Bill Tilghman may have arrested and brought to justice more bad guys than any other lawman in his era — a 50-year careers which spanned from the “Wild West” into Prohibition
In the lawless west there was a breed of men, who could not abide by the lawlessness and came forward to pin on a badge. These men made a difference. Bill Tilghman was one of those men. Bat Masterson once said of Tilghman, “He was everything you would want in a hero. His sense of justice and fairness separated him from all the other lawmen like night and day.”
Bill Tilghman was born on a farm in Iowa on July 4, 1854 and at 17 headed west. He was skilled with firearms and took to buffalo hunting. In 1872, while hunting in Kansas he returned to his camp and discovered that raiding Cheyenne had carried off or burned everything he owned. Most meeting such a calamity would have thought themselves lucky to be alive and skedaddled, but not Bill. He sought justice.
He resupplied his camp, hid and waited. Seven raiders returned to repeat their performance. With Sharps rifle in hand Tilghman gave battle and when the smoke cleared from his Sharps he was four ponies richer. Three raiders escaped with their lives and a hard lesson. Knowing the land and the Cheyenne Tilghman, also served for a time as a civilian scout for the US Cavalry, during one period of hostilities.
In 1875 Bill Tilghman, a lifelong teetotaler, entered the saloon business in Dodge City. He was eventually coaxed out of the business to take a position as Deputy Marshal, by a friend from his buffalo hunting days, Bat Masterson. In the town that used a “Dead Line,” to delineate the part not to be crossed into by the good citizens, Tilghman used his soft spoken, gentlemanly style backed up by sheer toughness to help make Dodge City safe for all citizens and visitors.
Tilghman had a reputation for avoiding gun play if at all possible, but was known to be deadly efficient in its use as a last resort.
Tilghman tamed this seemingly untamable town along-side other notables like, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Ed Masterson, Larry Deger and Ned Brown. Eventually Bill was appointed as the Marshal of Dodge City, the chief law enforcement officer.
The Three Guardsmen
In 1889, Tilghman felt inclined to move once again as he established a homestead near Guthrie Oklahoma. Tilghman was a successful rancher and raised Jersey Cattle, Poland Hogs and horses. This peaceful existence did not last long for outlaw gangs seemed to run untethered at the time in the Oklahoma Territory. Bill was recruited and appointed as a Deputy U.S. Marshal.
Tilghman did not bring programs with fancy initials to the table to solve the gang problem. Bill joined with Chris Madsen and Heck Thomas in the relentless pursuit and capture of individual members of the gangs terrorizing the territory. Tilghman, Thomas, and Madsen would become known affectionately as “The Three Guardsmen,” for their successful pursuit and dismantling of “The Wild Bunch,” as well as the “Doolin Gang.”
To accomplish this, the “Guardsman” split the Oklahoma Indian Territory into three areas and as a team they apprehended an estimated 300 desperate criminals and killers. The most wanted criminal of the time was gang leader Bill Doolin.
Tilghman tracked Doolin to Eureka Springs in 1894. In a move of tactical brilliance Tilghman watched and waited to make the apprehension until Doolin was soaking in a hot tub. Tilghman entered the establishment dressed as a minister and had his pistol on Doolin, before the criminal suspected the game was afoot. Doolin considered going for his pistol, but one look into Tilghman’s determined eyes inspired him to surrender. There was a crowd of 5000 gathered to watch the notorious outlaw gang leader brought “to justice” by Marshal Tilghman.
When Tilghman apprehended Doolin, the desperado was in possession of a small silver mug, which Doolin said was a present for his new born son. Ever the gentleman, in a gesture typical of Marshal Bill Tilghman, he personally delivered the mug to mother and child.
Jail was not to hold Doolin, however. Six months after his capture he escaped. This time Heck Thomas tracked Doolin down and justifiably shot-gunned to death the fugitive, after Doolin responded to a call to surrender, by firing his rifle at Thomas.
Some say in his 51 years of law enforcement Bill Tilghman may have arrested and brought to justice more bad guys than any other law man in his era, which spanned from the “Wild West” and into Prohibition.
Tilghman was not just a gun fighter. He was a solid law man with a great tactical mind. He had a stellar reputation for finding criminals and skillfully maneuvering into the best possible position to insure a reasonable man would elect to surrender and live. Since not all bad men are reasonable Bill found it necessary to shoot and kill “Arizona Wilson,” and later two of his cohorts who foolishly tracked Bill down to exact revenge. Tilghman shot and killed “Cresent Sam” as well as a Creek outlaw known only as, “Calhoun.”
While dismantling the Doolin Gang he was able to apprehend, Doolin, “Cattle Annie,” and “Little Britches,” without a fight, but found it necessary to end the lives of “Little Dick West,” and his partner “Raidler,” who weren’t disposed to come along peacefully. Raidler actually died years after his wounding, from the wounds inflicted during his gun fight with Tilghman.
For a side-arm Tilghman carried a Colt SA .38 special with a 5 1/2 inch barrel as well as an engraved nickel plated Colt 45 with pearl handles. When in a gun fight he said that he would always shoot for the belt buckle, because it was, “The broadest target from head to heel.”
President Theodore Roosevelt once asked Tilghman how, “a gunman on the side of law all of his life was still alive after so many experts had tried to kill him.”
Marshal Tilghman replied, “A man who knows he’s right has an edge on a man, who knows he’s wrong.”
Tilghman’s tenure as a lawman spanned more than 50 years, but his bailiwick changed often. He was a Marshal in Dodge City, he was a Deputy US Marshal in Oklahoma Territory, served as Sheriff of Lincoln County Oklahoma, was a Senator in Oklahoma, and Chief of Police for the Oklahoma City Police Department. These are but a few, but not all of the positions, which he held.
Bill Tilghman: Law Man to the End
At the age of 70 Tilghman could have retired on his laurels, but there was one more lawless town in Cromwell Oklahoma that pleaded for his help. Chris Madsen, one of the “Guards” cautioned his friend against taking the position telling Bill, “You are not so young and your draw is a little slow. Someone might kill you.”
In a time pre-dating the entry of our courageous women in law enforcement Tilghman replied, “It’s better to die in a gun fight, than in bed like a woman.”
A few weeks after reporting for duty in Cromwell, Tilghman heard gun shots in the street and ran to investigate. He discovered staggering in the street with a pistol in one hand and a prostitute in the other the thoroughly corrupt as well as drunk Federal Prohibition Agent, Wiley Lynn.
Tilghman approached the fellow “law man,” disarmed Lynn and placed him under arrest. While leading Lynn towards jail the agent pulled a second weapon from his belt. After a struggle over the weapon Lynn shot Tilghman and ran off. Within twenty minutes Chief Bill Tilghman, husband and father of three, died from his wounds.
Bill Tilghman’s body was laid in state in the State Capitol Building, while the citizens of Oklahoma gathered to mourn the loss of a great man. Buffalo Hunter, Cavalry Scout, Deputy Marshal, Senator, Marshal, Sheriff, and Chief of Police William Tilghman, was laid to rest in Chandler Oklahoma.
Bat Masterson, in trying to sum up this legendary law officer’s career simply said, “He was the best of us all.”