The Bill Pickett Incident

Bill Pickett stamp design

A U.S. stamp repeats—and then corrects—an error in the historical record

Artist: Mark Hess

Acrylic on canvas, affixed to board

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.

One 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.

Unfortunately, the man in the photograph was not Bill Pickett.

In 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.

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Mislabeled photograph
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The incorrect stamp that featured Ben Pickett instead of Bill Pickett.
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1923 poster publicizing Bill Pickett's starring role in the film The Bull-Dogger.

The 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.

But 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.

Stamp 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 command.

Art of the Stamp

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