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.

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," she said (The blood was red paint). Louie added 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 ever to 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 say 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 eatertainment by Stew Donovitz, the owner of another Deadwood bar, 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 notorious Deadwood characters -- Wild Bill, Poker Alice, 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.")

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. 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.

2-headed calf named Double Cheeseburger.

Despite its notoriety, the Death Chair has at times been overshadowed by the human patrons of Old Style Saloon No. 10; for example, Louie recalled coming into work one morning to find the bar's bathtub 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, maybe in some forgotten bar, has 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:
World's Largest Log Chair, Deadwood, SD - 18 mi.

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