Many of the lawmen of the Old West started out as outlaws, and some of their careers continued to be “questionable” throughout their lives. The Three Guardsmen, was the name given to three lawmen who became legendary in their pursuit of many outlaws of the late 19th century. The men, Deputy US Marshals Bill Tilghman (1854–1924), Chris Madsen (1851–1944), and Heck Thomas (1850–1912) were working under US Marshal Evett “E D” Nix. Tilghman started out as a gunslinger before becoming part of the Three Guardsmen, but he might have been categorized as a “reluctant” gunslinger, since he only resorted to violence, when it was absolutely necessary. Madsen started a criminal career, resulting in several convictions for fraud and forgery, before he became a lawman and member of the Three Guardsmen. Thomas was twelve at the beginning of the American Civil War, when he accompanied his father and his uncle, Edward Lloyd Thomas, to war as a courier. He would have been the exception to the rule in the Three Guardsmen, because he was not an outlaw. Still, if you were going to be a lawman in those days, you had better know your way around a gun.

In 1889, the state of Oklahoma was in need of a serious “cleaning up” or at least part of it was. The Three Guardsmen were widely considered honest, dutiful, and capable, so I guess they must have turned over a new leaf in their careers. These marshals were responsible for suppressing much of the outlaw element in the Indian Territory and the surrounding area. It is said that they arrested more than 300 outlaws during the next decade, while killing several others. These marshals were all three had the reputation of being determined in their pursuit, regardless of bad weather. Each of the men was known for their unique tracking abilities. Oddly, the nickname Three Guardsmen was not given to them by the townspeople or the other lawmen, but rather by outlaws they pursued.

Thomas carried out a relentless pursuit of the Dalton Gang, during their outlaw career, and was specifically mentioned by gang member Emmett Dalton as one reason the Dalton Gang attempted to rob two banks simultaneously in Coffeyville, Kansas. Their plan was “to make one big score so that they could leave the territory for a time” and get away from Thomas. Resistance from the lawmen and citizens of Coffeyville to this robbery ended with the deaths of most of the members of the gang.

The Three Guardsmen are most famous for their pursuit of the Wild Bunch, or Doolin Gang, which included the surviving members of the Dalton Gang. The three lawmen eliminated many of the members of the Doolin Gang by systematically killing gang members who resisted them and arresting those who would surrender. They would let nothing slide, and they tracked them until they found them. Deputy Marshal Heck Thomas killed gang leader Bill Doolin. Deputy Marshal Chris Madsen led the posse that killed Doolin gang members “Dynamite Dan” Clifton and Richard “Little Dick” West. Deputy Marshal Tilghman was ultimately responsible for the death of Doolin gang member William F “Little Bill” Raidler. Other gang members were also captured or killed by them. Their law careers were filled with success stories that helped to rid the Old West of some of its most notorious killers.

Bill Tilghman retired in 1910 and was elected to the Oklahoma State Senate. On October 31, 1924, at the age of 70, Tilghman was murdered by a corrupt prohibition agent named Wiley Lynn, while serving as town Marshal for Cromwell, Oklahoma. The town was a wild place at that time. It was full of brothels, pool halls, and saloons. Tilghman might have been the only thing between the outlaw element and the town, because just one month after his death, the entire town was burned to the ground…leaving no buildings standing. Chris Madsen and other former law enforcement friends of Tilghman were believed to have been responsible, but no investigation into the arsons was ever conducted. I suppose it was a possible retaliation, but we will never know. The town of Cromwell never recovered, and as of the 2000 census, its population was less than 300.

Madsen had retired in 1905 and died in 1944 at the age of 93, after living a relatively peaceful retired life. Heck Thomas retired in 1905, and in 1907 accepted a Chief of Police position in Lawton, Oklahoma. He died in 1912 of Bright’s disease.

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