Keith Carradine as James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, legendary gunfighter, gambler, and erstwhile lawman
Deadwood, Summer 1876
– “Deadwood” (Episode 1.01, dir. Walter Hill, aired 3/21/2004)
– “Deep Water” (Episode 1.02, dir. Davis Guggenheim, aired 3/28/2004)
– “Reconnoitering the Rim” (Episode 1.03, dir. Davis Guggenheim, aired 4/4/2004)
– “Here Was a Man” (Episode 1.04, dir. Alan Taylor, aired 4/11/2004)
Creator: David Milch
Costume Designer: Janie Bryant
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Famously killed 145 years ago today holding the “dead man’s hand”, James Butler Hickok was a living Wild West legend by the time his caravan pulled into Deadwood, then a lawless mining camp in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, during the summer of 1876.
Hickok joins Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, and “Doc” Holliday among the most frequently featured figures of the old west to be depicted on screen, though the closest approximation of the real “Wild Bill” may likely be on the all-too-short-lived HBO series Deadwood, in which he’s presented across the first four episodes affably portrayed by Keith Carradine with equal parts charm and grit, as well as the world-weariness that reportedly plagued the gunfighter by the time he rode into the Black Hills at the relatively young age of 37 during that centennial summer.
With his two loyal traveling companions, the glum Charley Utter (Dayton Callie) and the notoriously profane “Calamity Jane” (Robin Weigert), Hickok makes his entrance into Deadwood to a mixed reception—quiet respect from some, like barkeep Tom Nuttall (Leon Rippy) and former lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), purely tactical interest from ruthless pimp Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), and blustering exuberance from newspaperman A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) and the clammy-handed hotel owner E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), who can barely contain his self-amused chuckle when he offers that Hickok may need to “kill a guest” in order to free up accommodations for the evening.
Farnum: We heard rumors you might be comin’, but you can’t believe every rumor! We heard you might be comin’ from Cheyenne.
Hickok: Here I am.
He finds what would be a fatefully dangerous reception from the shifty scumbag Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt), a “droop-eyed hooplehead” who claims to be unimpressed and unwisely takes every opportunity to needle and provoke Hickok. While Hickok still proves to be quick with those famous pearl-handled Navy Colts, he doesn’t rise—or, shall I say, stoop—to McCall’s bait, having learned from his own tragic history to exercise caution over combat when he can.
Born on May 27, 1837, James Butler Hickok led an adventurous life from a young age, though tales of his exploits were frequently exaggerated even during his lifetime… and often by Hickok himself. It was likely the summer of 1861 when Hickok killed his first man, David McCanles, a bully and small-time outlaw who had threatened Hickok’s boss. Hickok spent the next four years fighting, scouting, and spying for the Union during the Civil War, growing his reputation after the war ended when he killed another man, Davis Tutt, during one of the few recorded instances of an actual one-on-one, High Noon-style quickdraw duel in the old west. The Tutt gunfight cemented Hickok’s celebrity status after it was described by journalist Colonel George Ward Nichols for Harper’s magazine. Hickok’s fearsome reputation followed him as he drifted from buffalo hunting to occasional stints as a lawman across the plains over the next decade.
However, the tide of Hickok’s life changed after one night in October 1871. While serving as town marshal in the wild cowtown of Abilene, Kansas, Hickok was provoked to draw down on gambler Phil Coe, shooting Coe in the street. In the intensity of the moment, Hickok spied another figure rushing toward him and fired two more rounds from his Navy Colts… only to realize he had just shot and killed his own deputy, Mike Williams, who had been running to assist.
The incident would haunt Hickok and, combined with his decreasing health and eyesight—a result of glaucoma—Wild Bill made an effort to keep his revolvers holstered for the rest of his life, seeking a less violent path for his remaining years.
In addition to portraying himself—poorly, by all accounts—in a traveling show operated by his pal “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Hickok resolved himself to “normal life” by marrying Agnes Thatcher Lake, a circus promoter he had known for years, in the spring of 1876. Only months later, he would join Charley Utter’s wagon train heading to the Black Hills gold crush that would lead him to his fate in Deadwood.
The events of August 2, 1876, have been immortalized as one of the most notorious “back-shootings” ever, as Hickok was dealt his immortalized poker hand of aces of eights… and a .45 round to the back of his head, courtesy of three-time loser Jack McCall.
“‘Bill’ would be easier on my nerves… ‘Mr. Hickok’ has me looking for the warrant in your hand,” Hickok introduces himself to Seth Bullock, characteristic of the affable warmth and quiet poise of Keith Carradine’s portrayal. Carradine had first broached the material a decade earlier with his brief role as Bill Cody in Walter Hill’s experimental 1995 biopic Wild Bill, which starred Jeff Bridges as the eponymous gunfighter.
What’d He Wear?
In real life and most depictions of him, “Wild Bill” Hickok affects a flamboyant sense of dress, consistent with the exaggerated claims of his exploits and his own dramatic appearance standing over six feet tall with long, flowing blonde hair and a mustache to match.
Appropriately, Hickok is depicted on Deadwood as one of the few camp denizens who wears more than just variations of the same outfit on a day-to-day basis… and actually seems to keep his clothes clean, while he’s at it! Despite a few items that remain the same, particularly his black, low-crowned hat, Hickok cycles through three distinct outfits over his four days in camp.
When we first meet Hickok in late July 1876, the famed gunfighter is at rest in one of the wagons on Charley Utter’s train heading for Deadwood. He’s dressed at his most subdued, clad in a plain frock coat semi-buttoned under his gun belt. Nary a fancy waistcoat, cravat, or waist sash to be seen, as Hickok is geared solely for the rigors of traveling through the Black Hills, ready to mount up as needed to get a head-start in whatever direction has the most whiskey.
Hickok wears this straightforward outfit for most of the first day in the first episode, ostensibly changing after he checks into E.B. Farnum’s hotel to freshen up and find a poker game.
The full-skirted frock coat appears to be made from a dark taupe-gray wool. The short, straight-gorge peak lapels end high on the chest to allow for the four-button single-breasted front, of which Hickok wears the lowest two buttons fastened, the bottom one concealed under his gun belt. The coat has a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and a long single vent like a more modern hacking jacket that allows for easier riding as Hickok heads into camp.
Though depictions of Hickok have popularized the image of his twin revolvers carried butt-forward in a scarlet sash around his waist, he also carried his pair of Navy Colts more practically in a traditional gun belt. Carradine’s Hickok wears a wide black leather U.S. Army officer’s gun belt, fastened in the front via a brass rectangular buckle plate embossed with a gold-and-silver eagle relief, recalling Hickok’s frequent service as a military scout over the previous decades. He indeed wears a black holster on each side of the belt, carrying those famous Navy Colt revolvers with their ivory grips facing forward.
Stepping out of the wagon, Hickok dons the all-black felt wide-brimmed hat that would remain one of the few constants across all of his costumes. Appropriately, this wide-brimmed hat with its low, round (telescope) crown is also known as a “gambler” style. Hickok’s hat has a black grosgrain band that matches the edges of the brim.
Hickok wears a white cotton ruffled shirt similar to the ones he would also wear after he arrives in camp. The front placket appears to button up all the way, rather than the popular pullover or bib shirts of the era. The ruffle detailing around the neckband extends partially down the placket to center chest, echoed by the ruffles extending from the ends of each single-button barrel cuff. He wears the shirt sans collar and tie, showing the gray cotton henley-style undershirt he wears beneath it.
On a black leather cord around his neck, Hickok wears a studded, edge-stitched black leather arrowhead-shaped pouch with a removable top, almost certainly a pouch for the gunpowder needed to load his percussion revolvers.
Hickok wears brown wool flat front trousers, the bottoms tucked into his boots. We see little more of his trousers due to the full skirt of his frock coat, though he holds them up with a pair of dark brown leather suspenders (braces), which have silver hardware connecting the wide leather suspender straps to the brown double sets of hooks fastening to his trouser waistband.
Hickok wears tall russet brown leather riding boots, the shafts covered by a set of well-worn tan leather gaiters with seven straps, each fastened by a flat silver single-prong buckle. These calf-covering garments are meant to protect the wearer (and his clothing) from the elements and the rigors of activities like vigorous horseback riding.
After freshening up at E.B. Farnum’s hotel, Hickok changes into what would be his everyday dress for days and nights in Deadwood, essentially a variation of what he had worn when riding in but with a more presentable velvet-detailed waistcoat, collar and tie, and a capelet that he can fling over his shoulder. He would wear this across each of the first four episodes, changing only for the special circumstances that arise on the last morning of his life.
Shorter than a full cape, Hickok’s capelet is a rectangle of charcoal wool cloth lined on one side in a black, brown, and beige tartan plaid. Though a capelet’s primary function is to cover the wearer’s shoulders, Hickok generally keeps it all tossed behind him, only secured via strap around his neck.
Hickok wears another frock coat, this one constructed from a brown napped flannel wool. The wide, full-bellied peak lapels end above the four-button, single-breasted front which he keeps open at all times. The coat has two-button cuffs and straight flapped hip pockets.
Hickok coordinates the earthier tones of this everyday outfit with his brown neckwear that he wears knotted into a long-ended, floppy bow tie. (There has to be a name for this type of tie, but I can’t find it anywhere!)
In the first episode, Hickok changes into a white cotton shirt with a soft spread collar, pleated front, and traditional barrel cuffs. Beginning with the second episode, he wears a ruffled shirt more similar to the one he had worn with the first outfit, except that this shirt has an attached collar that he wears flipped up like a wing collar and the placket is fully ruffled on each side. The ends of each sleeve gather at the cuff, where they close with a button before ruffling out over each wrist.
Perhaps the most eye-catching garment in all of Wild Bill’s wardrobe, Hickok dresses for days and nights at the gaming tables in a fancy waistcoat (vest), grounded in a tan material as seen facing the slim shawl collar, but patterned across the front with raised swirling patches of closely spaced brown paisley-shaped velvet that provide the appearance almost of animal skin. Below the low, U-shaped opening, the waistcoat closes with six brass crested shank buttons in a double-breasted configuration with two parallel columns of three buttons each above the straight-cut bottom hem. There are two slim-welted pockets flanking the buttons on each side, presumably where Hickok would keep his pocket watch if he wore won… but, alas, he is out of time.
Hickok’s flat front trousers are checked in dark brown, olive, and rust horizontal lines broken up by tan vertical lines, echoing the colors found across the rest of his attire. The trousers rise high to conceal the waistband under the waistcoat, and they’re presumably held up with suspenders (braces) that remain appropriately unseen.
For more “cosmopolitan” settings (which gives the frontier mining camp plenty of credit), Hickok wears his trouser legs over the shafts of his boots. In the first episode, these are the same russet leather boots as seen when he first dismounted on his way into Deadwood, sans gaiters, though he appears to have changed into black boots for the remaining episodes.
In his final episode, “Here Was a Man” (Episode 1.04), Hickok dresses in what would be his arguably most formal attire, presumably to make a gentlemanly impression when paying a visit to the recently widowed Alma Garrett (Molly Parker). However, Hickok is also presented on the series as something of a mythic figure, perhaps aware that death is coming for him and—consciously or not—dressing in his finest as though preparing for his own funeral.
Hickok anchors this most formal outfit with a dark brown frock coat with a luxuriously napped finish. The peak lapels are semi-faced in a black satin silk that wrap around from inside the revers, leaving the outer portion of the lapel and the collar faced in the body fabric; this detail was characteristic of this era as seen, for example, on late 19th century presidential portraits (e.g., William McKinley, who was seemingly photographed exclusively in these types of frock coats.)
The long double-breasted coat has six dark brown sew-through buttons, arranged in two columns of three. Roped at the shoulders, the sleeves are set apart with seams around the cuffs, where they are finished with two ornamental buttons echoing those on the front.
Hickok wears a pale ecru cotton ruffled shirt similar to his previous shirt, right down to the ruffled placket and the ruffles extending beyond the banded cuffs. He wears the soft collar turned up like a wing collar, presenting a black silk bow tie.
Hickok layers his frock coat over a double-breasted waistcoat and trousers, both constructed from a matching olive-and-black houndstooth woolen flannel. The vest has a V-shaped opening that fastens higher than the fancy waistcoat worn on previous days, the six silver shank buttons considerably more spread out in a triple-row keystone arrangement that follows the slant of the left side’s edge. There are four set-in pockets—two on each side—each positioned so far back from the center that they’re nearly under Hickok’s armpits. The back of the waistcoat is lined in dark brown with a pattern of low-contrast gold leaves.
The matching flat front trousers are held up with dark brown leather suspenders that—due to the trousers’ high rise—remain unseen under the waistcoat until Hickok is doubled over following the “dead man’s hand” incident.
It isn’t until this outfit that we see Hickok tie on the crimson red sash that he was documented to frequently wear in real life in lieu of a holster, tying the strip taut around his waist so that it could hold both of his heavy Navy Colts, each weighing more than two-and-a-half-pounds each.
The dust of Deadwood’s unfinished thoroughfare render Hickok’s black leather boots considerably dirty.
Given that I’ve already mentioned them at least a half-dozen times, you’re likely well aware of the fact that “Wild Bill” Hickok famously carried a pair of Colt Model 1851 Navy revolvers.
In the decades before the advent of metallic cartridges, percussion revolvers loaded via the extensive cap-and-ball process were the handguns of choice across the old West. Samuel Colt had revolutionized production revolvers with the development of the “Paterson Colt” in the 1830s and, following continued innovations, his Hartford, Connecticut plant introduced the .36-caliber “Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber” in late 1850.
Per its designation, this revolver could thus be more easily carried in a belt, though its two-pounds, ten-ounce weight would make it a brick compared to most modern handguns. Despite this, it was still around half the weight of Colt’s earlier .44-caliber Model 1848 “Dragoon”. This relative ease of carry made the Model ’51 popular not only among troops in land and at sea—the “Naval” designation referred only to its lighter caliber, not its users—as well as lawmen, soldiers, and gunslingers including John “Doc” Holliday, Ned Kelly, and “Wild Bill” Hickok.
You can read a more in-depth report of “Wild Bill” Hickok’s prolific history with firearms in Joseph G. Rosa’s feature for HistoryNet, which agrees that “the Colt Navy was Hickok’s favorite revolver.” Indeed, his history with Colt’s Model 1851 would date back to at least his Civil War service for the Union Army, when he was photographed already carrying his butt-forward Navy Colt. Just three months after the war ended, it was almost certainly a .36-caliber Navy Colt that Hickok used to fire the deadly shot that killed Davis Tutt in the Springfield, Missouri town square on July 21, 1865.
Four years later, his reputation grown (and not yet marred after the Abilene shooting), Wild Bill was presented with a set of nickel-plated Colt 1851 Navy revolvers, detailed with ivory grips and inscribed “J.B. HICKOCK—1869″[sic] on the back-strap. His distinctive Cavalry-style method of carrying both revolvers butt-forward—whether in a gun belt or in a waist sash—allowed him to quickly brandish both via a quickdraw or reverse, which Rosa describes as “[grasping] the revolver by the butt, slipping the thumb over the hammer spur and index finger into the trigger guard. As the gun clears the holster, it can be cocked, aimed and fired in one movement.”
At the time of his death in Deadwood, it’s been reportedly that Hickok was armed not with his two Navy Colts but instead the more compact Smith & Wesson Model No. 2 Army revolver. After all, it was now 1876, a quarter of a century since the introduction of the now-increasingly obsolete Model 1851 Navy, and weapons like the .45-caliber Colt “Peacemaker” Single Action Army had made metallic cartridges ubiquitous. Rosa reports that Hickok had indeed updated his Navy Colts to a pair converted to fire metallic cartridges, but these revolvers—once praised for their relatively light weight—were already behemoths compared to the influx of smaller weapons like the Model No. 2 Army which weighed less than half the size of one of Hickok’s Navy Colts. With its six rounds of .32-caliber rimfire metallic cartridges, the Smith & Wesson Model No. 2 Army would have been a fine last-ditch weapon should a friendly poker game turn unfriendly, especially in the hands of a practiced shootist like Hickok… as long as he could see who he needed to shoot. (Hickok’s blued Smith & Wesson, serial number 29963, was included in a Bonhams auction in 2013.)
In presenting the legend of Hickok on Deadwood, Wild Bill arms himself with his two butt-first Navy Colts right up to the end, when he sticks them in his scarlet sash before the fateful “dead man’s hand” poker game in the afternoon of August 2, 1876. Though I don’t believe historical record includes any incidents of significant gunplay during Hickok’s final days in Deadwood, the series presents several opportunities for Wild Bill to show the audience—and the townspeople—his skill, only adding to his feared reputation when he and Seth Bullock shoot and kill a road agent they rightly suspected in massacring a family outside of town.
The following evening, the killer’s brother—fueled by liquor and “branded snatch”—is goaded by Swearengen to exact revenge on Wild Bill, but Hickok—his back to the wall and his eyes alert, or as alert as they could be for someone whose vision was gradually deteriorating due to glaucoma—is naturally faster on the draw than the whiskey-soaked slob. He racks up his body count to two in less than two days, but time’s running out for Wild Bill.
What to Imbibe
Whiskey drives Wild Bill’s urge to ride along ahead of Calamity Jane into camp; luckily for him, Deadwood may have more whiskey than gold. Particularly in the third and fourth episodes, Hickok throws back shots poured from a bottle of Old Weller Antique Original 107 Proof bourbon, one of the most frequently seen labels on the series.
Though the label on the Old Weller bottles look vintage to the 1870s, I haven’t found any documentation of this real-life brand dating back any earlier than the 1970s. Later episodes would also retcon several modern bourbon brands, with Basil Hayden’s mentioned by name and Bulleit seen on screen, despite neither brand existing before the 1990s. It would be an interesting use of product placement to feature these brands more than a century before their development, which may indeed be the case with Weller.
W.L. Weller had indeed started selling and distilling his own whiskey by the mid-19th century, giving the presence of Weller-labeled bottles in the 1870s a little more validity, though I don’t believe the label as presented on Deadwood had existed until considerably after the establishment of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1935. The brand is now owned by Buffalo Trace, which describes Weller’s distinctive taste as a result of “using wheat instead of rye in the mash for a softer, smoother taste.”
Interestingly, Pete Dexter’s 1986 novel Deadwood, which also fictionalized the early figures in camp around the time of Wild Bill’s death, featured Hickok and many others drinking copious amounts of Pink Gin, the simple concoction of Plymouth gin and Angostura bitters.
How to Get the Look
“Wild Bill” Hickok was one of the most flamboyant dressers of the old West, from his buckskins while in the country to his eye-catching city clothes that often included fancy waistcoats, floppy cravats, and his famous pair of Colt 1851 Navy revolvers with the butts facing forward. While his distinctive look may not translate to anything practical nearly 150 years later, this could be a helpful guide for cosplay, Halloween, Western re-enactors, or just incorporating a touch of frontier spirit into your everyday dress.
- Brown flannel single-breasted 4-button frock coat with wide, full-bellied peak lapels, straight flapped hip pockets, and 2-button cuffs
- Charcoal wool capelet with black, brown, and beige tartan plaid lining
- Brown paisley velvet-on-tan fancy double-breasted waistcoat with narrow shawl collar, 6×3 brass shank buttons, two pockets, and straight waist hem
- White cotton shirt with soft “wing collar”, ruffled placket, and banded cuffs
- Brown floppy bow tie
- Brown multi-checked flannel flat front trousers
- Dark brown leather suspenders/braces
- Black leather riding boots
- Black felt wide-brimmed gambler’s hat with low telescope crown, black grosgrain band, and wide grosgrain-edged brim
- Black leather army officer’s gun belt with brass eagle-relief rectangular belt buckle plate and double holsters (for Colt 1851 Navy revolvers)
- Studded black leather gunpowder pouch, worn on a black leather neck-cord
Do Yourself a Favor and…
To learn more about the real Hickok, I highly recommend reading Tom Clavin’s recent biography Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter, published in 2019. An excellent Western historian, Clavin has also published excellent volumes detailing the histories of Dodge City and Tombstone.
Also, I’d be remiss not to mention Andy Thomas’ “Wild Bill’s Last Deal”, an evocative piece of Western art that I just ordered a print of for my home office.
Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?