Heck Thomas

When talking about legendary lawmen, the "Three Guardsmen" always come up. Heck Thomas, Bill Tilghman and Chris Madsen earned this nickname as they pursued the Doolin Gang in Oklahoma. This is the story of one of those lawmen.

Henry Andrew Thomas was born near Atlanta, Georgia in 1850. Heck, as he became known, served at age twelve as a courier in the Civil War. Afterward, he joined the Atlanta police force and gained fame as a fearless fighter after being wounded in one of the city's race riots.
In 1875, he and his wife moved to Texas where he worked for the Texas Express Company. He was promoted to detective within a year after preventing a train robbery by hiding the money in an unlit stove.

Heck left the express company to open his own detective agency at Fort Worth, where he continued his success. While pursuing two murderers in the notorious Lee Gang, Heck gave them the chance to surrender as was his custom. Instead, the brothers fired and died in the gunfire.

In 1886, Heck again changed jobs, this time heading to Fort Smith to work for Judge Isaac Parker. He was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal and would work for this court until 1892. Heck often singlehandedly brought in outlaws, as was the case in his first excursion where he apprehended eight murderers, a bootlegger, a horse thief and seven other outlaws. By 1891, Heck was trailing the Daltons, and then the Doolins. He captured and killed several members of both gangs.

Upon leaving the Fort Smith court, Heck worked as a deputy marshal in Oklahoma Territory between 1893 and 1900, meeting Tilghman and Madsen along the way. In three years they arrested more than three hundred wanted men. It is said that Heck picked the most dangerous desperadoes to go after because the largest rewards were paid for them. He paid a price in being wounded half a dozen times in gunfights.

Heck Thomas moved to Lawton, Oklahoma Territory in 1902 where he served as chief of police for seven years. He retired in 1909 after a heart attack, and died on August 15, 1912 of Bright's disease, the same disease that killed Judge Parker.

Juliet Galonska
April 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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