October 2, 2023
A couple of alleged incidents
Two of the most famous incidents from America’s gunfighter era might or might not have taken place and involved (or didn’t involve) some of the most iconic names of the Old West: Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, notorious Texas gunslingers John Wesley Hardin and Clay Allison. Nobody fired a shot in any of these stories, but the stories became legend because they involve legendary characters.
The first incident centers on an alleged disagreement between Hickok and Hardin in Abilene, Kansas in 1871. Hardin was 18 years old with more than a few (figurative) notches on his pistol, including the killings he committed during the cattle drive that took him to Abilene.
Wild Bill was 34 years old and just hitting his prime as the Abilene marshal where his reputation as a straight shooter and a quick draw was well established. Hickok was an early proponent of gun control, at least in towns where he had jurisdiction, and Hardin came to town wearing a gun where everybody could see it.
Hickok approached Hardin, his own six-shooters drawn in deference to Hardin’s reputation, and ordered the young psychopath to surrender his guns. According to Hardin’s autobiography, he offered his guns to Hickok, butts first, but when Hickok went to take them, Hardin twirled them so that the business end of the pistols were pointed directly at Wild Bill. Gunfighters called it “the border roll.”
According to Hardin, Hickok responded by telling Hardin, “You are the games and quickest boy I ever saw!” The two shootists retired to a saloon and had a few drinks and some good laughs over the incident. No harm, no foul. Or that’s the way Hardin told it in his autobiography. Historians have debated the story ever since.
For one thing, Hardin wrote it after Hickok was dead. Skeptics found it hard to imagine that anybody, even John Wesley Hardin, could get the drop on Wild Bill. But others think it happened just the way Hardin said it did.
Hickok biographer Joseph Rosa told Wild West magazine in 2008 that the border roll incident is hearsay with no contemporary verification. Hardin biographer Leon Metz begs to differ. “Backing down Wild Bill Hickok was the consummate juncture thus far in (Hardin’s) spiraling man-killing career,” he told the magazine. “A dead Hickok would have proven nothing, except perhaps that Hardin was lucky. A live Hickok would know for the rest of his life who was the better man.”
The other alleged incident involved Wyatt Earp and rowdy man-killer Clay Allison in Dodge City. According to Earp, who told the story after Allison was dead and gone to hell, he and Bat Masterson confronted Allison and, basically through the sheer force of their personalities, disarmed him. No fuss, no bother.
Charlie Siringo, a cowboy, Pinkerton detective, and author, later wrote about the incident and claimed it never happened. Siringo reported that Dick McNulty, who owned the Turkey Track Ranch in the Panhandle, and Chuck Beeson, owner of the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, brokered a peace deal with Allison and his men, and that no confrontation with Earp or Masterson ever took place. McNulty later verified Siringo’s account, and so it might have happened just that way.
Like the alleged incident with Wild Bill and John Wesley Hardin, Earp and Masterson versus Clay Allison is a good story but not necessarily good history, except to point out that people tend to like good stories about famous or infamous people whether the stories are true or not.