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Wild Bill Hickok's Deadwood gun gets a buyer, nearly 150 years after the legendary gunslinger was slain

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was undoubtedly carrying at least one sidearm in the gold mining town of Deadwood in what was then Dakota Territory. So what happened to Hickok's gun?

A varienty of Old West objects including a leather jacket, a large knife and a metal badge are displayed with a photo of Wild Bill Hickok, and topped by a black metal revolver with a wood grip.
This Smith & Wesson Model No. 2 Army revolver belonged to Wild Bill Hickok, and may have been on his person when the legendary gunslinger was shot and killed in Deadwood, South Dakota, on Aug. 2, 1876.
Contributed photo illustration / Rock Island Auction
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The true tale of Old West legend Wild Bill Hickok ends in tragedy, the legendary lawman and gunslinger shot from behind as he played a game of cards in a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876.

As he slumped over the gambling table, Hickok wasn't wielding a weapon, but was holding cards that became known as the "Dead Man's Hand" of black aces and black eights — a moment immortalized in pop culture including the first episode of the HBO series "Deadwood."

Now for the first time since that moment, the weapon Hickok might have drawn to defend himself has surfaced in public: a Smith & Wesson Model No. 2 Army revolver. The .32 caliber gun was sold at auction by Rock Island Auction Co. in Illinois on Aug. 27 for $235,000.

The weapon has a tale to tell all its own.

On that day in August 1876, it was no secret who had shot Hickok in Nutall & Mann's Saloon in the gold rush town of Deadwood. A man named Jack "Crooked Nose" McCall, who had a beef with Hickok, stood there holding a smoking .45 Colt, before fleeing the saloon.

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McCall was acquitted in a hastily improvised trial, before later being re-arrested and found guilty in a formal court proceeding, then hanged in 1877.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
A formal portrait photograph of James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, likely taken between 1870 and 1876.
Submitted / Kansas Historical Society

Hickok was buried in the nearby Ingleside Cemetery, but his remains were later moved to a peaceful yet prominent burial spot in the town's Mount Moriah Cemetery, a location that remains a top attraction for tourists who visit the South Dakota town. His belongings were sold to pay his burial costs and other debts.

Hickok, whose full name was James Butler Hickok, was undoubtedly carrying at least one sidearm as he gambled in the rough-and-tumble town. So what happened to Hickok's gun?

In a blog post , Rock Island Auction tracks the ownership history of the Smith & Wesson revolver, known as its provenance. They track how Hickok was known to be carrying a Smith & Wesson Model No. 2 Army revolver, and how this weapon in particular is proven to belong to Hickok, as proved by its serial number and a sworn affidavit.

The gun is chambered in .32 rimfire, has varnished rosewood grips and a blued finish — although it's worn off on the guns 6-inch barrel.

Sheriff Seth Bullock reportedly gave Hickok's gun to a Capt. Emil Willoth to pay off the slain man's store debt, according to Rock Island's research. Willoth later left the pistol to his wife Hazel and son Emil Jr.

"Author and shooter Ed McGivern provides significant provenance for this Hickok gun in his book, 'Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting,' stating that a Mrs. Hazel Willoth 'has Wild Bill's gun sealed up in a case just as her husband left it when he died, and she won't allow it to be taken out. The gun was given to Mr. Willoth (A Deadwood stage driver, storekeeper, and Hazel’s father-in-law) by Seth Bullock, Lawrence County's first sheriff,'" Rock Island wrote in its research post.

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A close-up photo of Wild Bill Hickok's Smith & Wesson Model No. 2 Army revolver.
Submitted / Rock Island Auction Co.

The weapon has changed hands a few times in the past few decades since the Willoth family owned it, and it fended off claims from the owner of another Smith & Wesson Model No. 2 revolver, who claimed it belonged to Hickok but had no evidence to back up the claim.

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But the Willoth gun's strong proof of its original ownership led it to be initially put up for auction in 2013 . At that time, bidders failed to meet the "steep reserve" set by the gun owners, and were only willing to pay $220,000 for a gun valued at between $300,000 and $500,000, according to a Reuters report .

But on Aug. 27, the gun sold for $235,000 at an auction that included the sale of Han Solo's DL-44 Heavy Blaster, one of several used in the filming of "Star Wars: A New Hope."

The movie prop weapon netted $1.06 million.

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTA
Jeremy Fugleberg is editor of The Vault, Forum Communications Co.'s home for Midwest history, mysteries, crime and culture. He is also a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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