It’s a holiday night- a night to party. Trouble is expected in the new Wild Wild West.
Our hero and his young deputy are eating dinner in a restaurant in the center of the town. Outside in the street a crooked Prohibition agent pulls up to the curb in an open roadster. His companion in the car is a lady of the night and a local brothel owner. Yesterday, the marshal shut down her place of business - permanently.
The agent represents both the new federal Prohibition agency and is reported to be in the pay of the not-so-distant Oklahoma City mob. They’re selling, booze, women, and gambling in the growing cancer of bars and brothels in the quickly growing town. The oil roughnecks make a juicy crop of customers. The ex-Chief of the OK City police force knows these all too familiar fiends and their evil ways.
You Know My Name
As Sam Elliott aptly portrays in You Know My Name each day the US Marshal shuts down the places of ill repute and locks the criminals up. The federal Prohibition agent routinely releases them. This never-ending cycle of somewhat expensive and harassment justice has been going on for a bit. You know the drill.
His law is patient and persistent. He closes 70 illegal houses, arrests 16 major criminals, and evicts over 500 lesser undesirables from drug ridden town. Not too bad a record for an over-the-hill old man.
The crime lords and the agent cannot afford him.
On the Night in Question
On the All Hallows Eve in question the bent federal agent has obviously had too much to drink. Perhaps he’s had enough of the charade or merry-go-round. Perhaps his sexy cheerleader has stirred the pot or called his manhood into question? Perhaps his illicit bosses demand more immediate action? It wouldn't be the first time.
The villain certainly knows the marshal is inside the downtown building when he arrives. It is common knowledge. The marshal always advertises where he can be found on nights when trouble is more than expected.
The agent gets out of the car and fires his pistol wildly into the air.
The act demands a lawful response.
Inside the marshal sighs, stands, and picks up his pistol from the table. He can no longer comfortably actually wear his gun belt. His lower belly is far too swollen from his cancer. A young deputy follows the old lawmen into the night and into a more dubious role in destiny.
In the Clinch of Death
Outside the dishonest reveler is confronted. His loaded and fired pistol is seized and made inoperable in one swift and practiced move by the lawman. The much younger agent is stunned and perhaps humiliated that this happens. The marshal is an old man, but he is far stronger than he looks.
Things now get hazy according to only living witness’s account. The deputy is ordered to arrest and cuff the man. He moves to do so. But the agent has another pistol in an ankle hostler. He grabs this hidden gun. Before the deputy can act, he shoots the marshal in the gut. He brandishes the gun and stares down the deputy. The deputy rushes to the aid of the dying marshal. His orders are forgotten. Is this cowardice or simple sanity? His choice is made.
The cooked agent gets back in the open car and drives off. The lady of the night who also witnessed everything disappears mysteriously that night. She is never heard from or seen again. Her bones are perhaps discovered a decade later in an abandoned farm just outside of town. But there is no CSI in early November of 1924 or in 1934 for that matter to assure us of the fact.
Silently He Passes into History
The heroic marshal is carried from the street into the restaurant. He dies from loss of blood due to gunshot on a restaurant table in the early morning hours of November 1, 1920. No one records his last words. He leaves behind a wife and two children and two grown children from his first marriage. He is 70 years old.
He has been officially a US Marshal on and off for over 50 years. For most of the 20th century he is honored as the longest serving marshal in the history of the US Marshal Service. He is listed today by name on the US Marshal Service website as a recognized hero of that service.
The Marshal receives a hero’s funeral. His body lies in state in the Oklahoma State Capitol Building for three days. As far as I can tell he is the first US Marshal to receive this honor in a state capitol in US history. Uncounted numbers of people come to pay the respects to this “greatest” lawman of the west. Eulogies abound.
I Shot the Sheriff But I Did Not Shoot the Deputy
A swift local trial regarding the marshal’s death is held. It’s not really clear if the federal agent is ever actually officially arrested. The deputy is the only witness to come forward. His intimidated testimony becomes a tale of doubt as to what actually occurred on the night in question. Of course, the only female witness has disappeared forever.
There is no doubt the agent shot the marshal. Only the cause and motive is unclear. The federal Prohibition agent’s word of self-defense is somehow accepted. He is officially acquitted by a jury of his local “peers”.
The honest folk in town and elsewhere are suitably outraged. Appeals are immediately filed. His wife publicly campaigns for retrial for years and years to no avail.
However, Justice seems to have another unexpected and memorable solution and plot twist in mind.
It’s a story that’s been the end of more than one famous western and action flick. Who can blame the writers?
A Boomtown Disappears from History
The oil boomtown itself then becomes a form historic monument and quiet testament.
One night shortly after this somewhat dubious acquittal every bar and brothel in Cromwell, OK is burned to the ground.
According to all the reports no public buildings, churches, or residential structures are destroyed or harmed in any way.
All the patrons and dubious owners of the illegal establishments are run out of town. They never try to return.
Overnight the population of the town drops from well over 3000 to just 300. The town remains that small to this very day.
Some claim the KKK destroyed the town. This rumor is pretty doubtful. The marshal had previously arrested many KKK members throughout the state in various official raids.
Some claim that the other US Marshals in Oklahoma and perhaps even Kansas and Texas did it. No one’s talking.
Some claim the marshal’s famous friends made one last historic posse ride.
In any case, no one is ever arrested for the vigilante justice of that fiery night.
By some accounts no real official investigation of the burning of Cromwell, OK ever occurs.
Who would or could you blame?
His Justice Takes Awhile
The crooked agent, whose name is Wily Lynn, is himself killed ten years later by another arresting lawman in a bar. The villain shouts, “I won’t be taken alive.” Three men die in a blaze of gunfire. He manages to keep his word and kills the two other lawmen as well. At his fitting end he unfortunately leaves more widows and fatherless children in his wake.
Who is that Man in the Straw Hat?
His name is William Mathew "Bill" Tilghman.
To say his life changed history would be a understatement. The facts of that often heroic life are simply almost too amazing to be true. If you read through all the blog posts I've written in the last month and pile the stories one upon another you must come away simply stunned.
Somehow that life seemingly driven by basic human need, simple character, and a dash of His destiny defined an enduring and significant part of our American culture.
It's fair to say in life and film he defined what it means to be the American hero.
He defines for us all what it means and what kind of character it takes to live a life of true public service.
He died tragically in that service. That's important. Death is not the most important thing to remember on every Memorial Day. The man in the straw hats tells us,
It's how we do the living that defines us.
Links to all the Man is the Straw Hat posts