Monday, August 2, 2010

Dead Man's Hand

Magnet # 308:  Famous Figures and Sights of Deadwood

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Greg

This is the day that brought Deadwood to the attention of the nation back in 1876 - albeit for somewhat dubious reasons. It was when the famous frontiersman Wild Bill Hickock was shot in the back of the head while playing poker and died from his injuries. Before then, there had been many a set of cards given the name, but because of his death, the aces and eights Hickock was holding came to be known by a rather troubling name - Dead Man's Hand.

Some might say Deadwood was bad from the start. It was supposed to be part of Native American land by treaty, but when Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his men announced that they had found gold in the area, nobody cared about that anymore. Prospectors flooded into the area and Deadwood soon surpassed a population of 5,000. As it was established on land that had no official government, there was really no one to keep troublemakers in check, and a lawlessness permeated the area, prompting some to say the town hosted a murder a day. However, the "dead" in Deadwood actually comes from the pine trees that were killed by a fire there. Still, I'm not sure if anyone could have come up with a better name for the notorious Western town. Wild Bill Hickok came there in July of 1876 with a premonition that he might never leave it alive, a belief he told his companions. By then, he had become a legend of the American Old West. Although he arrived there as a stagecoach driver, he went on to prove himself as a capable lawman, gunslinger, and scout. He survived numerous shootouts, fought for the Union during the Civil War, and became well-known around the nation. Despite his misgivings, he stayed in Deadwood, even breaking his own rule of always playing cards with his back to the wall on that fateful day when he visited Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10. Twice, he tried to trade places, but was unable to do so. And Jack McCall took advantage of this when he entered the bar and walked up to within a few feet of Hickok before drawing his weapon and firing. Nobody knows for certain whether bad blood between the pair led to the shooting or if McCall was paid to kill him, but Hickok was killed instantly. McCall was tried and found innocent, but when he made it to Wyoming and continued to brag about the murder, he was dragged into court a second time and tried again. As Deadwood was an illegal settlement, double jeopardy didn't apply in his case. This time, he was found guilty and hung. Hickcok's remains were eventually buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery, where they were soon joined by those of other noteworthy Western figure who hung around Deadwood - Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane. She gained fame for fighting the Indians, working as a scout and a prostitute, being an excellent shot, and claiming to be close to Hickock. There are those who say, however, that he was not very fond of her. Still, she adored him and when she was on her deathbed from pneumonia, she clung to life, so that she could pass on the same day as her beloved Hickok (actually she died one day earlier, thinking it was August 2). Some say that her body was buried next to his as a joke by his friends, but their burial positions have not changed to this day.

In the time after Hickok's scandalous death, Deadwood transformed from from a rough boomtown to a more civilized, prosperous mining town. Seth Bullock would bring law and order to the town in the years closely following the incident, becoming Deadwood's first sheriff. But there would be more changes in its future. Although the railroad brought more business to town, when gambling and prostitution were ended there, it hurt the economy, even though some of both activities still continued. Two fires eighty years apart would almost destroy the town entirely, but it was finally designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, almost a century after Hickok died there. A certain amount of work went into its restoration, but a fire broke out again in 1987, destroying a local historic building. After this, the struggling town began its fight to bring gambling back, and once it was made legal there in 1989, Deadwood's luck began to improve. It's now a tourist destination in South Dakota, both for gamblers and history buffs. And when HBO's television series Deadwood aired in the 2000s, it dramatized the glory days of the town, bringing it even more attention worldwide. So if you ever get a chance to visit, this colorful Western locale definitely sounds work a visit, especially considering it's filled with plenty of souvenirs. Be sure to stop by Mount Moriah Cemetery, final resting place of many famous figures of the Old West, have a look at a gold mine, and you might even want to try playing poker at one of the local casinos or gaming halls - just be careful - you never know what hand you'll be dealt!


  1. Thanks for the travel tips. I've not been to South Dakota, but think I might someday. If so maybe can add Deadwood to the iteneray.

  2. I've never been there, either but if I do, I'd definitely like to see Deadwood.