Agnes Thatcher Lake: Equestrian Rider, Circus Performer, and Wild Bill’s Wife
By Phil Roberts, Department of History, University of Wyoming
Agnes Thatcher Lake was world renowned in the second half of the 19th century as a tightrope walker, lion tamer and equestrian. Western history buffs, however, remember her chiefly because she was Wild Bill Hickok’s wife—and they were married in Wyoming.
Writer/historian Nancy Thatcher Cerny states that Agnes was "born August 24, 1826, in Alsace, Eastern France, to the Mersman family. Her mother died shortly thereafter and the remainder of the family sailed to America in 1830, settling in." At the age of 16 she met a circus clown performing at a “big top” near her home, they eloped and were married in Louisiana. Agnes and her husband, Bill Lake Thatcher (who was known professionally as Bill Lake), toured with the circus for 13 years. She mastered the high-wire and tamed lions. After she toured Europe in 1862 with another circus, she returned to work in a circus organized by Lake.
According to an article in the Cheyenne Daily Sun, published much later, Lake was killed in Granby, Missouri, in 1869 by a man who had tried to sneak into the show without paying. Lake was shot while attempting to evict the man.
Agnes took over management of the circus and it continued to tour America.. The circus visited Abilene, Kansas, in 1871, and Agnes met the town marshal of Abilene, Bill Hickok, during the short stand in town. In 1873 her circus was performing in Rochester, New York. Coincidentally, Wild Bill was there, too, in a “wild west show” with Buffalo Bill Cody and “Texas Jack.”
According to historian Cerny, Agnes continued to operate the circus until "her daughter Emma, the only surviving child of Bill and Agnes, eloped with Gilbert Robinson of the famousCircus." Agnes sold the circus, making her wealthy.
Wild Bill and Agnes apparently kept up correspondence, but it wasn’t until February 1876 that they saw each other again. Agnes, returning from a visit to San Francisco, stopped to visit friends in Cheyenne. Wild Bill was in town preparing to leave for the gold fields of the Black Hills.
The result of the meeting is reported in the Cheyenne Daily Leader, March, 7, 1876: “Married: By the Rev W. F. Warren, March 5, 1876, at the residence of S. L. Moyer, Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, Mrs. Agnes Lake Thatcher of Cincinnati, Ohio, to James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, of this city.”
Moyer operated a saloon in Cheyenne and he and Mrs. Moyer were witnesses to the ceremony.
The minister was not convinced that the marriage would go well. He wrote in the Marriage Record of the First Methodist Church of Cheyenne (a microfilmed copy of which is the collection of the Cultural Resources Division, Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources Department): “Don’t think he meant it.” Hickok gave his age as 46. In reality, he was 39 and his bride Agnes was 11 years his senior.
The Cheyenne Daily Sun in its first issue, March 8, 1876, noted: “Wild Bill of western fame has conquered numerous Indians, outlaws, bears and buffaloes, but a charming widow has stolen the magic wand. The scepter has departed and he is as meek and gentle as a lamb. In other words, he has shuffled off the coil of bachelorhood.”
Following the wedding, the couple honeymooned in Cincinnati for two weeks. Historian Cerny, in correspondence with this writer on March 2, 2008, noted that the couple traveled to"so James (Agnes always called him James) could meet the Mersman family. Agnes stayed on to care for Emma who was about to deliver her first and only child, Daisy Robinson."
Hickok left Agnes at home in Cincinnati and returned by train to Cheyenne in time to complete arrangements for his trip into the South Dakota goldfields. He did not leave until sometime in June.
He wrote letters to Agnes from time to time and several still survive. In the last one, he wrote, “Pet, we will have a home yet then we will be so happy.” Wild Bill was not a good prognosticator. Two weeks after the letter was mailed, he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall in a Deadwood saloon.
Little is known of Agnes’ activities in the next year. She came to Deadwood in September, 1877, and made arrangements for a fence around Wild Bill’s grave. On her return she stopped in Cheyenne and, possibly, married her escort, George Carson. The marriage certificate, a copy of which is in the Cultural Resource Division’s collections, listed Carson’s age as 29. Agnes was no longer 42 as she was listed the previous year on the Hickok marriage certificate. She was “38.” (While the certificate was issued, there is no record of an actual marriage ceremony).
An article in the June 29, 1887, issue of the Cheyenne Daily Sun includes extensive biographical information about Agnes, “now living in retirement in this city.” Carson is not mentioned. “Madame Hickok is temporarily located here but expects to visit friends and relatives at Cincinnati during the coming month,” the newspaper article concluded.
Wild Bill’s widow died in New Jersey at the home of her son-in-law, Gil Robinson, in 1907. More than 80 years old at her death, she was buried in Cincinnati, Ohio, next to her first husband, Bill Lake.
And what about Calamity Jane? Many historians question whether she and Wild ill were ever romantically connected. Yet, in the Deadwood cemetery, her body is buried next to Agnes Thatcher’s husband—Wild Bill Hickok.
The original version of this article was written as a "Buffalo Bones" column in 1979. This writer acknowledges corrections in the Thatcher story, provided by writer/historian Nancy Thatcher Cerny in correspondence dated March 2, 2008. Cerny is the great-granddaughter of Nathaniel R. Thatcher, the younger brother and only sibling of circus clown Bill Lake (William Lake Thatcher).