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U.S. Deputy Marshal Heck Thomas: Cleaning up the Badlands with a Colt and Winchester 2/2

When Thomas (portrayed here by the author) joined the U.S. Marshals in 1886 he was 36 years old and had been a lawman since the age of 17. Thomas was noted for carrying a Winchester 1873 and Colt Single Action. (U.S. Deputy Marshal badge (c. 1880s courtesy Starpacker Badges).

As Deputy U.S. Marshals they were instrumental in bringing law and order to the Indian and Oklahoma territories working out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, and headquartered in the courthouse of legendary Judge Isaac Parker, known as “The Hanging Judge.” Thomas truly regarded the job as his calling. Ultimately, that dedication cost him his marriage, and Isabelle moved the children back to Georgia in the winter of 1888. Heck had been gone a good part of the year and it had become clear to Isabelle that he had chosen his pursuit of the lawless over all else. Their divorce was amicable, but he had made a choice.


In 1892 Heck remarried, this time to a younger woman he had met in Tulsa, Mattie Mowbray. Mattie was more agreeable to Heck’s profession and long absences, enamored by his zeal and dedication as a lawman. By then Thomas, Chris Madsen and William Tilghman, along with other U.S. Marshals, had begun chasing down the last of the outlaw gangs preying upon the Oklahoma Territory. At that time Thomas was operating as a U.S. Deputy Marshal under the auspices of three U.S. Marshals and with authority in the Eastern Judicial District of Texas, as well as jurisdictions in Arkansas and Oklahoma, more responsibility and more territory to oversee than any other U.S. Deputy Marshal. This also coincided with the opening up of Oklahoma territory for settlement in April 1899. By the early 1900s, Thomas, Tilghman and Madsen were responsible for reining in much of the outlaw element in the territory, and arresting and bringing to trial more than 300 criminals!


Thomas gave every man a chance to surrender but had no hesitation in using his 7-1/2 inch barreled Colt Peacemaker or lever action Model 1873 Winchester if there was any resistance or failure to throw down their arms.

The Guardsmen earned a reputation for being resolute in carrying out their duties and each was respected for their uncanny tracking abilities. The trio’s nickname was actually given to them by the outlaws they pursued. Heck Thomas was specifically mentioned by Emmett Dalton as a reason for the Dalton Gang attempting to rob two banks simultaneously in Coffeyville, Kansas, having said that due to Thomas’ unrelenting pursuit, the gang wanted to make one big score then leave the territory for a time.


It was the Guardsmen’s hunt of the Doolin Gang, particularly by Bill Tilghman, that made them famous. Heck Thomas was responsible for tracking down and killing Bill Doolin, Chris Madsen led a posse that killed Doolin gang members “Dynamite Dan” Clifton and Richard “Little Dick” West, and Tilghman was responsible for the capture of Doolin gang member William F. “Little Bill” Raidler.


Thomas was on the trail of Doolin gang when this photo was taken in 1894. Two years later in August 1896 Heck Thomas would kill Bill Doolin in a shootout in the town of Lawton, in Payne County, Oklahoma Territory.

U.S. Deputy Marshals led by Thomas, Tilghman and Madsen had brought in or killed some of the most notorious outlaws of the time and in 1907 Oklahoma had finally became “peaceful” enough to enter the Union as the 46th state. Thomas eventually followed the lead of Madsen and Tilghman and retired as a U.S. Deputy Marshal, but the Guardsmen were not done with the law.


Tilghman became Sheriff of Lincoln County in Oklahoma and would remain a lawman until his murder on the evening of November 1, 1924 while serving as City Marshal in the rough and tumble oil field town of Cromwell, Oklahoma. Tilghman was 70 years old when he was gunned down, almost point blank, by a crooked federal revenuer named Willy Lynn.


Madsen had resigned in March 1898 but joined the Rough Riders when the Spanish American War began. By 1911, the 60 year old Madsen was a lawman once again being appointed U.S. Marshal for the entire state of Oklahoma. From 1918 to 1922 he served as a special investigator for the Governor. Chris Madsen died peacefully in January 1944 at the age of 93, outliving all of comtemporaries.


Heck remained a U.S. Marshal until 1905 but two years later accepted a position in Lawton, Oklahoma, as Chief of Police. He served for seven years in Lawton and toward the end of his second term was presented with a new badge, a golden star with his name engraved in black enamel letters and a fine diamond at its center. In 1910, Heck was appointed Deputy Marshal for the Western District of Oklahoma but retired two years later due to ill health. The second youngest of the trio, Henry Andrew Thomas passed in 1912 at the age of 62. In the August 15, 1912 edition of the Lawton Constitution the headline summarized his life as a lawman, “The name of Heck Thomas, Once A Terror to Outlaws.”


SIDEBAR

Recreating Heck Thomas’ Holster


Throughout his career as a U.S. Deputy Marshal, Thomas favored the Colt Single Action revolver and mostly 7-1/2 inch barrel models. He is famously pictured in 1894 alongside Deputy U.S. Marshal Morris Robacker while they were trailing the Doolin Gang in Pawnee Oklahoma Territory. The photo was taken at the Pawnee Gallery. Thomas’ distinctive combination money and cartridge belt with clipped corner buckle carried a single holster in an unusual geometric or “waffle” stamping pattern. The holster, which had a modest recurved throat profile also used a single, wide Mexican-style drop loop of unconventional design.


While the holster pouch still passed behind the drop loop in traditional Mexican loop style, the loop itself was not cut into the skirt but rather was a separate piece sewn onto the skirt from both sides and done in the exact same stamping pattern. Similar styles with the drop loop riveted to the skirt were manufactured in the 1880s-1890s mostly in Miles City, Montana Territory by Moran Bros. and E. Goettlich, and in Billings, Montana by W.B. Ten Eyck.

None, however, were stitched like Thomas’ rig.

Based on the photo, John Bianchi and Matt Whitaker of Frontier Gunleather duplicated the combination money and cartridge belt, buckle, and holster in the original waffle pattern stamping with sewn on drop loop. Worn high, like Thomas is shown wearing it, the gun was not intended for a quick draw but more to be kept close to the body and protected. In Heck Thomas’ line of work, the gun was usually already unlimbered when he shouted the single warning, “Throw up your hands!”


To duplicate the gun shown on the cover of the book Heck Thomas: Frontier Marshal by Glenn Shirley, (an excellent historical account of Thomas’ life written in 1962), a deluxe blued and color cased Pietta single action was sent to Eagle Grips and fitted with stag grips. Thomas was also known to have carried Colts with wood grips and, later in his career, mother of pearl grips, like Bill Tilghman’s Colt Peacemaker.



For more information


Pieta.it

frontiergunleather.com; (877) 877-4704

eaglegrips.com; (800) 323-6144

starpacker.com; (603) 888-34714

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