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The Story Of Dead Man’s Hand

Marc Armstrong EN

Casino games have a great deal of superstition around them, which makes sense, given the human propensity to make up “rules” where there are none. Since casino games rely on luck to varying degrees, it is also goes without saying that there is a degree of chaos involved. In such cases superstition is bound to flourish; giving imaginary rules to the chaos.

I like superstitions, because for me they are a demonstration of the extent people will go to in order to give personality to the unknown. A thing with personality can, after all, be reasoned with, can’t it not? Surely the badness can be kept out if I sprinkle salt across the threshold of my door. Problem solved, badness defeated, order restored.

Forgive me for getting all philosophical there, it was fleeting and I’ll stop immediately. I really do like superstitions, though, and decided to dive into one of my favourite; dead man’s hand. For those unfamiliar with the story, the dead man’s hand is the poker hand held by Wild Bill Hickok upon his untimely demise. So, apparently, getting dealt this hand is a bad omen. Wear a helmet if you are ever dealt two aces, and two eights, a spade and club between them, next time you’re playing online poker. Naturally, the presence of such cards makes bullets far more likely to be aligned with your brain, as detailed in numerous physics textbooks.

Superstition Origins

The thing I like most about superstitions is trying to find their origin. It’s a bit like trying to find the end of a piece of string, after you’ve rolled it up into a ball.  In the case of dead man’s hand you would think I had already covered the origin aspect, but you’d be wrong. The story is, as always, so convoluted that it’s almost impossible to know where exactly the tale began.

It is known for a fact that Wild Bill was shot in the back of the head, August 2, 1876, in Nuttal & Mann's Saloon, and that he died instantly. And it seems pretty clear that he was playing poker at the time. But, as to what hand he was holding really is up for debate, since it changes depending on which account you read. As with all Wild West tales, there was probably plenty of fluff added as the story travelled.

Furthermore, the term “dead man’s hand” existed long before Wild Bill was even shot. So, you see, the story already starts to become a little foggy, straight off the bat. Prior to Wild Bill the dead man’s hand was three jacks and a pair of tens, but somewhere in the 1920s the murder of Wild Bill and the term dead man’s hand became connected, and the hand it related to also changed.

The Tall Tales

But wait, before we get carried away here and deviate from the important part, so we all know which cards to be afraid of; what is the dead man’s hand, exactly? I mean, it would be crazy to have the dead man’s hand and not even know it’s time to reach for a helmet. Superstitions, after all, don’t care if you know about them or not, your brain is a target regardless.

According to a historian named Carl W. Breihan the cards were retrieved from the floor by a man named Neil Christy, who handed them to his son. The boy called out the composition of the cards, which were an ace of diamonds, an ace of clubs, two black eights, a club and a spade, plus a queen of hearts. The queen, dramatically, had a drop of Wild Bill’s blood on it.

Wait a second, I’m getting confused, what were the cards?

According to Joseph Rosa, a biographer, the accepted dead man’s hand is the two eights, black suits, two aces, black suits, plus a queen of spades. Rosa, at least, had the common decency to add that there is no credible source to confirm this, however.

What Is The Dead Man’s Hand?

So will someone please tell me which cards, exactly, I’m supposed to be scared of? At this rate I might as well just be scared of all the cards, and save myself the risk of misidentification. Or, wear a helmet permanently when playing online poker, just in case.

After researching this blog I honestly no longer knew what the dead man’s hand officially was, and the more I read, the more confused I became. The superstition is used in countless different instances, including card games, and even police force insignias. The closest I can get is to say that, officially, the dead man’s hand is black eights and aces, but the fifth card is pretty much anyone’s guess, other than it consistently being a random picture card. It wouldn’t shock me, however, if it was suddenly revealed that Wild Bill was in fact playing Go Fish upon his death.

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