It was Christmas Day afternoon 129 years ago when William A. Hickman, standing in front of the Townsend Hotel on First South and West Temple in Salt Lake City, dared another man to shoot him.
Hickman, who was well-known locally as "Wild Bill," was quick with his temper and fast with the pearl-handled Colt and Yaeger revolvers that he kept slung around his hips.
As a soldier, bodyguard and spy for Brigham Young, Hickman, who stood about six feet tall, was no stranger to confrontation. He had used his guns many times before and wouldn't hesitate to use them again.
Recounting that bloody Christmas Day encounter, Hickman said he was in the alley outside the hotel when Lott Huntington drew his gun on him. Hickman was close enough to grab the cocked pistol with one hand while drawing his knife with his other. Just as he was about to plunge the knife into Huntington, he heard someone shouting not to do it. He hesitated.
At that moment, Hickman said someone stepped between them. Huntington then stepped back a few feet and shot Hickman in the thigh.
"I drew my pistol, but before I got it out of the scabbard, he shot at me
again," he wrote later. "As I brought my pistol on him, he wheeled to run. I shot. He jumped some three feet high, clapping his hand behind him. He then ran out from the alley about 50 steps, wheeled, shot twice at J. Luce, then at John Flack, upon which the boys returned the compliments."
Hickman's "boys" were a group of some 20 men labeled by Brigham Young the "Hickman Hounds," men said to often take matters into their own hands. It seems a few weeks earlier Hickman's gang had a run-in with a rival gang, of which Huntington was a member.
The colorful tale can be found in Hickman's 1872 autobiography, "Brigham's Destroying Angel." For those who crave American West genre, it probably doesn't get any better than this—that is, unless you're Mormon.
It seems Hickman dug his own grave when he hastily wrote his autobiography, which claimed that Brigham Young ordered him to kill men without benefit of trial.
From the time his book appeared in local bookstores on Feb. 5, 1872, to his lonely death 11 years later. Hickman was despised by Mormons for the way he vilified their prophet, and by Gentiles for the deeds he claimed to have committed out of loyalty to that prophet.
When Hope A. Hilton first read the book her great-grandfather wrote about himself, it sparked a flame of curiosity that grew brighter over the years.
Was he really as bad as he made himself out to be? Why did he implicate Brigham Young and other high Mormon officials? Why did he betray those whom he had once loyally obeyed? Why did the Mormon Church turn its back on him and all but exclude him from its history?
These were questions the Salt Lake City woman thought deserved answers, but they were answers that kept eluding her whenever she approached her relatives—who either tried to change the subject or became overly defensive. She decided to settle the matter herself. She turned to journals, letters, court records and the church archives in hopes of retracing his controversial life and placing it in perspective.
This month, Signature Books of Salt Lake City has published those finding in the book, "Wild Bill" Hickman and the Mormon Frontier ($9.95).
Hilton said Hickman's autobiography, under the hands of anti-Mormon editor, J.H. Beadle, focused only on the sensational and failed to consider the setting in which he acted—namely a frontier territory that had essentially declared war on the United States.
She was referring to the 1857-58 "Utah War," which, among many things, was a last-stand effort by Mormons to quell an attempt by U.S. Army troops to march to Utah and remove Brigham Young from the office of governor.
In such a setting, she said, there is a thin line between a war hero and an outlaw—and it's unfair to judge a person's actions during war in the same way you would during peace. The standards are different—a distinction Hickman and Young were not afforded, she said.
"History has willingly accorded Hickman credit for his misdeeds and personal failings while overlooking many of his contributions to the Mormon frontier," she wrote in her preface. "I believe he deserves a nore prominent place in Utah and Wyoming history."
A frontiersman all of his life, Hickman was born in 1815 in a log cabin in western Kentucky. He joined the Mormon Church when he was 21 years old.
Hilton said Hickman was a man loyal to the church and to Brigham Young through most of his life. The greatest display of this loyalty came during the Utah War period—a bloody time in which Hickman is said to have killed some 54 men under direct order from Brigham Young.
Hilton believes that because the war was not exactly a victory for Brigham Young, the church downplayed its significance. She also believes it used Hickman as a scapegoat in much the same way it did John D. Lee in blaming him for the massacre at Mountain Meadows—an offshoot of the Utah War.
Hilton said Hickman appears to have been acting under war orders in all of the deaths except for one—the murder of "Spanish Frank." In this particular case, she called it a "crime of passion" in which Hickman gunned down Frank Moreno, whom he claims ran off with one of his wives and four of his children.
Before his wives started leaving him, Hickman was married to as many as 10 at one time. In all, he fathered 35 children. The burden to care for them was great, particularly since he never worked at a steady job and was never paid by Brigham Young for any of his services, Hilton said.
She said that is the main reason he took employment between 1863 and 1865 as a government guide and Indian spy for Brigadier General Patrick Connor.
This decision was not looked upon favorably by Brigham Young, who distrusted men who accepted government employment, Hilton said. On two occasions he asked Hickman to quit the job. For the first time in Hickman's life, he disobeyed an order from his beloved prophet. In time he "lost the confidence of both government and church," Hilton wrote.
Feeling betrayed by Brigham Young and desperately in need of money, Hickman accepted an offer of some $50,000 to write a book chronicling his years with Brigham Young, Hilton said. The book became an instant best seller among non-Mormon readers, she said, particularly those living in the East who were hungry for any news about the Mormons and the "Wild West."
Hilton said Hickman probably received only $500 for his efforts.
While the book may have been a big hit outside of Utah, within the borders, Hickman became an instant outcast.
Hilton recorded that in 1873 Tom Monaghan, a writer for a Kansas magazine, wrote of Hickman: "Today he walks the streets of Salt Lake City shunned like a leper by every respectful man, no one pays attention."
He called him a "religious fanatic" and accused him of "murdering many in order to secure happiness in the next world."
Hilton wrote that if Hickman received any compensation for his "confessions" it would not have made up for the years of anguish he and his family subsequently suffered. He was a man who by then lived outside the church, a man who feared for his life, a man both broke and broken.
On Aug. 21, 1883, in a cramped sod dugout west of Lander, Wyoming, with only his first wife and a few of his children nearby, he quietly died.
Looking back at the early days of the Church in the West, it is often difficult to sort out just what kind of lives our forebears lived. How much "wild West" was there in the West, how much frontier experience, and how much was tempered by the efforts of Church members to import the amenities of the various cultures represented among those who came to Zion? Some of the early Saints had access to considerable "civilization," even though the vagaries of crops and weather imposed unavoidable hardships. Others, by choice or otherwise, had to deal with Indians and frontier elements in ways that were very much a part of the free-spirited, wilder "mountain man" traditions.
Hope Hilton has tried to sort out the contradictions that surround one of her ancestors, William A. ("Wild Bill") Hickman, who gained such a reputation as an outlaw that members of his family in later generations were often reluctant to mention his name. Motivated initially by curiosity about discrepancies between family traditions and Hickman's autobiographical Brigham's Destroying Angel , Mrs. Hilton has searched widely in original sources and has put together a fascinating and believable picture of a significant life on the Mormon frontier.
William Hickman was a convert to the Church in the early Missouri days. When he moved to Nauvoo to meet Joseph Smith in 1939, the Prophet was so impressed that he had the twenty-four-year-old Hickman immediately ordained to the Council of Seventy. Hickman joined Hosea Stout and Orrin Porter Rockwell as bodyguards for Smith. After the martyrdom, Hickman and a few others continued in a similar assignment of Brigham Young and other leaders during the move west.
By turns cattleman, wagon-train master, gold miner, lawman, lawyer, legislature, ferryman, and gang-leader, Hickman moved from close association with Brigham Young to increasing involvement with the rougher elements of the community. Excommunicated in 1868 and increasingly bitter, he vented his spleen in a "rough book" that accused President Young and many former associates of all kinds of malfeasance. He died in 1873 in poverty and pain in Lander, Wyoming. In 1934, with the approval of the First Presidency, a nephew performed a proxy rebaptism, almost one hundred years after Hickman's original decision to join the Latter-day Saints.