William Matthew Tilghman (1854 – 1924) was one of the great lawmen of the old West. His name may not trip off the tongue in the way that an Earp or a Hickok does, and he certainly has not enjoyed the levels of Hollywood exposure that those men did, but nevertheless, to students of the West he was an important figure.
He’s only appeared twice on the big screen, that I know of. The first time he was played by himself, in The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws, subtitled Picturization of Early Days in Oklahoma, a 1915 silent movie directed by himself, filmed by Benny Kent, a pioneer movie photographer and Tilghman’s neighbor in Lincoln County, Oklahoma, and released by Tilghman’s own Eagle Film Company.
Bill intended to produce a movie that gave a realistic portrayal of outlaws and lawmen, though the motion picture, while showing many actual events, contains several fictional people and scenes. Tilghman filmed on location at many of the old outlaw hideouts in Lincoln and Payne counties and in the old Creek and Osage reserves. He recruited local people, as well as cowboys from the 101 Ranch, to act in the film. He enlisted Deputy US Marshals Bud Ledbetter and Chris Madsen to take part. Arkansas Tom Jones (Roy Daugherty), the only survivor of the Doolin–Dalton Gang, also played himself.
Tilghman toured with the movie, introducing it personally to enthusiastic crowds, and he picture was a huge hit in the nickelodeons, though not everywhere: the Chicago Board of Censors refused to issue a permit allowing the showing of the film because it featured the exploits of a band of train robbers and outlaws.
The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws originally ran for about 96 minutes. Today, only thirteen minutes of the film survive. It’s available among the features on a 2011 3-DVD boxed set with 132-page book at $59.98 from The National Film Preservation Foundation. There’s a two-minute extract on YouTube, with surprisingly good picture quality, here.
Steiger is Bill
The second feature appearance was when Rod Steiger played him in Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) and Steiger is reasonably restrained for once. Steiger’s Tilghman is hunting down outlaw Bill Doolin (Burt Lancaster) and his gang. Steiger does manage to convey a steely determination to bring the renegades to justice. At one point in the movie, Tilghman says, “Bill and me, we’re old.” Steiger was 55 and Lancaster 67 so he had a point (Lancaster was ill with hepatitis and suffered a mild heart attack during filming) although in reality in 1893 both Tilghman and Doolin were in their thirties. Never mind. It adds to the slight ‘end of the West’ tinge to the film: the Wild West is disappearing. The day of the outlaw and gunman is over.
Tilghman appeared more often on the small screen. In 1956 Don Kennedy played him in an episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp entitled Dodge City Gets a New Marshal, which you can watch here. It’s complete hooey historically: Wyatt arrives from having cleaned up Wichita in 1876 to take over as Marshal of Dodge and promptly shoots half a dozen men on Front Street. Charlie Bassett (Bob Fortier) is the county sheriff and Bill Tilghman the “chief deputy”.
Actually, Tilghman probably did sign on as Ford County Sheriff Charles Basset’s deputy in September 1874, when he was twenty. There is no historical record of this but his second wife, who wrote his biography, said so.
His farming family had come to Kansas from Iowa when Bill was three and the young man had been a buffalo hunter before taking up the lawman’s trade. Tilghman later became a partner in the Crystal Palace Saloon in Dodge. His first documented service as a lawman began on January 1, 1878, when he became a deputy under County Sheriff Bat Masterson.
Anyway, in the Wyatt Earp episode Charlie and Bill are surrounded by thirty gunmen at the depot. Jim ‘Dog’ Kelley (pre-Rawhide Paul Brinegar), a saloon owner and not yet mayor, reluctantly helps out and Wyatt heroically saves them. Earp, Bassett and Tilghman, “the greatest lawmen who ever lived,” as Dog Kelley calls them, then go out and arrest the ringleader of the gunmen, shooting a few more gunhands while they are at it. Boot Hill gets several new residents. Oh well, at least Bill Tilghman was featured.
In February 1960, Brad Johnson played Bill Tilghman in an episode of the syndicated TV series Death Valley Days in an episode called The Wedding Dress (Season 8, Episode 18). I can’t find this on YouTube among the many episodes available but it may exist. Send me a link if you find it!
Not quite clean-as-a-whistle Bill
Bill Tilghman may not have been the spotlessly clean peace officer he is usually shown as on screen, however. Within a month of his appointment as Bat Masterson’s deputy, he was charged with being an accessory to an attempted train robbery, though the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. Tilghman was again suspected of a crime only two months later, in April, 1878, when he was arrested by Bat on a charge of horse theft. Once again the charges were dismissed. In March 1879, Masterson had to sell his deputy’s Dodge City house, at auction, to satisfy a judgment.
Bill is marshal of Dodge City
In 1883 Tilghman became deputy to the new Ford County sheriff, Patrick F Sughrue. He sold his share of the Oasis saloon in Dodge to his brother Frank. But Bill gained his first important lawman’s position on April 10, 1884, when he was appointed city marshal of Dodge. In May 1884 the citizens of Dodge presented Tilghman with a solid gold badge. Tilghman’s widow, in her biography of her husband, wrote that Tilghman and Assistant Marshal Ben Daniels ran Mysterious Dave Mather out of Dodge during late July 1885, though this is dismissed by Mather’s biographer Jack DeMattos. In March 1886 Tilghman resigned as city marshal of Dodge City to tend to his ranch, but the great blizzard of that year wiped out his livestock.
It was as a peace officer rather than rancher that Tilghman would continue. In 1888 he shot and killed a man named Ed Prather. Prather, a newspaper reported, “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 wars
In the late 80s and early 90s conflict raged over whether Ingalls or Cimarron should be the county seat and in January 1889 there was a pitched battle between partisans of the two towns in which one man was killed and five were wounded. Bill Tilghman was one of the wounded: he sprained an ankle.
It was at this time that the Tilghmans moved to Oklahoma. One of the 15000 population of the new boom town of Guthrie was Bill Tilghman, who built a commercial structure on his Oklahoma Avenue lot. Another land rush was held on September 22, 1891, and Bill Tilghman established a ranch. But the profession of lawman was never far away: Oklahoma was suffering the depredations of outlaws and in May 1892 Tilghman was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal.
When the new town of Perry, Oklahoma was created after the Cherokee Strip land rush of 1893, Tilghman was appointed city marshal there. It was at this time that he and his fellow lawmen were tracking down members of the Doolin gang. 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.
The capture of Bill Doolin
Tilghman’s career as a peace officer came to a famous climax in January 1896, when he captured Bill Doolin. Tilghman had followed Doolin to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He recognized Doolin sitting in the lobby of a bath house. Doolin failed to recognize Tilghman, though, and Tilghman was able to overpower the gang leader without a shot being fired. It was a mighty coup. The day after, 2,000 people crowded into the Guthrie railroad station to see Tilghman bring Doolin in. But it didn’t pan out well for Tilghman: on July 5 Doolin escaped from jail, and Tilghman never got the reward. Doolin was finally tracked down by Tilghman’s friend Heck Thomas and his posse and was shot to death on August 24, 1896.
The popular Bill Tilghman won an easy victory in the elections to the post of sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma in 1900. He was re-elected two years later. In 1900 his first wife, Flora, died and three years later Tilghman remarried, to Zoe Agnes Stratton, twenty six years his junior. They had three sons, Tench, Richard and Woodrow.
Politics beckoned. In New York, Tilghman’s old friend Bat Masterson introduced him to President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt wasn’t going to give Bill the plum job he wanted, US marshal of Oklahoma – that would go to a Republican and Bill was a Democrat – but Roosevelt remained fond of Tilghman, and these political connections enabled Tilghman to win 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. By now he was a senior figure in law enforcement and state affairs.
It was now that Tilghman turned to the movie business. And it is here that the biggest and best screen depiction of Bill Tilghman starts. On August 22, 1999 TNT broadcast the made-for-television film You Know My Name, which starred Sam Elliott as Bill.
Sam Elliott is Bill
The TV movie concentrates on the last year of Tilghman’s life, so now we will too.
While he is on the set of his motion picture, Tilghman (Elliott, actually a slim 55 to Tilghman’s portly 70 but putting on the age) is approached by a citizen of Cromwell, east of Oklahoma and about fifty miles to the south east of Tilghman’s home of Chandler. The town is lawless and in the grip of crooks and thugs. Will he help? At first he declines but you can tell he would like one last go at marshaling, and he gets a six-month contract. In reality, this was a good ten years after the making of the movie, but never mind. He goes off to Cromwell alone, promising his wife and sons that he’ll be back soon. Naturally he rides. No perishing autymobile for him.
I must say Turner spared no expense (well, maybe a bit) in creating the set for the oil town of Cromwell. It’s a filthy place full of corruption. As Tilghman rides in he regards the lowlife with that Sam Elliott Western silent disdain. Of course it doesn’t take him long to start cleaning up the town.
The main town crook should have been Robert Middleton, who would have been ideal, but sadly he passed away in 1977 and was unavailable, so they got a Bob Middleton lookalike (perhaps they held a competition) and Walter Olkewicz as Killian does an excellent job of impersonating him. Killian is a saloon owner, naturally, as bad guys have to be. He is properly blaggardly as leader of the anti-law ‘n’ order brigade. Law ‘n’ order will reduce his trade in bootleg liquor (it’s Prohibition time), drugs, gambling and prostitution. I don’t know if there was a real Killian.
But the real villain, the seriously repellent one, did exist, though. I’m not sure that in reality Wiley Lynn was quite such a psychopath teetering on the edge of homicidal madness that Arliss Howard portrays him as, but Lynn was certainly a pretty loathsome character. Though a federal agent charged with eliminating illegal booze, he was in fact on the take in a major way. The movie Lynn is addicted to cocaine and pretty well barking mad. He murders various people, including the county sheriff, with glee and shoves their bodies in oil tanks. He was certainly Tilghman’s main obstacle in bring some semblance of peace and order to Cromwell.
Part of Tilghman’s strategy to tame the town is to show his movie, and we get the delight of James Gammon as Real Arkansas Tom who reluctantly steps onto the stage to back Bill up. The crowd cheer every move the goodies make, in the way that people used to at the flickers. This scene is well handled by the cast and by director/writer John Kent Harrison, who had done another TV 1910s Western with Elliott a couple of years before, The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole on the Sky.
We also get flashbacks as Bill relives his capture of Bill Doolin. In the movie he appears dressed as a clergyman and has a shotgun in a violin case. “You know my name,” he warns Doolin.
Bill is helped by a young assistant, Hugh Sawyer (Jonathan Young), which was in fact the case, and by rather rough methods he manages to get a spy in the enemy camp, Alibi Joe (James Parks), though it does not end well for Alibi when he is discovered. The oil tank has plenty of room for one more.
Bill goes back for bucolic weekends with his family. They are all a bit too good to be true. In fact the middle son, Richard, is written out altogether. In 1929 Richard was shot in the liver while attempting to hold up a dice game and died of his wounds, so maybe he was airbrushed out of the picture. But then Woodrow was also a career criminal, who spent much of his life behind bars, and he features, as a little boy.
Riding back to Cromwell from such an idyllic weekend, Bill is set upon by gangsters in an automobile who spray sub-machine gun bullets at him but of course a cowpoke on his horse is no match for a mere car, and the vehicle careers over a cliff, leaving Bull unscathed.
You do get the impression that it has all been sensationalized a bit. Still, it is a movie.
The death of Bill Tilghman
Well, a drunken Lynn turns up in town, discharging his pistol wildly. Bill grabs his gun hand and succeeds in wrestling the firearm away from him but the skunk pulls a second pistol from a pocket and shoots Bill in the gut several times. Bill falls, mortally wounded. He died on November 1st, 1924. That was more or less what did happen.
Amazingly, Lynn was acquitted at a trial. Eye-witnesses conveniently disappeared and Deputy Hugh Sawyer, either incompetent or bought off, testified that he could not see clearly what happened, though in fact he was standing right next to Tilghman. Lynn continued his criminal ways until finally killed in a gunfight with Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent Crockett Long (who also died) at Madill, OK in 1932.
Bill Tilghman lay in state in the Oklahoma capitol building and was buried in Chandler.
I would recommend any of the screen Tilghmans, except perhaps the Wyatt Earp episode, and even that has its interest, I suppose. Or you could read Zoe’s bio: Zoe A Tilghman, Marshal of the Last Frontier: Life and Services of William Matthew (Bill) Tilghman. Glendale, CA, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1964. Bat Masterson wrote about him in Famous Gun Fighters of the Western Frontier: ‘Billy’ Tilghman, Human Life Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4. July 1907. Or try Guardian of the Law: The Life and Times of William Matthew Tilghman (1854-1924) by Glenn Shirley, Austin, TX, Eakin Press, 1988.