Bill Tilghman (July 4, 1854-November 1, 1924) was a lawman and gunfighter in the American Old West.
William Matthew Tilghman, Jr. was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on 4 July 1854. He became a buffalo hunter at the age of fifteen and claimed that he killed more than one thousand bison over his five years of activity. During this time he may have become acquainted with Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Mysterious Dave Mather, who 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, such as Bob Ford, the assassin of Jesse James, he saw owning a saloon as a financial opportunity. He left Dodge City to pursue 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 instead pictured with the group.
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, Wyatt Earp, and Virgil Earp. By 1889, Tilghman moved to Guthrie in Logan County in the new Oklahoma Territory during the land rush. Town Marshal Bill Grimes approached him to serve as deputy marshal, and he accepted.
In January 1889, Tilghman participated in the Battle of Cimarron, a famous gunfight during the Gray County War that also involved James Masterson, and Ben Daniels. Tilghman was wounded in the leg, but managed to shoot his way out of town with a wagon and a few of his men. Four others, including Masterson, were held up in the Old Gray County Courthouse and left to shoot it out with a small army of Cimarron men.
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 three hundred 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.
Tilghman is credited with the capture in mid-August 1895 of the teenaged female bandit Little Britches, or Jennie Stevens, who had quickly escaped from a restaurant in Pawnee in northern Oklahoma, after having been taken there for a meal by Sheriff Frank Lake. Tilghman and another marshal, Steve Burke, tracked down Little Britches and her partner in crime Cattle Annie. While Burke apprehended Cattle Annie fairly easily, Tilghman had a difficult task in subduing Little Britches. She fired unsuccessfully with a Winchester rifle at Tilghman, who then opened fire on her horse. As the animal dropped to the ground, Little Britches was taken into custody and jailed but only after she had tried to discharge a pistol and then to attack Tilghman physically.The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, however, maintains that Tilghman had nothing to do with the apprehension of Little Britches and that neither bandit had any verifiable direct connection to the Doolin gang.
Retirement, return to law enforcement:
Tilghman retired as a U.S. marshal in 1910 and was elected to the Oklahoma State Senate. A Democrat, Tilghman had been a delegate to his party's 1904 convention, which met in St. Louis, Missouri, to nominate New York Judge Alton B. Parker, a former law partner of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, to run against the successful Republican incumbent, Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1911, Tilghman accepted the position of police chief of Oklahoma City.
In 1924, at the age of seventy, Tilghman accepted a position as marshal of Cromwell in Seminole County, Oklahoma, though he had been warned that because of his advanced age he might be shot to death on the job. During this time, Tilghman lived in nearby Chandler, where he is interred at Oak Park Cemetery.
Tilghman was on the job as the marshal in Cromwell for less than a year before he was killed in the line of duty, as he had been warned might happen. He died on 1 November 1924, having been shot by Wiley Lynn, a corrupt Prohibition Agent. 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 Marshal 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 madam Rose Lutke was standing beside him. Another prostitute, Eva Caton, was sitting inside Lynn's car with a date, a furloughed United States 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.
Wiley Lynn was acquitted after several of the witnesses to the shooting, allegedly intimidated, failed to appear, and Deputy 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, Lynn was killed, but not before fatally wounding Long and an innocent bystander.
One month after Tilghman's murder, the town of Cromwell was torched, with every brothel, bar, flophouse and pool hall burned to the ground, and no arrests were ever made. Cromwell never recovered its former "wild" status after that, and as of the 2000 census, its population was fewer than three hundred residents.
A city park in Chandler is named in Tilghman's honor.
Tilghman's widow, Zoe Agnes Stratton Tilghman, penned a book about her husband, Marshal of the Last Frontier.
In 1960, Tilghman was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
In 1915, Tilghman 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 the criminal element.
In 1960, Brad Johnson, a star with Gail Davis of the Annie Oakley television series, played Tilghman in the episode "The Wedding Dress" of the syndicated anthology series, Death Valley Days.
Tilghman was played by Rod Steiger in the 1981 film Cattle Annie and Little Britches.
The 1999 made-for-television movie You Know My Name dramatized Tilghman's life and final days. It is was based on Matt Braun's novel One Last Town, which fictionalized Tilghman's activities in Cromwell. Veteran actor Sam Elliott produced the film and starred as Tilghman.
Quotes about Tilghman:
His friend and fellow lawman Bat Masterson referred to him as "the greatest of us all.",
Theodore Roosevelt, who developed a personal interest in Tilghman's career despite their partisan differences, said "Tilghman would charge hell with a bucket."
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license