The makeup of poker’s dead man’s hand has varied through the years. Currently, it is described as a two-pair poker hand consisting of the black aces and black eights. These and an unknown hole card were reportedly held by Old West folk hero, lawman, and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok when he was murdered.
The expression “dead man’s hand” appears to have had some currency in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although no one connected it to Hickok until the 1920s. The earliest detailed reference to it was 1886, where it was described as a “full house consisting of three jacks and a pair of tens”. Jacks and sevens are called the dead man’s hand in the 1903 Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences. Edmond Hoyle refers to it as Jacks and eights in 1907.
The solidification in gamers parlance of the dead man’s hand as two pairs, aces and eights, didn’t come about until after 1926.
What is considered the dead man’s hand card combination of today gets its notoriety from a legend that it was the five-card stud hand held by James Butler Hickok (better known as “Wild Bill” Hickok) when he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall on August 2, 1876, in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon at Deadwood, Dakota Territory:
On August 1, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. When a seat opened up at the table, a drunk man named Jack McCall sat down to play. McCall lost heavily. Hickok encouraged McCall to quit the game until he could cover his losses and offered to give him money for breakfast. Though McCall accepted the money, he was apparently insulted.
The next day, Hickok was playing poker again. He usually sat with his back to a wall so he could see the entrance, but the only seat available when he joined the game was a chair facing away from the door. He asked another man at the table, Charles Rich, to change seats with him twice, but Rich refused.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Division uses the dead man’s hand in their insignia
McCall entered the saloon, walked up behind Hickok, drew his Colt’s Model 1873 Single Action Army .45 caliber revolver and shouted, “Damn you! Take that!” He shot Hickok in the back of the head at point-blank range.[ Hickok died instantly. The bullet emerged through Hickok’s right cheek and struck another player, riverboat Captain William Massie, in the left wrist. Hickok may have told his friend Charlie Utter and others who were traveling with them that he thought he would be killed while in Deadwood.
Reportedly, Hickok’s final hand included the aces and eights of both black suits.
According to a book by Western historian Carl W. Breihan, the cards were retrieved from the floor by a man named Neil Christy, who then passed them on to his son. The son, in turn, told Mr. Breihan of the composition of the hand. “Here is an exact identity of these cards as told to me by Christy’s son: the ace of diamonds with a heel mark on it; the ace of clubs; the two black eights, clubs and spades, and the queen of hearts with a small drop of Hickock’s blood on it.”
The dead man’s hand has appeared or been referenced in numerous works of popular culture.
Hickok biographer Joseph Rosa wrote about the make-up of the hand: “The accepted version is that the cards were the ace of spades, the ace of clubs, two black eights, and the queen of clubs as the ‘kicker’.” However, Rosa said that no contemporaneous source can be found for this exact hand. The solidification in gamers parlance of the dead man’s hand as two pairs, aces and eights, didn’t come about until after the 1926 publication of Frank Wilstach’s book Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers—50 years after Hickok’s death.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Division, the Los Angeles Police Department CRASH squad, and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System all use the dead man’s hand in their insignia. The western-themed collectible card game Doomtown makes it the highest rank in the game, with the Jack of diamonds as the fifth card.
The dead man’s hand has appeared or been referenced in numerous works of popular culture. In “Batman R.I.P.”, while Batman is talking to The Joker in Arkham Asylum, the Joker sends a cryptic message to Batman by dealing himself a “dead man’s hand, with a twist.” The “twist” is that the 8’s in the hand are red cards, while the aces remain black. His final card is a Joker.