The Three Guardsmen were three U.S. marshals based in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) who became famous for their effort to track down the Doolin Gang, also known as the Wild Bunch, in Oklahoma in the early 1890s. When the three accomplished lawmen teamed up in 1891, they spent the next five years pursuing the group, finally capturing gang leader Bill Doolin in January 1896, only to have him escape from the Guthrie Federal Prison less than six months later. They tracked him down again, but refusing to surrender, Doolin was killed in a shootout on August 25, 1896.
The leader of the Three Guardsmen was Henry Andrew “Heck” Thomas, who was born in 1850 in Athens, Georgia. Thomas was joined by Christian Madsen, who was born in Schleswig, Denmark, on February 25, 1851, but came to the United States in 1875. The third member of the trio was William Matthew “Pete” Tilghman Jr., who was born at Fort Dodge, Iowa, on July 4, 1854. Their personal stories and lives before the joining the U.S. Marshals Service are largely unknown and were later overshadowed by their legends.
As members of the U.S. Marshals Service beginning in the 1880s, Thomas, Tilghman, and Madsen were charged with trying to bring order to the ever more populous frontier. They came into regular contact with each other, sometimes in passing, sometimes working on the same effort, including Thomas and Madsen teaming up in the ultimately successful effort to bring down the notorious Dalton Gang.
By the time they formally came together in the early 1890s, charged with the pursuit of the Doolin gang by U.S. marshal Evett Dumas Nix, who served under the jurisdiction of Judge Isaac Parker, they represented a formidable array of experienced frontier talent. As they set out in the summer of 1891, each had his strengths—Thomas was the best shot, Tilghman the best tracker, and Madsen the organizer who kept them on track.
After a lengthy campaign pursuing the marauding gang, the Three Guardsmen (a name later given to them by one of the gangs they pursued), armed with new information, planned to surprise the Wild Bunch in Ingals, Oklahoma, where it was holed up. However, the new district U.S. marshal halted their plan, believing a larger contingent was needed. The ultimate encounter in September 1893, a clash that became known as the Battle of Ingals, saw three deputies and two civilians killed, but only one outlaw was wounded and captured. After that failed effort, Thomas, Tilghman, and Madsen were relieved of all other responsibilities and assigned the pursuit of the Doolin gang full time. They again followed the gang as it robbed trains and banks in Kansas, the Indian Territory, and Texas.
Finally, they arrested Doolin in January 1896, when Tilghman, dressed like a preacher, with his gun under his jacket, arrested him at a spa in Eureka Springs (Carroll County), where he had gone for treatment of his arthritic foot. However, Doolin escaped from prison, and the chase began again. Finally, in August 1896, believing that Doolin would seek to meet his wife at her father’s house in Lawson, Oklahoma, they waited, and on August 25, Doolin appeared. The marshals called for his surrender, but he responded with gunfire. In the ensuing battle, Bill Doolin was shot dead by Heck Thomas.
From there, each of the Three Guardsmen went his own way. Thomas retired as a marshal in 1905, becoming chief of police in Lawton, Oklahoma, a post he held until his death in 1912. Tilghman retired in 1910 and served for a time in the Oklahoma State Senate; while serving as town marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma, he was murdered in 1924 by a corrupt prohibition agent. Chris Madsen retired in 1905 and died in 1944.
For additional information:
“Heck Thomas—Tough Law in Indian Territory.” Old West Legends. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-heckthomas.html (accessed May 17, 2017).
Marcou, Dan. “Police History: Henry Andrew ‘Heck’ Thomas, Man-Hunter Extraordinaire.” PoliceOne.com. https://www.policeone.com/police-heroes/articles/6562548-Police-History-Henry-Andrew-Heck-Thomas-man-hunter-extraordinaire/ (accessed May 17, 2017).
Samuelson, Nancy B. Shoot from the Lip: The Lives, Legends & Lies of the Three Guardsmen of Oklahoma & U.S. Marshal Nix. Eastford, CT: Shooting Star Press, 1998.
“The Three Guardsmen.” Shakey Pete’s Shooting Shack, April 20, 2011. http://shakeypete.blogspot.com/2011/04/three-guardsmen.html (accessed May 17, 2017).
William H. Pruden III
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