Yankton, South Dakota is known for many things, including Gavins Point Dam and being the hometown of NBC newsman Tom Brokaw.
But Yankton also played a part in America's Wild West history.
News Channel Four's Al Joens tells us about the town's often overlooked link to the past.
Anybody with even elementary knowledge of Wild West history can tell you about the murder of legendary frontier lawman Wild Bill Hickcok shot dead while player poker in the #10 Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. Most people who know that much can even tell you the hand he was holding: aces and eights, now known as the "Dead Man's Hand." But do you know what became of the man who killed him? That's a story that starts in the Black Hills of South Dakota and ends here in Yankton.
Jack McCall was his name--a name that would never have been remembered if not for that day in 1876 when, while drunk and belligerent, he put a bullet in the back of Wild Bill Hickok's head. McCall told a judge and jury of miners in Deadwood that he was avenging Hickok's murder of his brother in Kansas. He was found innocent in a trial that lasted just two hours. McCall went free.
Crystal Nelson is the director of the Dakota Territorial Museum in Yankton. She says McCall was less than forthright with the hastily-assembled Deadwood court.
Nelson said, "Turns out, he probably didn't have a brother. He most likely had 3 sisters, but never a brother."
McCall's undoing was his big mouth. He went to Wyoming and bragged about getting away with the murder of the famous Wild Bill Hickok. Authorities determined the Deadwood court had no jurisdiction in this matter. McCall was arrested and hauled to the Dakota Territorial Captal in Yankton. The building where McCall was tried again still stands today in Yankton. It's the back half of the old Gurney Hotel at 3rd and Capital Streets. It was a federal courthouse back then. A historical plaque marks the spot were McCall was tried for murder and convicted in two days.
On March 1st, 1877, it all came to an end for Jack McCall near the land now occupied by the Human Services Center on the north end of Yankton. A historic marker points out the spot where McCall went to the gallows. It made headlines across the country. The eyes of the nation were on Yankton and everybody in town came to watch the execution.
"Hangings were a big thing," said Nelson. "People weren't grossed out about it. This is something you went to, you wanted to see. And especially Jack, I think really, of course, was quite the spectacle. You know, you wanted to see the famous Jack McCall, who killed Wild Bill Hickok, you know, you wanted to see this hanging."
His burial was less ceremonial.
Nelson said, "After he was hung they cut the rope, he fell into his grave and they left him there."
A few years later, the cemetery was moved to its present-day location. All of the graves were relocated. Although his grave had been unmarked, there was no doubt about it when Jack McCall's body was exhumed. "He still had the noose around his neck and still had his boots on," said Nelson.
So today, nearly a century-and-a-half later, Jack McCall remains buried here, among the old grave markers in the Yankton Cemetery. Nobody knows exactly where. Or at least, nobody is saying they know.
"I know that there are some that probably know exactly where he is," said Nelson, "But it's been one of those things that it's the best-kept secret in town. And they've done a good job with it."
Wherever he's buried, Jack McCall still serves today as a sometimes forgotten reminder of Yankton's role in America's western history.
It was common to bury murderers in unmarked graves back then because they didn't want to bring notoriety to them.
There is no photograph of the hanging of Jack McCall because Yankton's official town photographer was out on the prairie with General George Custer at the time.
McCall's execution was one of only two hangings that ever took place in Yankton.