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 didnt 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
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 couldnt keep his eyes from straying to the
mans colorful sash, which held two ivory handled Colt Navies.
It wasnt until the family visited town a few days
later that young Bill learned of the strangers 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
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 Bills 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, Bills 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 Bills 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 bartenders 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 Bills ranch to the ground. Bill, perhaps
troubled by the memory of his brothers 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 Wilsons 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 marshals 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
Bills effort and died in the gunfight that followed.
Tilghmans 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 whos 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
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
Early in his career Bill had obtained a Colts
in .38 special with a 5 ½ 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?"" Bills reply was classic
"a man who knows hes right has an edge on a man who knows hes
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!"
Bills reply was "its 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 agents gun arm to his side
while covering him with his .45 S.A. Bills deputy disarmed Wily, taking the
It was the first time that Bill ever drew on a man
without shooting him. As Bill replaced his six gun in its holster and released
Lynns 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".