Wild Bill Hickok had many female admirers in his lifetime, but Agnes Lake Thatcher was the only woman who completely captured his heart. The man known as the “deadliest pistolero in the Old West” often declared to his friends that he preferred being a bachelor. It was a surprise to many when he married a widow several years older than himself. The circumstances that resulted in so great a change were romantically singular and worthy of record.
Mrs. Hickok was born Agnes Louise Messman on August 23, 1826, in Doehm, Alsace, France. Her mother died when she was four years old, and, shortly thereafter, her father took Agnes to America. The Messmans settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, when she was sixteen years old. As a child Agnes was an avid horseback rider. Her father helped mold her remarkable skill into a circus routine. In 1841, Agnes met a circus clown named William Lake Thatcher. He was a native New Yorker and used his connections to secure a job for Agnes with the circus he worked for, the Spaulding and Rogers Circus.
In addition to her impressive equestrian abilities, she also performed daring feats of skill on a tight wire. The August 23, 1907, edition of the New York Times reported that she “made a higher ascent on a wire than any performer of her day in 1858.” By 1859, she was billed the “queen of the high wire” and the most famous equestrienne the American circus had ever known.
Although her father disapproved of William Lake Thatcher because of his profession and the vagabond lifestyle that went with the job, Agnes married him anyway. The pair wed in Louisiana in August 1842. William dropped the name of Thatcher so his and his bride’s names would fit on the advertisement for the circus. Billed as Bill and Agnes Lake, the couple worked for Spaulding and Rogers for more than ten years. During that time they saved much of the money they earned with the hopes of starting a circus of their own. Their dream was partially realized in 1860 when Lake formed a partnership with veteran circus man John Robinson. The show was known as the Robinson Lake Circus. William and Agnes devoted six years to the venture then moved to their own production. During the time the pair had a daughter they named Emma.
At the conclusion of the first season of the Lake Circus, Agnes had toured all of Europe in an equestrienne inspired play entitled Mazzepa. Back in the states, Lake’s troupe spent three years performing in various locations from Syracuse, New York, to Independence, Missouri. Thirty-five wagons transported the show from town to town.
In mid-1869, the Lake Circus returned to Granby, Missouri, and then traveled west as far as Abilene, Kansas. During the Lakes’ stay at the location, William got into an altercation with a man named Jake Killigan (some historical records spell the last name Gillen). The Cheyenne, Wyoming, newspaper the Cheyenne Daily Leader, reported that Killian had snuck into the circus tent and was trying to see the show without paying. William confronted him, the two men argued, and William kicked Killian out of the tent. Killian was furious. He pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot William in the head, killing him instantly.
Agnes halted the show long enough to bury her husband and get her financial affairs in order. She then reassembled the circus troupe and continued on with a series of scheduled performances. Lake Circus did well under Agnes’ direction. She proved to not only be a talented performer but also a smart business woman. By 1872 she had earned a substantial amount touring and decided to sell the show to a competitor. She used the funds from the sale to invest in a lithograph business in Cincinnati. According to the August 23, 1907, edition of the New York Times, a serious economic downturn brought on by the serious drop in demand for silver, plunged the United States and Europe into a major depression. Agnes lost everything and was forced to return to the circus.
Bill Hickok, who had met Agnes in Kansas in 1869, was quite taken with the fearless proprietor of Lake Circus; he wrote her to express his concern for her well-being and share with her what was happening in his life since they last saw one another in Kansas. The two then began regularly corresponding.
In 1874, Agnes and Bill’s paths converged in Rochester, New York. Bill was there with the Buffalo Bill Cody western show, and Agnes was in the city working for the Great Eastern Circus. According to the Des Moines, Iowa, newspaper, The Tribune, dated August 29, 1929, it was during this time that Bill told Agnes he was in love with her and asked her to marry him. Until Emma was grown and settled into a profession or married, Agnes did not feel she could commit to his proposal. It wasn’t until Agnes’ daughter Emma married in 1875 in Cincinnati that the chance presented itself for Bill and Agnes to see one another again. This time the two were in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Bill was making final arrangements to travel to the Black Hills of Dakota to search for gold. Agnes was in town visiting relatives. When Bill learned she was in Cheyenne, he hurried to see her. “Wild Bill then renewed his suit,” The Tribune article noted, “and pressed his claims with such persistency that the engagement was perfected and arrangements concluded for the wedding, which it was agreed would take place on the following day.”
Less than two months after the couple were married, Bill departed for South Dakota. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills by Horatio Ross in 1874 had prompted a mad rush to the region, and nothing could keep Bill from his plan to travel there and find a rich claim of his own. Agnes chose to stay behind in Cincinnati. When she waved goodbye to her husband the day he left, she had no way of knowing it would be the last time she would see him alive.
On the afternoon of August 2, 1876, Hickok was engaged in a friendly game of poker in the Number 10 Saloon. Sometime during the game, Jack “Broken Nose” McCall, a former buffalo hunter, entered the saloon. No one paid attention to him until he pulled a .45 caliber six-shooter and shot Bill in the head. The bullet perforated the back of Bill’s skull, exited the front, and lodged into the arm of the poker player sitting opposite Hickok. McCall fled the scene but was quickly apprehended.
Agnes was with her daughter in Ohio when she received the news that Bill had been murdered. Bill Hickok was laid to rest in the Ingleside area of Deadwood, the site of the town’s first Boothill.
In April 1877, Agnes had a monument erected in Bill Hickok’s memory at his gravesite at Mount Moriah’s Cemetery in Deadwood. She returned to work, performing with the John Robinson Circus until the fall of 1880. Agnes lived with her daughter and her family in Ohio and moved with them to Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1883.
Agnes Lake Hickok died on August 22, 1907, at the home of her daughter and son-in-law. According to the August 23, 1907, edition of the New York Times, Agnes died of “general debility.” “She had been an invalid for ten years previous to her death.” Agnes was eighty years old when she passed away and was buried in Cincinnati, Ohio, next to her first husband.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.