The Macabre Tale of the Dead Man’s Hand, or How to Play Eights & Aces When You’re Dead
With wits as oxygen tanks and imagination our sole anchor to the now, we’re back for another deepdive into history’s dirty mirror. This time, we’re taking the scenic route via Deadwood Territory, Dakota, where we’ll investigate the origins of the Dead Man’s Hand, a combo familiar to card players and Motorhead fans.
The Dead Man’s living exploits
Shot dead in his prime, when the surface area of Wild Bill’s cranium was rudely expanded by an unseen bullet he was already a figure of repute along the frontier; wild and daring to those inclined towards adventurous pursuits, roguish and dangerous to the silk-sheet masses migrating inward from established coastal cities. A complex figure, Wild Bill wore many guises; calculated card player, keen shooter, chivalric hero and treacherous brigand simultaneously.
Wild Bill is a famous historical personage even outside poker. I’ll leave biographies to historians but a quick recap before attending the grizzly kernel at our tale’s heart should be sufficient to colour his character. Wild Bill Hickok was born May 27 1837 in Illinois, fourth of six children born to Polly Butler and husband Alonzo Hicock, a fervent abolitionist who offered his family abode as a stop on the underground railroad, a network of safehouses offering amnesty to runaway slaves in transit to free states or further north to Canada. Like Hercules’ cribside snake-strangling, Hickok’s proficiency with firearms was evident from an early age, although his fearsome reputation and apt nickname came later.
All extant photographs of the fearsome frontiersman depict a sorrowful figure, slouched of shoulder and bemused of countenance with a mantle of dark hair, despite contemporary reports indicating his hair bore the hereditary promethean hue of the Irish, fiery of hair and spirit. Although Hickok wasn’t Irish by blood, it was an Irish gang member’s lemniscate gunbarrel that put a cap on his exploits and a stone on his grave. In life Hickok was a jack of all trades; he spent time as a marshall in Hays, Kansas, where he was praised for his work apprehending Civil War deserters, served in the army during the civil war and, inimitably, duelled every gun-toter worth his bandolier either side of the Rio Grande.
How Bill came to be so-named.
However he came by the moniker Wild Bill, soon nobody dared argue it wasn’t a fitting name. Although the Revenant movie was based on true events which Hugh Glass survived, Wild Bill found himself in similar ursine umbridge between New Mexico and Missouri when he found his train halted for a she-bear and cubs on the tracks. In an age where man still fought for his primacy of the food chain, these hardened rangers had not the same empathy for animal conservation we do today; Bill alighted with his shooter cocked and eased toward the bear with the measured step of a man who knew danger’s myriad forms. Unlike Timothy Treadwall, whose passion for bears and humanisation of his observations of their behaviour ultimately blinded him to their wilder nature, Wild Bill didn’t hesitate executing his duty.
As he stared at this incarnate constellation through iron sights, the she-bear rose to the zenith of her immense stature and raked claws like spear points across his breast, cleaving his cloths in twain and leaving in their place scarlet rags. Hickok with trademark speed fired a clean shot in the chaos, which ricocheted off the incensed bear’s skull. Twice as furious and now reeling in white agony, the she-bear sprinted and pinned Hickok, where it attempted to devour him. 100 years before Jiu Jitsu existed in the western mainstream meta, Hickok managed to create space for his knees by shifting his hips beneath the she-bear’s vengeful bulk, just enough to maneuver past his wounded front to the knife hanging at his belt. A man laureled for his skill with firearms moved his knife with a butcher’s precision across the bear’s throat, killing it instantly.
Cards to play in Dakota when you’re dead
The Dead Man’s hand was a living man’s hand before the shot heard around the frontier was fired on the evening of August 1, 1876. It seems the bullet that entered the soft of Bill’s head did more to ensure his immortality in posterity than any bullet ever discharged from his own big iron, including the bear botherer. Like James Dean, Kurt Cobain and countless others, it seems living forever is a matter of dying young.
Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon, mainstay of the later-famous Deadwood main drag. Softness ye will not find here among gamblers, soldiers, prospectors and fortune-seekers but unmistakably there is a latent something; a sense of possibility, of divergent forks. From the bar one spies Wild Bill playing poker. He faces the doorway and scoffs at claims of growing paranoia. Across sits the drunkest man in the room, an honour hard-earned in a town famed for licentiousness and bacchanalia. Jack McCall is embittered. The price of his labours are lost in gambling, a fact drink exacerbates. Contrary to the duplicitous nature one assumes of Gomorrah’s denizens,
Wild Bill takes pity and advises McCall to retire without regrets, even sparing a coin to cover the breakfast he’d need for his impending hangover.
Next night Hickok arrives to Nuttal and Mann’s; five card stud’s the game. His usual seat, again facing the door, is taken and its occupant refuses a switch. The game is set, in every sense. Betting begins. Coins seek and find glad new masters. Luck-forsaken participants loose strings of invective. Jack McCall arrives still reeking of last night, his sourness untamed by Bill’s parting kindness. Bill never knows. McCall cocks his pistol and glides ghostlike across the tavern, weaving between whispers toward his mark. The bullet he discharges point-blank. Wild Bill Hickok dies instantly. He slumps, cards still held vice-like in his paling fist, the famous two-pair black aces and black eights – the Dead Man’s Hand. He is 36 years old, although like Alexander has lived a thousand lives worth of grand pageantry. Later folklore dicates Bill Hickok privately indicated he was supernaturally aware his life would end in the town of Deadwood. Bill himself was buried in Deadwood. His friend Charlie Utter delivered a tearful eulogy to a large crowd.
McCall showed no remorse across two subsequent trials, one conducted by an informal ‘miner’s’ jury immediately preceding the murder and another in Yankton’s official law courts, capital of the Dakota territory, where he was sentenced to hang for murder. Jack McCall was hanged on March 1, 1877. Years later, the cemetery moved to another site and McCall’s exhumed corpse was uninterred with the fetid rope still tight around his neck.
Superstitious as sailors, it’s strange that cards found clasped in the cold dead hands of a man murdered haven’t developed a reputation as ill omens among the poker massive, but of course we see aces and eights played easily as any other set in modern play.
So there you have it, we’ve managed to cover Wild Bill, a bear sideplot and the infamous Dead Man’s Hand in a thousand less words than usual. If old Shoeface’s astute observation that the soul of wit lies in brevity, let the record show this was our wittiest written endeavour yet. Did we miss anything about Wild Bill? What’s your favourite way to play the Dead Man’s Hand? What’s your favourite Motorhead song? Leave a comment below as we love to hear your opinions on just about anything poker-related.
Until the next one,
Mike at GGPoker