Police History: Henry Andrew "Heck" Thomas, man-hunter extraordinaire

On the American frontier, death and justice both came at the hands of lawmen like Heck Thomas

Henry Andrew “Heck” Thomas was born in Georgia in 1850. He grew up early — at the tender age of 12 he went off to war with his father and his uncles to fight for the Confederacy. After the war, Heck’s father became Atlanta’s City Marshal. Heck joined the force, and at 17 years old, he was wounded during a riot. 

Ultimately the “Call of the West” beckoned. Heck set off to make his own life in Texas, serving as a railroad guard for the Texas Express Company. In 1878, the famous Sam Bass gang attacked a train guarded by Heck Thomas. After a fierce gunfight, the gang was driven off, but not before a gang member was able to snatch the “loot” from the safe. 

But Heck had outsmarted Bass by hiding the real payroll in a stove, while placing a dummy stash in the safe. 

Henry Andrew
Henry Andrew "Heck" Thomas lives on not only in history, but also in fiction. Heck was the inspiration for John Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn in the movie "True Grit."

Great Risk, Great Reward
By 1885, Heck Thomas was an experienced man-hunter, working for the Fort Worth Detective Agency. He went into pursuit of the Lee Brothers, who had a $7,000 reward on their head after ambushing and killing four members of a posse tracking them. Heck had developed a penchant for the pursuit of the most dangerous because with a greater risk came a greater reward. 

Thomas and fellow detective Jim Taylor cornered the Lee Brothers in a hayfield near Dexter, Texas. As was always his style, Heck chose to call for the Lees’ surrender. Heck’s offer was met with gunfire, so the matter was settled by the belch of Heck’s Winchester.

The “Three Guardsman”
In 1886, Heck Thomas was hired by Judge Isaac Parker as a U.S. Deputy Marshall and he moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas. On his first foray into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Heck Thomas proved his worth, returning to Fort Smith with eight murderers, several hardened criminals, a horse thief, and a bootlegger.

Then — as now — law enforcement took its toll on a personal life. Upon returning from one of his treks, Heck discovered his wife had packed up their five children and moved back to Georgia, divorcing Heck. 

In 1887 Heck sustained two gunshot wounds in a gunfight while capturing the Purdy Gang. During his recuperation, his nurse Matie Mowbray healed not only his gunshot wounds, but also his broken heart. The two married and from that day forward every dusty and dangerous trail would lead back to his Matie.

The Pursuit of Bill Doolin
In 1891 Thomas formed an alliance with Marshals Bill Tilghman and Chris Madsen to pursue the criminal gangs robbing and killing throughout Oklahoma.  The trio came to be known as “The Three Guardsman.”

On September 1, 1893 a posse was formed by Marshall E.D. Nix to capture the worst of the worst — the Doolin Gang — in Ingalls, Oklahoma. Members of the gang were hiding out there in the open. Enamored by their free-spending ways, Ingalls’ businessmen welcomed known outlaws into their town.

A young boy warned the gang of the imminent approach of the posse. The gang members saddled their horses, but, undeterred, chose to finish their card game. 

When “Bitter Creek” Newcomb exited the saloon, he was shot by Deputy Marshal Dick Speed. This opened a devastating 20-minute gun battle. During the subsequent gunfire, gang members Dick Clifton and Charlie Pierce were shot. 

U.S. Deputy Marshal Lafeyette “Layfe” Shadley had a bead on Bill Dalton, but mercifully shot his horse instead. Dalton returned the favor by killing Shadley. 

After Dick Speed had wounded Newcomb, Doolin killed Speed, gunning him down as Doolin climbed up on his horse. Doolin turned, rode up to and cut open a fence that had been blocking the gang’s escape. With bullets zipping everywhere, Doolin fled the battle, leading his gang out of town. Following at a gallop were Dalton, George “Red” Buck, “Tulsa Jack” Blake, and wounded, but still riding like the wind, Newcomb, Dan “Dynamite Dick” Clifton and Charlie Pierce.

In the meantime, this escape was facilitated by “Arkansas Tom” Jones, who pinned down the posse with deadly rifle fire from an upstairs hotel room. One of his rounds killed Deputy Marshal Tom Hueston. Ironically, Arkansas Tom would outlive the gang by being captured and sentenced to prison for fifty years. 

Bill Tilghman eventually captured Doolin on January 15, 1896 in Eureka Springs.  On July 5 Doolin escaped Guthrie Federal Prison. Almost immediately Heck Thomas was in pursuit of the most wanted man in the country.

Finding a cold trail, Thomas became convinced Doolin would try to meet his wife at his father-in-law’s homestead in Lawson, Oklahoma. Heck positioned his posse in wait, around the farm. After dark on August 24, Doolin appeared in the moonlight nonchalantly whistling, while leading his horse. 

Heck’s call for surrender was met with frantic gunfire. Heck’s rifle barked, along with Deputy Bill Dunn’s shotgun, and Doolin fell — dead before he hit the ground.

Heck Thomas Lives On
With the territory tamed, Heck became chief of police in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1902. In 1912 the lawman died of natural causes.

Heck’s legend still lives on not only in history, but also in fiction. Heck was the inspiration for John Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn.

In the movie “True Grit,” Cogburn does a short but truthful Heck-like call for the surrender of a criminal, shouting matter-of-factly, “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hang in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which will it be?”

A criminal had to leave a wide swath of carnage and destruction to warrant a pursuit by the premier man-hunter Marshall Heck Thomas.  When Heck inevitably found them, he’d offer them the simple choice: death or justice?

For those who chose to fight, they often found both death and justice at the hand of the undefeatable Marshall Heck Thomas.

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