- Born in rural Illinois, James Hickok developed extraordinary shooting skills in an otherwise unremarkable childhood. He left home and travelled west in 1855, working irregularly as a farmhand, hired gun and stagecoach driver. During the Civil War, he was a Union spy in Missouri. After the war, he served as marshall in several rough frontier towns, and as a cavalryman in the "Indian Wars." Over the years, his gunfighting and gambling prowess became the stuff of "wild west" lore, exaggerated, embellished and celebrated in contemporary pulp fiction. Among his legendary exploits, he reportedly killed a bear in hand-to-hand combat armed with only a bowie knife. His romance with Martha Jane Burke, aka "Calamity Jane," similarly provided material for dime novelists.
Hickok soon parlayed his status as pop culture icon into a new career. He starred as "Wild Bill" in the play Scouts of the Praires, and toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show in 1872-73. Eventually he returned to the frontier and resumed gambling. During a poker game in 1876, a gunman shot him in the back as he held two pairs, aces over eights--a holding henceforth known as "the dead man's hand." One historian writes, "As was the case with most Western characters, Hickok's fame grew with the passage of time and he became in the hands of later writers the classic frontier hero--upright, fearless, and almost superhuman in his ability to outfight and outshoot desperadoes of all sorts in any numbers."
SOURCE:Webster's American Biographies.