The Dead Man’s Hand is a famous two-pair poker hand, made up of “aces and eights”. Legend has it that the card combination got its name from the fact that it was the five-card-draw hand held by James Butler Hickok (that’s Wild Bill Hickok), when he was shot and killed on August 2, 1876, at a Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota.
According to the story (made very famous by penny dreadfuls and dime store novels of the day), the final hand Hickok was dealt included aces and eights of both (all clubs and spades). Most accounts mention AA & 88, although there are numerous claims regarding the identity of Hickok’s fifth and final card. Some say that he had discarded one card and/or that the draw was cut short by the shooting. Because you can’t keep a good story down , the Dead man’s Hand keeps cropping up in popular culture; it shows up in Quantum Leap, the X-Files, At least two of John Ford’s films (where the hand foreshadows death), Stagecoach (1939), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Notably in the TV drama Deadwood, which recreated the scene, a nine of diamonds is depicted, but the show implies that another player at the table concocted the hand, for the sake of legend. The hand is famous enough to be featured in Las Vegas Metro Police Department Homicide Division’s insignia, as in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. But the last card is disputed; according to the records of McCall’s second trial it was the Jack of Diamonds, which The Lucky Nugget Gambling Hall, which is situated on the historic site of Saloon No. 10, also displays the Jack of Diamonds. Supposedly, newspaper / eyewitness accounts and Historical displays in the town of Deadwood, show the nine of diamonds as the fifth card. To go one better The Adams Museum in Deadwood (claims to) display the actual squeezer cards held by Hickok. They show the hand as ace of diamonds, ace of clubs, eight of hearts, eight of spades, and the queen of hearts.
The term has become so commonplace that it even crops up in the title of fantasy novel; Kitty and the Dead Man’s hand by Carrie Vaughn, a werewolf, vampire romance thriller set amongst the poker tables of fabulous Las Vegas (honest). In music, the Dead Man’s Hand is name checked in the Bring Me the Horizon song “Alligator Blood”, the Uncle Kracker song “Aces and Eights” the Bob Dylan song “Rambling, Gambling Willie”, and who could forget Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” which also refer to the legendary poker hand.
The “fact” that Wild Bill was holding aces and eights when he was killed comes from Frank J. Wilstach, who wrote the biography Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers published in 1926. He says he did his work and corresponded with living witnesses who had known Hickok, including one Ellis T. “Doc” Peirce, the Deadwood town barber / physician who was tasked with preparing the body for burial. The full story goes that Wild Bill Wild Bill had a forewarning that Deadwood would be his last home, and told the premonition to the friends he was travelling with including Charlie Utter (also known as Colorado Charlie), who laughed off his worries. In the night in question Hickok was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10. Hickok, did not sit with his back to the wall, as was his usual habit (and the safest place to sit when you knew people were gunning for you). The single seat present when he joined the poker game, put his back to a door. The story goes that twice Bill asked another player at the table, Charles Rich, to swap seats with him, but (tragically) Rich refused, on both occasions. The cards were dealt the Dead Man’s Hand was held by Wild Bill when a buffalo hunter named John McCall (aka “Jack” or “Broken Nose Jack” McCall) walked to within a few feet of Wild Bill, drew a pistol and shouted, “Take that!” before firing at the unsuspecting Hickok, killing him instantly. Legend has it that in the previous hand Hickok had lost his bankroll and had borrowed $50 to continue playing.
Whatever the truth of the story, or the history of the hand, as Owing to the Wild nature of the old West, and therefore number of poker players who died at the table, “Dead Man’s hand” was already an established name for many different hands long before Hickok was shot. Besides I always say don’t fear the Dead man’s Hand, it’s bad luck to be suspicious.