This week’s column is all about James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, covering his story in brief including his famous murder at a poker table in 1876. From there, though, I move on to talk more broadly about the idea of the “dead man’s hand” as it has played out in popular culture over the almost 140 years since.
Hickok, as many know, was said to be holding two pair, aces and eights, at the time he was murdered. In the column I talk about how in fact there were several other poker hands designated the “dead man’s hand” before a book about Hickock in the 1920s helped solidify the association between the term and his hand.
I also get into some -- not all -- of the later references to the dead man’s hand and/or aces and eights, a catalogue that includes John Wayne, R.P. McMurphy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Motörhead, and Bob Dylan among others.
Here are links to all the “saloon poker” posts, if you’re curious to explore any of them:
My primary goal with these articles is to highlight the many ways poker enters “mainstream” popular culture, and not necessarily to write a straightforward history of poker as others have done (including most recently James McManus in his 2009 book Cowboys Full). However, particularly during these early installments of the series, I have nonetheless spent some time narrating the game’s early history to set up a useful context for what’s to come.
Digging for Gold (and Aces) in California Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, A Premium Pair The Many Versions of Bat Masterson Lady Gamblers and Poker Alice The Long, Strange Life of the Dead Man’s Hand
The next few articles come under the heading of “steamboat poker,” then after a brief discussion of poker in the Civil War I’ll be moving on to consider the game as it appeared in a variety of contexts -- in early clubs, on the bookshelf (with the first poker strategy titles), and in homes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Photo: Wild Bill Hickok, public domain.