December 22, 2021
By Joel J. Hutchcroft
About 20 years ago, Jim Wilson wrote about Deputy U.S. Marshal Henry Andrew “Heck” Thomas, calling him “the real Rooster Cogburn.” Since then, I’ve done my own research on Thomas, and during his storied career, he encountered many notable outlaws, including Bill Doolin, Sam Bass, brothers Pinkney “Pink” Lee and Jim Lee, Ned Christie, Jim July (Belle Starr’s partner), and Ol Yantis. I like to think of Thomas as the Marshals’ Marshal.
Thomas was born on January 6, 1850, in Oxford, Georgia. He was raised to be humble and kind, and his parents saw him becoming a preacher one day. He got his nickname from childhood friends because “heck” was the harshest word they ever heard him utter.
After a short stint serving as a policeman in Atlanta following the Civil War, Heck landed in Fort Worth, Texas. He soon was working as an express messenger for the Texas Express Co. One of my favorite Heck Thomas tales comes from this period of his life. It didn’t involve any fancy shooting, but it illustrates how clever Heck was in dealing with outlaws.
As an express messenger, Heck protected the mail, money, and other valuables until they reached their destination. At the time, the Sam Bass Gang was robbing stagecoaches and trains across Texas, and Heck was aware of their crimes. Consequently, on his own initiative, he came up with the idea to make up some decoy money bundles. He cut up newspaper, stacked it like cash, and bound and wrapped it to look just like the express company’s bundles of real money. His plan was to switch the phony money for the real money if the bandits ever tried to rob his train.
They did, and during the melee, he made the switch. Here’s how the action transpired.
On March 18, 1878, while the Bass Gang was in the process of stopping his train, Heck hid the bundles of real money in the express car’s pot-bellied stove, under a bunch of cool ashes, and left the decoy money where it could be found easily. Soon, the robbers were shooting up the express car in order to force Heck to open the door. Eventually, the gang got into the car, gathered up the several bundles of phony money, and made their getaway. Heck had foiled the robbers, and the Texas Express Co. gave him a new pocket watch and a sizeable reward.
By the mid-1880s, Heck had joined the ranks of Deputy U.S. Marshals working out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and he wore his Marshal’s badge for the next 16 years. During that time, he and Deputy Marshals Chris Madsen and Bill Tilghman banded together to shoot down or bring in a slew of notorious outlaws. He was involved in at least 10 gunfights and didn’t always come out unscathed. He was wounded at least a half-dozen times but lived through each episode. Perhaps his most well-known encounters were with Bill Doolin, which I detailed a few months ago in the March issue, and Ned Christie. Those were exciting encounters, but there is another shootout that I find equally interesting.
This one occurred in 1886 while Heck and his wife were enjoying a romantic buggy ride in the country. While they were stopped, immersed in the tranquility, a bandit tried to steal their horses. Heck wasn’t having any of that and promptly shot the would-be horse thief to pieces and then arrested him. He and Mrs. Thomas drove back to town with the bloody thug on the buggy seat between them. Not long after, Mrs. Thomas left Heck and obtained a divorce. I guess it wasn’t her idea of how to show a girl a good time.
Heck marshalled on, enforcing the law mostly in Indian Territory, until 1902 when he was appointed Chief of Police in Lawton, Oklahoma Territory. Eventually, in 1909, Heck retired due to ill health. He passed away peacefully on August 14, 1912.
Despite his devout and gentle upbringing, Heck Thomas, as Jim Wilson wrote, had been a big, strapping man who was devoid of fear. He certainly was one larger-than-life lawman.