Bat Masterson called Bill Tilghman “the greatest of us all.” Theodore Roosevelt said he would “charge hell with a bucket.”
Tilghman was one of the last of the old west lawmen. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never crossed the line to the other side. Never even skirted it. He was everything in life that Masterson and the Earps and Wild Bill Hickock were in legend. He died in the line of duty at age seventy, shot to death by a corrupt a federal agent while trying to clean up an Oklahoma boom town.
Like many men of his time and place, Tilghman began as a buffalo hunter in the years after the Civil War, when the railroads were stretching across the prairie and cattle were trailing north from Texas. He found his way to Dodge City, where he opened a saloon, despite being a teetotaler, and got his first job as a lawman. It was also where he met Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp.
In 1889, he moved to Guthrie. Over the next few years, he, Chris Madsen and Heck Thomas became known as the Three Guardsmen, deputy U.S. marshals who arrested around three hundred desperadoes over the next decade and killed several more. Tilghman’s most famous exploit was the arrest of Bill Doolin in a Hot Springs, Ark., mineral bath.
Tilghman retired in 1910 and was elected to the state Senate, but resigned a year later to become Oklahoma City’s police chief. In 1923, Gov. Martin Trapp persuaded Tilghman to come out of retirement a second time, to accept a special commission as marshal of Cromwell, a notorious unincorporated community in the Greater Seminole Oil Field known as the “wickedest city in the world.” Cromwell had it all: prostitution, gambling, liquor and drugs. And one of the worst influences was a federal Prohibition officer named Wiley Lynn.
Lynn shot Tilghman twice on the night of Nov. 1, 1924, as they struggled for a gun. The old lawman died almost immediately. Typical of the times, Lynn was acquitted when several witnesses mysteriously disappeared; he and state Bureau of Investigation Agent Crockett Long shot each other to death eight years later in a Madill drug store.