G is for Gunfight

Wild_Bill_Hickok_sepiaG is for gunfights – Gunfights in the Old West were almost nothing like they’ve been re-imagined in Western novels and films. The closest thing that comes to the classical idea of two men squared off against one another on the street drawing pistols and firing happened July 21, 1865.

William Hickok was drinking and playing cards in Springfield Missouri when an old friend, Davis Tutt began to harass him about a gambling debt. Hickok gave his watch to Tutt as collateral for the loan with a warning that it was not to be worn by his friend. The next day in the town square Tutt appeared brandishing the watch as if it were a trophy. Hickock faced off against him, and the two men drew and fired. Hickock’s round found its mark and Tutt fell dead.

After Hickok’s trial Judge Boyd instructed the jury that their only option was to convict unless they applied the unwritten law of the “fair fight”. This they did and the Hollywood version of the western gunfight, in which killing was fine so long as it was a fair fight, was born.

But it was far more common that a man approached another from behind with his weapon in hand and surprised him. When his enemy turned around the assailant, not showing much interest in fair play, would cut him down. This was typical of Wild West shootouts. Even when men faced each other, almost always the opponents approached gun already in hand and began shooting as soon as they were close enough to be reasonably sure of hitting their mark.

There was another and perhaps most common of all types of gunfight. For this we can turn to another incident involving the man who had become known as Wild Bill Hickok. Almost exactly eleven years after he gunned down Davis Tutt in Springfield, Bill was playing cards in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. Jack McCall, an acquaintance of Bill’s walked up behind him at point blank range and fired a bullet into his head. This sort of back shooting that the Hollywood director would find very non-cinematic was a far more common gunfight than Hickok’s previous escapade in Springfield.

And the curious thing is that an ad hoc miners’ jury found Jack McCall not guilty of murder in a two hour trial after that shooting. But perhaps the West was losing some of its “wild”. A US court later rearrested McCall, tried and hanged him. They were undeterred by double jeopardy as the first jury, which acquitted, had not been a proper one.

Which Wild West gunfight do you find most interesting – tell us about it.

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