The Origins of the Dead Man’s Hand

Playing poker is a game filled with different combinations of cards with a variety of meanings. One such combination is the dead man’s hand, consisting of two black aces and two black eights. Although some see it as a hand that can help you win big, it is also associated with death and misfortune.

People often use it as a bluff in high-stakes poker games. If played correctly, it can even end the poker game. So how did this particular combination get its name?

Not surprisingly, the reason this combination of cards is called the dead man’s hand started with the death of Wild Bill Hickok, and its reputation has grown ever since. Wild Bill Hickok was a famous folk hero of the American Old West, known for his life on the frontier, where he was a soldier, scout, lawman, gambler, actor, and showman.

Unsurprisingly, his antics earned him a great deal of notoriety, much of it bolstered by stories he told people. While many of the tales were pure fiction, they became a part of his legend and remained the basis of his fame.

Wild Bill Hickok

The Death of Wild Bill Hickok

Hickok was born and raised in Northern Illinois during a time when lawlessness and vigilante justice were common. Wild Bill was drawn to this lifestyle. At 18, he was a fugitive, so Wild Bill headed west. He ended up working as a stagecoach driver and a lawman.

During the Civil War, Hickok served as a scout and marksman. He was also involved in several famous shootouts.

In 1876, Hickok played poker in a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, now known as South Dakota. Jack McCall was an unsuccessful gambler and drunk when he sat down to play in that poker game.

It was no surprise that McCall lost heavily. Hickok encouraged him to quit the game until he could cover his losses and even offered him money to buy breakfast. While McCall took the money, he also was insulted by Hickok’s advice.

The next day, Hickok played five-card stud, another form of poker. Although Wild Bill normally took the seat that would allow him a view of the door and keep his back against the wall, that day, the only seat available was a chair facing away from the door.

It turned out to be a fatal mistake for Hickok. Although Hickok asked a man named Charles Rich to trade seats with him twice, Rich declined to give up his seat. That left Hickok vulnerable.

A short time later, McCall entered the saloon, walked up behind Hickok, drew his gun, and shouted, “Damn you! Take that!”

The bullet from McCall’s Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army .45-caliber revolver entered the back of Hickok’s head, killing him instantly, before exiting from his right cheek and striking another player, Captain Massie, in the left wrist.

The hand Hickok supposedly held at the time of his death was two pairs, black aces and black eights. The identity of his fifth card, or hold card, remains unknown, although there have been many debates over the years about what it was.

That hand came to be known as the dead man’s hand with its aces and eights. Since there is no way to verify exactly what Hickok held in his hand during that fateful game, the legend was born.

The real reason behind McCall’s decision to kill Hickok remains subject to conjecture. At his first informal trial by local businessmen and miners, McCall claimed that he was avenging Hickok’s killing of his brother, which may have been true. Evidence has been uncovered that an unknown lawman killed a man named Lew McCall in Abilene, Kansas. However, there is no conclusive proof that the two men were related.

McCall was acquitted of murder by those men, but he didn’t stay free for long. After bragging about killing Hickok, McCall was rearrested by the United States authorities and tried again.

His second trial was not deemed double jeopardy because an irregular jury led his first one, and Deadwood was in Indian country. The new trial was held in Yankton, the capital of the Dakota territory at that time.

The trial ended with McCall being found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Lorenzo Butler Hickok, Wild Bill’s brother, had traveled to Yankton for the trial. Reporters later interviewed Lorenzo and noted that McCall showed no remorse when Lorenzo talked with him after the trial.

Leander Richardson, a reporter for the Scribner’s Monthly, noted that in the second trial, it was suggested that McCall had been hired to kill Hickok by gamblers who feared that Wild Bill would be appointed to be a lawman in the territory, a post that Hickok had previously held in Kansas.

In 1877, McCall was hanged and buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery. Years later, when the cemetery was moved, McCall was exhumed and found to still have the noose around his neck.

Hickok was buried in Deadwood but later moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery. Markers on his grave were continually defaced, including a wooden marker, statue, and life-sized sculpture of Hickok. Today, a monument marks his grave.

The Dead Man’s Hand in Popular Culture

Today, it is accepted that the dead man’s hand is made of two aces and two eights. If you get this hand, it is considered a cursed hand, although the makeup of the dead man’s hand did not enter into poker parlance until after 1926 when Frank Wilstach published his book Wild Bill Hickok.

The dead man’s hand has frequently appeared in popular culture, from books to movies, with ominous circumstances surrounding the characters who receive the dead man’s hand.

For instance, in the novel Along Came a Spider, by James Patterson, Jezzie Flannigan shares a story about how her father won his gun with a hand of aces and eights.

A television show based on the life of Wild Bill was created in the 1950s. In 1979, Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. Although the stories about his life may contain only a kernel of truth, Hickok’s legend has lived on through his final poker hand, the dead man’s hand.

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