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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 01 2012

Eriksmoen: River boat captain had bullet in wrist for 34 years

The bullet that killed Wild Bill Hickok later ended up in a casket and was buried with another man.

On Aug. 2, 1876, Jack McCall murdered Hickok, who was playing poker at a saloon in Deadwood, S.D. The bullet passed through Wild Bill’s skull and lodged in the wrist of Capt. Bill Massie.

Medical science being what it was at the time, it was deemed too dangerous a procedure to remove the bullet. The bullet remained in Massie’s wrist for the next 34 years. When he died in 1910 and was buried, the bullet was still in him.

Massie was one of the most active riverboat captains on the upper Missouri River at the time of Hickok’s death. His biggest rival was Grant Marsh, and the feud between the two men finally ended in fisticuffs in 1907.

William Rodney Massie was born Nov. 5, 1831 (some sources list 1829), in Franklin County, Mo., to Peter and Charlotte Rodney Massie. Franklin County is directly west of St. Louis County, and in the mid-1830s, the Massies moved farther west near the town of Hermann, where Peter purchased some land along the Missouri River to supply wood for riverboats.

Since Peter had been a riverboat captain, William and his older brother, John, were raised at an early age with exciting stories about life on the river.

In the later 1830s, Peter died, and John was sent to live with his older sister and brother-in-law. William remained with his mother until the early 1850s, when he obtained work with the Lightning Line aboard the side-wheeler, a wooden hull steamboat called the El Paso.

Massie was intelligent and a quick learner and, at the age of 21, became a pilot. By 1853, he was taking the El Paso into uncharted waters along the Missouri and Platte rivers. On April 10, Massie got the boat badly snagged on a sandbar, and the El Paso had to be destroyed. He then became the pilot of the Spread Eagle, hauling people and cargo between St. Louis; Omaha, Neb.; and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

In 1860, he entered the history books by helping to deliver the first Pony Express pouch. (Some historians attribute this feat to Joseph La Barge.)

Because Massie earned a reputation as the pilot who could deliver cargo and passengers in record time, a wager was made in 1862 on a race between the Spread Eagle and La Barge’s boat, the Emilie. The course of the race on the Missouri was to be from St. Louis to the current location of Fort Benton in Montana Territory.

As the two riverboats approached the current site of Fort Berthold on June 6, they were side-by-side, and the Emilie began to inch ahead of its rival. Rather than lose the race, Capt. Robert E. 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. Charges were made against Bailey for his actions, and the steamboat inspector revoked his license. Massie was then made captain of the Spread Eagle.

With the advent of the Civil War, Massie registered for the draft on July 1, 1863. After the war, he piloted steamboats all over the country. Massie traveled on Long Island Sound and the Sacramento, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers before returning to St. Louis to pilot boats on the Missouri River.

By the 1870s, both Massie brothers, Bill and John, were piloting steamboats into Dakota and Montana territories on the Big Muddy.

After gold was discovered in 1874 in the Black Hills, the government was unable or unwilling to enforce the prohibition of white men moving into this sacred land promised to the Sioux nation. Hundreds of prospectors flocked to the area, and Bill Massie began making frequent trips from St. Louis to the Black Hills on a boat loaded with supplies and gold seekers.

The center of commercial activity for the mining community was Deadwood, a town filled with saloons and brothels.

One thing Massie loved to do was play poker. Whenever he was in Deadwood, he could frequently be found in the Nuttal and Mann Saloon (also known as the #10 Saloon) seated at a card table in a serious game of poker.

This was the case in the early afternoon of Aug. 2, 1876, when Massie was involved in a game with Carl Mann, one of the saloon’s owners, Charlie Rich, a 20-year-old gambler from Ohio, and a fourth man.

After the unidentified fourth person lost his stake, he left, and about the same time, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok entered the saloon. Hickok had built a reputation as a tough-minded U.S. marshal, but he resigned from that profession a few years earlier because of failing eyesight.

Mann hailed Hickok and told him to sit down in the vacated chair. He hesitated and then asked Rich, who had the seat against the wall, to change with him. Rich refused. In the past, Hickok always sat with his back to the wall so that no one could sneak up on him.

Massie was sitting directly across from Hickok and, as the games progressed, was the biggest winner. Finally, Hickok thought he had the potential of a winning hand, holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights. As he discarded the fifth card hoping to fill out a full house, Hickok didn’t notice a man move in behind him.

This man, Jack McCall, pulled out his six-shooter, pointed it at Hickok’s head, and fired. The bullet went through his brain, exited through the right cheek and struck Massie on the left wrist, where it remained embedded for 34 years.

Massie, thinking that Hickok had shot him in anger stared at Wild Bill in disbelief.

It has been written that Massie had less of an appetite for poker after that incident.

In 1877, he joined the Coulson Packet Co. and was assigned to the Far West, the steamboat that Grant Marsh used on the fateful trip with the 7th Cavalry to Little Big Horn the previous year. Marsh quit his services with Coulson and became a bitter enemy of Massie. Massie moved his operation base from St. Louis to Bismarck and, in 1877, was assigned to the new steamship Red Cloud.

In May 1879, Massie docked his boat at the harbor in Bismarck, and Alexander McKenzie arrived with a horse-drawn wagon to take him to his room at the Sheridan Hotel. On the way to downtown Bismarck, the wagon flipped, crushing both of Massie’s legs. The doctors seriously contemplated amputation, but they were able to save his legs.

After a couple of years trying to recuperate, Massie returned to St. Louis in 1882 and was assigned to the Montana by the Coulson Co. On July 21, 1884, he crashed the Montana into the Wabash railroad bridge near Kansas City and retired as a steamboat captain. He later operated a barge on the Missouri River.

In 1907, Massie was assigned to the steamboat Expansion, which, once again, had previously been piloted by Grant Marsh. On Aug. 23, Massie docked at Bismarck. This was more than Marsh could take. Angrily, he boarded the Expansion and confronted Massie. Massie told him to leave, and when he refused, the two got in a fight. At a hearing by the Department of Commerce and Labor, Marsh contended that Massie started the altercation.

Massie later told a friend, “They said I attacked him with a dangerous weapon, but it was only a sugar bowl. Of course, it was a pretty heavy bowl.” Marsh was found guilty of assault and lost his license for a year.

Massie continued as a steamboat pilot for a couple of years and died on Jan. 29, 1910, with the bullet still embedded in his left wrist.


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen, of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.