Aces and eights. The infamous dead man’s hand.
How did this famous hand get its name, and subsequently make its way into popular culture? Listen up for a very interesting history lesson.
Wild Bill Hickok and the Birth of the Dead Man’s Hand
While the composition of the dead man’s hand has undergone some changes over the years, its current manifestation is a two-pair poker hand of black aces and black eights.
These pairs, along with an unknown kicker, were the cards reportedly held by James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock during a five-card draw game when he was shot by Jack McCall on August 2nd, 1876 at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.
The story goes that a very inebriated McCall—who had introduced himself as Bill Sutherland—was playing poker with Hickok the previous evening and losing heavily. Hickok encouraged McCall to stop for the night until he could settle up, and Hickok gave him some money for food.
When the insulted McCall entered the saloon the next day, he walked up behind Hickok—who was begrudgingly sitting with his back to the door as another player, Charlie Rich, wouldn’t change seats with him—and shouted, “Damn you! Take that!” and proceeded to shoot Hickok in the back of the head with his Colt Model 1873 .45 caliber revolver. Hickok died instantly. McCall was executed for murder 7 months later.
In Des Wilson’s Ghosts at the Table (2007), the author attempts to determine exactly what cards Hickok had been holding on that fateful day. Whereas most accounts suggest Hickok’s hand was comprised of the black aces and the black eights—with an unknown fifth card—another story proposes that a delivery man named Richard Stephens picked up Hickok’s cards which were later donated to a museum. In this account, Hickok’s hand was A♦ A♣ 8♥ 8♠ Q♥ and included a drop of the deceased gunfighter’s blood.
Although there is some doubt about the actual dead man’s hand’s 5th card, the consensus was—and remains—that Hickok did, in fact, hold a pair of aces and a pair of eights, and thus the “dead man’s hand” was born.
Other Mentions of the Dead Man’s Hand
The earliest reference occurred in 1886 when the dead man’s hand was described as a full house, jacks over tens. According to Historically Speaking:
It is called the dead man’s hand because about forty years ago, in a town of Illinois, a celebrated judge bet his house and lot on three jacks and a pair of tens. It was the last piece of property he had in the world.
In the Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences (1903), the dead man’s hand is comprised of jacks and sevens.
Several accounts claim that later, in 1907, British writer Edmond Hoyle (of Hoyle Cards and Poker Hall of Fame fame) called the dead man’s hand jacks and eights; however, Hoyle died in 1769, so this would have been a truly remarkable feat indeed.
Interestingly, attribution of the dead man’s hand to Hickok didn’t come about until the 1920s when it was finally solidified in poker vernacular as a pair of aces and a pair of eights thanks to Frank Wilstach’s Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers (1926).
The Dead Man’s Hand in Popular Culture
This infamous hand has been mentioned in numerous songs, television shows, movies, written fiction, and video games, to name a few. Among the most popular include:
- In James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider, Agent Jezzie Flanagan uses aces & eights as her computer password and relates a story about how her father won a handmade Turkish gun with the hand.
- In Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle McMurphy has a dead man’s hand tattoo on his shoulder.
- The dead man’s hand is held by characters in two John Ford Films: Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
- Some variation of aces and eights are used in songs by Motorhead, Bob Dylan, Ha Ha Tonka, Bob Seger, Lita Ford, Blue Oyster Cult, Michael McDermott, The Church, and KSHMR.
- The dead man’s hand is referenced in video games such as Fallout: New Vegas and Hearthstone, as well as in the collectible card game Doomtown (wherein the highest possible rank is aces and eights with the fifth card being the J♦.)
- A dust-covered dead man’s hand is visible in the lobby of Disneyland Paris’ Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
The dead man’s hand is also quite popular in logos, insignias, and tattoo designs. For instance, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department uses the hand in its Homicide Division insignia.
There you have it, a brief history of the dead man’s hand and our current and continued fascination with aces and eights.
Do you have an interesting aces and eights story to share?
Please comment below if you do! Good luck at the tables, and don’t sit with your back to the door.
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- Go back to the top of dead man’s hand
Natalie Faulk is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer and blogger and the author of several books. She is an avid low-stakes (for now) poker player and huge Vegas Golden Knights fan.