top of page
  • bmiltonhyde

Pale Horse Revelations #54 - Heck Thomas

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.

This week we turn our attention to the third and final member of the legendary trio of lawmen known collectively as the Three Guardsmen. Last week we took a look at the controversial Chris Madsen and were left wondering which portrayal held more truth. Was he the legendary lawman some accounts made him out to be? Or was he the incorrigible scoundrel depicted in the conflicting accounts. This week there can be no doubt...Henry Andrew (Heck) Thomas was every bit the hero history has made him out to be.

Thomas entered this world on January 3, 1850, in Athens, Georgia. He was raised and educated in Atlanta and very early in life picked up the nickname Heck. His parents dreamed of him growing up to be a Methodist minister. Fate, it would seem, had other plans.

When the Civil War broke out, Heck's father and two uncles joined the Confederate Army and served with distinction. Heck, only twelve at the time, followed his father and uncles and served as a courier.

While in this role he served on the front in Virginia under his uncle, Edward Thomas. When Union General Phillip Kearney was killed during the Battle of Chantilly, it was young Heck who was entrusted with the general's horse and equipment. General Robert E. Lee handpicked the lad to carrier the items across enemy lines under a flag of truce and return them to the general's widow.

At the conclusion of the war Heck's father, Lovick Thomas, became the first city marshal of Atlanta. Heck began his own law enforcement career at the tender age of seventeen when he joined the police force in 1871. In this role he gained fame as a fearless warrior after being wounded during one of the city's race riots.

It was also during this period that Heck married his first cousin (a common practice at the time), Isabella Gray. She was the daughter of an Atlanta preacher. The two wasted little time in starting a family.

In 1875 Heck moved his young family to Galveston, Texas. Heck soon secured employment as a railroad guard for the Texas Express Company. He was charged with protecting the Houston and Texas Central Railroad between Denison and Galveston, a route plagued with attempted train robberies.

In 1878 Heck encountered the notorious and deadly Sam Bass Gang when they attempted to rob the train near Hutchins Station. A deadly gunbattle ensued, during which Heck was wounded, but the gang was driven away empty handed. The failed attempt was due in large part to the foresight and intelligence displayed by Heck. He secretly hid the cash in an unlit stove while filling the safe with decoy packages. By the time the gang members discovered the deception, the train was safely away.

Heck's actions earned him a promotion to Fort Worth detective for the company. In 1885 Heck left the Texas Express to run for Chief of Police. Heck lost the election by a narrow margin. Discouraged but far from defeated, Heck went to work for the Fort Worth Detective Association. Heck continued his earlier success by bringing Jim and Pink Lee to justice.

The brothers were both members of the notorious Lee gang and known to be ruthless killers. For a time, the gang plagued both settlers and the Chickasaw Nation with equal malice. In 1885 the gang ambushed the posse pursuing them, killing four of the posse members in the process.

It was soon after that when Heck took up the pursuit. After four long months of searching, Heck and his posse finally cornered the brothers in a hayfield near Dexter, Texas. Heck, as was his custom, offered the outlaws a chance to surrender peacefully. His offer was answered with a hail of bullets as the brothers opened fire with their Winchester rifles. In the pitched gunfight that followed, both brothers were shot and killed.

Word of his daring exploits soon led to new opportunities. In 1886 Heck was appointed a U.S. Deputy Marshal and moved his family to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Here he served under the infamous "Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker. For the next seven years Heck worked tirelessly and fearlessly to bring law and order to the lawless Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma). On his first trip out of Fort Smith, Heck captured eight murderers, a bootlegger, and a horse thief, among several others. Such success soon became the norm and Heck was credited with bringing more outlaws to justice than any other marshal working the territory.

Unfortunately, Heck's succuss tracking down outlaws was not mirrored at home. Just two years into his stint as a marshal, Heck's wife divorced him and returned to Georgia with their five children. Heck met the woman who would become his second wife in 1888. Mattie Mowbray, like his first wife, was the daughter of a preacher. The two were wed in October of 1889 and soon began a family of their own.

In 1891 Heck joined forces with fellow marshals Chris Madsen and Bill Tilghman. The three together were so successful that they became known as the Three Guardsmen. In 1892 Heck and Madsen set their sights on the Dalton Gang. It must have felt strange to Heck pursuing the Daltons as both Bob Dalton and Grat Dalton had once been Deputy U.S. Marshals themselves. Heck had also previously worked closely with their brother, Frank Dalton, before he was killed in the line of duty. Though he may have been conflicted, Heck relentlessly pursued the gang. One brother, Emmett Dalton, would eventually refer to Heck as the gang's nemesis.

In 1893 Heck, along with Madsen and Tilghman, were assigned the unenviable task of taming Perry, Oklahoma. The town literally sprung up overnight as a result of the Oklahoma land run of September 16, 1893. In very little time the town boasted a population in excess of 25,000 people. It was also home to 110 saloons. As one can imagine, violence and lawlessness soon became the norm. Adding fuel to the fire was the Doolin-Daltin Gang, also known as the Wild Bunch, that operated in the area.

The Three Guardsmen were determined to end the Wild Bunch's reign of terror and pursued them doggedly. In August of 1896 Heck led a posse that finally caught up with the elusive gang leader, Bill Doolin. Doolin tried to shoot his way out but was killed in the process.

While working in Indian Territory, Heck Thomas, was credited with more than 300 arrests. In that time, Heck saw fifteen of his fellow officers lose their lives to the dangerous job of bringing justice to a lawless land. Heck built a reputation for going after the most dangerous outlaws due to the larger rewards paid for their capture. While his career was lucrative it did not come without its costs. Heck was wounded in gunfights on at least six different occasions.

Strangely enough, it was not violence but his own health that would end his illustrious career. Heck moved to Lawton, Oklahoma in 1902 to serve as the Police Chief. He would hold this position for the next seven years before a heart attack forced him to retire in 1909 at the age of 59. Just three years later he succumbed to Bright's Disease, passing from this world on August 15, 1912. He is buried in the Highland Cemetery in Lawton, Oklahoma.

This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you enjoyed learning about this legendary lawman as much as I did while researching for this post. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I 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.

12 views0 comments


bottom of page