Truth and the Gunfighters

July 21st, according to American history books, is the anniversary of the first Western gunfight. On this date in 1865, James B. Hickok faced Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri. Following an argument over loaned money and a pocket watch, the two men faced each other across the city square. Both men reached for their weapons. Hickok’s shot hit Tutt in the chest. The man had enough life left to exclaim “Boys, I’m killed!” and stagger to the courthouse, steps before collapsing.

Or so we believe.

Journalistic standards on the Western frontier were not quite our own. Territorial newspapers were not overly scrupulous about the truth if a story was highly entertaining. Even Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in New York, which was supposedly above such melodrama, published a colorful account of the gunfight in its February, 1867 issue. The reporter, George Ward Nichols, offered the narration of a purported witness who seems unable to stay in dialect: “Bout fifteen paces brought them opposite to each other, and about fifty yard apart. Tutt then showed his pistol. Bill had kept a sharp eye on him, and before Tutt could pint it Bill had hi’sn out. At that moment you could have heard a pin drop in that square. Both Tutt and Bill fired, but one discharge followed the other so quick that it’s hard to say which went off first. Tutt was a famous shot, but he missed this time; the ball from his pistol went over Bill’s head. The instant Bill fired, without waitin ter see ef he had hit Tutt, he wheeled on his hells and pointed his pistol at Tutt’s friends, who had already drawn their weapons. ‘Aren’t yer satisified, gentlemen?’ cried Bill, as cool as an alligator. ‘Put up your shootin’-irons, or there’ll be more dead men here.’ And they put ’em up, and said it war a fair fight.”

What Do We Make of That?

Telling fantastic yarns was a staple of entertainment on the frontier. The fact that life at the edges of Western society was so rough and unpredictable made it hard for newcomers to distinguish between pernicious lies, recreational lies, and the sometimes fantastic truth. Bill Hickok compounded the problem by playing the desperado for tourists. When asked by one visitor how many men he had killed, Hickok reported, “considerably over a hundred.”

The actual events of that day are lost to us. We know that a public gunfight and Hickok killed Tutt. The city charged Hickok with homicide. The trial records have disappeared, but a few newspapers reported on the trial, and the testimony they report does not resemble what we read in Harper’s. Only four men witnessed the shooting, and two were unable to see more than one man. No one could tell who drew first. Hickok plead not guilty on the grounds of self-defense, and the charges were dropped.

Americans are naturally interested in the Western frontier, but we can never be certain how much legend obscures history. We must remain skeptical about any account.

Caveat Lector

Even with due wariness, though, it is amusing and interesting to read an interview with Wyatt Earp, printed in The Saturday Evening Post of November 1, 1930. The author, Stuart N. Lake, had obtained reluctant interviews with the former lawman. (Earp already knew about the tendency of journalists to embroider the truth.)

Guns and Gunfighters By Stuart N. Lake November 1, 1930
“Guns and Gunfighters”
By Stuart N. Lake
November 1, 1930

Earp died before Lake could complete his project, so we can suspect that Lake might have patched together some of this material. Even so, Earp’s comments about Bill Hickok have the unexcited tone of a reliable witness.

“For speed and accuracy with a six-gun there was no man in the Kansas City group who was Wild Bill’s equal. … Hickok knew all the tricks which the fancy shooters employed and was as good as the best of them at that sort of gun play, but when he had serious business in hand, a man to get—the acid test of marksmanship—I doubt if he employed them. At least, he told me that he did not. I have seen him in action and I never saw him fan a gun, shoot from the hip, or try to fire two pistols simultaneously. Neither have I ever heard a reliable old-timer tell of any trick shooting employed by Hickok when fast, straight shooting meant life or death.

“That summer in Kansas City he performed a feat of pistol shooting which often has been cited as one of the most remarkable on record. … Hickok was on Tom Speers’ bench showing a pair of ivory-handled six-guns which Senator Wilson had given him … when Tom asked Bill what he could do with the new guns, he added that he did not mean at close range, but at a distance that would be a real test. Diagonally across Market Square, possibly 100 yards away, was a saloon, and on the side wall toward the police station a sign that carried a capital letter, “O.” The sign ran off at an angle from Hickok’s line of sight; yet before anyone guessed what his target was, Wild Bill had fired five shots from the gun in his right hand, shifted weapons and fired five more shots. Then he told Tom to send someone over to look at the “O.” All ten of Bill’s slugs were found inside the ring of the letter.

“That was shooting. There were twenty or more witnesses to the feat, yet in every account of it that I have read in recent years, it has been stated that Hickok fired those ten shots from his hip. I am not detracting from Wild Bill’s reputation or ability when I bear witness that while he was shooting at the “O,” he held his gun as every man skilled in such matters preferred to hold one when in action—with a half-bent elbow that brought the gun slightly in front of his body at about, or slightly above, the level of the waist.

“Whenever you see a picture of some two-gun man in action with both weapons held closely against his hips and both spitting smoke together, you can put it down that you are looking at the picture of a fool, or at a fake. I remember quite a few of those so-called two-gun men who tried to operate everything at once, but, like the fanners, they didn’t last long in really proficient company.”

Featured image: An illustration of the gunfight between Hickok and Tutt from Harper’s Magazine, February, 1867 (Wikimedia Commons)