Capture of Bill Doolin

The capture of Bill Doolin is said to be the quickest capture of a frontier outlaw by a single officer in western history.

The setting was Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Bill Doolin had suffered from rheumatism since being shot in the leg by Deputy Chris Madsen, and a doctor had recommended the healing powers of bath resorts in Arkansas. Little did Doolin know that Deputy Marshal Bill Tilghman was close on his trail.

When Tilghman arrived at Eureka Springs, one of the first people he saw on the street was Bill Doolin. Doolin did not see him however, so Tilghman quickly devised a plan. He went to a carpenter and ordered a box made in which he could carry a loaded shotgun. When Tilghman needed the gun, the box could easily drop open with a slight movement of the hand.

While the carpenter was making the box Tilghman decided to go for a mineral bath himself. When he entered the bathhouse, he again saw Bill Doolin, this time sitting in a lounge reading a paper. Doolin looked up when the lawman entered the room, but Tilghman walked briskly through and the outlaw did not recognize him. Later Doolin would say that he knew Tilghman and "yet when he walked into the bathhouse and went right on by me I could not place him. I was not looking for him over there and besides never thought of one man coming after me alone. I was looking for a crowd with guns…."

Unseen, Tilghman watched him for a few moments before making his move. He reentered the lounge with gun in hand and ordered Doolin to surrender. Tilghman said that when he first called to Doolin "the room was full of men, but you should have seen them fall over each other to get out and in half a minute we were alone." Tilghman called for the owner of the bathhouse to disarm Doolin and then secured his prisoner. As the deputy and his prisoner started for the hotel, Doolin said that if his handcuffs and irons were removed, he swore that he would not make a move. Tilghman took him at his word, but warned Doolin that if he tried anything he would "drop him dead in his tracks." They left on the next train out of Eureka Springs for Oklahoma.

Juliet Galonska
March 1996

This sketch is part of a series, “Fort Smith Minutes,” originally developed by the park staff to provide one minute long public service announcements for local radio stations. These sketches provide a light and entertaining glimpse into the complex history of Fort Smith.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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