Death Chair of Wild Bill Hickok
Deadwood, South Dakota
Deadwood enjoyed a surge in popularity thanks to the HBO series (2004-06) that featured the 19th century Wild West town and its skanky yet colorful characters. Although the show was filmed in California, its outdoor set in Santa Clarita (Gorn Battle country) was inspired by historic photos of the original Deadwood. The real town of Deadwood even had plans to construct an Old West town facade partly inspired by the series, but its cancellation put an end to that.
Whatever. We liked ol' Deadwood even before the TV hoopla, with its gritty museums, casinos, low key Chinese Opium Tunnel Tour, monuments and grave sites of Wild West legends. Nestled in the crook of an evergreen-forested gulch, the attractions run along a road or two through town.
The most important event in Deadwood history was a poker game in Saloon #10 on August 2, 1876, where the sniveling coward Jack McCall snuck up and shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head. Hickok had arrived in Deadwood only a few weeks earlier, played a succession of card games, and never in his life sat with his back to the door. Until that day.
The events of that day are restaged every night during the summer (except Sundays) in the Trial of Jack McCall. The show is free, and starts with a live gunfight on Main Street at 7:30 pm, then moves into the Masonic Temple for the trial.
Today, the bar called Old Style Saloon #10 is neither the original saloon where Hickok was done in, nor the original location. According to Judge Kuykendall, a performer in the Jack McCall show, the real Death Chair isn't even on display -- just one that resembles it. But Old Style Saloon #10 is nevertheless a must-see -- a museum and tourist destination during the day, and a rowdy wet t-shirt party bar at night (although maybe only during wet t-shirt season and the Sturgis rally).
Real places and things in Deadwood are hard to come by, since most of the town was leveled in the great fire of 1879, or the medium fire of 1894, and 1948, and 1951, and 1954. And whatever was left may have gone up in the great fire of 1987. The gulch's abundance of dry, fallen timber blessed the town with a name and cursed it with a wicked combustibility....
In the absence of anything more authentic, we must visit the Death Chair. It sits in an alcove in a glass frame above Saloon #10's front door. The bar and tables are crowded with tourists. We grab beers and head for the back to watch a re-enactment of the fateful poker game. Tourist children have been enlisted to sit at the card table and play parts. Shots are fired, bad guys run from the table, kids giggle nervously.
Wild Bill slumps dead over and over, four times a day, all summer long.
Saloon #10 displays other items, such the Poker Dead Man's Hand (8s and Aces) among the blackjack tables and slot machines. Exhibited above the floor is a two-headed calf labeled "Double Cheeseburger." Dummy heads of Wild Bill, Poker Alice, and others are mounted over the bar.
Down the block at 622 Main Street is the location of the original saloon #10 -- before it burned. Today it's The Wild Bill Bar, and includes an interpretive center about the shooting, and another Wild Bill dummy playing cards.
The ghost of Seth Bullock haunts the Bullock Hotel, which he built in 1895. His apparition has been seen dozens of times by hotel guests and staff.
The Adams Memorial Museum is known locally as "Deadwood's Attic," built in 1930 by W. E. Adams. They exhibit Wild Bill Hickok's Boot Gun, Potato Creek Johnny's gold nugget, and other treasures.
Above the town, on a ridge, tourists can visit the graves of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane in Mount Moriah Cemetery. Also buried here are are townful of lesser Deadwood personalities with equally colorful names, such as Preacher Smith and Madame Dora DuFran.