Historically Speaking: Dodge City lawman Larry Deger

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
Lawrence E. "Larry" Deger.

He was a big lawman in Dodge City — in more ways than one. At 300 pounds Lawrence E. "Larry" Deger was literally a big lawman. 

Larry Deger came to southwest Kansas in November 1868 as a wagon boss for Lt. Col. George A. Custer. When Dodge City incorporated in November 1875, he became its first marshal. In 1877, James "Dog" Kelley reappointed him as marshal. In the meantime, Wyatt Earp served as a deputy of his in 1876. 

There was a rub. Kelley and Earp were members of the "gang" of which the Masterson brothers, William Harris, Luke Short and others were also members. Deger wasn't a member, resulting in a great deal of friction between him and these other prominent lawmen. 

In June 1877, things started to go south when Deger attempted to arrest gambler and drifter Bobby Gilmore after arguing noisily with him. Bat Masterson disrupted Deger's arrest attempt when he wrapped his arm around Deger's neck allowing Gilmore to escape. As the two grappled, Masterson was disarmed. With the assistance of others, Deger placed Bat in jail. Things got worse when Deger ordered Bat's brother, Ed, to arrest Gilmore and place him in jail with Bat. Both were released the next day. 

Despite this incident, Bat had power and influence with Mayor Kelley who appointed him to serve under Deger. 

Things only got worse, and in the early hours of July 20, 1877, Deger arrested gambler Charles Ronan, a bartender and billiards expert at Kelley's saloon. When Kelley ordered his release, Deger refused. Kelley suspended Deger and ordered him to return his badge. Kelley then ordered assistant marshal Ed Masterson to arrest him. Deger resisted, drawing his revolver. Fortunately, Ed talked him down. Apparently Deger still had some clout; later that afternoon, the City Council reinstated him as marshal. 

In November 1877, Bat Masterson defeated Deger for sheriff by three votes. This ended Deger's service as a lawman in Dodge City. But this was not the end of Larry Deger's influence in Dodge City politics. 

Kelley's reign as mayor ended in 1881 when Deger's friend, Alonzo B. Webster, defeated him. 

In 1883, Deger, as Webster's handpicked successor, defeated William Harris for mayor. Harris's backers had campaigned Harris would be more friendly to gamblers and saloonkeepers, while Deger's supporters campaigned for decency and order. 

After Deger took over as mayor, he passed ordinances cracking down on prostitution, gambling, drinking and vagrancy. 

The Saloon War began on April 28, 1883, when Deger had Luke Short's Long Branch Saloon women "singers" arrested. William Harris and Luke Short objected claiming the law ignored other saloons which also had women "singers." Incidentally, none of these women were hired because they could carry a tune. 

Short enlisted an army consisting of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, William Harris, Charlie Bassett and others. Fortunately, they reached a compromise with Deger and his friends without any blood being shed. 

Even with stricter laws, prostitution remained prevalent in Dodge City until after the summer of 1885 when the cattle drives ended. Without the Texas cowboys, demand for these "services" in Dodge City disappeared.