Dan Seligman speaks on the famed “dead man’s hand.” Photos by James Kinneen
By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
On Monday afternoon, April 29, Dan Seligman gave a presentation to the Westwood Council on Aging that tried to find the truth among the myths and legends of the legendary American gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. Seligman explained that far before Hollywood, dime store novels that were “written by hack writers but sold like hotcakes” and stage plays starring the legendary figures themselves had distorted the truth terribly.
He would be looking to get to the truth of what actually happened.A great example of this aforementioned distortion was Hickok’s first gunfight against the McCanles gang. Essentially, one of the McCanles was owed money from a company and started harassing a low-level employee named Horace Wellman about it. He was a bully who had gotten into a fight with the employee’s wife’s father, so the wife and he started arguing until eventually a shot rang out. McCanles’ friends showed up, more shots were fired, and when the dust had settled, McCanles had died. Hickok was tried for the murder and found not guilty.
The story eventually became sensationalized, with some accounts where “Hickok’s defending a defenseless widow from a brutal gang.” The funny part is that in actuality, the only woman present was Wellman’s wife, who “finished one of the wounded men off with a garden hoe.”
Interestingly, one of the most famous exaggerations in Western history was not hugely exaggerated when it comes to Hickok. Seligman explained that when it comes to Hickok’s gunfight against Davis Tutt, “any historian will tell you the idea of two gunslingers facing off in the center of town almost never happened - the operative word being ‘almost,’ because it happened here.”
Although they fought at around six in the evening, not at high noon, Seligman spoke of how Hickok and Tutt really did fight it out in the center of town. But unlike the movies, Hickok was tried for the shooting. However, he was again found not guilty.
Unlike good friend Buffalo Bill Cody, Hickok’s show business work left much to be desired. After starting a wild west show almost a full decade before Cody’s, which ultimately failed as a business venture, Hickok became a stage actor playing himself. Seligman explained that Hickok was the “world’s worst actor” and that his stage career is filled with stories about shooting out spotlights, shooting at the feet of actors playing Indians, and a general lack of understanding about what he was supposed to be doing.
Hickok’s death gave rise to a now-legendary trope of Hollywood Westerns - although it is most likely wrong. Hickok was living in Deadwood at the time, and for whatever reason, he did not (as he always did) sit with his back to the wall while gambling. As a result, he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall, supposedly while holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights. This would come to be known as the “dead man’s hand” when a 1926 novel cited it as the hand Hickok was holding. But, one of the few men there at the time disputes this account; he wrote a book claiming Hickok was holding a full house.
Still, the legends will live on without someone around to set the record straight.
Luckily for the seniors of the Westwood Council on Aging, on Monday, Dan Seligman was around to do just that.