Tom Clavin, author of a new book on "Wild Bill"...

Tom Clavin, author of a new book on "Wild Bill" Hickok, near his home in Sag Harbor. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

He’s one of the most iconic figures of 19th-century American history, but how much do we really know about gunfighter “Wild Bill” Hickok? The mythology surrounding him has long been fodder for dime-store novels and Western movies, but it turns out the real Wild Bill was much more fascinating than the fiction that’s grown around him. Sag Harbor's Tom Clavin, author of the bestselling “Dodge City,” spoke to Newsday by telephone about his new book, “Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter” (St. Martin’s Press, 336 pp., $29.99), which tells the true story of the legendary folk hero.

I didn't know much about Wild Bill Hickok besides the legends, so it was interesting to read the real story about him.

Wild Bill Hickok is a name everybody knows, and they may have this vague image of who he was, but there really is quite a story behind him. He actually was a gunfighter, and he was also a sheriff, a federal marshal, a stage actor in New York, a spy during the Civil War. He married the love of his life, who was not Calamity Jane; it was a circus impresario.

How did you get interested in writing a book about him?

The last Hickok biography for a mainstream audience that was done was by Joseph Rosa in 1964, and he did a revised paperback edition in '74. So it seemed like it was certainly time to do a new one. There have been a couple of generations of people that have not had access to his life. Wild Bill was the natural progression, to find out what life was like on the frontier between the Civil War and the “Dodge City” days.

What do you think would surprise most people to learn about him?

One of the things that surprised me the most was that he was only 39 years old when he was killed. He packed a lot of life into 39 years. When he's been represented on screen, it's by older men. In the series “Deadwood” on HBO, he was portrayed by Keith Carradine, who was in his 60s. Wild Bill was a young man when he was murdered, and he had already lived a life that was enough for five men. Another thing that surprises people is that you had a man who had a reputation as the No. 1 gunfighter on the frontier, and he was going blind. It's a sad part of the story, but he kept pushing on. There's a part in the story where he's in the latter part of his life, and he's confronted by these five guys from Montana, and he didn't back down, or say, “I can't really see well, can you let me slide on this one, fellas?” He really challenged them, he said, “Come on, bring it on.”

"Wild Bill" by Tom Clavin (St. Martin's, February 2019)

"Wild Bill" by Tom Clavin (St. Martin's, February 2019) Credit: St. Martin’s

One of the things I thought I knew about Wild Bill was this romance with Calamity Jane.

Wild Bill did have a love of his life, and it was a woman who was a circus owner 11 years his senior, Agnes Lake, and she had a fascinating career of her own. She was a career woman, and she was raising her daughter to be an international equestrian star. And Wild Bill had his own life on the frontier. They led incompatible lives, and that's what kept them apart. But the character of Agnes Lake is going to be a revelation to people, because nobody knows she existed, and she was the only Mrs. Hickok. And Calamity Jane is a fascinating character, but Wild Bill couldn't stand her.

What were the challenges like for you in separating the myth from the fact about Wild Bill?

It was difficult, but it was entertaining. Before there were Marvel comics, there were the dime-store novels, and these Wild West characters were our superheroes. Wild Bill didn't have “Spidey sense,” he didn't have the hammer of Thor. But he had two Colt .45 pistols and he had his Bowie knife, and those were his weapons to beat bad guys. What I had to do with the research was keep sifting through things, trying to corroborate, see what was in the original sources. The research really can't be rushed, because it's a process of sifting through, and at the end of each day, you hope that some gold dust sprinkled at the bottom of the pan.

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