The Trials of Jack McCall

By John Vogel

On the afternoon of August 2nd, 1876, a poker game took place in Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon located in the town of Deadwood, Southern Dakota Territory. Charles Rich and William Massie sat down to the only game going when a man who needed no introduction entered the barroom.

William Hickok, otherwise known as Wild Bill, was always in search of a card game and he found one. Per his nature, he asked Charles Rich, who was sitting with his back to the wall, if he would mind changing seats. When he was denied, he asked again, with the same result. Not wanting to walk away from a game, Wild Bill betrayed his instincts, honed by a long career of winning gunfights and staying alive. That winning streak ended when Jack McCall entered the saloon, drew his .45 caliber Colt model 1873, and shot a slug into the back of Wild Bill’s skull. Massie reported hearing McCall declare, “Damn you, take that,” right before the shot.

Witnesses would say that the day before, McCall had faced Hickok during a game of 5 card stud and came up short. McCall was out of money and lost his final hand. A known drinker, Jack had spent most of his time in the Dakotas crawling in and out of a bottle. Hickok advised him to eat something before picking up another hand and paid for his breakfast. As it would turn out, McCall took that personally.

After the fatal shooting, a drunk McCall attempted to flee the scene on horseback, not realizing his saddle wasn’t buckled, until he was face down in the mud. Within seconds of the gunshot word spread throughout Deadwood and McCall was apprehended. The town prepared for a trial.

Deadwood had yet to enter the Union formally, and had little to no legal stability. An ad hoc court was put together, made up of miners, drunks and card players, and McCall’s trial commenced. Rich and Massie both testified to McCall killing Hickok. It was left to the defense to save the day.

There is a legal expression that says: If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have neither, pound the table. Well, Jack McCall went with the third option.

His defense was that while Wild Bill was marshal of Abilene, Kansas, Lew McCall was shot and killed by an unknown lawman, and Jack believed that Wild Bill was the lawman. This was not a drunken fit of rage, but a valiant attempt at justice for his brother. Wild Bill’s career as a lawman was well documented and well known. His celebrity status worked against him with certain demographics and in a town that attracted criminals. When the jury heard McCalls defense, it took them 2 hours to deliberate.

Not guilty.

McCall knew what was good for him, and hightailed it out of town. He told his tale to bar patrons throughout the Wyoming territory, eventually gaining the ire of most, if not every person in the territory. By that point, word of the trial had spread, and marshals took notice. Not even a month after standing trial, marshals were handing him a warrant for his arrest, issued by a federal judge. Once again, he was brought up on charges of murder.

In most cases, you can’t be tried for the same crime twice (double jeopardy). But the great legal minds of the Wyoming territory had a realization: Deadwood was still technically Lakota territory, and as far as the law was concerned, it was an illegal settlement outside the country. The Deadwood trial was considered illegitimate. Jack McCall didn’t just confess to murder, he bragged about it. A new trial date was set.

The trial was moved to Yankton, South Dakota and would be presided over by a federal judge. December 1st, 1876, McCall found himself on trial again. No witnesses were found for the defense, but plenty showed up to testify about McCall bragging about the murder for the past month. Marshals claimed they looked high and low for defense witnesses to support the case to free the killer of a former marshal, but no luck. McCall couldn’t produce any evidence to prove he had a brother in Abilene. His defense tried to prove he never received the true indictment but it ultimately didn’t matter. By December 6th, the jury had heard enough and brought back a verdict.


Appeals were filed going all the way up to the President, but no one cared for the killer of Wild Bill.

McCall was hung March 1st, 1877 and buried with the noose still around his neck.

From the FE Films Archive

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