By Schenectady Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi© 1998. The History of the Office of Sheriff was published and copyrighted in 1998 by Schenectady County Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi.
The career of Bill Tilghman spans the Wild West era, but also goes well into the 20th century. He spent a total of 51 years in law enforcement and he was the last of the old time sheriffs. Like many law enforcement officers of the era, Bill was a noted buffalo hunter before becoming a deputy sheriff in Ford County in 1877.
The following year, Bat Masterson was elected sheriff of Ford County and often related that Tilghman was a superb officer. Bill was not a flamboyant man and was not noted for his fast draw or marksmanship. However, he was celebrated for his unwavering courage.
The most recognized event in Bill Tilghman's career was the capture of William Doolin, a notorious gang leader, robber, killer, [and] a close associate of the famed Dalton gang. . . [T]here was a five thousand dollar price on his head. In 1894, Tilghman tracked Doolin to a bathhouse in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He took Doolin alive and transported him to the Guthrie, Oklahoma jail without the aid of handcuffs or restraints. When Doolin was arrested, Bill noticed a small silver mug. Doolin stated the mug was a present for his infant son. Tilghman, a man of kindness, saw to it that Doolin's son got the mug. Doolin was less kind; he escaped from the Guthrie County jail and went on the run again. He was later shot to death by a deputy U.S. marshal.
In 1900, Tilghman was elected sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma [where he] mastered another important factor of being a sheriff. . . the art of politicking. . . .Views had to be transmitted through the expanding print media to reach the electorate. A letter to the editor in a 1907 Lincoln Broadsides newspaper identifies Tilghman's impressive record and publicizes his campaign:
I desire to call to the attention of the voters to the good work done by Wm. Tilghman during his tenure as Lincoln County Sheriff. During the first 30 days of Mr. Tilghman's administration, he received warrants for nine persons charged with horse stealing. He caught eight of the thieves, recovered the horse in the ninth case and afterwards caught the thief and sent him to the penitentiary, a record for thirty days never made by any sheriff before or since that time.
During the 10 years prior to his election there have been convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary 39 persons charged with various crimes. During his term of office 84 persons were convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary, being more than has ever been sent to the penitentiary before or since his terms as sheriff. A large portion of these were the hardest criminals Lincoln County ever had to contend with, a good many of them being horse thieves, bank robbers, and murderers. . . .
This record was accomplished by hard work. . . . [He] kept going until he captured them and landed them in jail and kept them until they were indicted and convicted. He then transported them to the penitentiary. . . .
Mr. Tilghman inaugurated a system of collecting personal taxes that saved the farmers of Lincoln County hundreds of dollars. . . . Do you want Lincoln County over-run with horse thieves? Do you want to guard your pastures to protect your stock at night? Do you want Lincoln County to continue to be a banner county in Oklahoma for bank robbers? Do you want Lincoln County murders to escape and go unpunished? Do you want your homes burglarized? If not, vote for Wm. Tilghman on June 8th.. . .
[M]any historians expressed that Tilghman was the greatest sheriff of the Wild West period . . . that he arrested more dangerous men, shattered more outlaw gangs, and jailed more criminals than any other peace officer of the era. Yet another arguable statistic is the claim that he had been shot at more than 100 times in the performance of his duties.
His last day of duty came in 1924, when the 72-year old Tilghman was shot and killed by a drunken, off-duty federal Prohibition Agent named Wiley Lynn. Tilghman arrested Lynn for a disturbance and disarmed him of his service revolver. Unbeknownst to Bill, the agent had another pistol secreted on his person and used that weapon to kill Tilghman. Ironically, Tilghman's killer was found not guilty because the jury felt his extreme drunkenness exonerated him from the crime. After his acquittal, the agent returned to duty as a federal law enforcement agent.
The tenor of law enforcement in the 20th century would directly change. Trains made inroads throughout the West displacing cattle drives, which in turn displaced cattle towns. Boom towns no longer boomed after the ores dried up in mining communities. Eventually towns became communities, and family-oriented concern became important community issues. Matters of families superseded vices and locales took on a more peaceful demeanor. Churches and schools became meaningful institutions and the former "shoot 'em up" sheriffs transformed into a different type community servant.