The First Real Shootout In The Wild, Wild West

“For those that fly may fight again, / Which he can never do that’s slain.” —Samuel Butler, Hudibras

In A Nutshell

We all know gunfighters didn’t really square off against each other like the characters in Shane and Gunsmoke . . . only sometimes they did. While it was extremely rare, a few shootists really did meet in the middle of the street to slap leather and do battle. In fact, the first real Wild West showdown (that we know about) was between a man named Davis Tutt and the infamous Wild Bill Hickock himself.

The Whole Bushel

You’ve seen it in countless westerns. The good guy and the bad guy meet in the street at high noon. They stare at each other for a few seconds, eyes twitching and sweat pouring, before drawing their pistols. They’re both fast, but the hero is faster. He fans the hammer, and the villain crumples over and dies. It’s a classic Western showdown and almost pure Hollywood nonsense . . . almost. While the real West was far less violent than the way it’s portrayed in movies, there were times when gunmen settled their differences by calling each other out and stepping into the street.

The first known, genuine Western showdown took place on July 21, 1865. The setting was Springfield, Missouri, and the combatants were Civil War veteran Davis Tutt and professional gambler James Butler Hickock (who would later earn the nickname “Wild Bill”). While the men were originally friends, their admiration eventually turned to animosity. Legend says the feuding started thanks to the oldest troublemaker known to man: love. Or at least lust. Some claim Hickock impregnated Tutt’s sister, and the ex-soldier was putting the moves on Hickock’s main girl, Susanna Moore. Whatever drove the men apart, the real fireworks got started over a game of cards.

It was July 20, 1865, and Hickock was making his living at the Lyon House Hotel. The evening started getting tense when the gambler refused to play poker with Tutt. In retaliation, Davis aided Wild Bill’s competitors, giving them advice and bankrolling them. However, Hickock was a skilled card player and won nearly $200 of Tutt’s money.

Eventually, an angry Tutt claimed Hickock owed him a sizable chunk of change from a previous game. When the gambler denied the allegation, Tutt reached across the table and snatched Hickock’s prized pocketwatch, explaining he’d keep the timepiece until Bill paid him back. Hickock knew better than to start a fight since the table was full of Tutt’s buddies. However, he made it clear the veteran shouldn’t wear the watch in public. Of course, that’s exactly what Tutt planned on doing. Infuriated, Hickock told Tutt’s friend, “He shouldn’t come across that [town] square unless dead men can walk.”

Tutt accepted the challenge, and the next day, right before 6:00 PM, the men met in the middle of town. Just as he’d promised, Tutt was wearing the pocketwatch. The Civil War vet started striding across the square, but when he was about 70 meters (75 yards) away, Hickock called out, “Don’t come any closer, Dave.” That’s when both men turned sideways, standing like traditional duelists. At nearly the same time, the men pulled their pistols and fired. However, Davis fired single-handed and missed by a wide shot. Hickock, however, rested his Navy Colt on his left forearm, took aim and shot Davis Tutt in the ribs. The mortally wounded gunman staggered away, gasping, “Boys, I’m killed,” before keeling over dead.

Hickock was later acquitted of all charges and went on to a career as a lawman before someone shot him in the back of the head in 1876. As for the Hickock-Tutt showdown, its legend lived on, influencing practically every western novel, movie and TV show ever made.

Show Me The Proof

History.com: This Day in History: Wild Bill Hickock fights first western showdown
The Hickock-Tutt Gunfight: The One That Started It All
Biography.com: Famous Wild West Duel: Wild Bill Hickock vs. Davis Tutt