November 25, 2020
By Joel J. Hutchcroft
Not all old west outlaws who met their end in a gunfight were bloodthirsty, hardened killers. Some were just mean drunks. One such miscreant was Oscar Thomas. As historical accounts portray, the shootout that snuffed out Thomas’s life plays like a scene from a Western movie.
I first learned of Oscar Thomas, Marshal John Phillips, and Assistant Marshal Bedford “Ben” Wood through Shooting Times writer Lane Pearce. Lane’s good friend Tom Odom had written an article about Marshal Ben Wood for the Spring 2005 edition of The Rampant Colt. Subsequently, I did some digging and found a book written by Joseph W. Snell and Nyle H. Miller in 1963 called Why the West Was Wild: A Contemporary Look at the Antics of Some Highly Publicized Kansas Cowtown Personalities. It includes a colorful account of the incident.
Not much is known about Thomas’s life, but he had a habit of heading into town, imbibing to excess in the spirits, and becoming belligerent with companions as well as with townsfolk. He was pretty rough around the edges, and when he was drunk, he did a lot of big talking.
On November 15, 1884, Thomas made a beeline to the store of Witzleben & Key on Main and Sixth streets in Caldwell, Kansas. He had an ongoing beef with the store because it would not sell him goods on credit. Thomas was armed to the hilt with a dirk knife and a sixshooter. Apparently, he had once told his compadres that he would carry his gun to town if he so desired, and no man or officer of the law would take it from him.
With a snoot full of who-hit-john, Thomas accosted store clerk Mack Killibraw. Killibraw took up an axe handle and would have used it on Thomas had Mr. Witzleben not taken it from him. Anyway, during the fracas, the town marshals were summoned, and they arrived in time to catch Thomas going for his gun.
As Marshal Phillips entered the store from the front, Killibraw grabbed Thomas’s hand to keep him from drawing his revolver. Phillips, with his own revolver drawn, ordered Thomas to, “Throw up your hands.”
Thomas turned, faced Phillips, and calmly made a move to draw his gun. Phillips fired, whereupon Thomas dropped down partially behind the store counter. Phillips again told him to put his hands up. He refused again.
By then Assistant Marshal Wood had entered the store from a side door, and after Thomas refused to throw out his guns, Phillips commanded Wood to shoot. Wood did as he was ordered, hitting Thomas clean in the head with a shot from his revolver. Thomas died from his wounds the next morning. An autopsy showed Phillips’s bullet had hit Thomas in the left breast, passed through, and came out to the right of his spine. Wood’s bullet entered Thomas’s skull to the left of the junction of the parietal bones and the occipital bone, passed through the brain, lacerating it, and exited through the middle of the forehead.
I don’t know how many times Thomas had a run-in with officers of the law, but his last one was on that fateful Saturday in 1884 when he met up with Marshals Phillips and Wood. Being a fan of Western movies, I can see the encounter playing out in my mind with possibly John Wayne as Marshal Phillips, Ken Curtis as Assistant Marshal Wood, and Bruce Dern as Oscar Thomas.
No doubt about it, even though he was inebriated, Thomas was stubbornly true to his word. No man or officer took his gun away from him. At least not while he was breathing.