The Best Lawmen from the Old West
The Old West was a lawless place that has been romanticized in the movies and dime novels. At first, there was no law. But as families moved West looking to settle down, the need for order was required and brave Marshal’s and Rangers answered the call. Here are five of the best known and famous of the lawmen and some interesting facts you might not know.
Wyatt Earp (1848-1929)
Possibly the best-known lawmen of the era, Wyatt Earp is most famous for the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona where he and his brothers- Virgil and Morgan- along with Doc Holliday stood against the Clanton-McLaury gang and the resulting Earp Vendetta that followed. He is known for the many stories, television shows and movies that have continued his legend. In all, Earp probably killed about 8 men throughout his entire career, however, some estimate the total as high as 30. The truth, as with most stories of the West, probably lies somewhere in the middle. Earp was famous for his Colt Buntline Special – a pistol with a 12” barrel that Earp liked to “buffalo” (hit lawbreakers over the head) with. He kept it in a specially made pocket in his overcoat that was waxed to give him extra speed on the draw. What you didn’t know: Two of Earp’s most famous kills – “Curly Bill” Brocious and Johnny Ringo – might never have happened. Historians claim that Brocious was living in Texas during the 1890s (ten years after Earp claimed to have killed him) and the coroner’s report stated Johnny Ringo committed suicide. Wyatt Earp, despite all of his gunfights, was never wounded. He died in his sleep in Los Angeles, California.
Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876)
A famous gunfighter, lawman, and Civil War scout, Hickok gained his reputation in Kansas and Nebraska during the early years of the Old West. Wild Bill is the epitome of the “quick-draw gunfighter. His reputation began with his first kill – a man by the name of David McCanles. According to the legend, McCanles had called Wild Bill out to duel. Hickok walked out into the street and fired one shot – at a distance of 75 yards – killing McCanles instantly. Hickok later went on to be a scout for General George Armstrong Custer and most famously, as the lawman of Deadwood, South Dakota. He was also friends with fellow scout (and prostitute) Martha Jane Cannary-Burke, better known as Calamity Jane. Hickok’s weapon of choice were two Colt 1851 .36 Navy Model revolvers with silver plating and ivory handles with the engraving “J.B. Hickok-1869”. He wore them backwards in his sash, cavalry style. Wild Bill was shot in the back of the head by 24-year old Jack McCall after Hickok was condescending to him after he lost at poker to the famous gunman. Hickok died at the poker table holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights – forever known as the “Deadman’s Hand”. What you didn’t know: At the time of his death, Hickok was suffering from glaucoma and trachoma. Some historians speculate that he was suffering from venereal disease which was causing his blindness, but this has never been proven.
Bat Masterson (1853-1921)
Buffalo hunter, scout, lawman, and newspaper columnist, Bat Masterson, short for Bartholomew, was at the center stage of Dodge City gunfights. He was a deputy for both Wyatt Earp and his brother, Ed, who was killed by Jack Wagner in 1878. Unlike the movies you might have seen, it is believed that Bat killed Wagner that same night. After the famous (yet bloodless) Dodge City War, Masterson started to migrate throughout the west in Colorado, Arizona, and other locales, while he gambled and promoted prize fights. While famous for his gunfights, historians believe he only pulled his gun and killed people on six different occasions (other than Indian fighting). He walked with a cane for most of his life due to an injury he received in his very first fight. His notoriety actually came from an exaggeration by a doctor who told a reporter that Bat had killed 26 men in gunfights. The story was written and circulated throughout the country. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt made Masterson a U.S. Deputy for southern New York and took him out of the west. What you didn’t know: This gunfighter wasn’t born in the U.S. – he was from Quebec. Bat Masterson never went back to being a lawman after he was removed from the U.S. Deputy position by William H. Taft. He turned to sports writing for the New York Telegraph and died from a heart attack at his desk at the age of 67.
Bill Tilghman (1854-1924)
A contemporary to several other men on this list, Tilghman was a buffalo hunter, scout and lawmen in Dodge City, Kansas and in Oklahoma. While he fought alongside the likes of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson, Tilghman’s claim to fame comes as one of the Three Guardsman (made up of himself, Chris Madsen, and Heck Thomas) who were responsible for taking down the Wild Bunch, also known as the Doolin-Dalton Gang. Tilghman went on to be an Oklahoma State Senator and then returned to being a lawman at the age of 70. He was murdered by a corrupt (and drunk) Prohibition Agent by the name of Wiley Lynn in 1924 following several arguments. Wynn was acquitted for the killing in what appeared to be a questionable trial. What you didn’t know: Tilghman was once called, “The greatest of us all.” by Bat Masterson.
Pat Garrett (1850-1908)
Although, Pat Garrett was known as a saloon keeper through part of his earlier life, but his reputation as a gunslinger made him perfect for the job of sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico. This was thrust upon him after the previous sheriff resigned during what was known as the Lincoln County War. The governor of the New Mexico, Lew Wallace, charged Garrett with the duty of tracking down and bringing to justice a murderer named Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid. The Kid was rumored to have killed twenty-one men, though this was likely exaggerated. Billy the Kid was a friend of Pat Garrett who used to frequent his saloon. While Garrett captured the Kid and some of his gang, Billy was able to escape after killing two guards. Pat Garrett chased him down to Fort Sumner, New Mexico and then proceeded to kill him, possibly by ambush. What you didn’t know: Garrett was friends with President Theodore Roosevelt who appointed him as a custom’s agent. He lost the position after publicly embarrassing Roosevelt by allowing a criminal and gambler by the name of Tom Powers. Garrett was murdered in 1908 over a land dispute.