Unveiled in December 1993, the Legends of the West stamps
promised to be an extremely popular issuance—but
no one expected them to create one of the most infamous
stamp errors in U.S. history.
of the stamps honored Bill Pickett, a celebrated African-American
cowboy credited with the invention of bulldogging,
or steer wrestling. To create the portrait, stamp
artist Mark Hess used a famous
photograph that bore a clear inscription identifying
Pickett. The photograph had been featured in several
magazines and exhibitions, and countless books about
the American West also identified the handsome cowboy
as Bill Pickett.
the man in the photograph was not Bill Pickett.
January 1994, the Pickett family informed the Postal
Service that the photo depicted not Bill but his brother,
Ben. Stunned, the Postal Service announced the recall
and destruction of the five million stamp panes that
had been shipped to hundreds of post offices.
error soon became national news. While researchers
frantically verified the other stamps, Mark Hess painted
the correct face onto the existing artwork, using
a 1923 poster
publicizing the cowboy’s starring role in the
film The Bull-Dogger.
just as the new stamps were hitting the presses, the
Postal Service discovered another error. Some clerks
had sold 183 of the incorrect stamp panes, accidentally
creating a collectible so rare and valuable that most
collectors would never be able to afford one. To give
the public a chance to own the incorrect
stamps, and to defray reprinting costs, the Postal
Service made the controversial decision to sell 150,000
of the faulty panes through a lottery.
collectors and Wild West historians alike will always
remember the Bill Pickett error, but for proponents
of historical accuracy the incident had an undeniable
bright side. Years of error resulting from a single
mislabeled photograph were finally corrected, thanks
to the widespread publicity that only a stamp can