Historically Speaking: Bill Tilghman — lawman until the end

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
William Tilghman Jr.

Western lawmen either died suddenly — with their boots on — or as old men. One of Dodge City's early lawmen did both. 

Bill Tilghman was one of the few early Dodge City lawmen who remained a peace officer all his life. 

William Tilghman Jr. was born on July 4, 1854, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. His family moved frequently, ultimately settling at a farm outside of Atchison, Kansas. Bill became the man of the house at eight when his father and brother left for the Civil War. 

In 1870, Bill left home with family members to hunt buffalo. In the 1870s, he took a liking to Dodge City and its early settlers. He put down roots, opening the Crystal Palace Saloon with a partner in 1877. Later, they opened the Oasis saloon. 

In 1878, Tilghman was a suspect in the train robbery at Kinsley, Kansas, but was released due to a lack of evidence. Still, Sheriff Bat Masterson auctioned off his property to satisfy a judgment. 

As it often seemed to be in the wild west, this scrape with the law didn't rule him out as a lawman. Tilghman served with the Kansas Patrol Guards during the Indian scares of 1878-79 and, after selling his saloon to his brother Frank in April 1884, he became city marshal. In 1886, Sheriff Pat Sughrue appointed him as a deputy. 

Tilghman was also quite a businessman. In January 1885, he opened Tilghman and Co. Dry Goods Store south of the tracks. By October of 1888, he owned the Prairie View Stock Farm and a dairy. 

The citizenry of Dodge City liked and respected Bill, who was known for never drawing first in a gunfight. Bill remained in Dodge City as a deputy sheriff until 1888 when he moved to Farmer City near Leoti, Kansas, where he continued to serve as a lawman. 

Tilghman's last activity in Kansas was during the Gray County Seat War between Cimarron and Ingalls. This "war" lasted for over a year with several skirmishes. Asa T. Soule, of Soule Canal fame, hired Bill Tilghman, Jim Masterson and others to raid the Gray County Courthouse in Cimarron to steal court records and bring them to Ingalls. During this raid on Jan. 12, 1889, one citizen of Cimarron was killed, and several people were wounded. 

Soon after, Tilghman moved to Oklahoma where, despite this incident, he served as a deputy U.S. Marshal until 1910. 

After going into semi-retirement, he served in various law enforcement capacities and worked as a technical consultant in the burgeoning motion picture industry. 

He came out of retirement to be marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma, which was an unfortunate move. After being in that position less than a year, on Nov. 1, 1924, at the age of 70, Tilghman was killed in the line of duty as he tried to arrest corrupt prohibition officer, Wiley Lynn. Unbeknownst to Tilghman, Lynn was hiding a gun in his clothes. He broke away from Bill’s grasp, firing two shots killing him instantly. 

Bill Tilghman was bestowed an honor granted to a very few; he is buried in the Capitol Building in Oklahoma City.