“Would you shoot a brave man in the back?” — Part II

In Part I we got a flavor of what the outlaw life was all about as we followed Bill Doolin as he progressed from small crimes to major crimes, meeting a violent end and crossing paths several times with legendary lawman Bill Tilghman in the process.

The life of William Matthew “Bill” Tilghman began in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he was born on July 4, 1854. By the age of 15 he had left home and was hunting buffalo on the southern plains with his older brother Richard. The two of them killed numerous buffalo and sold their hides in Dodge City, Kansas. Soon the buffalo business petered out as overkill drove the beautiful animals to near extinction and the brothers moved on to other endeavors.

The Tilghmans relocated to Dodge City in the spring of 1877 where Bill Tilghman and a business partner, Henry Garris became owners and operators of the Crystal Palace saloon. A year after the move, someone accused Tilghman of being involved in a train robbery in a neighboring county. He was not. However, few months later Tilghman was arrested by Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson for horse stealing. The case against Tilghman was eventually dismissed.

Despite these troubles, Tilghman and Garris continued to operate the Crystal Palace saloon and at some point, Tilghman became a Ford County Deputy Sheriff at Dodge City. It was his first job as a peace officer. Tilghman and his partner sold the Crystal Palace saloon in the spring of 1878. Tilghman bought another saloon, the Oasis, for his brother Frank to run.

In 1877 he married Flora Kendall, a widow, and started up a small ranch on a homestead near Dodge City. Tilghman was soon appointed city marshal, faithfully serving the famous cattle town for two years. The following year Tilghman was hired by one of the factions in the Gray County Seat War. The War involved the bitter struggle between the high plains boomtowns of Cimarron and Ingalls, Kansas over which would be the county seat for Gray County. During the conflict, Tilghman killed Ed Prather on the Fourth of July in a saloon fight.

Tilghman participated in the Great Oklahoma Territory Land Run of 1889, staking a land claim near Guthrie. In 1893 he worked as a peace officer in the wild boomtown of Perry where he killed a troublemaker named Crescent Sam on September 17, 1893. During this period Tilghman moved his wife and four children to a stud farm near Chandler. Flora Tilghman contracted tuberculosis and, in 1897 returned to her mother’s Dodge City home and filed for divorce. Flora died in 1900. Tilghman wed a second time in 1903, at the age of 49, he married 22-year old Zoe Agnes Stratton.

During the mid-1890s Tilghman was a deputy U.S. Marshal and honed his skills as a man hunter, collecting significant amounts of reward money. Working with Heck Thomas and Chris Madsen, the trio was known as “Three Guardsmen.” Among Tilghman’s greatest success were the capture of fugitive “Little Dick” Raidler and the arrest of notorious gang leader Bill Doolin.

In 1900, Tilghman was elected sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma and served several years there. While serving as sheriff, Tilghman mastered another important factor of being a lawman, he learned the art of politicking. The new century marked a change in the previous style of getting votes. A modern politician of the day had to rely on more efficient and sophisticated ways of getting the vote out to a growing population. Views had to be transmitted through the expanding print media to reach the electorate. A 1907 letter to the editor of the Lincoln Broadsides newspaper identifies Tilghman’s impressive record and publicizes his campaign:

I desire to call to the attention of the voters to the good work done by Wm. Tilghman during his tenure in office as Lincoln County Sheriff. During the first thirty days of Mr. Tilghman’s administration he received warrants for nine persons charged with horse stealing. He caught eight of the thieves, recovered the horse in the ninth case and afterwards caught the thief and sent him to the penitentiary, a record for thirty days never made by any sheriff before or since that time. During the ten years prior to his election there have been convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary thirty-nine persons charged with various crimes. During his term of office eighty-four persons were convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary, being more than has ever been sent to the penitentiary before or since his terms as sheriff. A large portion of these were the hardest criminals Lincoln County ever had to contend with, a good many of them being horse thieves, bank robbers, and murderers. This record was accomplished by hard work. No sheriff in Lincoln County ever worked harder or more faithful than Wm. Tilghman did. When a crime was committed the night was never too strong or too dark for him to go after criminals. He went and kept going until he captured them and landed them in jail and kept them until they were indicted and convicted. He then transported them to the penitentiary and delivered them to the warden of the institution. Mr. Tilghman inaugurated a system of collecting personal taxes that saved the farmers of Lincoln County hundreds of dollars. Lincoln County never elected an officer that worked harder or more faithful than Bill Tilghman during his terms in office. Do you want Lincoln County over-run with horse thieves? Do you want to guard your pastures to protect your stock at night? Do you want Lincoln County to continue to be a banner county in Oklahoma for bank robbers? Do you want Lincoln County murders to escape and go unpunished? Do you want your homes burglarized? If not vote for Wm. Tilghman on June 8th.

Yours Very Truly,
R.P. Martin

When President Teddy Roosevelt visited the Big Pasture area in Oklahoma Territory for a well-publicized wolf hunt in 1905, he asked the intrepid marshal how he had eluded death with the many quick-drawing outlaws he had confronted. The mild-mannered Tilghman replied that he had many times beaten his adversaries by only the sixteenth of a second. He also expounded that the man who knows he is right always has the edge over a man that knows he is in the wrong.

President Roosevelt was quite taken with the lawman and admired his skills, so he offered Tilghman a monumental task – go deep into Mexico and bring back a railroad embezzler who had eluded the U.S. Government for some time. The year 1905 was an especially turbulent time in Old Mexico. Mexican government rurales (federal troops) were trying to keep revolutionaries from controlling remote regions of the country – the land was hot, barren and full of murderous bushwhackers. Traveling south of the border, Tilghman, soon met with Roosevelt’s Mexican counterpart, President Porfirio Diaz, who was impressed with the letter Tilghman presented to him from President Roosevelt. Diaz offered him any number of rurales he wanted. After all, Tilghman was headed to Aguascalientes, a corrupt and violent city inhabited by the worst of criminals – both Mexican and American. However, Tilghman respectfully declined Diaz’s offer, reasoning he didn’t want to cause a commotion that might offer the quarry an opportunity for escape.

Tilghman rode into the dusty, dingy village alone. Soon he was riding back out of town with his rifle across his saddle covered by a duster. The man the U.S. Government hadn’t been able to capture sat the saddle on the horse in front of him. He was delivered north of the border – alive.

In 1908, he became fed up with the way Hollywood was glamorizing the outlaws of the day. So he and real life historical figures Quanah Parker and Heck Thomas made a short film called A Bank Robbery. Then, in 1915, Tilghman and his friends U.S. Marshal E.D. Nix and Chris Madsen wrote the script for and starred as themselves in the full length feature film, Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws to show how things really were back in the heyday of the Wild West. They even managed to get an old outlaw nemesis, Arkansas Tom, released from prison to be a consultant and act in the film.

In 1910, three years after Oklahoma became a state, Tilghman retired as a lawman. Soon he was elected to the Oklahoma State Senate from Lincoln County. He resigned that position in 1911 to become chief of police in Oklahoma City.

Tilghman retired again and was living in Chandler, Oklahoma when, in the spring of 1924, was approached by W.E. Sirmans, an oil man and head of the Cromwell Chamber of Commerce. Sirmans lobbied hard for Tilghman to accept the challenge and come out of retirement to tame “the wickedest town in Oklahoma.”

The town of Cromwell sprang up literally overnight. Muskogee oilman Joe I. Cromwell bought land near the Bruner Number One oil well, in the Greater Seminole Field and platted the original township in 1923. The oil boom town exploded to a population of 5,000 in a matter of weeks.

So, at the age of 70, he accepted the assignment against the advice of old friends to clean-up the town, even though no one knew, including his wife, that he was dying of cancer and in terrible pain. He spurned even the advice of his good friend and fellow Guardsman, Chris Madsen, who told Bill that, “You are not so young now and your draw is a little slow. Someone might kill you!” Bill’s reply was, “It’s better to die in a gunfight than in a bed like a woman.”

The oil boomtown of Cromwell was, to put it mildly, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the west. The nearby Amerada Petroleum Corporation oil derricks and tanks gave the rough and tumble town a perpetual smell of oil; the wooden buildings were literally soaked with the black crude. The majority of the town’s buildings were related to drinking, gambling and prurient concerns, all in business to separate the roughnecks from their paychecks.

Layabouts loitered outside of pool halls and bars. Naked prostitutes lounged in windows and doorways. Murders went unsolved; bodies often lay in the street for hours. Cocaine and heroin, even more prevalent than the then-prohibited alcohol, were the main cause for the malaise.

A mobster named Arnold Killian reputedly ran the organized crime with an iron fist. He flew in drugs from Mexico, having them dropped outside of town to be picked up and distributed by local moonshiners. He brought in prostitutes from New Orleans and Atlanta. He was truly a crime kingpin, but he answered to a higher power – the big-time Oklahoma City crime bosses.

Tilghman spent about six months as town marshal and made inroads into cleaning up the town. But he had little or no help from the county sheriff, who was in the pocket of Killian. Wiley Lynn, the local federal prohibition agent, was generally accepted to be on the take as well. He was certainly a hindrance to Tilghman, releasing more than one of the marshal’s arrestees. Lynn was very friendly with the moonshiners and drug dealers in Cromwell.

On the evening of November 1, 1924, Tilghman was seated in Ma Murphy’s Cafe talking and drinking coffee with his friend W. E. Sirmans and Deputy Town Marshal Hugh Sawyer.

Outside, a glossy black touring sedan pulled up across the street. The driver was Wiley Lynn, his front seat passenger was Rose Lutke, the proprietress of the recently closed “Rose Rooms” brothel – which was shuttered by court order. The back seat was occupied by prostitute Eva Caton, who had operated the “Cozy Rooms” bawdy house until it was also closed by the local judge at the behest of Tilghman. Rounding out the foursome was Caton’s “date,” a furloughed Army sergeant named Daniel Thompson. The occupants of the car had been drinking moonshine all evening out of a half-gallon jar.

Lynn got out of the car and drew his pistol. When Rose asked him what he planned to do, he replied, “I’m going to see if this damned gun will shoot.” He then fired his pistol once into the dirt street, then started across the street to the Murphy’s Dance Hall, another establishment closed by Tilghman.

The elderly marshal heard the shot and immediately went outside. Tilghman, whose painful cancer had made wearing a gun belt intolerable, pulled his Colt .32 automatic from a vest pocket and confronted Lynn. Tilghman braced Lynn, grabbing him by the wrist of his gun holding hand with his free left hand, while holding his pistol against the renegade prohibition agent’s ribcage. Despite his age, Tilghman was still a strong man and flung the much younger Lynn against the building, holding his wrist high in the air while Deputy Marshal Sawyer wrestled Lynn’s gun from his hand. Thinking Lynn was disarmed, the elderly marshal released his vice-grip on his arm. Then, quick as lightning, Lynn pulled out a hidden second pistol from underneath his coat and boldly fired point blank twice into the chest of 70-year-old Tilghman. At the sound of the gunshots, Lutke let loose a bloodcurdling scream. Sawyer lunged to grab Lynn’s gun arm, but despite his quick thinking, he was too late.

After a few moments, Tilghman collapsed against the wall while Lynn quickly disarmed a startled Sawyer, who yelled loudly: “Wiley Lynn has shot the Marshal!” as Lynn and Lutke jumped in the car and sped off. A mortally wounded William Matthew Tilghman died twenty minutes later on a sofa in the used furniture store next to Ma Murphy’s. He had been hit twice in the left lung and bled to death internally.

It is apparent that an aged, terminally ill Tilghman did underestimate his opponent in the last fight of his life. While Lynn did not shoot Tilghman in the back as Howard asserted in his letter to Lovecraft, he did pull a hideaway gun after the marshal had let his guard down and shot him in cold blood. Overall, though, Tilghman was one tough, brave hombre. Teddy Roosevelt once commented: “Bill Tilghman would charge hell with a bucket.”

Tilghman’s body lay in state in the Oklahoma State Capitol Building’s rotunda for two days. In addition to being only the third person to be accorded that honor, he was also the first private citizen and the first law enforcement officer to do so. Tilghman was survived by his wife Zoe, two daughters and four sons. Zoe became an author writing about the western lawmen and Indians of her time. Among her many books is one about her husband titled: Marshal of the Last Frontier: Life and Services of William Matthew (Bill) Tilghman.

One month after Tilghman’s murder, the wicked town of Cromwell burned to the ground, with every saloon, drug den and brothel destroyed — no family homes were burned. It is widely believed the fire was set by law enforcement friends of Tilghman, but no arrests were ever made. The town of Cromwell never recovered to its former illicit status after that – the boomtown was gone, never to be rebuilt and as of a 2000 census, its population was less than 300 residents.

Read Part I / Part III