The History of the Office of Sheriff: Chapter 15
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By Schenectady Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi

© 1998. The History of the Office of Sheriff was published and copyrighted in 1998 by Schenectady County Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi.
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On August 2, 1876, the blast of a Colt Peacemaker rang out above the sounds of the saloon patrons in Deadwood, South Dakota's Number Ten Saloon. The bullet drove through the skull of the seated cardplayer and came to rest in the arm of the man he was opposing. As the man slumped to his death he was still holding his cards. He had aces and eights, which would have been the winning hand. This variation of cards would from that time on be known as the "deadman's hand."

In June 1876, Bill Hickok, Colorado Charlie Utter, and "Calamity Jane" Canary were among the fortune seekers landing in Deadwood, S.D. Hickok, who had recently married a circus performer named Agnes Thatcher, planned to provide for himself and his new bide (whom he had left behind after a two-week honeymoon in Cincinnati) by winning miners' gold dust at the gaming tables.

Wild Bill usually followed a few self-preservation rules that had served him well. He would pour drinks with his left hand so as to keep his best gun hand free. He would carry two guns to enhance the odds in his favor. He would play cards with his back to the wall and his face to the door so no one could sneak up behind him.

On August 2, Wild Bill joined a card game in progress. The table's only vacant would place his back to the door. He asked Charles Rich near the wall to switch seats. That player, also a gunman, refused. So Bill took the empty chair, not his usual practice. Jack McCall, a no-account handyman walked up behind Hickok and shot him in the back of the head.

Passersby grabbed him while the saloon patrons convened a "miners court" having no real legal authority. After claiming Hickok had killed his brother, McCall was freed and fled town. His later bragging led to his real arrest and trial. He was hanged on March 1, 1877, and buried in an unmarked grave.

The killing of Wild Bill, the capture of McCall, and his trial are re-enacted every summer evening in Deadwood. Bill's chair is still on display at Saloon No. 10 that claims to be the world's only museum with a bar.

For the more related material, visit the Adams Museum in Deadwood.

The dead man was none other than the notorious Wild Bill Hickok, who would breathe his last breath at age thirty-nine. It ended the spectacular career of a gunman and a lawman. He was credited with killing some thirty to eighty-five men, depending on who was doing the counting. More by his own account, but on this day, Jack McCall fired the fatal shot into Wild Bill's head that would forever stop the count.

Born James Butler Hickok in 1837, he would hold many positions in his short life. At eighteen he got his first taste of violence when he was working as a muleskinner in the building of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Another worker was tormenting him and when Hickok had enough he tossed the co-worker into the canal. When he did not see the man surface, he assumed he had killed him and fled to Missouri. Though the man was not dead, Hickok did not know it and his life's adventure would begin on that violent note. Fixed with a penchant for adventure, he worked as a bodyguard for a prominent abolitionist and a stage driver along the Santa Fe Trail. Somewhere along the Trail folks, dropped the name Jim and began calling him Bill. Perhaps because he had a huge nose and protruding upturned top lip, it was a variation or abbreviation of "Duckbill."

The "Wild" addition to the name was surely deserved. . . . This wild streak proved to be an advantage during the Civil War, when he was a scout and spy for the Northern cause. After several documented and notorious killings he was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal. In 1869, Wild Bill was appointed sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas to fill a temporary vacancy. As well as being sheriff, he held a concurrent job as town marshal of Hays City, Kansas. . . .

While in law enforcement Bill kept the local undertaker busy. . . . Another law enforcement encounter was as a result of Custer's 7th Cavalry being stationed at Fort Hays. General George Armstrong Custer's brother, Captain Tom Custer, was arrested by Bill for disturbing the peace. Seeking revenge on Hickok, Tom Custer gathered a few of his troops and beat Bill severely. During the melee Wild Bill wound up killing one soldier and severely wounding two more; but Custer escaped. Deciding that discretion called for him to leave law enforcement behind in Hays, Hickok pursued a career with Buffalo Bill Cody on his Wild West Show.

Wild Bill's most critical biographer, William E. Connelley, has said that fear "was simply a quality he lacked." Bravery was certainly his most admirable quality but it was killing for which he would be most noted. A 1867 published report of a Hickok conversation reflects this:

"I say, Bill, or Mr. Hickok, how many white men have you killed to your certain knowledge"? After some thought, Hickok replied, "I would be willing to take my oath on a Bible tomorrow that I have killed a hundred" . . . .

Sometime later Hickok was again quoted regarding his killer reputation:

"I suppose I am called a red-handed murderer, which I deny. That I have killed men I admit, but never unless in absolute self-defense, or in performance of an official duty. I never, in all my life took any mean advantage of an enemy. Yet understand, I never allowed a man to get a drop on me. But perhaps I may yet die with my boots on."

This last sentence was indeed prophetic.

. . . Wild Bill Hickok killed more than any other person to hold the office of sheriff in the Wild West. He might be described as a homicidal maniac or dauntless defender of justice depending on the point of view you wish to adopt.


William Barclay "Bat" Masterson and his older brother Ed left home and moved to Dodge City in 1872. They took up the buffalo hunting trade and lived the wild life, cashing in their pay for town sprees filled with women, whiskey, and gambling.

After leaving law enforcement, Bat Masterson drifted about gambling, promoting racetrack events and raising race horses. He also began writing for the local newspapers. His stories were well received. In 1891, he married Emma Walters. Soon he spent less time gambling and drinking and more time writing and with his wife. In 1901, he was hired as the chief sports writer for the NY Morning Telegraph and moved to New York.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt offered Masterson a position as a U.S. Marshal in Oklahoma Territory, but he turned it down:

"Dear Mr. President, I am not the man for the job . . . . I would be bait for grown-up kids who had fed on dime novels. I would have to kill or be killed. . . . I have taken my guns off, and I don't ever want to put them on again."

On Oct. 25, 1921, Masterson, suffering a cold, went to his desk at the newspaper to catch up on some belated writing. He wrote:

"There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I'll swear that I can't see it that way..."

These were his last words of any kind. He was found a moments later, head on desk, pen in hand. He had died of a heart attack. For related material, visit:

In 1875, during one of these indulgences, Bat received a pelvic wound in a gunfight. In 1876, while walking around Dodge, with the aid of a cane (or bat), he ran into an old buffalo hunting acquaintance named Wyatt Earp. Earp was the assistant city marshal and hired on Bat as a deputy, which began his law enforcement career.

The nickname Bat is reputed to have originated from two separate and distinct sources. One legend tells us that because he walked with the aid of a cane, this stick (bat) was used as a baton or impact weapon in his law enforcement capacity. It is universally understood that Masterson used this weapon with frequency and preferred the weapon to a pistol, in most situations, to convince resisting offenders that jail was their next destination. The other source of the nickname legend is that many of his friends, including Theodore Roosevelt, called him "Bart", which was short for Bartholomiew, a variation of his middle name Barclay. . . .

Wyatt Earp convinced Bat Masterson to run for sheriff of Ford County in 1877. After he was elected to the post he was anchored in Dodge City, where the county seat was located. One evening in 1878, he witnessed Jack Wagner and Alf Walker gun down his brother. Without hesitation Bat responded in kind and shot the duo on the spot, killing them both.

Bat often caroused in Dodge City with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. . . . Though Masterson had won the office of sheriff, he had done so by a slim three vote margin, and his sporting antics did not enhance his stature within the community. Bat and Wyatt spent so much time in Dodge City brothels seeking courtesy discounts, the two were known as the "fighting pimps". In 1879, the voters of Ford County overwhelmingly voted out Bat Masterson from his office, electing a bartender named George Hinkle to the post.

By 1885, Masterson returned to Dodge City to work the faro tables at the Long Branch Saloon. He served briefly as a deputy sheriff and helped quell a mob out to tar and feather a prohibitionist who was determined to shut down Dodge's saloons. After about a year, Bat moved on and began promoting prize fights. He also wrote about the fight game and published several stories about prize fighting in various Western newspapers.

Theodore Roosevelt spent considerable time in the West and valued friendships with cowboys, hunters, painters, and writers of the Old West. Remarkably, the favorite figure of the twenty-sixth president of the United States was the gunfighter, killer, gambler, saloon owner, and former sheriff - Bat Masterson. Their friendship lasted for many years and Bat was a frequent and welcome guest at the White House.

As president, Roosevelt appointed Bat, the former fighting pimp, U.S. deputy marshal of New York. A year later, Roosevelt offered Bat the post of U.S. marshal of Oklahoma. Though Roosevelt knew about some of Bat's rather seedy background, he thought it would be fitting to place him back in the West. Bat contemplated the very real possibility that this position might put him in jeopardy, as his fame as a former gunfighter might inspire some "wanna-be" gunslinger to try and to make a reputation by gunning him down. Based on this, Bat declined the position and lived out the rest of his life in midtown Manhattan as a daily sports columnist, and never lost contact with Roosevelt.

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Copyright © 1998, 1999 Harry C. Buffardi ©

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form including photostat, microfilm, xerography, or fax transmission. Nor may any part be stored in a computer or other information storage system without the permission of the author.