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Imagining Wild Bill

Imagining Wild Bill

James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory

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Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
15 illustrations

Engaging the Civil War


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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

About the Book

Wild Bill’s ever-evolving legend

When it came to the Wild West, the nineteenth-century press rarely let truth get in the way of a good story. James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok’s story was no exception. Mythologized and sensationalized, Hickok was turned into the deadliest gunfighter of all, a so-called moral killer, a national phenomenon even while he was alive.

Rather than attempt to tease truth from fiction, coauthors Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill investigate the ways in which Hickok embodied the culture of glamorized violence Americans embraced after the Civil War and examine the process of how his story emerged, evolved, and turned into a viral multimedia sensation full of the excitement, danger, and romance of the West.

Journalists, the coauthors demonstrate, invented “Wild Bill” Hickok, glorifying him as a civilizer. They inflated his body count and constructed his legend in the midst of an emerging celebrity culture that grew up around penny newspapers. His death by treachery, at a relatively young age, made the story tragic, and dime-store novelists took over where the press left off. Reimagined as entertainment, Hickok’s legend continued to enthrall Americans in literature, on radio, on television, and in the movies, and it still draws tourists to notorious Deadwood, South Dakota.

American culture often embraces myths that later become accepted as popular history. By investigating the allure and power of Hickok’s myth, Ashdown and Caudill explain how American journalism and popular culture have shaped the way Civil War–era figures are remembered and reveal how Americans have embraced violence as entertainment.


Both Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill are professors emeritus of journalism at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. They have co-written Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend; Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory; The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest; and The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend. Ashdown specializes in literary journalism, international communication, and popular culture, and Caudill focuses on media history, the Civil War era, and the history of ideas in public memory and the press.


"Rather than losing themselves in the futile enterprise of separating man from myth, the authors instead endeavor to 'explain how [Hickok’s] story was imagined and interpreted' by journalists, novelists, and others who helped spin Wild Bill’s yarns."—Aaron David Hyams, Civil War Monitor

“An absolutely fascinating and meticulous work of seminal scholarship, Imagining Wild Bill: James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory is an extraordinarily informative and exceptionally well presented study and one that is unhesitatingly recommended for personal reading lists, as well as community, college and university library American Biography collections in general, and Wild Bill Hickok fans in particular.”—John BurroughsMidwest Book Review

“An invaluable examination of the evolving interpretations and myths woven around Western demigod Wild Bill Hickok. This study is invitingly written, overflowing with fresh information, and balanced in its approach and conclusions.”—Richard W. Etulain, author of The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane

“In this revealing and entertaining book, Ashdown and Caudill unpack how the Wild Bill Hickok legend developed and what it says about American mythology and history.”—Marc Wortman, author of The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta

“A spirited and carefully framed reassessment that is thoughtful, nuanced, and most important, fair to a subject who is otherwise evasive to the claims of mere mortals.”—Bryan Giemza, author of Images of Depression-Era Louisiana: The FSA Photographs of Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott