Bill Tilghman: Law enforcement officer (1854 - 1924) | Biography
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Bill Tilghman
Law enforcement officer

Bill Tilghman

Bill Tilghman
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Law enforcement officer
Was Politician
From United States of America
Field Politics
Gender male
Birth 4 July 1854, Fort Dodge
Death 1 November 1924, Cromwell (aged 70 years)
Politics Democratic Party
The details (from wikipedia)


William Matthew "Bill" Tilghman, Jr. (July 4, 1854 – November 1, 1924) was a career lawman and gunfighter during the Wild West days of Kansas and Oklahoma. He was city marshal in Dodge City, participated in the Kansas County Seat Wars, and moved on to Oklahoma where he participated in the land rushes, including the Cherokee Strip Land Rush. He served as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in Oklahoma and was celebrated for capturing the outlaw Bill Doolin. Tilghman never achieved the household-word status of his close friends Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson but released his memoirs in a film that he directed and starred in as himself. He died at the age of seventy, after being shot down on the streets of Cromwell, Oklahoma. The fame that Bill Tilghman did achieve was largely due to the efforts of his second wife, who wrote his biography in 1949.

Early years

William Matthew Tilghman, Jr. was born on July 4, 1854, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He was the third of six children born to William Matthew Tilghman, Sr. (1820–1908) and his wife Amanda Shepherd (1830–1915).

During 1857, the Tilghman family relocated to Kansas and settled on a farm near Atchison. At the age of seventeen, Bill Tilghman won a contract to supply buffalo meat to the men building the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. From September 1, 1871, to April 1, 1872, Tilghman was supposed to have killed 3,300 buffalo. He would claim this was the "all time record" in later years. According to Zoe Tilghman, his second wife, he killed two Cheyenne braves when they confronted him, as he feared they would torture him.

Dodge City, Kansas

First marriage

According to his second wife, Tilghman first became a lawman during September 1874, when he signed on as a deputy under Sheriff Charles E. Bassett (1847–1896) of Ford County, Kansas. Despite his second wife's claim, there is no record of Tilghman serving as Bassett's deputy. Sometime during the summer 1877, 23 year-old Bill Tilghman married a 16-year-old widow named Flora (Kendall) Jefferson (1861–1900). The marriage was an unhappy one almost from the start, but nonetheless produced four children: Charles, Dorothy, William and Viona.

Crystal Palace Saloon

Early in 1877 Tilghman and Henry Garris opened the Crystal Palace Saloon in Dodge City. A local paper reported during the summer that "Garris and Tilghman's Crystal Palace is receiving a new front and an awning, which will tend to create a new attraction towards the never ceasing fountains of refreshment flowing within." During the spring of 1878, Tilghman and his partner, Henry Garris, sold the Crystal Palace Saloon.

Deputy sheriff of Ford County, Kansas

Bill Tilghman's first documented service as a lawman began on January 1, 1878, when he became a deputy under Sheriff Bat Masterson. Within a month of his appointment, Tilghman was charged with being an accessory to an attempted train robbery. On February 12, 1878, the charges against Tilghman were dropped for lack of evidence. Tilghman was again suspected of a crime only two months later, on April 16, 1878, when he was arrested by his boss, Masterson, on a charge of horse theft. Once again the charges were dismissed. Troubles of a different sort came up on March 8, 1879, when Masterson had to sell his deputy's Dodge City house, at auction, to satisfy a judgment.

City Marshal of Dodge City

On November 6, 1883, Patrick F. Sughrue (1844–1906) was elected sheriff of Ford Conty, Kansas, and Bill Tilghman became his deputy. During this period, Tilghman also owned a Dodge City saloon called the Oasis, which he sold to his brother Frank during early April 1884. According to a local paper, "William Tilghman, Esq, proprietor of the 'Oasis,' has sold out to his brother Frank, who will refit and fix up and make everything smooth and harmonious to the visitor." Tilghman gained his first important lawman's position on April 10, 1884, when he was appointed city marshal of Dodge City. On May 2, 1884, the citizens of Dodge presented Tilghman with a solid gold badge. Bill Tilghman's widow, in her biography of her husband, wrote that City Marshal Bill Tilghman and Assistant Marshal Ben Daniels ran "Mysterious Dave Mather" out of Dodge during late July 1885. Mather's 1992 biographer said the story does not add up for many reasons. The most obvious is that Mather was scheduled to stand trial for murder, which raises the question why Dodge City's marshal and assistant marshal would run out an indicted man. On March 9, 1886, Tilghman resigned as city marshal of Dodge City to tend to his ranch. The great blizzard of 1886 wiped out the livestock on many ranches in the area, including a ranch that Tilghman owned.

The killing of Ed Prather

Tilghman still held a commission as a Ford County deputy sheriff. Law enforcement duties brought him to Farmer City, Kansas, on his thirty-fourth birthday – July 4, 1888 – when he shot and killed a man named Ed Prather. The local paper reported that Prather "made frequent threats against Wm. Tilghman, the deputy sheriff, who took all the abuse from the excited man without offering any retaliation ... in conversation with Mr. Tilghman, he became very abusive and threatened to put an end to him right there, and suiting action to his words, he threw his hand upon his revolver; but Mr. Tilghman was too quick for him and held a revolver in his face. Mr. T. ordered him three times to take his hand off his gun, and would have disarmed him if he had been near enough; but Prather sought a better position, but Tilghman pulled the trigger and Prather was a dead man. A coroner's jury ... after a thorough examination of the circumstances, returned a verdict of justifiable killing."

County seat warrior

During January 1889, Bill Tilghman was one of several Dodge City gunfighters involved in the Gray County War, a county seat war fought between the rival Kansas towns of Ingalls and Cimarron. During a pitched battle between the two factions, one man was killed and five were wounded. Tilghman escaped with nothing more serious than a sprained ankle.

Oklahoma lawman

Land rushes

On April 22, 1889, the first of the celebrated Oklahoma land rushes took place. The city of Guthrie, which had not existed the day before, had an instant population of 15,000. One member of that population was Bill Tilghman, who built a commercial structure on his Oklahoma Avenue lot and used the rent from it to help re-establish himself as a rancher. For the remaining thirty-five years of his life, Tilghman would be an Oklahoman. Another land rush was held on September 22, 1891, and Bill Tilghman established a ranch. During this period, Oklahoma was suffering from the depredations of numerous outlaws, most notably Bill Doolin and his gang, the Wild Bunch. During May 1892, Tilghman was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal. Tilghman joined forces with fellow deputy marshals such as Heck Thomas, Chris Madsen, Frank Canton, and Bud Ledbetter to wage total war on the outlaws active in the territory.

The Cherokee Strip land rush happened on September 16, 1893. The new town of Perry, Oklahoma, was created, and Bill Tilghman was appointed city marshal of Perry on October 21, 1893. Heck Thomas was hired as assistant marshal. Both Tilghman and Thomas retained their commissions as deputy U.S. marshals. Once law and order was established in Perry, Tilghman went back on the trail of the Doolin gang. There is a famous, and totally fictional, story told about how Tilghman entered a "dugout" on January 8, 1895. Tilghman supposedly detected the tips of several rifles pointed at him, from hidden positions in the dugout. According to this story, one of the hidden outlaws attempted to shoot Tilghman in the back, but was prevented from doing so by Bill Doolin himself, who stated: "Bill Tilghman is too good a man to shoot in the back." Slow but sure, the Doolin gang was exterminated. Chris Madsen's posse killed "Tulsa Jack" Blake on April 4, 1895. George "Bitter Creek" Newcomb and Charley Pierce were killed on May 2. Then on September 6, 1895, Tilghman and two other deputy marshals tracked down William F. "Little Bill" Raidler. After being ordered to surrender, Raidler opened fire and was brought down by a blast from Tilghman's shotgun. The outlaw survived his wounds and was sentenced to ten years.

Capture of Bill Doolin and destruction of his gang

The high point of Tilghman's career came on January 15, 1896, when he single-handedly captured Bill Doolin. Tilghman had trailed Doolin to the health resort of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Tilghman entered a bath house, and spotted Bill Doolin seated in the lobby. Doolin failed to recognize Tilghman, who suddenly began wrestling with the outlaw. After a brief struggle, Tilghman subdued Doolin without a shot being fired. Once Doolin was in custody, Tilghman wired U.S. Marshal Evett Dumas Nix at Guthrie, Oklahoma: "I have him. We will be there tomorrow. Tilghman." The following day, some 2,000 people jammed the Guthrie railroad station to see Tilghman bring in Doolin.

The remainder of the Doolin gang was soon killed or captured. A posse killed George "Red Buck" Waightman on March 4, 1896 and "Dynamite Dick" Clifton was rounded up shortly afterward. Tilghman's glory for capturing Bill Doolin quickly evaporated on July 5, when Doolin escaped from jail. Doolin was finally tracked down by Heck Thomas and his posse and was shot to death on August 24, 1896. Tilghman never received the reward money for Doolin's capture, which Oklahoma refused to pay after Doolin escaped. The last two members of the Doolin gang were accounted for when "Dynamite Dick" Clifton was killed on November 7, 1897, followed by the death of "Little Dick" West on April 8, 1898.

Sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma

During 1899, Tilghman established the Oakland Stock Farm which bred thoroughbred horses. Bill traveled to Kentucky for two of his studs. One of them was "Chant," the winner of the 1894 Kentucky Derby. Prosperous and popular, Tilghman won an easy election as sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma in 1900. He was re-elected two years later. Flora Kendall Tilghman died at the age of thirty-nine on October 12, 1900. Bill and Flora Tilghman had an unhappy marriage, and were living apart at the time of her death. Contrary to latter day reports, there is no evidence that they were divorced at the time of her death.

Second marriage

On July 15, 1903, the 49 year-old Bill Tilghman married for a second time. The bride, Zoe Agnes Stratton (1880–1964), was twenty-six years younger and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. Bill and Zoe Tilghman had three sons named Tench, Richard, and Woodrow.


The 19th Democratic Party Convention was held in St. Louis between July 6–9, 1904. Alton Brooks Parker (1852–1926) received the nomination for President. Tilghman was part of the Oklahoma delegation, and was part of a group of Democrats who journeyed to Parker's home to inform him of his nomination. While in New York, Tilghman looked up his old friend Bat Masterson, who was now a journalist working for the New York Morning Telegraph. Bat introduced Tilghman to President Theodore Roosevelt, who defeated Alton Brooks Parker in the 1904 election. Tilghman's being a Democrat probably accounted for his failure to receive the appointment from Roosevelt that he coveted above all others – United States Marshal of Oklahoma. Roosevelt had offered the position to Bat Masterson, who turned it down. For a while Roosevelt considered Chris Madsen (who had served with the Rough Riders), but the appointment finally went to someone else. Tilghman was never in the running. President Roosevelt remained fond of Tilghman, however, and invited him to be his special guest at the inauguration of William Howard Taft on March 4, 1909. With his powerful political connections, Tilghman easily won election as an Oklahoma state senator in 1910. Following his term in the senate, Tilghman became chief of police in Oklahoma City on May 8, 1911. He served two years and helped rid Oklahoma City of much of its criminal element.

Movie star

Bill Tilghman posing with his Winchester rifle in a scene from 1915 movie "The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws"

Instead of writing his memoirs, Tilghman recounted his Oklahoma adventures in the form of a film. On January 18, 1915, Tilghman, Evett Dumas Nix, and Chris Madsen formed the Eagle Film Company. Nix had the title of president, Tilghman was vice-president and treasurer and Chris Madsen was designated as secretary. After a screenwriter, cameraman and cast were hired, filming began on The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws. The film had its premier in Chandler, Oklahoma, on May 25, 1915. Tilghman took the film on the road for several years, during which he appeared on stage and gave lectures. The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws originally ran for about 96 minutes. Today, only thirteen minutes of the film survive. Tilghman produced with Nix and Madsen, directed with Kent, wrote with Lute P. Stover, and starred in the film as himself. Nix, Madsen, and Roy Daugherty also appeared as themselves. Academic Frank Richard Prassel called the film "a major source of popular disinformation", as it features staged scenes purported by the filmmakers to be real.


In 1924, at the age of seventy, Tilghman entered Cromwell, Oklahoma, as a special investigator. He had previously clashed there with a corrupt U.S. prohibition agent, Wiley Lynn, and confronted him when he heard that Lynn was drunkenly discharging his gun. Tilghman attempted to take Lynn into custody without using his own pistol, and, with the help of a bystander, disarmed Lynn. However, Lynn pulled a second pistol and shot Tilghman several times, killing him. In a controversial trial, Lynn was acquitted of murder after pleading self-defense. Lynn was later shot and killed in a gunfight in 1932.

Governor Martin E. Trapp (1877–1951) directed that Tilghman's body lie in state in the rotunda of the Oklahoma capitol building and be attended by an honor guard. Tilghman's pall bearers included Governor Trapp, former Governor J.B.A Robertson, Oklahoma Attorney General George Short, and U.S. Marshal Alva McDonald. He is the third person ever and first police officer to have received such honors. His burial was in Chandler, Oklahoma. A park in the town is named for him.

Film and television portrayals

On February 13, 1960, actor Brad Johnson (1924–1981) played "Bill Tilghman" in an episode called "The Wedding Dress" on the syndicated television series Death Valley Days (Season 8, Episode 18). Actress Mary Webster was cast as "Mrs. Tilghman".

In 1981, Tilghman was portrayed by Rod Steiger (1925–2002) in Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a 97-minute film which also starred Burt Lancaster (1913–1994) as Bill Doolin.

On August 22, 1999, TNT broadcast the made-for-television film You Know My Name, which starred Sam Elliott (1944- ) as Bill Tilghman, Carolyn McCormick (1959- ) as Zoe Tilghman and Arliss Howard (1954- ) as Wiley Lynn. The film was a highly fictionalized account of Tilghman's final months and death.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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