The truth about the widow of Wild Bill Hickok

Nobody seems quite sure when he became "Wild Bill." There were others roaming the American frontier in those days, also going by a diminutive of William, also proclaiming themselves Wild. ("Wild William" packed alliteration, though not punch, to be honest.) But it stuck to Hickok — born James Butler Hickok on May 27, 1837, in Illinois, says Biography. And in their letters, his wife would always refer to him as "James."

Hickok was singularly gifted, a remarkably accurate shot, even as a youngster, and with a natural love for horses. He served the Union honorably during the Civil War in various capacities, including scout and spy. After the war he continued as a scout, but earned most of his fame as a Kansas peace officer, gambler and, by some accounts, the first gunfighter. He left law enforcement after accidentally killing a deputy in Abilene, Kansas, in October 1871 — a deputy who was also a good friend. Hickok was a changed man.

His wife wasn't the only one in show business

The summer before, a traveling circus came to town, owned and operated by Agnes Thatcher Lake, as Tom Clavin tells in Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter. She had run away with the circus herself, marrying one of the performers and eventually becoming a trick rider and singer, plus an aerialist, performing even while pregnant. She learned the business top to bottom, saved her money, and with her husband bought a circus company. When her husband was murdered Agnes carried on, the first woman in America to own her own circus company.

She met Hickok that summer in 1871 and according to bystanders, both were smitten. She moved on, touring, and he dabbled in show business a couple of times, at least once with Buffalo Bill Cody, but didn't care for the theater life. He headed west, to Cheyenne, Wyoming. He and Agnes kept in touch, writing letters, reports True West Magazine — he referred to her as Mrs. Lake at first, later transitioning to Agnes, while she always called him James. In February 1876 she left her summer circus layover and traveled to Wyoming. It isn't known if he invited her, or if two adults finally gave in to their feelings for one another.

He went West to make their fortune

Time was of the essence; he was fast approaching 39, and she was 49. They met behind closed doors and emerged to announce they would be married. The happy event occurred March 5, 1876, in Cheyenne, says Dr. Phil Roberts of the University of Wyoming, writing for My Web Times. The couple honeymooned in Cincinnati. They agreed to part temporarily; Agnes, to take care of circus business, while James returned West, to the Black Hills, ostensibly to prospect around the boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota. Once he had earned a fortune she could either join him there or he would return to her, for a happily-ever-after. It didn't happen. On August 2, 1876, as James played poker, Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. "I can see him day and night before me," Agnes wrote to James's family. "The longer he is dead, the worse I feel." Family matters kept her from Deadwood until September 1877. She visited the grave and stayed there for several hours, then made arrangements for a headstone before leaving.

Agnes continued in the circus business and remarried. She died, age 81, in August 1907. She was buried next to her first husband in Cincinnati.