Lawman Bill Tilghman was one of the legends of the Old West. In 1878 he was asked by Bat Masterson to serve as his deputy in Dodge City, where he earned the respect of Masterson, as well as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. In 1889 he moved to the Oklahoma Territory, one of the most lawless areas of the frontier, and became one of the lawmen known as “The Three Guardsman.” They were credited with 300 arrests, including the elimination of The Wild Bunch. Tilghman single-handedly captured the outlaw Bill Doolan, and is probably most well known for the capture and arrest of the female outlaw duo Cattle Annie and Little Britches. He retired from the law in 1910.
There have been many films made about the lawmen of the Old West and the outlaws they chased, but despite Tilghman’s amazing career he has been mostly overlooked by movie makers. Only three motion pictures have been made about him, one of which he produced, directed and acted in himself. That’s right. After his retirement, he decided to make “The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws, (1924)” a silent film, which he said was an authentic western, not like the Hollywood variety– a true story based on the facts of his life.
The second film about him was “Cattle Annie and Little Britches, (1981)” in which Rod Steiger played Tilghman. I’ve never seen that one, but the other night I was lucky enough to catch the third film that was made about him. In 1999 Sam Elliott produced and starred in “You Know My Name (1999) for the TNT network. It is considered the definitive Bill Tilghman biopic and perhaps Sam Elliott’s greatest role. The film begins near the end of Tilghman’s life, in 1924, at the point where he was filming his movie and ran short of money. He’s offered a job as sheriff in the lawless town of Cromwell, OK, where Prohibition era gangsters were overrunning the place. At the age of 70 with a wife and two kids, whom he left behind in the nearby town of Chandler, he took the job and returned to law enforcement.
The film is fascinating just for the visual images of cowboys and gangsters, horses and automobiles, and the sound of cowboy music mixed with jazz bands. Tilghman’s main antagonist is Wiley Lynn (Arliss Howard), a cocaine-addicted Fed who in fact works for the gangsters. Howard’s performance is way over the top, but definitely is effective in showing the depravity of Cromwell, where prostitutes and drunks parade up and down the main street at all hours of the day and night.
Elliot’s performance is masterful. His granite-hewn face and deep, rumbling voice embody the iron-willed sheriff as no other actor working today could. But while he could be tough as nails facing down men with Tommy guns, there’s a touching scene where he tells his son the time, when he was a boy, he saw Wild Bill Hickock. One legend reflecting on another. For anyone interested in the Old West, this John Kent Harrison-directed film is one not to be missed.
Slate and Tilghman
Now, here’s why I bring all this up. While there haven’t been many movies about Tilghman there have been a few novels based on his life, including Matt Braun’s “Outlaw Kingdom,” James Reasoner’s “West of the Big River,” and several others. But in case you think that’s the only fiction that’s ever been written about Tilghman, I hasten to point out that “Samurai Blade,” one of the stories in my “Hunting Monsters Is My Business” collection takes place in Dodge City and features Deputy Sheriff Tilghman as one of the characters.
In this story, Monster Hunter Mordecai Slate is summoned to Dodge by the mother of a soldier shot down in a saloon after he goes berserk while holding a Samurai Sword that was hanging over the bar. The spirit of a vengeful Samurai hovers over Dodge. When Slate checks in at the sheriff’s office he finds Bat Masterson out of town and Tilghman behind a desk, looking up at him and asking, “What are you doing here? You know Bat hates your guts.” In my version, Tilghman has a more pragmatic view of the law than Bat or Wyatt and since the soldier’s death occurred south of the Deadline, he wasn’t too concerned about it. “Things have a way of working themselves out down there,” he tells Slate.
Slate goes about his usual business of wreaking mayhem and uncovering dark secrets. Tilghman shows up at the end aghast at the carnage Slate has wrought, but satisfied that only evil doers have paid the price, he let’s Slate go, saying, “I told you things have a way of working out down here.”
And so that’s the story of how Mordecai Slate met Bill Tilghman. Did it really happen? Who knows? Legends had a way of bumping into each other in the old days.