unchangingly extolled by books, films, even encyclopediae - a popular culture blending into political culture when, for instance, an American president (Dwight D. Eisenhower, in this case) during 1953 publicly referred to the leitmotif of his life:
"I was raised in a little town ... called Abilene, Kansas. We had as our Marshal a man named Wild Bill Hickok. Now that town had a code, and I was raised as a boy to prize that code. It was: Meet anyone face to face with whom you disagree... If you met him face to face and took the same risks, you could get away with almost anything, as long as the bullet was in front."That you can get away with almost anything, as long as the bullet is in front: A more fitting eulogy to Hickok and a more revealing invocation by a president of the United States - more revealing, in fact, than John Kennedy's reference to the "New Frontier" which Slotkin cites - are hardly imaginable.
2. Richard Slotkin: Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, New York 1992, 4/5, 6/7, 14, 24 [End page 119]
3. Slotkin, 383/384
4. See lists compiled by Albert Johannsen: The House of Beadle and Adams, Vol. 1, Norman 1950, and also Dixon Wecter: The Hero in America, New York 21963 (11941), 345
5. Robert K. DeArment: Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, Norman/ London 1989 (1979), 380
6. Ibid., 396
7. Eugene Cunningham: Triggernometry, Vol. 1, London 1978 (1934), 13. In his critical study of "The Western Hero in History and Legend" (Norman 1965), Kent Ladd Steckmesser consequently ranked the gunfighter, along with the mountainman, the outlaw and the soldier, as "another classic in our great Western myth" (105).
8. Into which that of the cowboy has, of course, blended. To indicate the popularity of the myth, a single instance, Jack Schaefer's novel Shane, must suffice here. Shane is portrayed as the quintessential gunfighter: black trousers, black coat and hat, ivory plates set into the grip of his gun (black again), the hammer filed to a point. The gun is kept in Shane's saddle roll until the time arrives when the protagonist, cool and competent, has to face a room full of men - when "the impact of the menace that marks him" takes effect "like a physical." The book's hard cover edition (first published in 1949), after three printings was followed by a juvenile edition that went through another four printings. In 1953, the film, starring Alan Ladd, was released. The novel's pocketbook edition saw 31 printings between 1950 and 1965.
9. New York 1926. A note on sources seems appropriate here. As in several other instances - e.g., Wyatt Earp, John Wesley Hardin, John H. "Doc" Holliday, or Henry "Billy the Kid" McCarty - "a fearful amount of fabricating" (Cunningham) has been going on for decades about Hickok's alleged exploits. Among authors subsequently quoted, Nichols and Buel (by their distorted and false accounts) contributed to creating the Hickok legend, Wilstach, Connelley, and O'Connor (by largely, though not wholly, uncritical repetition) to perpetuating the saga. The contrasting strand of research into primary sources, such as contemporary (city, state, and federal, including court and army) records and newspaper accounts, letters and diaries, is represented by Cunningham, Dawson, Drago, Miller/Snell, [End page 120]
Steckmesser, and - most thoroughly - Rosa. For a methodical correction of untruths in the extensive literature about frontier gunfighters, cf. Ramon F. Adams: Burs under the Saddle, Norman 1964.
10. Kansas: A Guide to the Sunflower State, American Guide Series, New York 1949 (1939), 355
11. Richard O'Connor: "Hickok, Wild Bill", Collier's Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, New York 1966, 99
12. Stuart Henry: Conquering our Great American Plains, New York 1930, 274 (for the quote); Joseph G. Rosa: They Called Him Wild Bill, Norman 1974 (1964), chs. 8, 10
13. Richard O'Connor: Wild Bill Hickok, New York 1959, 129, 148
14. Ibid., 255
15. Henry, 274/275
16. Among the latter, especially William S. Hart's Wild Bill Hickok (1923) and Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1937)
17. William E. Connelley: Wild Bill and his Era, New York 1933, 7
18. William E. Connelley: Wild Bill - James Butler Hickok, Reprint from Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society, n. p., n. d. (1928), 27 (emphasis mine)
19. Wilstach, 159
20. Connelley (as in n. 17), 7
22. George W. Nichols: "Wild Bill", Harper's New Monthly Magazine Vol. 34, No. 201, 282.
23. Frank Luther Mott: A History of American Magazines, Vol. 2: 1850-1865, Cambridge 1970 (1938), 121.
24. Mott, 384, 391, 393; cf. also James Playsted Wood: Magazines in the United States, New York 1971 (1949), 73 ss. [End page 121]
25. Charles Dawson: Pioneer Tales of the Oregon Trail and of Jefferson County, Topeka 1912, 218 ss.
26. W. E. Webb: Buffalo Land, Philadelphia/New York 1874, 146; Rosa, 158.
27. Norman 1962 (New York 1874), 45
28. Harry Sinclair Drago: The Legend Makers, New York 1975, 32/33; Nyle H. Miller/Joseph W. Snell: Great Gunfighters of the Kansas Cowtowns 1867-1886, Norman 1967 (Topeka 1963), 131 ss.
29. Robert M. Utley: High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier, Albuquerque 1987, 21
30. Buel (as in n. 15), 13, 19
31. Buel, 54
32. Buel, 51
33. Frank J. Wilstach: Wild Bill Hickok, The Prince of Pistoleers, New York 1926, 172/173
34. William E. Connelley (as in n. 17), 131 (also for the following)
35. Ibid., 132
36. O'Connor (as in n. 13), 130
37. Connelley (as in n. 18), 9, 21
38. Cunningham, Vol. 2, 41
39. Connelley, 19, 27
40. Cf. also John G. Cawelti: The Six-Gun Mystique, Bowling Green 1975, 36, 46
41. Nichols, 282/283
42. Connelley, 9,11
43. id., 26
44. William E. Connelley: "Hickok, James Butler", Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. V, New York 1932, 4
45. Steckmesser (as in n. 7), 158, n. 16 [End page 122]