On this day in 1865, the legend of Wild Bill Hickok, one of the West’s most famous gunmen, was born. The tragedy, however, is that it was over an incident that was entirely preventable, in which pride led one man to his death.
Hickok had arrived in Springfield, Missouri, in the summer of ’65, recently finishing time served for the Union Army as a scout and spy during the Civil War. His primary occupation was that of a gambler, and it was during his time at the gaming tables when he met and befriended a man named Dave Tutt, who happened to be a former Confederate soldier. They soon had a falling out, although it is not clear why. Some accounts claim they fought over a woman, others that Hickok killed a friend of Tutt’s during the Civil War. Whatever the reason, Tutt came to despise Hickok and tried to pick a fight.
The main account of the fight was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, by author George Ward Nichols, who did a feature piece on Hickok. His primary source was one Richard Bentley Owen, a quartermaster at Fort Riley in Kansas whom Nichols labeled “Captain Honesty.” According to Bentley, the feud between Hickok and Tutt reached a head one night in a poker game. Tutt, by all accounts, had been funding Hickok’s opponents (Hickok had refused to play with Tutt himself) and Hickok was the winner of the game by some two hundred dollars. Tutt demanded payment of an old horse trading debt, then claimed Hickok owed him an additional thirty five dollars for a gambling debt. When Hickok disputed the amount, Tutt snatched Wild Bill’s prized watch from off the table and claimed he was holding it for collateral. Although angry, Hickok refused to take action. Over the subsequent days, Tutt and his allies reputedly taunted him over the watch, until finally Hickok had enough. He was told on June 20th that the following day, Tutt would be wearing the watch in the town square. According to Bentley, Hickok “said that Dave Tutt shouldn’t pack that watch across the square unless dead men could walk.” Bentley detailed a conversation he had with Hickok prior to the fight:
“Now, Bill’, says I, ‘you’re goin ter get inter a fight.’
“Don’t you bother yerself, Captain,’ says he. ‘It’s not the first time I have been in a fight; and these d-d hounds have put on me long enough. You don’t want me ter give up my honor,do yer?”
“No, Bill,’ says I, ‘y’er must keep yer honor.’
The following day, as promised, Tutt was in the square with Wild Bill’s watch, standing near the Springfield courthouse. A crowd had gathered, many of whom were Tutt’s friends. Hickok spotted Tutt, and Nichols, in Bentley’s unique dialect, records what happened next:
“Just then Tutt, who’ war alone, started from the courthouse and walked out into the squar’, and Bill moved away from the crowd toward the west side of the squar’. Bout fifteen paces brought them opposite each other, and bout fifty yards apart. Tutt then showed his pistol. Bill had kept a sharp eye on him and before Tutt could pint it Bill had his’n out.
“At that moment you could have heard a pin drop in that squar’. Both Tutt and Bill fired, but one discharge followed the other so Quick that it’s hard to say which went off first. Tutt was a famous shot, but he missed this time; the ball from his pistol went over Bill’s head. The instant Bill fired, without waitin’ ter see ef he had hit Tutt, he wheeled on his heels and pointed his pistol at Tutt’s friends, who had already drawn their weapons.
“Aren’t yer satisfied, gentlemen?’ cried Bill, as cool as an alligator. ‘Put up your shootin-irons, or there’ll be more dead men here,’ and they put ’em up, and said it war a far fight.”
Tutt, for his part, called out “Boys, I’m killed,” and took a few steps before he collapsed and died. As Bentley recalled “Bill never shoots twice at the same man.” Hickok was arrested the next day, but after a trial the jury decided the shooting was justified and reached a verdict of not guilty. Following the release of the Harper’s Magazine article, Wild Bill Hickok skyrocketed to fame. The article was far from accurate in most of the particular’s about Hickok’s exploits, but it nevertheless went a long way in establishing his mythos as the West’s most famous gunman.
The sad reality of Dave Tutt’s final moments is that they were entirely avoidable. Other accounts of the shooting have Hickok warning him repeatedly to stand down, and the fact that Hickok himself felt compelled to be at the square so that Tutt could not put a stain upon his honor is certainly telling about the corrosive influence of pride. Most people, and probably Hickok himself, would not have claimed that a watch was equal in value to a man’s life, but pride from both men demanded that they refuse to back down.
For most of us, pride will never lead us into a shootout, but it has destroyed relationships, wrecked homes, and separated families. Pride is a killer (in Tutt’s case, literally). Whenever you find yourself letting pride stand between you and someone else, ask yourself, is this worth it? Take a tip from the life of Wild Bill, and do not let pride destroy you.