Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dead Man’s Hand

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 10, 2014

The tall tale told about the dead man’s hand is that one night, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok  was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota Hickok when he was shot dead while holding a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights.  The fifth card was … unknown.  You see, as the story’s told, Wild Bill had discarded his fifth card and was about to draw his fifth card when he was shot in the head by a buffalo hunter by the name of John McCall.

The reconstructed original saloon displays the Nine of Diamonds as the fifth card.  The Lucky Nugget Gambling Hall displays a Jack of Diamonds instead.  The Adams Museum in Deadwood has the Queen of Hearts, and the old Stardust Casino in Las Vegas claimed it was a Five of Diamonds.

Now, while the story is a good bit of yarn spinning, Frank J. Wilstach wrote a book in 1925 titled,”Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince Of Pistoleers.”  He claimed to have interviewed the town barber and impromptu undertaker at the time, Ellis T. “Doc” Pierce, and this is what was written in the book.

Now, in regard to the position of Bill’s body, when they unlocked the door for me to get his body, he was lying on his side, with his knees drawn up just as he slid off his stool. We had no chairs in those days — and his fingers were still crimped from holding his poker hand. Charlie Rich, who sat beside him, said he never saw a muscle move. Bill’s hand read ‘aces and eights’ — two pair, and since that day aces and eights have been known as ‘the dead man’s hand’ in the Western country.

The reason I call that a good bit of yarn spinning is because that story was told to Frank fifty years after the incident happened.  Interestingly enough, back in 1886, every poker player worth his weight knew that the dead man’s hand consisted of three Jacks and a pair of tens — none of the cards that were in Wild Bill’s hand when he died on 2 August 1876.

For those who may be wondering how Idiomation knows this, it’s because the St. Paul Daily Globe of 17 April 1886 carried an article entitled, “Big Games of Poker at Washington: $6,000 Won on One Hand.”  It was a reprint from the New York Mail and Express newspaper and stated in part:

I was present at a game in a Senator’s house one night and saw him win $6,000 on one hand.  It was the dead man’s hand.  What is the dead man’s hand?  Why, it is three jacks and a pair of tens.  It is called the dead man’s hand because about forty years ago, in a town of Illinois, a celebrated judge bet his house and lot on three jacks and a pair of tens.  It was the last piece of property he had in the world.

And to whom was this expression attributed?

When his opponent showed up he had three queens and a pair of tens.  Upon seeing the queens,the judge fell back dead, clutching the jacks and tens in his hand; and that’s why a jack-full on tens is called the deadman’s hand.

Perhaps the idiom could be found in tracing the history of five-card draw poker which was written about by an English actor by the name of Joseph Crowell who wrote about watching the game played on Mississippi steamboats in 1829.  By the 1830s, the game had been modified into the version of five-card draw poker known to this day.  As a side note, it was during the 1830s that the straight and flush were introduced into the game.

Between the date the game became known and a decade later when the judge mention in the news story of 1886 played the fateful hand (sometime in the 1840s), the moniker was tagged to three jacks and two eights.

What this means is that some time after 1830, someone tagged three jacks and a pair of tens as the dead man’s hand.

However, Idiomation was unable to find the idiom in any publications of the day.  In 1843, author Jonathan Harrington Green published his book “An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling: Designed Especially as a Warning to the Youthful and Inexperienced, Against the Evils of That Odious and Destructive Vice.”  An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to poker, including four-handed poker, three-handed poker, and two-handed poker, and the many ways in which players are cheated of their money.  But there’s no mention of the dead man’s hand.

His book was obviously a great success as the author published another book on the topic in 1857 entitled, “Gambling Exposed:  Full Exposition of All the Various Arts, Mysteries,and Miseries of Gambling.”  The dubious title of “by the Reformed Gambler, Jonathan H. Green” was included.  In both books, poker was blamed for being responsible for the death of many a good man who could otherwise rebuff vices and temptation.

But there’s something to be said about good poker players.

President Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809 – 15 April 1865) placed his faith in Ulysses S. Grant (27 April 1822 – 23 July 1885) who was a brilliantly skillful poker player with a reputation for being able to anticipate his opponents’ moves.  And while he did indulge in drink and he was a gambler, when he became the 18th President of the United States, it was said that he rarely touched a drop of alcohol and rarely gambled.

Another bit of trivia for the books is the fact that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department: Homicide Division uses a pair of aces and a pair of eights as their logo.  What do they investigate?  Why homicides and suspicious deaths, of course.

As for those who are curious about Will Bill’s poker hand —  whether the fifth card was the Queen of Diamonds, the Jack of Diamonds, the Five of Diamonds, the Nine of Diamonds or the Queen of Clubs (all of which have been suggested in various contexts) — it is likely that Hickok was already holding the winning hand and that the fifth card wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game.  In the end, all that can be said was that a pair of aces and a pair of eights were one dead man’s hand, but not the hand that poker players of the day knew to be the dead man’s hand.

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