The first mention of the Dead Man’s hand goes back many years to 1886 when it was originally used to describe a full house made up of three jacks and a pair of tens. Over the years the cards ascribed to the hand have changed many times with jacks and sevens noted in the Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences in 1903. The hand later became associated with wild west hero Wild Bill Hickok and is more commonly described as a pair of black aces and eights.
The legend goes that in 1876, Wild Bill was playing a game of five-card stud and held four cards consisting of two black aces and eights and a ‘hole’ card. Why he didn’t have the fifth card in his hand is often argued, with some saying he had discarded a card, some saying that he was about to receive the fifth card. Either way, the story goes that as he was playing cards in the Nuttall and Mann saloon in Deadwood and was shot in the head from behind by a man called Jack McCall, reportedly leaving his blood marking the fifth card.
The fifth card has been argued over the years, with those in the town of Deadwood, displaying the nine of diamonds as the fifth card in their reconstruction of the saloon Hickok died in. A biographer by the name of Joseph Rosa argues that the hand consisted of two black aces, a pair of black eights and the queen of clubs, although, admittedly he cannot find any solid sources to back up his claims.
We may never know what the fifth card Hickok held was, but what we certainly do know if that the Dead Man’s hand is unlucky – at least for him.