Eric Boss reviews WILD BILL
The subtitle here is “The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter”. Clavin has gone to great pains to assure accuracy, since the myths surrounding the figure of J.B. Hickok abound. One of the first true media celebrities, his fictional adventures were published extensively and sold worldwide during his short and eventful lifetime. The bibliographic information included demonstrates first how thoroughly the author has researched the subject but also the enduring interest in this fascinating individual. Today we would be reading internet accounts of his daily activities: in his day, the dime novels read by adults and youngsters alike facilitated the nearly universal recognition he received, and newspaper correspondents followed his path like modern-day paparazzi.
Said to be the perpetrator of the first “High Noon” style shootout on main street, Hollywood style, he truly was a master “shootist”. He was caricatured by John Wayne in a movie of that name which even paraphrased some of his known better-known sayings. A carrier of twin Colt revolvers and typically a small firearm, a shotgun and a bowie knife, he was a fearsome character and accorded a wide berth by one and all. It is said he could clear a room or suppress a brawl by his presence alone. At six- feet-something and built like an athlete, he was as handy with his fists as with his sidearms. As an Indian fighter, law officer, gambler and army scout he knew an astonishing number of the famous characters of Western legend including Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, George Armstrong Custer, Calamity Jane and John Wesley Hardin. If all this sounds a little Forrest Gump/Zelig-like, we can believe the author when he says it’s true. If it was happening in Dodge City, Abilene, Cheyenne or Deadwood, Wild Bill was there. He was, in addition, a great hand with the ladies, having established relationships with perhaps dozens of women across the West. It’s no wonder Hollywood and television have made so much of him. He was ready made for stardom on the large or small screen.
It wasn’t all “beer and skittles” as the Brits would have it. He struggled with financial troubles, the need to keep moving to avoid potential assassins and in later years, deteriorating eyesight. Not one to complain, however, he confronted life upright and unafraid. It is believed that he even accurately predicted his own demise at the hands of an unworthy murderer. His love life was also plagued by his profession and he was forced to live much of his latter years separated from his wife and reported love of his life. He had numerous affairs, but none of much import, save his last, and his legendary relationship with Calamity Jane existed mostly in the minds of readers of the faulty reportage and the imagination of Calamity herself, who was a self-promoter and saw an opportunity to gain by association with the famous gunslinger, especially after his death.
The author of the NYT-bestseller Dodge City, Clavin gives us a clear-eyed view of a man whose life has been clouded, positively so, by popular culture and shrouded from true history by extreme notoriety. It is notable that the real Hickock is equally as impressive and fascinating as the fictional one. It’s a shame this book hasn’t been written before, but Tom Clavin has remedied that. With a no-nonsense, straightforward and practically journalistic style, he gives us carefully worded account of this truly remarkable individual’s equally remarkable life.
Shelf Talker: From the author of the NYT bestseller Dodge City, this factual account of the life of the truly remarkable Wild Bill Hickok will fascinate both readers of Western history and lovers of the Great American Western legacy.