Compleat Idler, Education

U.S. Marshals – real versus reel

(c) 2012 Earl L. Haehl Permission is given to use this article in whole as long as credit is given. Book rights are reserved.

In a world of semi reality, I like to retreat to what Fran Striker called the days of yesteryear. when the action was on the silver screen.  And between the real and the movies is the U.S. Marshal.

Question 1: What famous Western lawman was killed in 1924 during an altercation with a Federal Agent.

Question 2: Name three Deputy U.S. Marshals who were present in Coffeyville, KS, the day the Daltons came to town.

Question 3: Besides Tilghman and Earp what member of Wyatt Earp’s Dodge City Police Department later became a Deputy U.S. Marshal.

Most of America’s consciousness of the U.S. Marshal has come from novels, movies and television where they swept into the small towns to fight corrupt local sheriff. And we know Matt Dillon who loomed ominous in the voice of William Conrad on radio and larger than life in the frame of James Arness on television. For those unacquainted there are episodes of Gunsmoke on the internet.

The vision is almost always positive—an affirmation that our federal government will protect us. The character of Rooster Gogburn, who played whichever side of the law was convenient, may be a little more accurate.

William Matthew Tilghman may be the straightest of the old west lawmen. As far as I can tell he did spend a night in jail, having been caught taking county records to the true county seat from the other true county seat back during the County Seat Wars in Kansas. He was the main inspiration for the character of Matt Dillon. At age 70 he was hired as marshal by the city of Cromwell, Oklahoma. He immediately offended Prohibition Bureau Agent Wiley Lynn who asked the sheriff not to sign Tilghman’s commission. Tilghman responded by getting his commission directly from the Governor. On the night of November 1, 1924, Tilghman was having coffee with some businessmen downtown when he heard shots being fired outside. Tilghman then went outside where Wiley was firing his weapon and staggering. Tilghman disarmed Wiley and was attempting to subdue the agent when Wiley put two bullets in Tilghman, Wiley was acquitted because he intimidated witnesses but lost his commission. He was killed in 1930 in an altercation with the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation.

When riders were seen coming up from South Coffeyville it was assumed that it was just another Marshal’s posse up from the Indian Territory. As they rode into town and parked their horses people were uneasy. When it started things got confused. Charles Connelly, the Town Marshal, was shot early on—reports are mixed as to whether he was even armed or returned fire. Most of the shooting was done by immigrant blacksmith John Kloehr with a rifle borrowed from the hardware store. When it was done four of the five robbers lay dead and the fifth lay seriously wounded. Connelly was not a deputy US Marshal—he was town marshal, high school teacher and truant officer. He seldom carried his breaktop, five-shot .32 revolver. The three Deputy US Marshals for the Indian Territory were Grat, Bob and Emmett Dalton—the District Judge in Wichita had not bothered to revoke their commissions.

William Barclay Masterson was called “Bat” because he had to use a cane because of a damaged pelvis from the Battle of Adobe Walls. A Canadian, with no documentation of naturalization that I have been able to find, Masterson moved from the Dodge City Police Department to the office of Sheriff of Ford County in November 1877. After a career as a lawman, he was a gambler, a hired gun for the Santa Fe in the Raton Pass dispute, a fight promoter, a sports writer and editor. In 1903 he was appointed Deputy US Marshal for the Southern District of New York (New York City). The Sullivan Law in New York cut into his practice of buying old guns in pawn shops, carving a few notches and then selling them as the gun he carried in his lawman career, His pal Damon Runyan used him as the model for Obadiah “The Sky” Masterson in The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown which was the basis for Guys and Dolls.

The United States Marshals have served the Federal Courts and the other branches of the Federal Government since 1789. But they were not the “saviors” the movies showed. In the area of general law enforcement, the states handled that before the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Up until 1896 the Marshals were paid fees by the courts for serving warrants and process and guarding prisoners. They also served process for banks with their fees set by courts.

But if you like B-westerns—I grew up going to the Gothic with my big sister on Saturday afternoon—you know about U.S. Marshals. They come into town, order sarsparilla, get into a fight with the town bully and get arrested. In the sheriff’s office, they identify themselves and talk about the rustlers—they always shoot for the gun hand which would make a low energy video game. And despite the wiles of the schoolmarm, they head for the next town when the banker is packed off to the state prison for running the rustling ring so he can foreclose on all the ranches (who does he think he is–FmHA).

“Out in the territories it was a U.S. Marshal and the smell of Gunsmoke.” Never mind that Dodge City was in the state of Kansas and the gambler named Holliday who built the rail head was called Colonel, not Doc. Never mind that from 1876 to 1882 the homicide rate (including police shootings) was 1.5 a year. Never mind that Dodge had a police department. And never mind that the cattle drives ended in 1882 when a standard gauge railroad provided a direct line to Kansas City from Fort Worth. Okay, for twenty years Matt Dillon was America’s marshal and averaged 13 lethal force incidents a year.

And Abilene had no shootings until they got proactive and hired a marshal. When the marshal was killed they recruited a gunfighter named JB Hickock. Hickock liked killing but was beginning to show signs of macular degeneration—he was fired after killing his own deputy. But then we remember Wild Bill Hickock and his sidekick Jingles riding around in buckskins as a US Marshal cum Knight Errant—sort of your freelance after school lawman. Of course JB Hickock wore a buckskin jacket over a fancy silk vest with a waist sash into which he stashed a brace of 1851 Colts in .36 caliber. (Take that, you cowboy action folk who insist on .44s and .45s.)

So the Marshal is in our psyche, along with the Texas Ranger and the Lone Ranger. And what the Marshals are doing now is the day-to-day court security, contracting transportation and confinement and cleaning up after other federal law enforcement agencies. Not real exciting stuff. I’ll probably get the new True Grit. I’m really behind though with a bunch of martial arts flix I have yet to see and I haven’t seen 3:10 to Yuma.