What is a dead man’s hand?

In 1926, the biography of James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok reported that the man dubbed ‘The Prince of Pistoleers’ died while holding the ace of spades, ace of clubs, eight of spades, eight of clubs and another, unconfirmed card in a hand of five-card stud poker. In fact, Hickok had shot in back of the head by disgruntled rival, Jack McCall, at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory fifty years earlier; no contemporary accounts describe the exact hand Hickok was holding at the time of his death, but two black aces and two black eights has ‘officially’ been known as a ‘dead man’s hand’ ever since. Of course, even after his death, legends and tales about Hickok continued to appear in pulp fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so it is, perhaps, understandable that his name also became associated a term that had already existed for some time.

Nevertheless, several reliable references to a ‘dead man’s hand’ date from the period between Hickok’s death in 1876 and the publication of his biography in 1926, but make no mention of Hickok. A newspaper article dating from 1886 recounted the tale of a down-on-his-luck Illinois judge who staked his livelihood on his full house, jacks over tens, lost to another full house, queens over tens, and died of shock. Later reliable accounts, in the early years of the twentieth century, linked the term ‘dead man’s hand’ to jacks and sevens or jacks and eights.