The Guardsmen

There was a time in America when lawmen made people nervous —not because they had anything to hide (maybe they did), but  because, for the most part, old west lawmen were no one to trifle with.  The fact was that some of these lawmen switched back and forth from “good guy” to outlaw, and even those who remained true to the law would just as soon shoot you than look at you.  No one with an ounce of brains wanted to challenge their authority.  On the other hand, they had to be tough hombres just to stay alive —and not all of them did.

Being a lawman in the old west was a dangerous line of work.  The most successful lawmen of all were those who were tougher, meaner, and faster with a side arm than anyone they came up against —neither did they “play fair.”  It was a different time.  Sheriffs, deputies, marshals, and constables didn’t hand out speeding tickets, or respond to domestic violence complaints.  No —if one of these fellows knocked on your door or shouted for you to come outside for a chat, there was a good chance that you were guilty of something far more serious.

Three of these hombres come to mind, and while few of these tough gunslingers lived past their 50th birthday—these three men did.  In their own time, they were known as The Guardsmen, a sobriquet given to them by the desperadoes they pursued.  They were tough as nails.  Their names were William Matthew “Bill” Tilghman (born 1854), Chris Madsen (born 1851), and Henry Andrew “Heck” Thomas (born 1850).

Bill Tilghman

Bill was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa—the third of six children of William Matthew Tilghman, Sr., and Amanda Shepherd.  Bill was a child when his family relocated to Kansas and settled on a farm near Atchison. He was still living in Kansas when, at the age of 17-years, he began hunting buffalo and supplying meat to railroad workers of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe.  In the space of one year, Tilghman is said to have killed over 3,000 of these animals.  According to Tilghman in later life, “It was an all-time record.”  While on the plain, he also killed two Cheyanne warriors who confronted him.

Tilghman allegedly became a lawman in 1874, signing on as a deputy to Sheriff Charlie Bassett in Ford County.  Bassett was Ford County’s first sheriff, elected in 1873, but there is no record of a Deputy Tilghman.

In 1877, Tilghman married a sixteen-year-old widow by the name of Flora Kendall Jefferson.  It wasn’t a blissful marriage, but it did produce four children.  At about the same time, Bill met Henry Garris and together they opened a saloon they called The Crystal Palacein Dodge City. They sold the saloon a year later … the reasons for doing so may have been related to Tilghman’s legal problems.

Bill Tilghman 001Tilghman began to wear a star on his vest in 1878—hired as a deputy to Bat Masterson. Masterson had been elected sheriff of Ford County, replacing Bassett (who was then promptly hired to serve Masterson as Under-Sheriff).  Not even a month had gone by when Tilghman was charged with being an accessory to an attempted train robbery.  Owing to the fact that there was no solid evidence connecting Tilghman to any crime, these charges were dropped.  A few months later, Masterson once more arrested Tilghman, this time charging him with horse theft, but this charge, also deemed spurious, was dropped.  But the fact was that Tilghman was having significant financial difficulties, probably a result of his adventure with the Crystal Palace. Masterson ended up auctioning off Tilghman’s home in order to pay a judgment against him.  Flora must not have been pleased.

On 6 November 1883, Pat Sughrue became Ford County Sheriff and Tilghman was hired as one of his deputies. By this time, Tilghman owned another saloon in Dodge City called the Oasis.  He sold this saloon to this brother in 1884, at about the same time as Bill was appointed City Marshal.  Two years later, Tilghman relinquished his badge [1] to work a ranch he’d purchased.  A massive blizzard in that winter wiped out the livestock on many area ranches, including Tilghman’s [2].

What now follows is a narrative written by W. R. (Bat) Masterson in 1907 concerning two related incidents involving Bill Tilghman:

“In the summer of 1888, a County-seat war broke out in one of the northern-tier counties in the State of Kansas and Tilghman was sent for by one of the interested parties to come up there and try to straighten the matter out. Tilghman went and took with him a young fellow by the name of Ed Prather, whom he had every reason to believe he could rely upon in case of an emergency.  Prather, however, proved to be a traitor, and one day attempted to assassinate Tilghman, but the latter was too quick for him and Prather was buried the next day.”

After Prather was killed, local authorities convened an inquest into the circumstances of his death. Prather’s death was ruled “justifiable homicide.”  But as to the Gray County War, violence continued until January 1889.  The citizens of Ingalls and Cimarron Kansas went to war over the placement of the Gray County seat [3].  Several Dodge City gunfighters were involved in the squabble, which is probably the result of each side hiring gunslingers to intimidate the opposing parties.  In one gunfight between opposing sides, one man was killed, and five others wounded.  Tilghman was involved in the fracas but received no more than a twisted ankle for his trouble.  Cimarron became the county seat of Gray County, Kansas.

In April, the first Oklahoma land rush took place.  Guthrie, Oklahoma, which did not exist on 22 April, had a population of 15,000 on the very next day.  One of these new land-owners was Bill Tilghman, who purchased a lot on Oklahoma Avenue.  After constructing a commercial building on the property, he rented it out to help re-establish himself as a cattle rancher.  Tilghman remained in Oklahoma for the balance of his life.

Another land rush was held on 22 September 1891, which enabled Tilghman to establish his ranch. At this time, Oklahoma (also referred to as the Indian Territories) suffered depredations from several outlaw gangs, notably Bill Doolin’s Wild Bunch.  In May 1892, Tilghman was appointed a Deputy US Marshall for the Oklahoma territory, joining with other marshals such as Heck Thomas, Chris Madsen, Frank Canton, and Bud Ledbetter.  Thus, the war began between the lawmen and the Oklahoma outlaws. Another land rush was conducted on 16 September 1893, and from this the new town of Perry, Oklahoma was created. Tilghman was hired as city marshal on 2 October, and he hired Heck Thomas as his assistant—all the while, both men retained their federal commissions.  Once Tilghman and Thomas established law and order in Perry, they went on the trail of the Doolin Gang.

Bill Tilghman was good at two things: law enforcement and self-promotion.  A 1915 dime pamphlet accompanied his motion picture titled The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws. According to Chris Madsen in 1937, “Tilghman was a little inclined to be romantic.”

Romantic or not, the Wild bunch (also called the Oklahoma Long Riders, Oklahombres, the Doolin-Dalton Gang, and Doolin Gang) were dangerous desperadoes and killers.  Its members terrorized Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma by robbing banks, stores, holding up trains, and shooting down lawmen and innocent bystanders.  At various times, the Doolin gang involved such men as Tulsa Jack Blake, Dynamite Dick Clifton, Arkansas Tom Jones (Roy Daugherty), Bill Dalton, Bill Doolin, Bitter Creek Newcomb (aka Slaughter Kid), Charlie Pierce, Little Bill Raidler, Red Buck Waightman, Little Dick West, and Oliver Yantis.  Two young girls, known as Cattle Annie and Little Britches were Wild Bunch groupies, often informing gang members of the nearby presence of lawmen.

The Wild Bunch was conceived following the Dalton Gang’s botched train robbery near Adair, Oklahoma on 15 July 1892, during which two guards and two bystanders (both medical doctors) received gunshot wounds.  No other western outlaw gang met a more violent end than the Wild Bunch; only two of its eleven members survived into the 20thcentury, but all of them met violent deaths in gun battles with lawmen.

Chris Madsen’s posse killed Tulsa Jack on 14 April 1895, Newcomb and Pierce were killed on 2 May, and on 6 September, Tilghman and two others tracked down Little Bill.  Ordered to surrender, Raidler opened fire on the lawmen but Tilghman ended the fight with a blast from a shotgun.  Little Bill was seriously wounded but survived to spend ten years in a territorial prison.

On 15 January 1896, Tilghman single-handedly captured Bill Doolin.  Tilghman tracked Doolin to a health resort in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Entering the bathhouse, Tilghman spotted Doolin seated in a waiting area.  Doolin failed to recognize Tilghman, who immediately attacked Doolin and wrestled him to the floor.  With Doolin in custody, Tilghman notified US Marshal E. D. Nix by telegraph in Guthrie, “I have him.  Will be there tomorrow.  Tilghman.”

The remainder of the gang was soon killed or captured.  Red Buck Waightman was killed by a posse on 4 March 1896, Dynamite Dick was rounded up a short time later.  Doolin, meanwhile, escaped from jail on 5 July and took refuge in Lawson, Oklahoma with his wife.  Because he was allowed to escape, Oklahoma officials refused to pay Tilghman any of the reward money.  Heck Thomas tracked Doolin down forty-five days later, and killed him with a blast from a shotgun.  Doolin was buried in Guthrie, Oklahoma, his grave adjacent to that of the outlaw Elmer McCurdy.  The last two members of the Doolin gang were accounted for when Dynamite Dick was killed on 7 November 1897, and Little Dick West was killed on 8 April 1898.  It was after this that Tilghman, Thomas, and Madsen became known as the three guardsmen of Oklahoma.

In 1899, Tilghman established the Oakland Stock Farm, which raised thoroughbred horses.  One of these won the 1894 Kentucky Derby.  By now, Tilghman was both popular and prosperous, and he easily won election as Sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma in 1900. Flora passed away at the young age of 39-years on 12 October 1900; she and Bill were living apart at the time. Tilghman remarried in 1903, the well-educated and much-younger Zoe Agnes Stratton (1880-1964).  Bill and Zoe had three children together, all sons.

By 1904, Bill Tilghman was politically well-connected, and even though active in the Democratic Party, was able to receive the friendship of Theodore Roosevelt.  Bat Masterson, then a journalist writing for the New York Morning Telegraph, introduced Tilghman to Roosevelt in July 1904.  With these kinds of connections, Tilghman easily won election to the Oklahoma senate in 1910.  He subsequently worked as the Chief of Police in Oklahoma City (1911-1913) and in this capacity, helped to rid the city of much of its criminal element.

Seeking to capitalize on their experiences as lawmen, Tilghman, Nix, and Madsen formed a cinema graphic company they called Eagle Films in 1915.  Nix served as president, Tilghman as vice president and treasurer, and Madsen served as secretary.  Filming began on The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlawsalmost immediately.  The film ran for about 95-minutes, of which only 13-minutes remain viewable today. Modern academics generally regard the film as “popular disinformation.”

In 1924, aged 70, Bill Tilghman went to Cromwell, Oklahoma as a special investigator.  He was looking into the corruption of a federal prohibition agent named Wiley Lynn [4].  He confronted Lynn on 31 October as Lynn was drunkenly discharging his firearm.  With the help of a bystander, Tilghman disarmed Lynn and took him into custody.  Lynn, however, had a second firearm, with which he shot Tilghman several times. Tilghman died the following day. Lynn was later acquitted of murder after pleading self-defense … but he too was shot and killed in 1932.

Chris Madsen(1851-1944)

Chris Madsen 001Born in Denmark as Christen Madsen Rørmose on 25 February, Chris was a well-educated young man who turned toward a criminal life before emigrating to the United States in 1876.  He was several times convicted of forgery and fraud.  He claimed to have served in the Danish Army and French Foreign Legion, but neither of these assertions appear to be true.  What is true is that soon after arriving in the United States, Madsen enlisted in the US Army, serving fifteen years with the US Fifth Cavalry.  In 1883, Madsen was assigned as a scout and guide leading President Chester A. Arthur through Yellowstone.

After Quartermaster Sergeant Madsen was discharged from the Army in 1891, he became a deputy US Marshal under William Grimes in the Oklahoma territory.  Over time, along with Tilghman and Thomas, Madsen contributed to the apprehension or death of 300 outlaws —and it was after the destruction of the Wild Bunch that these men became collectively known as The Three Guardsmen.

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Madsen volunteered for service with the 1stUS Volunteer Cavalry (also known as The Rough Riders), serving under Colonel Leonard Wood and Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1911, he was appointed US Marshal for the State of Oklahoma, which was granted statehood in 1907. He later served as the Chief of Police for Oklahoma City (he was then in his 60’s).  When the United States became involved in World War I, Madsen offered to volunteer his services.  His age resulted in the Army’s rejection.  From 1918-22, he served as a special investigator for the governor of Oklahoma.

Madsen eventually settled in Guthrie, Oklahoma. He was married to Margaret Bell Morris and together, they had two children.  Margaret passed away in 1898, Madsen lived to the age of 93, passing away in 1944.

Heck Thomas

Heck ThomasHenry Andrew “Heck” Thomas was born in Oxford, Georgia on 3 January 1850, the youngest of five children of Lovick Pierce Thomas I [5], and Martha Ann Fullwood (née Bedell).

At the beginning of the American Civil War, Heck Thomas accompanied his father and uncle, Edward Lloyd Thomas, to the battlefields in Virginia.  Both men were serving officers of the Georgia infantry; Heck would serve the regiment as a courier.  On 1 September 1862, at the death of Union General Philip Kearney at the Battle of Chantilly, confederate soldiers began to strip his body of coat, boots, pocket watch, and other items of value.  General A. P. Hill ordered Kearney’s belongings returned, and Robert E. Lee ordered that all of his personal items, including his horse, be delivered to Kearney’s widow, Agnes.  Heck Thomas was entrusted with the safekeeping of Kearney’s horse and personal accoutrements until these articles were delivered to his widow under a flag of truce. According to Heck:

“One evening, while the right was going on or, rather, just before dark, a soldier came to the rear where Uncle Ed’s baggage and the darkies and I were, leading a black horse, with saddle and bridle.  He also brought a sword.  Just after this, Stonewall Jackson crossed over into Maryland and captured the city of Frederick; that was after taking Harper’s Ferry and about 14,000 federal prisoners.  These prisoners were held by Uncle Ed’s brigade while the army was fighting the Battle of Sharpsburg.  We could hear the cannon from Harper’s Ferry.  While we were at Harper’s Ferry, General Lee sent an order to Uncle Ed for the horse and equipment.  I carried them forward and it was one of the proudest minutes in my life when I found myself under the observation of General Robert E. Lee.  Then General Lee sent the horse and everything through the lines, under a flag of truce, to General Kearney’s widow.  I had ridden the horse and cared for him up to that time, and I hated to part with him.”

In 1863, Heck contracted typhoid fever [6] and returned to his family in Athens. When he’d recovered, he began working as a clerk in his brother’s dry-goods store in Atlanta.  He later accepted an appointment to work as an Atlanta police officer.  In 1871, Heck Thomas married Isabel Gray.

Thomas and his family migrated to Texas in 1875.  With the help of a cousin, Thomas obtained a job as a railroad guard.  In time, he became a railroad detective and later went to work for the Fort Worth Detective Association.  While in this capacity, Heck Thomas was appointed Deputy US Marshal and assigned to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he worked for US District Judge Isaac C. Parker.

In 1889, Thomas was teamed up with Deputy US Marshals Chris Madsen and Bill Tilghman.  Over the next ten years, these three men were credited with the apprehension or killing of more than 300 desperadoes.  According to Emmett Dalton, years after his release from prison, Heck Thomas was one of the primary reasons the Dalton Gang chose to commit two simultaneous bank robberies in Coffeyville, Kansas.  Knowing that Thomas was relentless in his pursuit of outlaws, the Dalton Gang decided to make one big score and leave the territory. It didn’t work out that way, however. The Dalton Gang was wiped out in the Coffeyville robberies.  Emmet Dalton was the only survivor.

In August 1896, Heck Thomas led the posse that tracked down and killed Bill Doolin.  Doolin had been previously captured by Bill Tilghman but escaped from jail on 5 July 1896.

By 1902, much of Oklahoma had been settled.  Thomas was sent to Lawton, Oklahoma, where he was elected as the town’s first Chief of Police.  He served in this position for seven years, when his health began to fail.  Heck Thomas died on 14 August 1912, a victim of Bright’s disease.


[1] He retained his commission as a deputy sheriff, however.

[2] The blizzard lasted for most of the winter, impacting the entire central and northern plain of the United States.  Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch in the Dakota territory was similarly affected.

[3] Such conflicts in the old west were, if not common, certainly frequent. These conflicts arose out of the financial advantages of having a county seat located in one’s own town.

[4] A factually based and highly entertaining film of this incident was produced in 1999 as a “made for TV” movie written and directed by John Harrison.  It was titledYou know My Nameand starred Sam Elliot, Arliss Howard, R. Lee Ermey, and Carolyn McCormick.

[5] L. P. Thomas (1812-1878) served as quartermaster of the 4thBattalion, 42ndGeorgia Infantry in 1861-1862, transferring to the 35thRegiment of Georgia Infantry in 1862.  Within the regiment, he was known as the fighting quartermaster, accorded special mention when Captain Thomas, seeing that his regiment was short of officers, voluntarily joined the fight as an infantry officer until he was wounded.

[6] Typhoid is a bacterial infection affecting the blood and abdomen and is accompanied by severe headaches, skin rash, and confusion.  Typhoid is caused by ingesting human feces in food or drinking water.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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8 Responses to The Guardsmen

  1. Kid says:

    Some Hombres not to be trifled with…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    Colorful, if not always admirable, characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Masterson’s | Old West Tales

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