|Sen. Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart): “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”
Scott, (a newspaperman): “No sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
— The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)
By Eric C. Rodenberg
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — In the American Wild West, during the past century and a half, layer upon layer of legend overlay – and often obscures – the facts.
And when the stakes are raised to a possible half-million dollars, Wild West collectors must ask themselves whether they’re bidding on legend or facts.
The upcoming Nov. 18 sale by Bonhams of the gun Wild Bill Hickok was carrying when shot in the back of the head in a Deadwood saloon underscores several points of contention between historians and auction house specialists.
The stakes are high with an estimated sale of $300,000 to $500,000. The No. 2 Smith and Wesson .32 revolver is a toy for the “big boys,” several of whom are playing in the arena of Wild West collectibles. Among them is billionaire William Koch who, in 2011, paid $2.3 million for what is believed to be the last surviving portrait of Billy the Kid.
“We haven’t had the chance to catalog the gun yet,” said David Akers, an arms specialist at Bonhams. “But, we already have very serious buyers interested … as they say, it only takes two bidders to make an auction fly … I believe we have that and probably more.”
These high-flying bidders are seeking to buy a “connection” with the heroes and villains of America’s most enduring time period – a relatively short period of time between the Civil War and the advance of the railroads (or civilization) in the 1880s.
Without the Hickok provenance, the gun is worth “about $1,500 to $2,000,” Akers said. “It’s a very plain-looking gun.”
But the provenance is very good, according to his boss, Bonhams’ director of arms and armor Paul Carella.
“The gun has only been in two families; it’s very well documented,” Carella said. “The gun has not been outside the two families since Hickok died. The family who received the gun has been a reputable name within the Deadwood community for years. It’s never been on the market – never traded – since they received it.”
Hickok arrived in Deadwood about July 12, 1876, according to reports.
“Wild Bill spent less than a month in Deadwood, yet, if we were to believe even half the stories of his exploits during that period, the time would seem to have been much longer,” according to The West of Wild Bill Hickok by Joseph G. Rosa.
The “family story,” according to Carella, is that Wild Bill quickly had run up a sizable tab at Fishel’s Bazaar, a dry-goods store.
When he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall on Aug. 2, 1876, “it was quite likely that the deceased Hickok’s effects were held by the sheriff’s office,” said Bonham’s description.
The gun, in turn, was given to a member of the Fishel family by Sheriff Seth Bullock as a reimbursement for the tab, according to family lore.
However, at this key juncture of custody, history becomes somewhat murky.
The day Wild Bill was killed; there was no sheriff, according to David A. Wolff, professor of Western History at Black Hills State University.
“At the time there was no county in Deadwood,” Wolff said. “The Dakotas were still a territory. It wasn’t until after 1877, quite a bit after Hickok’s murder, that a sheriff was appointed by Gov. Pennington.”
Despite stories that Bullock personally took the guns from Hickok’s body, Wolff contends Bullock wasn’t in town that day.
Wolff, who wrote the 2009 book, Seth Bullock: Black Hills Lawman, said he reviewed a letter written by Bullock to friends at his Montana home saying he arrived at Deadwood the day after Hickok was killed.
“It’s been some time since I’ve read the letter,” Wolff said, “but I don’t remember him writing about Hickok’s death. He does mention, however, that Bullock wrote about what a tough place Deadwood was, lots of violence. He wrote that, ’he didn’t know how long he could take Deadwood.’”
Another historian James G. Rosa, who has written at least four books on Hickok during his 40-year study of the man, concurs with Wolff. He also casts doubt as to the gun’s authenticity.
“My immediate reaction to the No. 2 S & W is to reject it as I did with two others that turned up as late as the 1960s,” Rosa wrote in an email to AntiqueWeek. “The problem is that none of the alleged Hickok guns, that is revolvers, have a provenance that has a contemporary origin, or where the serial number or other details are recorded.
“They are all purported and accompanied by statements that suggest that Charlie Utter sold them to pay for Hickok’s funeral when I believe that (Utter) would have paid it himself. Then there are the reports that Seth Bullock took it off his body, etc. etc. But Bullock did not reach Deadwood until after Hickok’s murder, so that is yet another yarn.”
As part of Bonham’s provenance is a statement by exhibition pistoleer Ed McGivern (1874-1957), in his book Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting (1938) which details his visit to Deadwood in 1932 to research Wild Bill’s guns.
“The Willoth gun (in possession of Hazel Fishel Willoth) is quite generally established as being one of Wild Bill’s guns, and all reports seem to support such claim convincingly.”
Bonhams point to McGivern’s testimony as key evidence of the gun’s provenance.
“It was widely known in the community that Bullock gave the gun to the family. It was true in 1932, and it’s true today,” Carella said. “It’s a very compelling story.”
Carella, however, does allow that it’s difficult to get a 100 percent guarantee of such a gun, tracing it directly back to Hickok.
“It’s almost impossible with most of these particular artifacts,” Carella said. “We have to look at the quality and directness of the story itself. It’s long been regarded by the Deadwood community as being Hickok’s gun. The Fishels were a prominent family. No one questioned the story then, why question it now? … We’re working with the best of what we have.”
In one of Rosa’s books, They Called Him Wild Bill (1964), the author wrote that Hickok’s good friend Charlie Utter may have had Wild Bill’s guns.
“Charlie Utter allegedly told L.B. Hickok (Bill’s brother) that he had gotten Bill’s six shooters from the railroad officials and to write him so he could send them. L.B. wrote Charlie, but they were never sent. A 1915 letter from Bill’s sister Lydia stated that the family never received nor knew where any of the guns or any other personal property was.”
Does that mean that Wild Bill’s gun was stolen, and the present owner has no legal ownership?
“Nothing in provenance is black and white,” Wolff said. “It’s almost impossible when you’re looking back 125-150 years at a period of chaos and lawlessness. There’s nothing in Seth Bullock’s history that indicate he ever knew Hickok. Later in his life, has he got older, he loved to tell tales of the Wild West. I think he moved that date up (his arrival in Deadwood), later in life just to appear that he was there.
“Maybe he even believed it. But, I have to believe the Seth Bullock who wrote that letter a few days after arriving in Deadwood, rather than the Seth Bullock in his latter days.”
And the black aces and eights Hickok is said to be holding when he was shot in the saloon?
“I also learned that the so-called ’Deadman’s Hand’ was coined in the 1920s, and the expression had been used long before Hickok’s death,” Rosa wrote AntiqueWeek. “I am told that the hand he held was not as alleged. So it goes on.”