The Three Guardsmen of Oklahoma

William "Bill" Tilghman, Henry “Heck” Thomas, and Chris Madsen
William "Bill" Tilghman, 1924. Deputy U.S. Marshal for Oklahoma Territory 1886-1911. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Henry “Heck” Thomas.Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, 18
Christian “Chris” Madsen

When most people think of the United States Marshals Service, they often have visions of the late 19th century- the Wild West, the frontier, or movies starring Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral. Though many of these visions are steeped in myth, there is often some basis in truth. Three deputy marshals that exemplified this were William “Bill” Tilghman, Henry “Heck” Thomas and Christian “Chris” Madsen, who after years of service in Oklahoma Territory, earned the nickname “the Three Guardsmen of Oklahoma.” It was one of the most violent and dangerous areas in the country. Though they did not often work directly together, they did team up at times to bring notorious outlaws such as the Bill Doolin Gang to justice. Through the years, both together and separately, they purged the territory of many infamous desperadoes.

William “Bill” Tilghman was born in 1854 in Iowa. In his younger years, he hunted buffalo, scouted for the army and served as the deputy sheriff of Ford County, Kansas. He also operated two saloons and was appointed city marshal of Fort Dodge, Kansas, where he served for two years. The Oklahoma Land Run brought Tilghman to Oklahoma in 1889. Throughout the 1890s he served as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, collected large amounts of reward money, and became known as a skilled man hunter. In 1895, Tilghman and Heck Thomas captured the elusive fugitive “Little Bill” Raidler, a member of the Bill Doolin Gang. Raidler was sentenced to ten years in prison for train robbery, but was released in 1903. The next year, Tilghman arrested the infamous Bill Doolin, leader of the Bill Doolin Gang, though he later escaped. After 1900 Tilghman worked in various sheriff and police positions throughout Oklahoma. In 1924, when he was 70 years old, he was shot by a drunken prohibition agent while serving as city marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma. He died shortly after the incident. He was survived by his second wife, Zoe Tilghman, who later wrote his biography.

Henry Andrew Thomas was born in 1850 in Georgia. His schoolmates called him “Heck.” At age 12 Heck served as a courier in the Confederate army for his father’s unit, and was at the Second Battle of Bull Run. By age 18, he was an Atlanta, Georgia, police officer. Thomas eventually moved his family to Texas, but his wife was not happy there, and they moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, around 1886. There Thomas received his commission as Deputy U.S. Marshal from U.S. Marshal Thomas Boles, under the jurisdiction of the federal district court at Fort Smith and “the Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker. Thomas became one of the most famous law officers in the Western District of Arkansas. Known for his abilities to track outlaws and round up numerous prisoners at one time, Thomas once delivered 41 prisoners to Fort Smith, reportedly the largest single group ever delivered to the court. His most famous accomplishment was probably the killing of outlaw Bill Doolin, in 1896. He also served as the first police chief of Lawton, Oklahoma, where he died in 1912 of heart failure complicated by Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys.

Christian “Chris” Madsen was the more colorful member of the three, though also considered by some the most overrated. Born in Denmark in 1851, he immigrated to the United States in 1876, a move that was probably financed by the Danish government in an effort to rid the country of a habitual criminal. Madsen served five sentences in a Copenhagen prison for offenses ranging from begging to fraud and forgery. After he arrived in the United States, he enlisted in the army, where he served fifteen years in the Fifth Cavalry. While in the army he was court-martialed for stealing from the government, but was acquitted, and served five months in prison for larceny in Wyoming.  After being discharged in 1891, Madsen became a deputy U.S. Marshal in Oklahoma Territory. He served in various districts in Oklahoma and Missouri until 1911. While a deputy marshal, he also served with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba. Madsen died in 1944 at age 92 in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

Bill Corbett, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture: Henry Andrew “Heck” Thomas (1850-1912),

Bill O’Neal, Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture: Tilghman, William Matthew, Jr. (1854-1924),

Nancy B. Samuelson, Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture: Madsen, Chris (1851-1944),

Patrick Keen, , Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture: Thomas, Henry Andrew (1850-1912),

Calhoun, Frederick S. The Lawmen: United States Marshals and their Deputies, 1789-1989. New York: Penquin Books, 1991.