Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"It's easier to slide up Niagara Falls than it is to understand a woman"
-Gary Cooper, as Wild Bill Hickock, in "The Plainsman"

[quote unverified]
[In our last entry, we began the story of "shootist" Wild Bill Hickock and his visits to Niagara. The account concludes here. - MR]

By the time of Wild Bill Hickock's second visit to Niagara, in 1872, he had one of the best-known names in America. Despite [or maybe because of] a muddled reporting of the facts of his life [some of which was done by Hickock himself; he stated he had personally killed about 100 men in gunfights, while the real figure was probably closer to 25], Hickock was the hero of "dime-store" novels, becoming perhaps the first media-created personality in America. But the reality was different from the myth. Self-proclaimed "best friend" Charlie Utter had begun taking on the job, when in Hickock's vicinity, of keeping him away from alcohol and gambling, Hickock's two principal vices. Being famed as the "fastest gun" in America also was becoming a curse, as more and more "young guns" wanted a chance to beat him. Hickock was still making a good living with his fame and skill [presented in shooting exhibitions], but the years were beginning to take their toll.

In October of 1871, Hickock, then serving as Marshall of Abilene, Ks., accidentally killed one of his deputies during a gun battle. The error was said to be haunting him. Perhaps he was looking to give up his "shootist" career. He had seen his friend Buffalo Bill Cody take on an easier life, as impresario of a "Wild West Show" that toured the "civilized" East. Hickock, in association with Niagara Falls showman Thomas Barnett, decided to put on his own show in Niagara Falls, Ont., near Barnett's "museum".

Barnett spent almost a year, and a great deal of money, putting the spectacular together. He went to Nebraska to purchase wild buffalo for the "hunt" sequence, as well as hiring Indians to take part [the local tribes apparently being unable or unwilling to handle the skills of their Plains brethren].

The advertising for the show, set for the end of August, was appropriately florid. Posters noted that the wild animals imported for the event would be afterwards housed in a huge park built for the purpose. The spectacle itself what set for a 15-acre park, fenced in for the spectators' safety, and capable of holding fifty thousand [the actual turn-out, around two-thousand, paid 50 cents each for the privilege].

The day started with a lacrosse match featuring the Six Nations tribes of the area. More than one contemporary account of the show declared it the highlight of the day. Then the big hunt began. Wild Bill led out a party of four Indians, augmented by four "Mexican Vaqueros". The crowd began to grumble. Was this the giant hunt they'd been promised?

Then things got worse. The "wild" buffaloes were released. There were but two, along with an ox that had been recruited at the last moment to fill out the pack. The grumbles expanded into open cat-calls and hooting. The animals, taking on the spirit of the day, did as little running as possible, and ended up grazing in the middle of the ring. A chorus of boos rained down from the spectators. Hickock was spectacular, as usual, in a shooting exhibition [until the last months of his life, when he was diagnosed with cataracts, he was one of the best shots of the era], but the damage had been done. One of the kinder reviews of the day called the event "a swindle" and "a farce".

Hickock actually put on a few more such events around the country, but never as well as his old friend Cody. His life spiralled down until, unable to see to shoot, he was forced to make a living as a gambler. Wild Bill's life ended during a hand of poker, in August of 1876. He was shot [from behind; even then, the gunman wanted to take no chances with Hickock's skill] while holding the black eights and aces, a hand immortalized ever after as the "dead man's hand". Those who claim to predict the future with playing cards believe the Ace of Spades is a harbinger of death; was Something trying to warn Hickock of his doom? Who can say?

Charlie Utter, faithful to the end, claimed Hickock's remains, and gave them rest in the Deadwood cemetery.Ironically Utter, who may have suggested Niagara to his friend, seems to have disappeared after the burial, and nothing is known of his last days.

Next time, a return to the stunters of Niagara. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

1 comment:

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