It’s a scene we all recognize from John Wayne Westerns and paperback book covers. Two desperados face off in an empty street. A tumbleweed skitters across the dusted road, and wide eyes peek from between burlap-sack curtains. The two gunmen engage in a silent battle of will, their fingers poised delicately over their pistol handles. In an instant so quick it’s nearly invisible, their arms move in tandem, whipping their guns from their holsters and pulling triggers in one swift action. A reverberating shot later, a man lies, dying and bloodied, in the street. The victor growls a one-liner of wisdom and walks away, his spurs the hushed soundtrack of his departure.
Like so many iconic and fictionalized moments, this storyline is just that—fictionalized and exaggerated. It’s a scene that rarely played out in the streets of the real West. But it is true that there was one shootout in the early days of the West that serves as inspiration for the quintessential gunfight.
Following the terminus of the Civil War, the fledgling West was a refuge for young, troubled men. Wild Bill Hickok, for example, fled to the frontier after an alcohol-induced brawl in which he mistakenly accused himself of murder. Similarly, a rough character named Davis Tutt arrived in Missouri following his family’s own civil war, the Tutt-Everett War, in which several of his brethren were killed. What Tutt and Hickok found in Springfield, Missouri, was not the peace they searched for but the violence they had tried to escape.
When Tutt and Hickok, both professional gamblers, first met, the two ruffians formed a friendship despite inherent differences (Tutt was a former Confederate soldier, Hickok a Union scout). It wasn’t their morals or alliances that eventually broke their bond but a common agitator in friendships for centuries: women.
According to the legends surrounding the two cardsharks, both men fostered amorous feelings where perhaps they should not. Hickok was said to have had an affair (and fathered a child) with Tutt’s sister, while Tutt was supposedly seen paying his attentions to Hickok’s sweetheart, Susanna Moore. The feud between the two friends grew and festered, until Hickok refused to play in card games in which Tutt was a member.
In petty retribution, Tutt began offering advice and funds to Hickok’s opponents, whispering and pushing pennies behind Hickok’s back. But still, the men remained relatively cordial.
But then Tutt intentionally and irrevocably overstepped his boundaries. During a game of poker in July of 1865 at the Lyon House Hotel, Tutt watched as Hickok dominated the game, collecting payments from his opponents—most of which had been funded by the fuming Tutt. Frustrated with the turn of events, Tutt reached across the table and grabbed Hickok’s most prized possession—a Waltham repeater gold pocket watch—spouting claims of Hickok’s indebtedness to him for prior card game losses.
Hickok remained calm and promised to pay Tutt the $25 debt, for which he had a memorandum in his pocket, but Tutt announced that the debt was for $35 and refused to return the watch until it was paid. With that he left the hotel, flanked by his cronies and the watch clenched in his palm.
Tutt’s actions were particularly offensive for Hickok, not only because he snagged his most treasured asset, but also because they implied Hickok’s insolvency and indebtedness, traits that would destroy his reputation in the town and his career as a professional gambler. So when Tutt’s friends mocked Hickok and foretold visions of Tutt walking across the square, watch in full view, Hickok quietly replied, “He shouldn’t come across that square unless dead men can walk.” With that, the tone of the feud shifted. This was no longer a mere disagreement—it was a battle that would end in bloodshed.
The next morning the two men faced off in the traditional dueling stance on the main street of Springfield: bodies angled and hands resting on revolvers. In a surprising mark of gentlemanliness, the two men met in the middle and strolled into the nearest saloon, choosing a friendly drink over violence.
But peace was not long-lived. That evening, the two gunslingers met once again in the center of Springfield. They resumed their stances, eyes locked. In a burst and a flash, Tutt and Hickok fired simultaneously. Tutt’s bullet missed, flying harmlessly over Hickok’s head, but the other bullet found its mark, driving into Tutt’s chest. Minutes later, Tutt lay dead.
Hickok’s act went essentially unpunished. He stood trial for manslaughter, the greatest debate of which was who fired first. The jury absolved the case, finding Hickok’s shooting of Tutt justified, especially considering the honorable opportunities he repeatedly gave Tutt to avoid violence.
Though he escaped it this time, it was at a card table that Hickok eventually met his death. Eleven years later, Hickok was shot from behind, his fingers grasping a paired poker hand of aces and 8’s—a pair that is now known as the Dead Man’s Hand.
The shots that rang on the streets of Springfield that day had a literal effect on the lives of two men, but a symbolic one of the lives of thousands more. It served as the ringing start to the era of the Wild, Wild West, inviting gunmen and drifters to this new frontier. Springfield became the unofficial gate to that wily world of the West.