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10 Things That Would Have Killed You in the Old West

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The Old West was a crazy and somewhat lawless place. It wasn’t quite as violent as the movies make it seem, but there’s no question that it was a new frontier—quite literally, of course. So there were tons of variables not encountered in the more established communities on the East Coast. With that came the potential for far more strange ways to die. Gruesome diseases, violent acts, and even shocking and mysterious disappearances were all routine in the Wild West as Americans moved across the country to settle it throughout the 19th century.

In this list, we’ll take a look at ten of those bizarre and shockingly common causes of death. If you could be transported back to the Old West somehow (where’s Doc Brown when we really need him?), you most likely would have died from one of these causes. So, the next time you think back to your days playing The Oregon Trail or consider what frontier towns must have really been like, now you’ll know!

Related: Twelve Ways People Spent Their Free Time in the Old West

10 You Hanged

What It Was Actually Like To Be Present At A Frontier Hanging

Hangings weren’t unique to the Old West, of course. They’d gone on in America for centuries before that and in many other places in the world, too. But they were used quite a bit in the era of expanding the American frontier westward toward the Pacific Ocean. And we may have a more humane view on executions today, at least compared to what life was like back then.

But there’s no question that hangings were commonplace for a variety of scoundrels and ruffians once they were caught by sheriffs in all sorts of rural Old West outposts. There weren’t as many judges, courts, and capable attorneys in the Old West as today. The frontier was largely populated by people either trying to get from one place to another or striking out anew after failing to make their fortune back East.

To that end, getting caught for various serious crimes out west meant that you were likely to see the gallows without any real defense mounted on your behalf. But at least the gallows were (usually) quick and painless, right? The goal of hanging was, of course, to have the impact of the fall break the offender’s neck, thereby giving them an instantaneous death. It didn’t always work out that way… but it succeeded enough times to become a favorite method of capital punishment all across the Old West for decades and decades.[1]

9 You Got Sick

The REAL Disease and Illness of the Wild West…

Seems like an obvious one, right? People get sick, and then they die. Harsh but true. But in the Old West, as you probably already know, there were three specific types of sicknesses you really had to watch out for: dysentery, diphtheria, and cholera. While the first two could be particularly nasty and even deadly, it was the third one, cholera, that was pretty much a death sentence.

Since there was very little sanitation in the Old West, cholera would spread quickly and force many people to succumb rapidly as it went around unchecked via food and water contamination. The symptoms started simply enough, too: painless but severe diarrhea. Annoying and embarrassing but not fatal… yet.

Slowly but surely, though, the problems spread. Next up came the severe dehydration that left you unable to drink enough water to replenish all that you were losing from the diarrhea. The dehydration got so bad, in turn, that it eventually led to kidney failure. Then, it was lights out. Without any sort of medicine to treat the disease and certainly no hospitals anywhere to get care, once cholera set in, it was usually over for those suffering.

Even worse, because the disease spread so rampantly, it was often fatal for other people in the wagon party, too. In just days, whole wagon teams could get wiped out if they failed to quarantine the sick. What a way to go, right? Dying on a dusty trail, all alone, of severe dehydration and kidney failure.[2]

8 You Got an STD

Filthy Brothels of The Wild West

For men living on ranches and running cattle drives in the Old West, times sure could get lonely. They were often only around other men and in dangerous and rugged conditions at all times. So, when they did make it into a town with any kind of the most primitive civilization about it, it was cause for celebration. And that meant going to the local saloon, drinking some kind of incredibly strong alcohol, and interacting with the so-called “painted ladies.”

Prostitution was very common in the Old West, at least as far as where women would appear. It wasn’t policed by local sheriffs, and it was thought of as totally normal for a man fresh off a cattle drive or from doing some other outdoor deed to enjoy a little downtime with a member of the fairer sex.

There was just one big problem with that arrangement: sexually transmitted diseases. Legendary frontiersman Wild Bill Hickok was one in particular who suffered from one later in his life. He was plagued by the symptoms of an STD, most likely syphilis, to the point where he had major urinary troubles and even suffered from greatly diminished eyesight.

Penicillin was unknown at the time, and doctors were few and far between in those rural outposts. So, venereal disease spread quickly—especially when the women working as prostitutes would move from town to town and ply their trade to new cowboys and settlers. If you were in the Old West and succumbed to the temptations of the flesh, you’d likely wind up with one, too.[3]

7 You Got Drunk

What Was Wild West Whiskey and Alcohol ACTUALLY Like?

Alcoholism was a very common affliction in the Old West. People didn’t understand the physical and mental problems associated with prolonged alcohol consumption back then like we do today. And there weren’t any rehab centers or substance abuse treatment options available, either. So getting hooked on drink and descending into a violent form of alcoholism late in life was a widespread occurrence in the Old West.

Take the tale of Calamity Jane as a prime example of this. She was a beloved figure on the frontier for a time and closely associated with Wild Bill Hickok. But after he died, she stayed behind in Deadwood, South Dakota, and saw the end of her life come in a depressing, drink-filled way. People took advantage of the fame she’d gained in the Old West, and she started drinking more and more heavily.

Calamity Jane’s drinking was so out of control that the local newspapers couldn’t even ignore it—or come up with creative euphemisms to report around it. In 1903, not long before her eventual death, the Sioux Valley News ran a curious item about Calamity Jane.

In it, they wrote: “When, to put it very plain and ugly, she gets drunk, she tries to [terrorize] the town in good old frontier style. But that sort of thing has been outgrown with a lot of other things… and so Jane finds herself in the lockup, where she is now… among the ‘plain drunks.’” She died of pneumonia just a few months later in the small town of Terry, South Dakota, not far from Deadwood.[4]

6 You Were Attacked by Settlers

Sioux, Cheyenne & Arapahoe Warriors vs. US Army Cavalry : The Fetterman Massacre of 1866

Dying in the Old West wasn’t only limited to Americans moving west and settling the new territory. It also came about—and very often in far more violent ways—to the American Indians who had occupied those lands many, many centuries earlier. As Americans moved west and encroached upon their land, Indians were cast off into smaller and smaller regions.

In turn, the United States Cavalry and its associated military might took out their aggression on those Indians. A series of American Indian Wars, lasting several centuries, all but decimated the Indigenous populations in North America and forced the remaining members of those societies onto extremely limiting and awful reservations.

Take the Camp Grant Apaches as one of the worst examples of this scenario. On April 30, 1871, a group of white settlers, their Mexican allies, and the nearby Tohono O’odham Indians descended on the Camp Grant Apache tribe in rural southern Arizona. They slaughtered a series of unwitting Apaches as they invaded. Then, they took at least 150 more of them as surviving spoils of victory and promptly sold them off as slaves to groups of ranchers and villagers in Mexico.

They claimed their actions to be legitimate since they said that the Camp Grant Apaches had conducted a series of raids against white people’s interests in the Tucson area. But it was a brutal way to end an entire way of life for a small and mostly forgotten band of Indians.[5]

5 You Were Killed by a Horse

Footage of Bill Pickett in “The Bulldogger” (1921)

Many of the people who lived in the Old West did one or two heroic or dangerous things in their lives and then traded on the stories gained from that for the rest of existence. On the other hand, Bill Pickett did one or two dangerous things every day. Born in the 1870s, he was one of the last wild frontiersmen of the Old West before it was all bottled up. He became famous for what was known as “bulldogging,” too.

While he may not have invented that act, he certainly perfected it. Better than anyone else in the world, Bill Pickett could jump from the back of a horse down onto a wild steer and wrestle him down to the ground. Sounds dangerous, right? Incredibly dangerous! But sadly, that’s not what got old Bill in the end.

In 1932, Bill was trying to rope a horse when the animal went wild, kicked him, and then trampled him after he’d fallen down. Bill died from the injuries suffered in that incident. It was a befitting way to go for a true man of the Old West. It was also a somewhat common occurrence for people who worked outdoors quite a bit and with horses back in those days.

After all, the animals were both massive and unpredictable. Even relatively docile horses could run the risk of changing their attitude rapidly and turning on their handlers. An expert animal handler and roper like Pickett couldn’t avoid that terrible fate. If it could happen to the West’s best horsemen, it would probably happen to you, too.[6]

4 You Got into a Bar Fight

What Were Wild West Saloons Really Like

It was easy to make enemies in the Old West. A lot of the people who spent their time out there on the frontier wasted away their days with card games and other forms of gambling. In turn, they often made enemies over contested poker hands and money troubles. Take the tale of Wild Bill Hickok as the perfect example of this. In his later years, Hickok settled into the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, and began to eke out a meager existence as a gambler at card tables in the town’s saloons.

One day, he faced off in a poker game with a man named Jack McCall. The cards fell in Hickok’s favor that day because he absolutely cleaned McCall out of all the money he had at the table and then some. At the end of the game, Hickok felt so bad for McCall that he gave him back a couple bucks for dinner—and went on his way.

But while Hickok was hoping there would be no hard feelings, McCall very much felt enraged at being so thoroughly embarrassed at the card table. So he showed up the next day, walked through the saloon doors, strode right up to Hickok, and shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

That was, surprisingly, a fairly common way to die in the Old West. Maybe not that exact scenario, of course, but it was commonplace for people to have longstanding feuds that carried over into bar fights and worse. In turn, without reliable law enforcement officers around at all times… well, things were bound to turn deadly in short order.[7]

3 You Died in a Drunken Duel

What a Wild West Duel Really Looked Like

Gunfights are common in Western films, but quick-draw duels like that were a highly unlikely way to die in the real Old West. The truth is that the duels in movies were a bit too clean and performed under too many rules for the real world. That stereotypical idea of two men alone on a dusty road with their backs turned to each other, walking away a certain number of steps, and then turning and shooting from the hip just isn’t real.

That very, very rarely happened in the Old West. What happened instead was typically a pair of drunken men getting into a fight in a saloon and then taking it outside and shooting wildly at each other in their alcohol-induced stupor.

Duels in the Old West were not paced-out affairs with scary music and tumbleweeds. They were most often two inebriated men ducking for cover behind whatever they could find in front of them and shooting wildly at the other man. And because they were, in almost all cases, drunk, you could be sure that their aim was terrible. Innocent horses, random people, other buildings, and everything else were at risk when the guns started going off.

Wyatt Earp summed it up best in his autobiography, saying this about drunken duels: “The most important lesson I learned was that the winner… usually was the one who took his time.” Better to be careful and methodical than wild and out of control. Of course, sobriety would help, too.[8]

2 Vanishing Into Thin Air

Black Bart…Stagecoach Robber

If all these crazy ways to die weren’t enough for you, might you consider simply disappearing into thin air? That was what happened to Charles Earl Bolles—and it’s still one of the most enduring mysteries of the Old West. In the middle 19th century, Bolles was known simply as “Black Bart.” He was named after the infamous pirate from an earlier era, which was appropriate.

That’s because he was notorious for robbing stagecoaches all across the West. He committed at least 28 armed robberies of stagecoaches over the years without being caught. He even earned a reputation as a bit of a gentleman for an armed robber. That’s because he would steal strongboxes and bank money but never rob passengers of their personal belongings.

Finally, one day, sheriffs in northern California did him in. He was finally caught while trying to rob a stagecoach there and quickly incarcerated. He ended up serving four years in the already infamous San Quentin Prison for his crime. But at the end of his prison term, when it came time for him to be released, he just… vanished. He told those around him that he was through with robbing stagecoaches, and then he walked off into the (literal) sunset.

Nobody ever heard from him after about 1888, but some historians believe he lived up until at least 1914. The problem is that nobody is quite sure where he lived or how! But that was typical in the Old West back then. There were no computers tracking you, no smartphones logging your location, and no cameras following your every move. If you wanted to disappear into thin air, well, you could![9]

1 Dying Peacefully (if You Were Lucky)

WAR HERO: Kit Carson fought in three wars and bravely endured the frontier.

Seems unlikely, right? But believe it or not, a few people in the Old West simply died of old age—or, well, what was considered old age back then. Take the amazing tale of Kit Carson as the best example of this. Born in 1809, Carson was one of the most infamous and well-known people to ever traverse through the Wild West.

Legend had it that he cheated death more than a dozen times during his life. Those incidents included sparring with other trappers in rural areas, crossing the hot sands of the brutal Mojave Desert, fighting with Native Americans during various expeditions through unexplored country, and even suffering through terrible blizzards in the Rocky Mountains.

By 1868, though, the frontier life had completely worn him down. He was ailing badly and in very poor health. That year, against all odds, his seventh child was born. But several weeks after that, his beloved wife Josefa died from lingering complications of childbirth. Carson was distraught over her death and seemingly unable to go on.

A month after she passed, he died after an aneurysm ruptured in his throat. He wasn’t old by any stretch of the imagination—just 58 at the time of his death. But considering all that he’d been through during his rough-and-tumble life, it was incredible that he made it that far to die in a relatively peaceful health-related way and not by the hand (or gun) of another person.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen