Dead Man’s Hand


The Death of Wild Bill Hickok, by D. J. McAdam.Wild Bill Hickok

There are a number of poker hands that are famous for one reason or another, but perhaps the most sinister is the Dead Man’s Hand, so named because it was the hand held by James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok when he met his untimely demise.

The incident occurred in Deadwood Gulch, in the Black Hills of the Dakotas.  Gold had been found in the region in 1874, leading to the establishment of the town.  There is a tradition that, when Hickok first laid eyes on the place, he had a premonition that he would not leave town alive.

Whether or not that is true, it can be verified that Hickok was playing poker in Nuttal and Mann’s saloon on August 2nd, 1876.  A man by the name of Crooked Nose McCall approached Hickok and shot him in the back of the head.  Theories as to McCall’s motive vary; some say that he was simply drunk (not too uncommon in those days, and those environs), while others speculate that he may have been hired to assassinate Hickok before the latter could be appointed sheriff of Deadwood and bring law and order to its citizens.  The shot was fatal, and Wild Bill Hickok slid to the floor, still holding his cards. 

Poker back then was draw poker, and so Hickok would have had five cards in his hand: two aces, two eights, and a queen. 

There are a few unimportant additions and variations in some accounts.  Some say that all five cards were black, others that the fifth card (the kicker) was a ten, not a queen.  But all agree that Hickok was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights when he was shot, and that combination has become known as the dead man’s hand.  There are superstitious poker players to this day who will not play a hand with a pair of aces and a pair of eights.