Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth

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University Press of Kansas, 1996 - Biography & Autobiography - 276 pages
Eulogized and ostracized, James Butler Hickok was alternately labeled courageous, affable, and self confident; cowardly, cold-blooded, and drunken; a fine specimen of physical manhood; an overdressed dandy with perfumed hair; an unequaled marksman; a poor shot. Born in Illinois in 1837, he was shot dead in Deadwood only 39 years later. By then both famous and infamous, he was widely known as "Wild Bill."

Excavating the reality behind the myth, Joseph Rosa delves into the exploits and ego that defined Hickok and shows how the man was overtaken by his own legend. Rosa exposes a controversial and charismatic man—army and Indian scout, wagon master, courier, frontiersman, gunfighter, lawman, prospector, addicted gambler, and short-time actor—who was elevated from regional fame to national notoriety by inadvertently being in the right place at the right time.

Aggrandized in an 1867 Harper's New Monthly Magazine article, Hickok reluctantly embraced his exaggerated role in a far-fetched but exciting story that has inspired writers, folklorists, and movie moguls. Dime novelists sensationalized him. Biographers praised and criticized. Gary Cooper portrayed him sensitively, Douglas Kennedy villainously, and Charles Bronson laconically. Howard Keel played him romantically (albeit historically incorrectly) against Doris Day's Calamity Jane.

Culminating four decades of research by one of the top authorities on Wild West legends, Wild Bill Hickok is a highly readable, fun, and accurate account of the larger-than-life character whose reported accomplishments-both real and imaginary-in Kansas, Missouri, and the surrounding territory frequently brought him unwanted publicity. Setting the record straight, Rosa exposes some of the deliberate lies that vested Hickok with a "man-killer" reputation he didn't deserve. In fact, Rosa shows, the number of men he killed is probably a lot closer to ten than to the more than 100 he is often credited with.

Establishing the role an overzealous press and fortune-seeking dime novelists played in immortalizing Wild Bill, Rosa reveals a great deal about how myths were initiated and perpetuated to glorify the nineteenth-century frontier. He also illuminates why imaginative accounts of unorthodox heroes continue to skew our understanding of this important era in American history.

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