2019 Festival Author Reveals the ‘True’ Wild Bill Hickok

Character Study by Tom Clavin Reveals More Complexity Than Anticipated

By South Dakota Magazine & South Dakota Humanities Council
Editor's Note: A version of this feature story appears in our 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books Guide produced by South Dakota Magazine. Download a free copy of the Festival Guide below!

Tom Clavin's aim in his new biography of Wild Bill Hickok is to find the true story of the man who famously met his demise at the hands of assassin Jack McCall inside Deadwood's Saloon No. 10. Clavin will lead audiences through the gunman's adventures in the very same town where Hickok was shot: Deadwood.

The legendary Wild West town in the Black Hills will host more than 60 presenters, including Clavin, during the 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books Oct. 4-6. As South Dakota's premier annual literary event, held each fall, the Festival draws more than 4,000 attendees and showcases more than 50 distinguished authors, scholars and publishers. Attendees and speakers participate in panels, workshops and readings.

As Clavin acknowledges in the beginning of his new book, Hickok is remembered mostly through the legends that overshadowed him. But the man readers meet in "Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter" is much more than a vagabond with a quick trigger finger.

Wild Bill is Clavin's third foray into Western history, following "The Heart of Everything That Is" (with Bob Drury) and "Dodge City." Clavin says a study of Hickok came naturally after his work on Dodge City and its equally legendary characters Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.

"Most people are aware that Wild Bill is some kind of a mythical figure of the West and know him as a gunfighter. But I didn't really know too much else about him," he says. "I think that was an advantage because when I started researching, I discovered there were so many more aspects to the guy. He packed several different lives into a relatively short one of 39 years. It was such a revelation to me to find out that he was more of a complex and real person than I had anticipated. It was just one surprise after another."

Legendary Lawman's Reputation Instilled Fear

Take, for instance, his time as a Civil War spy. Hickok often donned Confederate gray and infiltrated rebel lines to gain intelligence for Union forces. His reputation as a lawman in Hays City and Abilene in Kansas both fed the Hickok myth and instilled legitimate fear in outlaws.

He was indeed a quick and accurate shot, and many a gunslinger bent on violence was carried out of town, but journalists from the East greatly exaggerated Hickok's exploits. Eventually, Hickok himself repeated and even added to the grandiose stories.

An interesting revelation in Clavin's book is that by the early 1870s, Hickok began having trouble with his eyesight. A Kansas City doctor told him that he would eventually go blind. Whatever the malady was, it may have played a part in his death.

Perhaps he didn't recognize McCall, whom Hickok had angered during a poker game the night before, when McCall entered the saloon on Aug. 2, 1876, and sneaked behind him.

"It was the only way to kill Wild Bill, really," Clavin says. "History had shown that you couldn't confront him and outdraw or outshoot him. Given that he was the undisputed, undefeated heavyweight champion of gunfighters, the only way you could have gotten him was a sucker punch from behind."

2019 Festival author Tom Clavin is releasing a new book about Wild Bill Hickock, a legendary character from the Wild West (pictured above).

2019 Festival author Tom Clavin is releasing a new book about Wild Bill Hickock, a legendary figure from the Wild West (pictured above). 

Hickock: A 'Fascinating Person'

Clavin pored through contemporary sources — newspapers, letters, recollections by those who knew Wild Bill — to find these anecdotes. He also credits Joseph Rosa, an Englishman who became infatuated with Wild Bill in the 1950s. Rosa made several research trips to America, seeking out Hickok's surviving family members. "He did a lot of really solid research. The only reliable biography that had been done about Hickok was Rosa's book in 1964, and nothing since then."

Now, 55 years later, Clavin will discuss his own 294-page biography of Wild Bill just blocks from where the legendary gunfighter died. "It's going to feel like an honor," he says. "He's buried there, and I tried as hard as I could to capture the real Wild Bill Hickok, warts and all, and what a fascinating person he was."

Friday, Oct. 4

Saturday, Oct 5

More About Tom Clavin

Tom Clavin was a New York Times reporter for 15 years and a weekly newspaper editor for 12 years before turning to writing full-time. Four of his books have been New York Times bestsellers: "Dodge City," "The Heart of Everything That Is," "Halsey's Typhoon" and "The Last Stand of Fox Company." His latest tells the true story of Wild Bill Hickock. A resident of Sag Harbor, N.Y., Clavin has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Newspaper Association and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.

More About the Festival of Books

To read more about authors who will be appearing at the 2019 Festival of Books, click below to visit the Festival of Books website, which includes information about authors, venues, events and more.