Archive for March 1st, 2008

1877: Jack McCall, Wild Bill’s murderer

3 comments March 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1877, Jack McCall was hanged in Yankton, South Dakota, for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok.

It was the most notorious crime in the old west: the legendary gunfighter and lawman shot from behind playing poker in the gold rush town Deadwood, S.D. on August 2, 1876.

McCall‘s grievance against Wild Bill remains unclear, which seems no less than properly atmospheric. One version has him losing at cards to Hickok the night before the murder, then humiliated to accept Hickok’s charity for his evening meal. Since Deadwood sprang up on Lakota Sioux land in defiance of treaty obligations and thus was an outlaw settlement without legal oversight, McCall might also have been engaged by another party to eliminate the town’s de facto source of law further to some private profit.

That speculation gains some circumstantial support from the surprising proceedings the following day. An impromptu “miner’s court” acquitted McCall — the defendant claimed to have been avenging the murder of a brother who does not seem to have ever existed at all — of a murder they plainly knew he committed. This obliging verdict prompted a newspaper to remark,

Should it ever be our misfortune to kill a man … we would simply ask that our trial may take place in some of the mining camps of these hills.

McCall made for Wyoming, but couldn’t resist boasting of his famous crime, which was known to have graduated into a fair gunfight in his retelling. The times and the lands were unsettled enough that with an ounce of discretion he might have vanished. Instead, his loose lips got him nabbed by a federal marshal and extradited back to South Dakota — where he learned that the miner’s court verdict of an illicit settlement didn’t count as a legal acquittal for purposes of double jeopardy.

His hanging this morning — with the pertinent last words, “draw it tighter, Marshal” — was the first legal execution in South Dakota.

Like the reason for his one memorable act, McCall was an obscure character; his background was uncertain even when he lived. It was only through his victim that he left an imprint: he certainly elevated the legend of Hickok, whose cinematic demise also bequeathed to the arcane poker argot the term “dead man’s hand” — a pair of aces and a pair of eights (or more specifically, the black aces and black eights; the fifth card is uncertain) — after the last hand of cards Wild Bill ever held.

The dead man’s hand. Image used with permission.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Hanged,Infamous,Language,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Public Executions,South Dakota,USA


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