Bill Massie was born in 1831 near St. Louis, but grew up along the Missouri River banks near the town of Hermann. When Bill became old enough, he went to work aboard a side-wheeler named the El Paso. Massie was a sharp kid and a quick learner and by the age of 21 he became the pilot. By 1853, he was taking the El Paso into uncharted waters along the Missouri and Platte rivers. In fact, Massie got the El Paso so badly snagged on a sandbar that the boat had to be destroyed.
The owners of the boat reassigned him to another called the Spread Eagle as a pilot for Capt. Robert Bailey, hauling people and cargo up to Omaha. In 1860, Massie entered the history books by delivering the first Pony Express pouch to St. Joe, which upset Joseph La Barge, pilot of another steamboat, the Emilie. Apparently La Barge thought that honor should have been his. The two men became rivals and bitter enemies from that time forward. A couple of years later a wager was made on a race between the two up the Missouri to Fort Benton in Montana Territory.
So, up the river they went pouring the wood to their boilers running neck and neck as they passed by Eastern Jackson County. When they approached Fort Berthold the Emilie began to inch ahead. Rather than lose the race, Captain Bailey of the Spread Eagle ordered his pilot, Massie, to ram the bow of the Emilie. Under the threat of being shot, Bailey backed away before much damage occurred, but the steamboat inspectors revoked his license over the deal and moved Massie up the ladder as captain of the Spread Eagle.
After gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, the government was unable or unwilling to enforce prohibition of white Americans from moving into the sacred lands promised the Sioux nation, as hundreds of prospectors flocked to the area, and Bill Massie made frequent trips up the river with gold seekers and supplies. The center of that activity was Deadwood, S.D., a town filled with saloons and brothels.
One thing Massie loved to do was play poker. Whenever he was in Deadwood, he could be found seated at a card table with his sleeves rolled up in a serious card game. This was the case in the early afternoon of Aug. 2, 1876, when Wild Bill Hickok walked in. Hickok, of course, had a reputation as a tough minded U.S. marshal, but he had to abandon that lifestyle because of failing eyesight.
Another player, Charlie Rich, was sitting with his back to the wall when Carl Mann invited Hickok to sit in on the game. Wild Bill started to sit down, but hesitated momentarily and asked Rich to trade seats with him, but Rich refused. That placed Hickok directly across the table from our riverboat pilot. As the game progressed, neither man noticed the gunslinger, Jack McCall, walk up behind Hickok. McCall pulled out his six-shooter and point blank shot Hickok in the head. The bullet passed through his brain, exited through the right cheek, and lodged in the left wrist of Bill Massie.
Medicine being what it was back in those days, it seemed too risky to try to remove the bullet from Massie’s wrist, so he carried that bullet for the next 34 years.
A couple of side notes. The incident caused Massie to have less of an appetite for poker after that. In 1884, Massie was piloting the Montana when he crashed the boat into the Wabash railroad bridge near Kansas City, that’s when he retired as a steamboat captain. The Hickok bullet was still in his wrist when the man was laid in his grave.
• Reference: “Did You Know That,” written by Curt Eriksmoen.
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