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Master At Arms

By Bob "Red" Meinecke

 William Matthew Tilghman

1854 – 1924

Bill was once described by his second wife, Zoe Tilghman, as "a temperate man who never took a drink" Doubtful, considering the circumstances of his youth, but, if true, it is a fine testament to this man who believed in fair play and hard work.

Known through-out the west as a dead shot, a hard worker, and a man that didn’t quit when it got rough, Bill was admired by his contemporaries, lionized by the press and avoided by those who rode on the wrong side of the law.

Typical of the high esteem of the press is this quote, carried in the March 27, 1898 issue of the Fort Madison, Iowa Chronicle, stating "the officer from Oklahoma is a pleasant gentleman of suave manners, courteous demeanor and a face and eye that show he is not afraid of anything"! Not your usual portrait of a hard times lawman, but then, Bill Tilghman was no ordinary lawman.

Born on the Fourth of July, 1854, like his father before him, Bill started like on a hardscrabble farm in Minnesota. However, continuing Indian depredation forced the family to move and, in 1857, they resettled in Kansas territory.

In Kansas, Bill grew to young manhood as a normal Kansas farm boy, dividing his time between chores, hunting, and fishing. At the age of 14, an incident occurred that had a profound effect on the rest of his life.

Driving the family team as he accompanied his sisters on a fall berry picking expedition, Bill was probably bored and day dreaming as he idly watched the hooves of his team kick up clouds of dust in the dry two track. As the horses plodded up the road, the wagon was stopped by a lean, buckskin clad stranger sporting a marshals badge and a sweeping black mustache. Even as the stranger questioned them closely about recent traffic on the road, Bill couldn’t keep his eyes from straying to the man’s colorful sash, which held two ivory handled Colt Navies.

It wasn’t until the family visited town a few days later that young Bill learned of the stranger’s identity. The marshal was none other than "Wild Bill" Hickock, famous for miles around.

Once the family returned home, legend has it that young Bill borrowed his fathers 1869 Colt Army an spent hour after hour practicing his draw and marksmanship. By the time he was sixteen, Bill and 3 cousins from the east left the farm to hunt buffalo. He never looked back.

By fall, Bill and his Sharps "big fifty" had joined forces with the buffalo hunting team of Bucknam and Rife as a shooter. Bill soon found that he had few peers as a rifle shot and he took full advantage of that situation by winning many wagers with the old sharps during the rest of his buffalo hunting career.

The following year, Bill partnered up with George Rust, spending the ensuing spring hunting prairie wolves. By the summer of "72" the partners nailed down a contract with the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail road to provide 50 cow buffalo a week to the construction crews.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bill made good money at the buffalo trade and soon convinced his brother Dick to leave the farm and join him. In the early dawning of a spring morning, disaster struck in the form of a raiding party of Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. When the battle was over, Bills’ brother Dick lay dead on the prairie.

Sick at heart, Bill sold what was left of his outfit and signed on with a trail herd. For many weeks, Bill swallowed dust stirred up by 3,000 Longhorns headed for Wyoming. At the trails end, he collected his wages, reined his horse south and headed for the boisterous trail town of Dodge City.

Only a lad of twenty years when he rode down main street, Bill was old enough to begin his career of law enforcement. As a $50 a month deputy, he patrolled the board walks and back alleys of this western Babylon. Soon however, even the shiny tinsel and soft voices of the good life could not still his longing for the freedom of the open prairie and the buffalo camps.

In the fall of "74" Bill wintered and hunted with Hurricane Martin, down on the Cimmaron. During the next five years that he followed the herds, the records show that over 12,000 buffalo fell to the thunderous report of his "big fifty".

Unlike many who drank their profits away, Bill put his money to good use, buying a ranch at Bluff Creek, Kansas in 1875. That same year, he also married a widow woman, Flora Robinson.

Situated next to Bill’s holdings was the ranch of a part Cherokee Indian gunfighter named Neal Brown. Brown was known to carry a colts’ pistol in a cross draw holster designed to fit inside his waistband and to be covered by an open vest. He and Bill soon formed a partnership and, despite the fact that he was 10 years Bills senior, they became the best of friends.

Apparently, Bill’s enterprising ways and ambitious nature made enough money form the ranch and the hide trade to enable him to form a partnership in 1877 with a gent named Henry Harris. Together, they opened the Crystal Palace Saloon in Dodge City, just next door to the famous Lone Star Saloon.

The ruckus that blew up at the Lone Star on July 4, 1877, was not in celebration of Bill’s 23rd birthday . It became known in the history of Dodge City as "the night things blew up at the Lone Star." It was one heck of a rhubarb.

As so often happens in Dodge, a Texas trail herd was in town and the cowboys were relaxing in a typical Texas manner, drinking, gambling and carousing. Two of these young lads, a pair named Charlie Siringo and Wes Adams, started the fracas by calling out a group of buffalo hunters, headed by Boss Hunter Jim White.

In the ensuing melee, young Adams was knifed in the back, ostensibly by White, who was in turn laid out by a bartender’s baseball bat. History records that the club wielding bartender was none other than William Barclay "Bat" Masterson. Seems like there were several varieties of "Wild Bills" in the old west.

Siringo slipped away into the night with his amigo Adams and took him back to the herd camp, where he recovered from his wounds. Masterson eventually wound up as a sports writer in New York City and Bill and Henry sold the saloon in May of "78".

Soon after a band of marauding Cheyenne, headed north from the southern reservations, burned Bill’s ranch to the ground. Bill, perhaps troubled by the memory of his brother’s death at the hands of the same tribe, sold the ranch and moved his family into Dodge.

By October, Bill was working for the law again, this time as a man – tracker. It was during this period that he killed Arizona Wilson in a New Mexico gunfight. When two of Wilson’s cohorts attempted to even the score with their sixguns, Bill killed both of them with a shotgun.

On January 14, 1884, Marshal Pat Sughrue swore in Bill as a field deputy. By April, he accepted the appointment of Marshal of Dodge City.

After two years in the trenches, Bill tossed in the towel and resigned his marshal’s commission on March 9, 1886. The continued contact with the constant political infighting that raged through Dodge in those years had disgusted him and he wanted to be shut of it.

But destiny is seldom denied and Bill was no exception. By 1887, he was back in the saddle on the trail of the bloody killers involved in the Leota-Cornoda county seat war. One of them, a hard case named Ed Prather took exception to Bill’s effort and died in the gunfight that followed.

Tilghman’s reputation as a bad man with a gun was growing and the local toughs walked on the other side of the street when he made his rounds. Necessity forced Bill to evolve a policy of not drawing his colt unless he intended to shoot and when he shot, "he aimed at the belt buckle, as that was the broadest target from head to heel."

The names of the men who rode and fought beside Bill read like a who’s who of six-gun history. Bill, "Heck" Thomas, and "Chris" Madsen rode into the pages of antiquity as the "Three Guardsmen" of the Indian Nations. Bill knew and fought alongside Wyatt Earp, Doc. Holiday, Luke Short, Bat Masterson and "Shotgun" Collins.

In the course of his duties, he shot and killed the outlaw "Cresent" Sam, the notorious Creek Indian desperado called simply "Calhoun", and "Little Dick" West and his cohort Raidler, both members of the infamous Doolin Gang.

While in pursuit of the Doolin gang he corralled and arrested both "Little Britches" and "Cattle Annie" and eventually cornered and brought to justice Bill Doolin himself. (webmaster's note: Doolin was shot by Heck Thomas at the time when Tilghman, Madsen and he were hunting him) Where ever Bill rode, the law rode with him and it rode hard.

Early in his career Bill had obtained a Colts’ S.A. in .38 special with a 5 inch barrel, and carried this pistol as the Marshal of Dodge City. In 1893, Bill ordered a custom revolver from the colts Factory. In a couple of months, he took delivery of a nickel plated .45 with pearl grips, inscribed "For William Tilghman, Dec. 15, 1893." It was fully engraved by none other than master craftsmen  Helfricht. He carried it for the rest of his career.

In 1900, Bill ran for sheriff of Lincoln County and was elected in a landslide. His Oakland farm was already renowned through out the country for his blooded horses, purebred Jersey cattle and Poland hogs.

He was re-elected in 1902, after capturing and jailing a horse rustling gang of nine outlaws. He did not run for re-election in 1904, as he was named a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis that year.

Late in 1904, he returned to work as a deputy U.S. Marshal, appointed by President Roosevelt. The president them appointed Bill as a special U.S. representative to Mexico where he located and arrested a fugitive railroad paymaster and extradited him to the U.S. Aside from his salary, Bill should have received over $5,000 in railroad and express company rewards, but he never saw the money.

Roosevelt was so impressed with Tilghman that he requested a personal report from him. One report states that the President asked Bill how it was that "a gunman on the side of the law all of his life was still alive after so many experts had tried to hill him?"" Bill’s reply was classic Tilghman, "a man who knows he’s right has an edge on a man who knows he’s wrong!"

It was during this time frame that the silent pictures were coming into their own and Bill was totally enraptured by the new technology. He invested some of his money and began making films about the west and the characters that populated it. He made several films, including one especially for President Roosevelt.

Ever busy, he interspersed his film making with a two year stint as the chief of police of Oklahoma City, organizing a company of scouts for the invasion of Mexico, and as the commander of two companies of militia sent to return 63 convicts to Oklahoma.

But the destiny that hurtled Bill down his tumultuous walk with history was gaining on him. In November, 1924, the seventy year old lawman accepted the job as police chief of Cromwell, Oklahoma against the advice of old friends. He spurned even the advice of "Chris" Madsen who told Bill that, "you are not so young now and your draw is a little slow. Someone might kill you!"

Bill’s reply was "it’s better to die in a gunfight than in a bed like a woman" was prophetic. After closing over 70 illegal houses, arresting 16 major criminals, and evicting over 500 lesser undesirables from drug ridden Cromwell, he was gunned down by a crooked federal agent named Wily Lynn.

In the confrontation, Wily came at Bill with a govt. 1911 45 auto. Bill, still bull strong at 70, pinned the agent’s gun arm to his side while covering him with his .45 S.A. Bill’s deputy disarmed Wily, taking the automatic.

It was the first time that Bill ever drew on a man without shooting him. As Bill replaced his six gun in it’s holster and released Lynn’s arm, Wily drew a .45 caliber hide out gun from his coat pocket and shot Bill twice in the chest. Then he calmly walked over to his waiting convertible and drove away with his girlfriend.

The man that "Bat" Masterson once eulogized as "the best of us all" died as he had lived, with honor and pride.

I can think of no better epitaph than that penned by Novelist Historian Mac Leod Paine. "He was the man who took 1,000 chances, arrested more outlaw gangs, sent more criminals to the penitentiary than any other frontier officer and, with it all, was quiet, soft spoken and gentlemanly". 

webmaster's note: This article was written originally for John Linebaugh in 1991.

 

 

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