Wax version of the killing of Wild Bill Hickok.
Wax version of the killing of Wild Bill Hickok.

Death Chair of Wild Bill Hickok

Field review by the editors.

Deadwood, South Dakota

If the sin-soaked town of Deadwood has a holy relic, it's Wild Bill's Death Chair, displayed in a velvet-lined, illuminated showcase above the front door of Old Style Saloon No. 10. It was in Saloon No. 10 that gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok sat, playing cards, when he was shot from behind and killed on August 2, 1876. Bill had been in town less than a month. A cautious man, he always sat with his back to the wall. Until that day.

LuAnn "Louie" LaLonde, owner and general manager of the Saloon, told us that she'd been around the Death Chair since her father bought the bar in 1963. "When I was a little girl, it was my job every summer to drip blood down the back of the chair" (The blood was red paint). Louie said that despite (or perhaps because of) her intimate connection to the Chair, she never felt the urge to sit in it.

The Judge at the Wax Museum.

Although Wild Bill was a folk hero even when he was alive, and his murder was the single most famous thing to ever happen in Deadwood, the Death Chair didn't surface until 70 years later (The earliest mention we could find was in a 1948 newspaper ad for the Saloon). This has caused some people to question the Chair's pedigree, although it hasn't stopped many more people from visiting Old Style Saloon No. 10 to see it.

The Death Chair's authenticity is also seen as suspect, perhaps unfairly, because Old Style Saloon No. 10 isn't really the Saloon No. 10 where Wild Bill was shot. That saloon was somewhere else in town, no one knows precisely where (although some claim they do), its location lost to Deadwood's frequent fires, floods, and repeated rebuilding frenzies.

The place everyone knows today as Old Style Saloon No. 10 opened its doors on April 14, 1938, conceived as an early example of a theme bar by Stew Donovitz, the owner of another Deadwood saloon, under the guidance of a shadowy figure named Elmer Kellogg, who had previously worked as an illustrator for the Chicago Police Gazette.

Wild Bill's Death Chair.

"He was probably a full-time alcoholic but also a very talented artist," said Louie of Elmer. "He walked into Stew's bar one day, probably working to get a drink, and told Stew, 'I know how you can make a million bucks.'" Elmer's idea was to tap into Deadwood's bottomless keg of Wild West history and create the Old Style, whose tagline would be, "The only museum in the world with a bar." Elmer built the Saloon's rustic tables, chairs, and stools -- still in use -- and Stew filled it with flamboyant local artifacts. These included dead animals, guns, old slot machines, a set of human heads made from deer hides -- depicting Deadwood characters such as Wild Bill, Poker Alice, and Calamity Jane -- and, eventually, the Death Chair.

(Under the stewardship of Louie's parents the bar continued to add unusual relics, such as a stuffed, two-headed South Dakota calf that the bar's regulars christened, "Double Cheeseburger.")

You'd think that real things in Deadwood would be hard to find, since most of the town was leveled in the great fire of 1879, or the medium fires 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. Yet the officials at Deadwood's Adams Museum, opened just a few years before Old Style Saloon No. 10, told us that much of its original stuff came from Deadwood residents who had somehow shielded the town's historical relics from its many natural and man-made disasters.

2-headed calf named Double Cheeseburger.

Could the Chair have been similarly protected? According to Louie, her father always told customers that that the Chair might have been saved by someone with foresight -- or it might have been burned for fuel during a South Dakota blizzard. "Am I gonna save my life, or am I gonna save that chair?" was how he put it. But Louie also said that when her father bought Old Style Saloon No. 10, the Chair was insured by Lloyds of London for $20,000, which suggests that it wasn't a fake.

The Death Chair, despite its fame, is sometimes overshadowed by the human patrons of Old Style Saloon No. 10. Louie recalled coming into work one morning to find the bar's claw-foot bathtub (another local relic) full of bras. But by day the Saloon is family-friendly, and Wild Bill's Death Chair remains Deadwood's most-seen tourist attraction. It embodies the theatrical vision of both the town and the vanished Elmer Kellogg, who, in some forgotten bar, may by now have a Death Chair of his own.

Death Chair of Wild Bill Hickok

No. 10 Saloon

Address:
657 Main St., Deadwood, SD
Directions:
In the No. 10 Saloon. Downtown, one block west of US 14A. On the east side of Main St. between Wall and Lee Sts. (Site of the original No. #10 Saloon is at 624 Main St.)
Phone:
605-578-3346
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Neon Tribute to Tootsie the Singing CoyoteNeon Tribute to Tootsie the Singing Coyote, Deadwood, SD - < 1 mi.
Graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity JaneGraves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, Deadwood, SD - < 1 mi.
Teddy Roosevelt Friendship TowerTeddy Roosevelt Friendship Tower, Deadwood, SD - 2 mi.
In the region:
Dino the Flintstones Dinosaur, Custer, SD - 43 mi.

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July 10, 2020

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