Former Ford County, Kan., Sheriff Bat Masterson called his one-time undersheriff "the greatest of us all." And President Teodore Roosevelt said the old lawman would charge hell with a bucket of water. They were describing Bill Tilghman, one of Oklahoma's legendary "Three Guardsmen".
Tilghman, born in 1854, arrived in Kansas with his family two years later. By age 16, he was hunting bison in southwest Kansas. There he befriended Bat and Jim Masterson, the Earp brothers, and other hunters who later became peace officers in Dodge City, the "Queen of the Cowtowns". He served as an Army scout, operated a saloon, and was a rancher after the bison herds vanished.
Bat Masterson appointed Tilghman as a Ford County, Kan., deputy sheriff in 1877, where he served until 1884 when he became Dodge City's marshal. He also served as a lawman during the "County Seat Wars" in western Kansas.
In the 1889 Sooner land rush, Tilghman moved his family to Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory. He served as a lawman in both Guthrie and Perry. U.S. Marshal Ed Nix offered him an appointment as a federal officer. Tilghman and fellow U.S. deputy marshals Chris Madson and Heck Thomas were assigned the task of hunting down the Dalton-Doolin gang. The citizens of Coffeyville, Kan., ended the career of the Daltons. The Three Guardsmen killed or led posses that captured the remainder. Together they made more than 300 arrests.
The marshal settled in Chandler and was elected Lincoln County sheriff in 1900. Later, he served Lincoln County in the Oklahoma Legislature. He resigned to become Oklahoma City's first appointed police chief in July 1911. He immediately directed officers to shut down brothels, gambling and bootlegging operations.
At the end of the two-year term, Tilghman returned to Chandler and operated Champion Stock Farm. The operation centered around Tilghman's horse, Chant, a Kentucky Derby winner.
He also directed a movie, The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws, which was released in 1915 by Tilghman's Eagle Film Company. Disturbed by the unfavorable portrayals of lawmen and the casting of outlaws as heros in other movies, he enlisted Nix, Madsen, other lawmen and the last surviving member of the Dalton-Doolin gang to portray themselves. Tilghman also starred in the movie. Theater owners were reluctant to run it because it lacked stars. The legend traveled the country, showing the movie and speaking to crowds.
Tilghman never retired from law enforcement. Along with Madsen and a few others, he held a statewide, special deputy's commission that was renewed by each of Oklahoma's early governors. He was called to stem tribal "Crazy Snake" uprisings and thwart Klu Klux Klan activities. In the early 1920s, oil was discovered in Oklahoma. Lawless boom towns sprang up in the oil patch and the state suffered from an unrelenting crime wave. Governor M.E. Trapp requested Tilghman to serve as his special investigator.
A few fearful citizens of Cromwell, nearly 60 miles east of Oklahoma City in Seminole County, petitioned Trapp for help. After the discovery of oil in October 1923, Cromwell grew from nothing into a wide-open, lawless city of more than 5,000 people by the following spring. The city had recorded at least 10 unsolved murders. Its oil-soaked, wood-frame businesses were primarily illegal saloons, gambling halls, and brothels. A man named Killian was reputably Cromwell's representative for crime bosses in Oklahoma City. Illegal drug use and "White Lightning" consumption was rampant. A Federal Prohibition agent, Wiley Lynn, was suspected of being paid to look the other way. Trapp asked Tilghman to tame one more town, "the wickedest in all Oklahoma."
The lawman's second wife and children asked him to turn down the assignment. Tilghman, who had not told them or Trapp he was dying from cancer, went regardless. Tilghman told a friend he wanted to die with his boots on and "not in bed like an old woman." After six months as the marshal of "Wicked Cromwell", he had made considerable progress with no help from Seminole County authorities. Lynn also arranged to release some of Tilghman's arrestees behind the scenes.
Halloween night, 1924, the marshal was having coffee in Ma Murphy's cafe, still in operation despite Tilghman shutting down Ma's attached "dance hall", with his deputy Hugh Sawyer and businessman W.E. Sirmans. Sirmans was one of the citizens who had requested help from Gov. Trapp. At 10 p.m. the men heard a shot fired outside in the street. Tilghman, who had stopped wearing his heavy gunbelt and Colt Peacemaker because of his cancer pain, drew a Colt .32 automatic from his pocket and ran outside.
G. Wayne Tilman, a distant cousin of Marshal Tilghman, described what happened next in "The Long Trail that ended in Cromwell: the Life and Death of legendary lawman Bill Tilghman", a July 1999 Cowboy Sports article:
"A drunken Wiley Lynn stood there, gun in hand. Brothel madam Rose Lutke was standing next to him. Another known prostitute, Eva Caton was sitting in Lynn's car with her date, a furloughed army sergeant.
Tilghman clasped Lynn's gun hand while jamming his own automatic into Lynn's ribs. He yelled for Hugh Sawyer to disarm Lynn. Rose Lutke, Lynn and Tilghman stood body to body in the dark as the young deputy rushed towards them. Two shots rang out. Lutke started screaming. After a few seconds, Tilghman slumped against the wall. Lynn disarmed Sawyer, who had yelled "Wiley Lynn has shot the Marshal!" though he had been unable to actually see the incident.
Lynn and Lutke jumped in the car and sped off.
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."
One month after his death, every "every flophouse, bar, pool hall and brothel" in Cromwell were torched. The homes were spared. The arsons were never investigated. It was rumored the buildings were leveled in retribution for Tilghman's death by his friends.
Tilghman's body laid in state at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Lynn lost his federal position but was acquitted by a jury under suspicious circumstances. Key witnesses such as Rose Lutke vanished. Sirmans fled to Florida after his life was threatened.
Lynn died in July 1932. He entered Madill's Corner Drug Store and pointed a handgun at Crockett Long, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent. Lynn blamed Long for his failure to obtain a job with the state bureau. Long, who had served as Madill's chief of police, had also arrested Lynn in the past. Long turned, tried to get Lynn to put down his weapon, and then drew his .44 Smith and Wesson revolver. Both men shot each other. A bystander, 22-year-old Rody Watkins, was fatally struck in the spine by a bullet from Lynn's .38 Colt semi-auto pistol that had passed through Long's body.
Long died on the operating table a short time later. When Lynn heard Long had died, he said, "If he's dead, now I'm ready to die." Lynn folded his arms across his chest, and the killer of three men stopped breathing.
Upon hearing of Lynn's death and expressing regret for the deaths of Long and Watkins, Tilghman's widow, Zoe, said, "No jury on Earth can acquit him now."
Tilghman's grave can be found in Chandler's Oak Park Cemetery. His home, a private residence, is on the National Historic Register. Chandler celebrates Independence Day, his birthday, in Tilghman Park, which sits on land Tilghman once owned.
Cromwell is now a small town with less than 300 people. In years past, it has celebrated "Bill Tilghman Day" on the second Saturday in October.