New biography of ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok debunks popular myths

After more than 22 years of research and writing, Craig Crease looks forward to debunking popular myths about frontiersman “Wild Bill” Hickok, including one located in Springfield.

Crease’s first biography, “The Wanderer: James Butler Hickok and the American West,” will be released on June 3. The more than 500-page book is published by Caxton Press, an Idaho-based publisher known for its books about the American West. The biography documents the life of James Butler Hickok, better known as “Wild Bill” Hickok, from “cradle to grave,” Crease said.

Based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but originally from Kansas, Crease, 72, said he has always been interested in people who are a little “off center,” which is what drew him to Hickok. He also has a vested interest in the American West, having spent about thirty years as an independent consultant for the National Parks Service on the region’s history. However, when he started reading about Hickok, Crease said some of the stories didn’t seem to add up. He wanted to dig deeper.

In addition to academic research, Crease referred to a series of memories collected by a late author who wrote about Hickok. According to Crease, these memories are firsthand accounts from people who interacted with Hickok. They gave Crease a better idea of ​​the type of person Hickok really was. Crease has not released the name of the late author or the institution where these memories are located.

“The Wanderer” contains several photographs, including a photo of Hickok in Springfield.

In 1865, Hickok lived at Lyon House, a boarding house previously located at 318 South Ave. in downtown Springfield. Today this is where Systematic Savings Bank is located.

“There was a photographer; his name was Charles Scholten. Scholten took a photo of him (Hickok) at the Lyon House. That photo was lost, but it was originally a photo that ‘Harper’s (New Monthly) Magazine’ had used in part to an article that made Hickok nationally famous,” Crease said. “It was lost until 1989.”

According to Crease, the photo resurfaced in 1989 at a military supply store in Springfield.

Building a case against common myths, including the one in Springfield

Researching and writing “The Wanderer” felt like building a case against the countless myths surrounding Hickok, Crease said. Many of these myths, he added, make Hickok sound crueler and crazier than he actually was. A common story involves Hickok’s horse, Black Nell, which was perpetuated in Springfield.

According to Crease, in 1865, when Hickok was living in Springfield, a reporter from “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” came to town looking for a story on Hickok.

“Not only does he describe Hickok as a borderline hedonist … he (wrote that Hickok) has an incredible horse, Black Nell, who at Hickok’s whistle immediately lays down on the grass and doesn’t move,” Crease said. “He drove Black Nell into the saloons of Springfield and had Black Nell stand on the billiards table and jump through the front doors onto South (Avenue). It was a complete lie. Hickok didn’t tell him that. When that story came out, Hickok said : ‘The horse story is not true.'”

After spending about 22 years researching “The Wanderer,” Crease said he took advantage of his time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to write the biography.

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“Instead of watching Netflix and Hulu all the time, I wrote a book,” Crease said with a laugh. It took him 15 months to complete the biography.

Who was ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok?

Hickok was born on May 27, 1837 in Troy Grove, Illinois and grew up in a refined, well-educated family. He is known as a soldier, scout, police officer, gambler and actor. He is also considered one of the greatest gunslingers in the American West. As Tiger Woods is to golf and Michael Jordan is to basketball, Hickok was to gunfights, Crease said.

Hickok is known in Springfield not only for his stay at the Lyon House, but also for his involvement in a shootout at Park Central Square. On July 21, 1865, Hickok shot and killed veteran gunfighter David Tutt on the square because Tutt was showing off a watch he had won from Hickok during a game of poker the day before. Information about the gunfight is available on the Square and in the Historical Museum on the Square.

During his career, Hickok shot and killed six people. He hung up his gun after accidentally shooting and killing a colleague in Abilene, Kansas in 1871.

After a famous life, Hickok was shot and killed during a poker game in Deadwood, South Dakota on August 2, 1876. He was 39 years old.

Where can you buy ‘The Wanderer: James Butler Hickok and the American West’?

Once released, “The Wanderer” will be available for purchase on the Caxton Press website and Amazon for $27.95, Crease said. He also expects the biography to be picked up by retailers and independent bookstores.

Greta Cross is the Trending Topics reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. She has more than five years of journalism experience, covering everything from Ozark history to Springfield’s LGBTQIA+ community. Follow her on X and Instagram @gretacrossphoto. Story idea? Email her at [email protected].