Bill Tilghman

Bill Tilghman

William Matthew "Bill" Tilghman (July 4, 1854–November 1, 1924) was a lawman and gunslinger in the American Old West.

Early life

Tilghman was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on July 4, 1854. He became a buffalo hunter at age 15 and claimed he killed over 12,000 bison over his five years of activity. During this time he may have become acquainted with other legendary figures such as Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Mysterious Dave Mather, who also hunted buffalo. Tilghman's older brother, Richard, hunted with him, and at one point during the mid-1870s when the hunting team was attacked by a war party of American Indians, his brother was killed. []

Following his hunting career, Tilghman moved to Dodge City, Kansas, where he used the money he had saved to open a saloon in 1875. Tilghman was a teetotaler but, like so many of the famous figures of the Old West, he saw owning a saloon as an irresistible financial opportunity. He would leave Dodge City following other opportunities three years later. However, he returned briefly and he was present with Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, and others during the Dodge City War, and was pictured in one of a series of three photographs taken of those considered to be the "Dodge City Peace Commission", although only one of the photos was widely publicized. In the most famous and well circulated photo taken that day, little known businessman and small time gunman W. F. Petillon is pictured with the group, whereas in another photo Petillon is absent and Tilghman is pictured with the group. []

Law enforcement

In September 1878, he served as a scout for the U.S. Cavalry during a surge of Cheyenne raids on settlements, working alongside the likes of gunman John Joshua Webb. Later that same year, he was approached by Bat Masterson to serve as a deputy sheriff, and he accepted. He served in that capacity until 1884 and earned an excellent reputation, working at various law enforcement jobs for the rest of his life, earning the respect of Masterson, Doc Holliday, and Wyatt and Virgil Earp. By 1889 Tilghman moved on to Guthrie, Oklahoma, during the land rush. Town Marshal Bill Grimes approached him to serve as deputy marshal, and he accepted.

The territory had formerly been part of the Indian Territory and was still one of the most lawless places in the west. As a deputy US Marshal, Tilghman was one of the three men most responsible for finally bringing law and order to the area. The others were Heck Thomas and Chris Madsen. The trio were collectively known as the Three Guardsmen and were responsible for the arrest and/or killings of many of the worst criminal elements of the era, numbering by some estimates as high as 300 arrests, including the systematic elimination of the notorious Wild Bunch. On January 15, 1895, his single handed capture of Bill Doolin in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, brought him increased fame as a lawman, for which he became best known. That same year he shot and wounded Doolin gang member "Little Bill" Raidler. Raidler was sentenced to prison and was released some years later because he suffered constantly from his gunshot wounds. Raidler died in 1904 as a result of those wounds.

Retirement, return to law enforcement

Tilghman retired from his position in 1910 and was elected to the Oklahoma State Senate. He also accepted the position of police chief of Oklahoma City in 1911. In 1915, he co-wrote, directed, and starred in the movie "The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws", which dramatized the law enforcement activities of Tilghman and the other "Guardsmen." The film is noted as an early attempt to de-glamorize the image of outlaws. In 1924, at the age of 70, Tilghman accepted a position as marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma. During this time he lived in Chandler, Oklahoma, where he is buried.


He was in the job less than a year before he was killed in the line of duty. He died on November 1, 1924. Wiley Lynn, a corrupt Prohibition Agent, shot him. Lynn and Tilghman had had numerous verbal confrontations because Lynn repeatedly released prisoners who were arrested by Tilghman. The incident began on Halloween night, when Tilghman, Deputy Hugh Sawyer, and businessman W. E. Sirmans were having coffee at a cafe called "Ma Murphy's".

Shots were heard outside, and Tilghman drew his handgun and went outside. In the street stood a drunken Wiley Lynn, with a gun in his hand. Brothel madame Rose Lutke was standing beside him. Another prostitute, Eva Caton, was sitting inside Lynn's car with a date, a furloughed army sergeant. Tilghman clasped Lynn's gun hand and called for Deputy Sawyer to come assist. []

As Sawyer ran outside, Tilghman, Lynn and Rose Lutke stood body to body in the darkness. Two shots rang out, and Lutke screamed. As Deputy Sawyer rushed forward, Tilghman slumped forward and fell. Deputy Sawyer, inexperienced, did not fire but rather disarmed Lynn and yelled "Wiley Lynn has shot the marshal". Lynn then fled with Rose Lutke to the car and sped away. []

Tilghman's body was laid in state at the Oklahoma state Capitol. One month later, the town of Cromwell was torched, allegedly by angry citizens, with every brothel, bar, flop house and pool hall burned to the ground. []

Wiley Lynn was acquitted after several of the witnesses to the shooting, allegedly intimidated, failed to appear, and Deputy Marshal Hugh Sawyer, whether he was coerced or merely incompetent, testified that he could not see clearly as to what actually happened. Rose Lutke disappeared, and was never heard from again. Despite his acquittal, Lynn was dismissed from the Prohibition Unit. Years later, in a shootout with another police officer, [ Agent Crockett Long] of the Oklahoma State Crime Bureau, he was killed, but not before fatally wounding Long and an innocent bystander.

One month after the murder, the town of Cromwell was burned to the ground, with every saloon and brothel burned. Allegedly it was law enforcement friends to Tilghman who did the deed, but no arrests were ever made. The town of Cromwell never recovered to its former "wild" status after that, and as of a 2000 census, its population was less than 300 residents. []

The 1999 made-for-television movie "You Know My Name" dramatized Tilghman's life and final days, and was based on Matt Braun's novel "One Last Town", which fictionalized Tilghman's activities in Cromwell. Veteran western movie actor Sam Elliott produced the film and starred as Tilghman. His wife, Agnes Stratton Tilghman, wrote about him in the book "Marshal of the Last Frontier". Tilghman was portrayed by Rod Steiger in the 1981 film "Cattle Annie and Little Britches".

Quotes about Tilghman

*His friend and fellow lawman Bat Masterson referred to him as "the greatest of us all." []

*Teddy Roosevelt said "Tilghman would charge hell with a bucket." []

Further reading

* Zoe Tilghman, "Marshal of the Last Frontier" [ at Amazon] (not consulted)

External links

* [ Bill Tilghman bio]
* [ Dodge City Lawmen]
* [ Find-A-Grave biography] for Zoe Tilghman
* [ Find-A-Grave biography] for Bill Tilghman

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