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The Origin of “The Dead Man’s Hand” in Poker

(By Jack Coleman)

If you’re a fan of poker, odds are you have heard of the “Dead Man’s Hand.” The hand consists of aces and eights and originated in the Wild West thanks to The Coward Jack McCall.

via Deadwood

McCall was drunk at Nuttal & Mann's saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, on August 1, 1876, when one of the players dropped out of a poker game that included "Wild Bill" Hickok…The inebriated McCall quickly took his place. 

McCall proceeded to lose several hands, and was soon out of money. Hickok offered McCall money to buy breakfast and advised him not to play again until he could cover his losses. Though McCall accepted the money, he reportedly felt insulted.

The following day on August 2, 1876, another poker game was taking place at the saloon. On this particular evening, Hickok had his back to the door, in contrast to his normal practice of sitting in a corner to protect his back, but the player sitting in the corner, Charles Rich, refused Hickok's request to switch seats, so Hickok reluctantly took the empty seat and joined the game. 

A drunken McCall entered the saloon, ordered a drink from the bar, move down towards the card table, and stopped a few steps behind Hickok… McCall shot Hickok in the back of the head with a single-action .45-caliber revolver, shouting "Damn you! Take that!" Hickok died instantly while holding Aces and Eights, forever known as the "Dead Man’s Hand."

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First of all, we as a society need to go back to giving badass people super cool nicknames. “Wild Bill” and “Crooked Nose Jack,” as some would call McCall, are the stuff of television lore. In fact, these two were brought to the small screen during season one of the hit show Deadwood, with actors Garrett Dillahunt and Keith Carradine playing McCall and Hickok respectively.

Doug Hyun. Shutterstock Images.

(Keith Carradine (right) as Wild Bill Hickok in HBO's Deadwood)

Additionally, this McCall guy must have been the biggest dick in the West. The audacity of owing money and on top of it offering to pay for breakfast is a major gambling no-no in my book. To then be offered money and then turn it down only to murder the guy who was so willing to help is even more incredulous. 

Where Wild Bill messes up is not seeing the signs of bad gambling juju. If your usual seat isn’t available in any game of chance …maybe it’s a sign to step away that day. Also, was Charles Rich in cahoots with McCall, forcing Hickok to have his back turned? 

McCall’s actions would not be without punishment, for he ultimately would meet his fateful demise:

“McCall ran out the back door of the saloon and tried to make his escape on a horse, but the saddle was loose, causing McCall to fall off.  He was apprehended shortly after.

On trial the next day, McCall claimed his actions were in retribution for Hickok having previously killed his brother in Abilene, Kansas …and McCall was found not guilty after two hours.

McCall immediately got out of Deadwood and headed into Wyoming Territory, where he repeatedly bragged at local saloons about killing Hickok in a "fair" gunfight, and Wyoming authorities wound up trying him again for the same crime… They reasoned this wasn’t a case of Double Jeopardy since Deadwood was not under a legally constituted law enforcement or court system at the time. 

So this second trial began on December 4 of the same year …no witnesses were called for the defense, and the guilty verdict came in on December 6. 

McCall stated that he had been heavily intoxicated at the time of the murder and did not remember any details but Judge Granville Bennett did not believe his story and sentenced McCall to death by hanging.

At 10:15 a.m. on March 1, 1877, The Coward Jack McCall was hanged in a public execution in Yankton, SD at age 24 …the first person to be executed by federal officials in the Dakota Territory.

McCall was buried in Sacred Heart Cemetery in Yankton County, South Dakota, a cemetery which was moved in 1881. When McCall's body was exhumed, it was found to have the noose still around its neck.”

For more on The Coward Jack McCall and other historical cowards, check out The Twisted History of Cowards out now!