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Caldwell’s first marshal was the seemingly heroic George Flatt, but his reign was short and rather flat.

Not so fresh off a summer cattle drive from Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), cowboys George Wood and Jack Adams headed straight to Caldwell’s Occidental Saloon to cut the dust. They wet their whistles and then some before carrying their drinks back outside where a band was entertaining citizens of the Kansas trail town. The redeye mixed with music seemed to stir the cowboys’ trigger fingers. The duo, according to the Wellington-based Sumner County Press, “began firing at blazing turpentine balls which some boys were tossing in the air.”

The Monday night shooting, though seemingly harmless, drew the attention of Constable W.C.B. “Wash” Kelly and Deputy Constable John Wilson, who played things cautiously by rounding up a six-man posse before heading to the saloon. It was July 7, 1879, and the unincorporated town had yet to hire its first marshal.

By the time the posse had reached the Occidental, the two rowdy cowboys had gone back inside for refills of redeye. Constable Kelly figured it would be easier to arrest them when they returned to the street. But the cowboys didn’t cooperate. At last tired of waiting, the constable told Deputy Wilson and one of their possemen, 27-year-old George W. Flatt, to go fetch Wood and Adams.

Flatt, according to the town blacksmith, was “like most of the Texans who visited Caldwell…a lover of strong drink” and a frequent visitor of local saloons. Back in February he had decided to buy the Occidental, though another man, James M. Moreland, was now running it.

Once inside the Occidental, Wilson walked to the back of the room while Flatt bellied up to the bar, not far from where Wood and Adams were drinking. Flatt laid his six-shooters on the bar and got some whiskey under his belt. Then he picked up his guns and readied for action. When Wood and Adams cocked their own six-shooters and, as one paper reported, “made a menacing movement toward Flatt,” the Texan backed out onto the sidewalk. Wood and Adams followed him to the door and demanded that he throw down his weapons. “I’ll die first,” Flatt replied, as a bullet fired by Wood whizzed past his head and grazed the temple of another posseman, W.H. Kiser. Flatt responded in deadly fashion, using the gun in his right hand to shoot down Adams and the gun in his left hand to put a bullet in the right side of Wood. Wilson then got into the act. In a quick exchange of fire, Wilson was wounded and Wood went down permanently. One local paper said that when Wilson left the saloon, he was struck by friendly fire from Kiser and “slightly wounded.”

Two inquests followed the Occidental shootout, and both coroner’s juries concluded that the lawmen were justified in killing the two cowboys; in fact, George Flatt emerged from the gun smoke as a town hero. Just over two weeks later, Caldwell was incorporated, and on August 7 the citizens elected Noah J. Dixon as mayor. In accordance with an ordinance passed August 14, Dixon chose the town’s first marshal—the inexperienced but heroic Mr. Flatt. In so doing, the mayor passed over an experienced law officer, Daniel William “Red Bill” Jones, but Flatt had the good sense to make Red Bill his deputy.

Marshal Flatt carried out his duties fairly efficiently. His first recorded arrest came on September 6 when he hauled in J.H. Wendels for “fast driving.” Wendels pled guilty and paid a $3 fine. Ten days later Flatt married 17-year-old Fannie Lamb. But all was not well; the marshal still took to the bottle. His drinking often led to bragging and then to bullying. He had a way of offending folks and making enemies, including one of his saloon partners, William Horseman.

On October 28, Caldwell’s citizens elected a hotel clerk, Cash Hollister, mayor, to replace Dixon, who had died in late September. The very next day, the 29th, Marshal Flatt and Deputy Marshal Jones exchanged gunfire with a cowboy named John Dean who had refused to hand over his guns—a violation of a city ordinance. No shots found the mark, but later that day, Flatt was able to arrest Dean, who pled guilty and paid his fine.

Flatt’s next recorded arrest was a most interesting one. On November 22, the marshal arrested Mayor Hollister for assaulting one J. Frank Hunt. Hollister paid a $2 fine. Two days later, the very same Hunt was arrested and fined for assaulting Mayor Hollister.

The rest of Flatt’s term as marshal was uneventful, and he had plenty of time for drinking, which seemed to interest him more than marshaling. By the next mayoral election, April 6, 1880, the shine had worn off Flatt’s badge, and Caldwell’s citizens had gotten over their hero worshiping. A former city marshal of Wichita, Mike Meagher, won the election and chose Horseman to replace Flatt as marshal. Jones continued as deputy and James Johnson became a policeman. In May, Mayor Meagher appointed none other than J. Frank Hunt as a deputy policeman.

The Cowley, Sumner & Fort Smith Railroad completed tracks to the city that June, beginning a new era for Caldwell, which had gone from trail town to cattle shipping trade center. Although no longer a law officer, Flatt carried a gun while making his rounds in the various saloons among all the unarmed cowboys. His defiance of the city police force came to a head on Friday night, June 18, when he challenged the authority of Marshal Horseman and pulled a gun on policemen Johnson and Hunt. “I’m the cock of the walk here,” Flatt bragged early Saturday morning as two friends led the inebriated ex-marshal to a restaurant for a bite to eat. Seconds later, a shotgun blast sent buckshot into the base of Flatt’s skull, and more shots followed. “Let up,” cried one of Flatt’s pals. “You’ve killed that man.” Indeed, Flatt was lying flat on his back, dead. Less than a minute after the shooting had stopped, the entire armed police force appeared, including Deputy Marshal Jones with a long-barreled weapon.

On June 25, shortly after Flatt’s wife gave birth to a boy, Sumner County Sheriff Joseph Thralls of Wellington came to Caldwell and arrested Mayor Meagher, Marshal Horseman and his assistants and a half dozen other Caldwell citizens. The prisoners had a hearing in Wellington June 28-30. Everyone but Horseman and Hunt was released on the 30th, the same day that the Caldwell City Council fired its police force and began hiring replacements. Almost immediately the Wellington justice of the peace issued warrants to re-arrest Meagher and most of the others. The Caldwell Commercial suggested that the arrests were a “moneymaking scheme…[and] also a scheme to cast odium upon the city of Caldwell.”

All of the individuals arrested were either released or declared not guilty. By July 8, Caldwell had rehired Horseman and the rest of the old police force. Business was booming in the cow town, and citizens were too preoccupied to worry about the late George Flatt and the conspiratorial nature of his murder. It had taken only 10 months—August 1879 to June 1880—for Caldwell’s first marshal to go from “cock of the walk” to cold in the grave.


The above story was adapted from Tom S. Coke’s book Caldwell: Kansas Border Cow Town (HeritageBooks,Westminster, Md.).

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here