Big Bad Bill is Sweet William Now

. . . buried life has changed him somehow. . .

Wild Bill Hickock is a folk hero of the American West.  He wandered around the western territories building a reputation from various occupations, notably  as a lawman, a Union soldier,  a scout, and a professional gambler. He was also known to be an expert gunman and was involved in several famous shootouts.

The famed General Custer passed through the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874, and one of his scouts discovered gold. Now, the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux tribe at the time, so this discovery was suppressed by the U.S. government. But who could keep a secret like that? Within six months the gold rush was on, and white men were streaming into the Black Hills, irritating the Sioux and leading to the eventual showdown at Little Big Horn where Custer lost his life.

The little mining settlements that started popping up in Black Hills country were not recognized by the U.S. government as genuine townships since they were on Indian land illegally, which meant that they were lawless, the very epitome of the “Wild Wild West.”  Wild Bill traveled to the small settlement of Deadwood  to do some prospecting, although Bill mostly made a living from card games.  His reputation as a gunslinger had the whole community in a flurry as soon as he arrived. Deadwood was full of rough types, and a number of gunmen had their eye on Wild Bill. They were envious of his fame as a gunfighter, and wanted to have a chance to prove themselves against him, but Bill made it clear right away that he was in Deadwood for strictly peaceful purposes. In fact, he had  finally gotten married (at the age of 39), and was looking to find enough gold to buy his bride a proper home.

On August 2, 1876, Wild Bill was playing poker in a local saloon. It was his habit to always play with his back to the wall, but on this day the only seat available at the table left him sitting with his back to a rear door, something that made him nervous. Sure enough, an assassin crept up behind him and shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Wild Bill was holding two black 8’s and two black aces in his hand, and henceforth this arrangement of cards has been known as the “dead man’s hand.”

The circumstances surrounding his death contributed as much to his legend status as anything he did in life. Like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, Wild Bill was killed unawares, in cold blood, without a fighting chance. What’s more, his killer faced a rogue trial in Deadwood, and was acquitted. This upset everyone in town, since they knew Wild Bill had come to Deadwood peacefully, and if anything  may have helped bring a little law and order to the place.

Some curious things took place after Wild Bill’s death. Deadwood was a growing town and after three years internment, Wild Bill was dug up to be relocated in a new cemetery, Mount Moriah. Those who saw the body were astonished to see that it had not decomposed. The explanation the undertaker gave was that by some strange process involving embalming fluids and the soil in which he was buried, Wild Bill’s body had become partially petrified.  Relic hunters had whittled away his original wooden grave marker, and a new one, made of stone, was also chipped away over the years. Eventually a large bronze bust on a pedestal was installed, surrounded by an iron fence. Did these keep visitors from disturbing his grave?

I visited Wild Bill’s gravesite at Mount Moriah cemetery in Deadwood recently, and noticed coins thrown around the headstone. People have some inclination to use coins for ritual purposes, usually throwing them in fountains or “wishing wells” or even sticking them in the bark of trees. So I was inclined to think visitors were wishing for luck on Wild Bill’s grave, but it was strange just the same. Then I noticed a few other things. Small whiskey bottles, a cigar, some broken pottery, a few metal crosses, and a pack of cards. I began to realize that Wild Bill is still highly regarded by many people.

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Offerings on Wild Bill Hickock’s Grave

Cards on Wild Bill Hickock's Grave

Cards on Wild Bill Hickock’s Grave

Folk tradition has it that the dead can aid the living, so naturally using some relic from a grave would help a supplicant to make contact with the dead spirit of a particular person. Even if most people who are chipping “souvenirs” off of headstones just want a keepsake from a famous person, it still has religious connotations even if the collector has no conscious awareness of this. Relics, after all, were traditionally bits of body parts or items used by saints, and pilgrims visited holy places to collect these relics to aid them in connecting with a dead saint in order to gain some wish or favor.

If it isn’t possible to get some sort of relic, though, dirt from a grave is just as good. Traditionally, dirt can only be taken from a grave by “paying” for it, which means leaving some sort of offering. Spirits like to receive such offerings as coins, whiskey, and tobacco. The best graveyard dirt for these purposes, according to some, is the dirt collected from the grave of a soldier (because that spirit will be strong and obedient) or a murder victim (as that spirit will be either vengeful or compassionate). Wild Bill was both, as well as being a folk hero, so I can well believe people would find his grave especially appealing for collecting dirt.  Additionally, since his body didn’t decompose, that puts him in a special supernatural category, right up there with saints. As for the pack of cards someone left on his grave, perhaps that person was petitioning gambler’s luck, since Wild Bill was a professional gambler, or maybe they just figured Wild Bill would like to have a new deck.

So Wild Bill continues to serve his country and his community in death.  What’s even more interesting, as if that wasn’t enough, is that Calamity Jane is buried right next to him. Now Calamity Jane, a western legend in her own right, was madly in love with Wild Bill but he never cared for her. As a sort of joke, some people in Deadwood decided to bury Jane next to Bill. And wouldn’t you know it? It looks like people are “buying” her grave dirt, too. Here’s a clear offering of coins, whiskey, and tobacco. And I visited the cemetery a couple days later and found that some crude crosses made out of sticks had appeared, too. I don’t know what that means, but as Wikipedia puts it: “she was known for her helpfulness, generosity, and willingness to undertake demanding and even dangerous tasks to help others.” No doubt many hope that she still is so helpful, beyond the grave. Calamity Jane would sure be a sympathetic spirit for love spells, especially in unrequited cases.

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Offerings on Calamity Jane’s Grave

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Various Offerings on Calamity Jane’s Grave

You said it was love made me stutter when I talk, 
But is it love that makes me stagger when I walk? 

     The Gypsy woman told me, “She’s got you conjured, son” 
     Well, somebody’s lyin’ — you are that Gypsy one. 

You said I was jealous when I didn’t go to work, 
You sprinkled my shoes with graveyard dirt, 

     The Gypsy woman told me, “She’s got you conjured, son” 
     Well, somebody’s lyin’ — you are that Gypsy one. 

The whiskey you bought me, I was afraid to unscrew it, 
The Gypsy woman told me it was embalming fluid 
You got a Black Cat Bone and a Buzzard Feather, 
A John the Conquer Root and they’re all tied together 

     The Gypsy woman told me, “She’s got you conjured, son” 
     Well, somebody’s lyin’ — you are that Gypsy  one. 

                            – Conjured, by Esmond Edwards, as recorded by Wynnonie Harris

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One response to “Big Bad Bill is Sweet William Now

  1. Pingback: Dead Men Do Tell Tales (and sometimes they cuss) | Mythosphere

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