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Pale Horse Revelations #52 - Bill Tilghman

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

Last week we took a closer look at the notorious Wild Bunch led by Bill Doolin and Bill Dalton. This week we'll turn our attention to one of the men instrumental in bringing that outlaw gang to justice. While there were many lawmen who played a part in bringing the outlaws down, three stand out above the rest. So significant was their contribution that they became known as the Three Guardsmen, a name given them by the very men that they pursued.

All three men are worthy of closer examination, though not one of them achieved the type of lasting fame as their contemporaries Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson did. While you would be hard pressed to find someone today who doesn't recognize either of those names, I'm betting only those who are true die-hard fans of Old West history have heard of Bill Tilghman, Chris Madsen, or Heck Thomas. Today we begin the process of righting that wrong as we focus our attention on Bill Tilghman.

Born William Matthew Tilghman Jr. on July 4, 1854, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, he was the third of six children. When he was three years old, Tilghman's family relocated to the newly formed Kansas Territory. There, they settled down and established a farm near Atchison.

At the age of seventeen Tilghman won a contract to supply buffalo meat to the men building the Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Tilghman reputedly killed 3,300 buffalo in the eight-month period between September 1, 1871, and April 1, 1872. According to Tilghman's second wife, Zoe Tilghman, he also killed two Cheyenne braves that confronted him.

Zoe also claims that Tilghman's career as a lawman began in September 1874 when he accepted a position as deputy sheriff of Ford County, Kansas. However, this claim is dismissed by most modern historians as no documentation or record has been found to support it. Based on the historical record, Tilghman's law enforcement career actually began in January 1878 when he became a deputy under Bat Masterson.

Considering the fame that he would later achieve, his career as a lawman got off to a shaky start. Within a month of being appointed Masterson's deputy, Tilghman was charged with being an accessory to an attempted train robbery. The charges were soon dropped due to a lack of evidence. Just two months later Tilghman was again in trouble with the law. He was accused of horse theft and arrested by Masterson on April 16, 1878. Once again, the charges were dropped.

Despite the accusations against him, Tilghman continued to find work as a lawman. His first prominent position came in April 1884 when he was appointed city marshal of Dodge City. Two years later he was forced to resign due to circumstances beyond his control. The Great Blizzard of 1886 wiped out the livestock at his ranch, along with many others in the area, and Tilghman felt compelled to resign and tend to the ranch.

Tilghman retained his commission as a Ford County deputy during this period. On July 4, 1888 (his thirty-fourth birthday) his responsibilities as a lawman brought him to Farmer City, Kansas. There he was involved in a gunfight and killed a man named Ed Prather. A coroner's jury determined that the shooting was justified.

In January 1889 Tilghman found himself, along with several other Dodge City gunfighters, embroiled in what would become known as the Gray County War. This was a fight between the rival towns of Ingalls and Cimarron to determine which of them would be designated the county seat. In a pitched battle between the opposing forces one man was killed and five others were wounded. Tilghman emerged from the battle with only a sprained ankle.

In April 1889 Tilghman was one of thousands to descend upon Oklahoma to participate in its first land rush. The town of Gutherie sprung up, literally, overnight with an instant population of 15,000. Tilghman built a commercial building on his lot and used the rent to re-establish himself as a rancher.

It was about this time in history that Oklahoma began to fall victim to various outlaw groups. Chief among these was the Wild Bunch. In 1892 Tilghman was appointed a Deputy U.S. Marshal in Oklahoma. He, along with fellow deputy marshals Heck Thomas, Chris Madsen, Frank Canton, and Bud Ledbetter, were tasked with ending the outlaws' reign of terror. It was a task these men were well suited for as they proceeded to wage total war against the outlaws. Eventually every single member of the Wild Bunch would be gunned down.

Tilghman briefly stepped away from the "war" when he was assigned to establish law and order in the new town of Perry, Oklahoma. Like Gutherie, Perry sprung up practically overnight as a result of another land rush. Tilghman was the perfect man for the job. A short time later he found himself back on the hunt for Bill Doolin and his Wild Bunch.

Perhaps the highlight of Tilghman's career was his single-handed arrest of gang leader Bill Doolin. It happened January 15, 1896. Tilghman followed Doolin to a health resort in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. As Tilghman entered the bathhouse he spotted Doolin sitting in the lobby. Doolin failed to recognize the lawman and before he realized what was happening Tilghman had tackled him to the ground. After a brief struggle Tilghman managed to subdue the outlaw, without a single shot being fired. Unfortunately, Tilghman's glory was short-lived due to the fact that Doolin managed to escape within six months of being captured. Adding insult to injury, Oklahoma refused to pay the reward for Doolin's capture after the man managed to escape.

Tilghman remained involved in law enforcement in one capacity or another for the remainder of his life. In 1900 he easily won the race for sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma. He won re-election two years later. Tilghman was also a successful politician, winning an Oklahoma state senate seat in 1910. He served a single term before returning to law enforcement. He became chief of police in Oklahoma City in May 1911 and served in that position for two years. During that time, he was credited with cleaning up much of the city's criminal element.

Tilghman's life came to an end on October 31, 1924, at the age of seventy. He was serving as a special investigator when he entered the town of Cromwell Oklahoma. Tilghman had previously clashed with a corrupt U.S. Prohibition agent named Wiley Lynne. On that fateful Halloween 1924 Tilghman confronted Lynne for recklessly discharging his firearm. Tilghman was determined to take Lynne into custody without pulling his own pistol. With the help of a bystander, Tilghman managed to disarm Lynne. Tilghman began to relax when Lynne pulled a second pistol and shot Tilghman multiple times. The legendary lawman died the following day. During the ensuing trial Lynne insisted that he had acted in self-defense. In a controversial decision, Lynne was acquitted. Lynne himself was killed in a gunfight in 1932.

Well, that brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. In truth, we've barely scratched the surface of this fascinating character. I strongly encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

  As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found on the "Contact the Author" page of this website and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

  Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.



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