A Tale of Two Bills

Buffalo Bill Cody (left) and Wild Bill Hickok
By John Adamski

This is a tale of two men called Bill: William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Both men are iconic legends and folk heroes of the Old West; Cody as a cowboy, Pony Express rider, stage coach driver, teamster, Union Army soldier, civilian army scout, buffalo hunter, and ultimately the greatest of showmen; and Hickok as a Union courier and spy, army scout, gambler, lawman, expert marksman who perfected the showdown-style gunfight, and something of a showman himself. But would you believe that each of these legendary Westerners left an indelible mark on the local history of Rochester, New York during the mid-1880s? It’s true.

Cody and Hickok were longtime friends who both loved the limelight; whose reputations were embellished not only by telling their own tall tales but by the sensationalized adventure stories written about them by pulp fiction author Ned Buntline as well. Buntline, an Easterner, made a fortune writing dime novels that portrayed Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill as fearless Indian-fighting, gun-slinging, sharpshooting, buckskin-clad frontier swashbucklers and damsel-saving heroes who put their lives on the line for whatever they felt was right. Hickok purportedly used his Bowie knife to kill a grizzly bear that was trying to maul him to death – despite the fact that he showed no scars from the attack. The public delighted in these adventure stories and bought Buntline’s books as fast as they could be published.

In an effort to separate fact from fiction – the lines of which have been blurred somewhat over time – there are still some elements of truth to the sagas of both Bills. Born to abolitionist sympathizers in Illinois in 1837, Hickok’s boyhood was typical of the era. He spent his days exploring prairie creek bottoms and wooded groves, and developed an early fascination with firearms, becoming a successful hunter at a young age. By his teens he was a crack shot with both revolver and rifle. And at age 19, he was elected to his first law enforcement job – that of Monticello, Kansas Territory town constable – before he was even old enough to vote. Somewhere along the line, Jim Hickok became Bill Hickok but the reason for the change is unknown.

As with most Western gunfighters, Hickok was a product of the Civil War. He was 24 when the war erupted in 1861 and had already killed one man and wounded two others defending his employer’s family from outlaws. Rumors of the shooting spread and had Hickok killing as many as ten men after endless retelling. It was the start of a reputation that would follow him everywhere. His bravado and fearless exploits as a civilian scout under Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis were praised by his commanders, earning him the moniker Wild Bill. He liked the celebrity and was emboldened by it, and even dressed the part by wearing fringed-and-beaded buckskins.

In his teens, Cody, who was born in Iowa Territory in 1846, met his idol and legendary mountain man Kit Carson, who mentored him on the ways of frontier life. In fact, Buffalo Bill’s only son, Kit Carson Cody, who died from scarlet fever at age six, is buried alongside two of his sisters in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery. For the record, Cody did indeed shoot thousands of bison – more than any other buffalo hunter – to help feed the Kansas Pacific railroad workers who were laying the first train tracks across the country, much to the consternation of the nomadic Plains Indians who depended on the animals for survival.

In 1866, Cody married Louisa Frederici, a few days after his twentieth birthday. The couple had four children; three daughters and a son – the aforementioned Kit – who was the youngest. Louisa stayed home with the children in North Platte, Nebraska while Bill traveled around hunting, scouting, and developing an acting career. As Kit Cody approached school age, Louisa persuaded her husband to move the family East, where their son could get a better education than he would in North Platte. And that’s how they ended up in Rochester. Cody had been a frequent visitor to the Flour City and made many friends there. He rented a house at 10 New York Street, where Louisa lived with the children while he traveled with his new stage show, returning to Rochester to be with his family between performances.

Bill Cody and James Hickok first met in the late 1850s when they both worked as freight wagon drivers for Russell, Majors & Waddell in Fort Leavanworth, Kansas. They were still in their teens then but Hickok, who was older than Cody, became a bit of a mentor to Cody as well. Years later, after Cody created the “Buffalo Bill Combination”, which was a stage show that inspired his “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” extravaganza, he asked his old friend Wild Bill to join him and Texas Jack Omohundro in Ned Buntline’s corny stage production of Scouts of the Prairie, which was to begin touring the East. Having nothing to do and no money in his pockets, Hickok reluctantly agreed.

A few years earlier, after shooting gunslinger Phil Coe in a nighttime gunfight outside the Alamo Saloon in Abilene, Kansas, Hickok heard someone running up behind him. Unable to recognize the man in the dimly-lit street, he shot and killed his own deputy, Mike Williams. It was an unfortunate accident that ended Hickok’s career as lawman. He surrendered his city marshal’s badge and quit law enforcement for good.

Wild Bill Hickok may have been something of a showman, but he was no actor. In reality, none of them were, much to the delight of their audiences, which accepted the ham-acting for the sake of who the actors really were. Hickok found the experience humiliating and refused to memorize what he considered to be foolish dialogue. He relied on whiskey to overcome his stage fright, which resulted in unpredictable performances. Buffalo Bill later wrote that Hickok “insisted that we were making a set of fools of ourselves, and that we were the laughing-stock of the people.” Hickok was nonetheless a big draw at the box office. They both were.

The show appeared in Titusville, Pennsylvania and Portland, Maine, before coming to Rochester early in 1874. By the time it reached there, Hickok was fed up and had become a serious problem. His desire to return to the West and his failing eyesight only added to his belligerence. One night while waiting in the wings to make his entrance, Hickok watched the scene being played onstage and commented to Mrs. Cody who was also backstage: “Ain’t they foolish? What’s the use of getting out there and making fools of ourselves? I ain’t going to do it anymore.”

Hickok did perform again, but not for long. A few nights later, after disrupting several scenes for which he was reprimanded, he strode out of the theater in the midst of the play, telling Cody: “You could go to thunder with your old show.” He never performed again. After the show, Cody caught up with Wild Bill at the Osburn House, a hotel located on the northeast corner of East Main and St. Paul streets, to pay his wages and give him a $1,000 stake as well. The two friends never saw each other again.

Hickok left Rochester the next day but did not return to Kansas, opting to try his luck at the faro tables in New York City instead. It was not a wise decision for he found himself nearly broke once again. After causing a scuffle resulting in a brush with the law in Binghamton, Wild Bill became thoroughly disenchanted with Eastern culture and returned to the still-wild West. His final curtain came down August 2, 1876, when he was assassinated in a Deadwood, South Dakota saloon by Jack McCall, a saddle tramp whose greatest ambition was to become a famous gunfighter. Wild Bill Hickok died at age 39, perhaps a ripe old age for a man of his profession. McCall was hung for his crime.

And Buffalo Bill Cody left Rochester to entertain millions of people throughout the United States and Europe.

John has been a published writer/photographer for 40 years and is a 4-time award-winning member of New York State Outdoor Writers Association. Two of those awards were for these “Life in the Finger Lakes” articles: Plight of the White Deer and From the Brink of Extinction.

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