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Movies about the “Wild West” have been an American favorite since the birth of cinema itself. For our local history series, A Sense of Place, reporter Emma Wilson explores the beginning of a western legend, and the Springfield duel that made him a famous gunfighter.
Two men stand on either side of a dusty town square, their fingers quivering over their pistols. They draw and shoot at the same time but only one walks away alive. When one thinks of a gunfight in the “Wild West,” this scene may come to mind. Most probably would not think immediately of Springfield, Missouri, but Wild Bill Hickok established himself as a gun-slinging Wild West legend right here with a “quick draw” duel that happened on the square downtown.
“I mean, this is listed on the U.S. Department of the Interior as the first ‘Old West’ gunfight,” says John Sellars, Director of the Springfield-Greene County History Museum.
I met up with him at Park Central Square to discover just how this legendary duel happened. He painted a picture of how things would have looked in 1865 as he tells me the story of how Wild Bill shot Dave Tutt.
“The shootout was actually precipitated by a poker game in the old Springfield Opera House which was located here on South Street. Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt and some others were playing poker, and Wild Bill Hickok lost a pocket watch to Dave Tutt,” says Sellars.
Sellars says there may have been tensions between the two men to begin with for various reasons, one of which was that Bill Hickok was a Union scout during the Civil War, and Tutt did basically the same job for the Confederacy. During the 1860s, Springfield was at the edge of the western frontier and had become a boomtown during the aftermath of the Civil War.
“Dave Tutt was told by Wild Bill Hickok not to wear the pocket watch: ‘Don’t ever let me see you wearin’ that pocket watch’,” says Sellars
For fear of seeming like a coward, Dave Tutt showed up on the square wearing the pocket watch the next day.
Sellars motioned around the square to indicate where the two men were standing, “So he stepped out into the square from that northwest corner at the same time Wild Bill Hickok came into the square from South Street, stepped into the square from South Street, the two of them pulled their guns and fired. Wild Bill Hickok was not injured; Dave Tutt was mortally wounded and actually fell dead onto the courthouse steps.”
According to local legend, Wild Bill shot Tutt form a distance of 75 yards, which was the story that carried him to folk hero fame. Hickok’s act was ruled as self defense, Sellars says, because Tutt had his gun out of its holster when he was killed. Hickok later did an interview with Harper’s magazine about the fight which was the basis for many “silver screen” depictions of Old West gunfights.
“Everything was based on that original photo--not photograph--but original etching in Harper’s weekly showing him turning and threatening the other people after Dave Tutt fell dead,” says Sellars. A few months later Wild Bill Hickok ran for city marshal of Springfield but lost. The loss prompted his move west, where he was the sheriff and marshal of several different towns and built his reputation for being a gunslinger and expert marksman. He gained further notoriety during his exploits with Buffalo Bill Cody across the Great Plains. And as for the fate of Dave Tutt? I guess there just wasn’t enough room in this town for the both of ‘em.
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.