The Lawmen of Dodge City
Original photograph of the 'Dodge City Peace Commission' in June 1883. Front, l-r; Chas. E. Bassett, Wyatt S. Earp, Frank McLain, and Neil Brown. Back, l-r; W. H. Harris, Luke Short, W. B. Bat Masterson, and W. F. Petillon. This is the version with Petillon beside Masterson. All rights reserved. FCHS.
Dodge City had the reputation as the toughest town and a hell on the frontier, but actually it was not that bad. From roughly 1875 until 1885, Dodge City was in the midst of a business boom thanks to the wagon road economy and the cattle industry. For a town that was the defacto capital of a wide area of southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, it needed law and order. There were many people walking the streets of Dodge City with money in their pockets. Dodge City could not afford to be as violent and reckless as its reputation It therefore hired some of the most respected and courageous lawmen to ever holster a gun.
Second version of the 'Dodge City Peace Commission' photograph. This version doesn't have W. F. Petillon in it -- he has been painted out. Courtesy: Kansas State Historical Society
On June 17, 1872, the first business (George M. Hoover's and John McDonald's) to locate on the site five-miles west of the Ft. Dodge military reservation opened as a bar in a tent. This was in response to the prohibition of liquor at Fort Dodge. Other businesses soon followed and the Town Company completed its formal organization as 'Buffalo City' on August 15, 1872. The name was changed to Dodge City in October as the US Post Office already had a Buffalo, KS.
Ford County was not yet organized and did not have a sheriff until June of 1873. Likewise, Dodge City was not incorporated until November 2, 1875. For the first year, there was no government or law enforcement. It was this period that much happened to help give Dodge it reputation as a very wild and dangerous place.
Third version of 'Dodge City Peace Commission' photograph. On back row, far right, lawman William Tilghman's head has been placed on W.F. Petillon's body. All rights reserved, FCHS.
The first recorded killing in Dodge City was in September 1872, when an African-American man named Black Jack was shot for no reason by a gambler known as Denver. Shortly after that, Jack Reynolds was killed by a railroad track layer. In that first year, approximately fifteen men were killed in Dodge City, all being buried up on historical Boot Hill. Eventually, Boot Hill were have some 30 graves, including one female, Alice Chambers.
By early 1873, the local merchants were concerned about the violence and hired Billy Brook as a private lawman, but when he proved ineffective, a vigilance committee was formed. They managed to rid the town of some of the worst offenders, but soon they became the main source of violence. For example, on March 13, Tom Sherman, who ran a saloon, chased a man out of his dance hall and shot him. He then walked over to the man, who was writhing in pain, and said, "I'd better shoot him again, hadn't I boys?" He aimed his revolver at the man's head and pulled the trigger point blank.
William B. 'Bat' Masterson, Ford County Sheriff and Dodge City citizen. All rights reserved, FCHS.
The violence climaxed on June 3, 1873, when two committee members killed William Taylor, the servant of Col. Richard Dodge, commanding officer of Fort Dodge. Col. Dodge was so outraged that wired the Governor of Kansas, and got special permission to arrest the guilty. Troops entered the town the next day and arrested Bill Hicks who was later convicted. On June 5th, troops entered again and arrested five of the worst vigilantes, including Tom Sherman.
That very day a sheriff, Charlie Bassett, was appointed. This appointed also resulted in two political factions being formed: those who wanted a wide-open town with gambling, saloons and prostitution, commonly know the The Gang, and those who wanted a town of law and order. Bassett was elected November 11, 1873 and reelected on November 5, 1875. William B. 'Bat' Masterson was elected sheriff on November 9, 1877, since the state constitution would not allow Bassett to run for a third term.
The dispute between lawmen Mysterious Dave Mather and Tom Nixon is an example of just how fine the line was between good and bad in early Dodge City. Both had been assistant marshals. Mather ambushed Nixon and shot him dead, claiming self-defense. Although witnesses said Nixon never drew, Mather was acquitted.
Ham Bell, Ford County Sheriff, Dodge City Mayor, longest living Old West U.S. Marshal, 1939. Photograph taken on top of Boot Hill, Dodge City.
Other early famous lawmen and the year(s) they were elected or served as Ford County Sheriff: George T. Hinkle, 1879 and 1881; P.F. Pat Sughrue, 1883 and 1885; Frederick Singer, (appointed) 1887 - 1888; Hamilton B. 'Ham' Bell, 1887 and 1889; Chalk M. Beeson, 1891 and 1893; then Ham Bell again in 1895 and 1897; Grant Hale, 1899 and 1900; J.M. Miller, 1902 and 1904; then Ham Bell yet again, 1906 and 1908. (Dates from Ford County Register of Deeds.)
Lawrence Deger, the first marshal of Dodge City, was appointed in December 1875, by P.L. Beatty, the first mayor of Dodge City. Other famous marshals and assistants included Ed Masterson, 1877-1878; Wyatt S. Earp, 1876-1879; James Masterson; and Bill Tilghman, 1884-1886.