London scholar tracks legacy of Wild Bill Hickok

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- A Wild West historian is convinced the face-to-face shootout that gave way to the legend of Wild Bill Hickok was something the gunman never wanted to happen.

Joseph G. Rosa traveled from London in October and spent four days poring through boxes of century-old documents at the Greene County Archives in Springfield.

The red-brick building is about a mile north of the public square where Hickok beat gambling buddy Dave Tutt to the draw and shot him dead on July 21, 1865. The legend of "Wild Bill" was born after Harper's magazine wrote about the gunfight and put a majestic picture of Hickok atop his horse on the cover of its February 1867 issue.

The magazine and other accounts have pitted Hickok and Tutt as enemies. Rosa believes that is a stretch from truth.

Bond from a bond

That's why Rosa recently made yet another trip to southwest Missouri to sort through boxes of musty, old papers. He was looking for a bond Hickok and Tutt reportedly signed shortly before the shootout. The bond was for a mutual friend named Larkin Russell, who had been charged with horse thieving.

If Rosa can find the bond, it will be one more example that Hickok never wanted to kill Tutt.

"If it does turn up, that would be fantastic because you'll have both Hickok's and Tutt's signature on the same piece of paper," Rosa said during a telephone interview from London. "That's really what it's all about."

Rosa, now 70, has spent some 50 years sorting through faded court papers, coroner's reports, news clippings and other documents about Hickok. He has talked to relatives of Hickok, who was a farmer's son from Troy Grove, Ill.

"They tell me I'm the world's leading expert," Rosa said with a laugh. "I say that's very kind, but there's no such thing as an expert, you're knowledgeable. Once you become an expert, then you know everything. Then you are in trouble."

Rosa's interest in Hickok grew from watching Western movies as a young boy. School was often canceled during World War II, so he would go to the cinema. It was during those lazy afternoons that Rosa became drawn to James Butler Hickok, the man who tamed two lawless Kansas towns and dabbled in gambling before being fatally shot while playing cards in 1876 in Deadwood, S.D.

"I got into studying this, and things didn't make sense," Rosa said. "Every story, every film, I got a different version. I started wondering what was the truth."

Robert Neumann, supervisor of Greene County Archives, joined Rosa in the search for the bond paper. It was Neumann who came across an entry in an index of court records in 1992 that showed Hickok, Tutt and another man named Tom Martin had put up bond for Russell.

"He, Hickok and Tutt were obviously friendly because Russell was charged with horse thievery in 1865, and these two put up a bond for him," Rosa said.

Russell disappeared into Kansas, where he reportedly was killed before his trial. So the men's money was forfeited.

A short time later, Hickok and Tutt quarreled over a gambling debt. Tutt said he was owed $35, while Hickok maintained it was $25. When they failed to agree, Tutt took Hickok's gold pocket watch as collateral.

"All the witnesses in the coroner's inquest said they spent hours trying to get Tutt to accept that Hickok only owed him $25," Rosa said. "Hickok said, 'Give me my watch back.' And Tutt said, 'No."'

Tutt later returned to the square, defiantly wearing Hickok's watch. Hickok became angry at the insulting implication that he didn't pay his gambling debts, Rosa said.

The men walked menacingly toward one another, with Tutt stopping not far from where a motor vehicle office stands today. Hickok was some 75 yards away, outside what is now an office building.

"It has been repeated by several people that Hickock said: 'Dave we've been friends for many years. You've helped me out many times, and you're the last person I wish to fall out with,"' Rosa said.

Tutt reached for his gun, and with one incredible shot to the chest, Hickok belonged to the ages.

"I don't think those two really wanted to fight," Rosa said. "I think it was pride."

Nonetheless, the shootout set the standard for the face-to-face Wild West gunfights that would be portrayed endlessly on TV and in the movies.

People still visit Springfield in search of Western folklore. Tutt is buried in a cemetery not far from downtown. A plaque detailing the shootout remains on the square.

Hickock memorabilia is coveted by collectors, Rosa said.

"His signature is very much prized now," he said. "It's probably the most prized of all Western gunfighters because there are so few of them."

Rosa speculated the bond paper signed by Tutt and Hickock would be worth between $50,000 and $100,000 on the open market.

Neumann and Rosa agreed that would never be an issue. If found, it would remain at the archives.

Neumann has already uncovered the coroner's report on Tutt. He also found Hickock's signature on an 1866 trial deposition. In it, Hickock recounts the shooting of a man by a Springfield policeman.

Neumann acknowledged the bond, however, could have been destroyed. The county opened the archive in 1987. Before that, records were stored in boxes at a garage. Some became wet and had to be destroyed.

Neither Rosa nor Neumann are giving up.

"We've already found papers that we didn't expect to uncover," Neumann said. "Who knows what else is in there."

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