Prospecting didn’t pan out, but marshaling had its rewards.
The name Matt Dillon is familiar to those who admired the fictional marshal of Dodge City, Kansas, in the long-running radio and TV series Gunsmoke. But not many Western fans recall Mart Duggan, an actual marshal with a similar name who rode herd on another famous Western town. Marshal Dillon will not soon be forgotten, but now Marshal Duggan—who made his mark in Leadville, Colorado, and was somewhat more flawed than James Arness’ iconic Dillon —is getting some recognition.
Born in County Limerick, Ireland, on November 10 in either 1848 or 1847 (as his recently erected tombstone reads; see photo at right), Martin J. Duggan came to the States with his family as a child and soon learned to use his fists in the New York City slums. By 1859 the Duggans were farming in Nebraska and after a few years moved to Colorado Territory.
In his mid-20s Mart left the family farm to seek his fortune in the ore-rich Colorado mountains. A contemporary said he was of “medium height, but of compact, massive build…[with] sinews of steel.” He had blond hair and blue eyes and “a square face with broad forehead and pleasing expression.…He was a man you would look at twice as you first met him.”
Prospecting didn’t work out, so in 1876 Duggan became a bouncer in a Georgetown saloon. Reports in newspapers as distant as Chicago told of one altercation in which a drunk, whom Duggan had beaten badly, sought revenge in a street gunfight. Duggan killed him in an exchange of gunfire. A miners’ court acquitted Duggan on a plea of self-defense.
Exaggerated reports that Duggan’s gun bore seven notches for the men he had killed followed him when he joined the rush to the burgeoning mining camp of Leadville in early 1878. Its first city marshal, T.H. Harrison, lasted only two days before the ruffians ran him out of town. A month later his successor, George O’Connor, was fatally shot by a deputy. Desperate for a man with enough sand to stop the toughs, mayor and wealthy mine owner Horace Austin-Warner“Haw” Tabor turned to Mart Duggan.
“Immediately after I was appointed,” Duggan told an interviewer a few years later, “I received a written notice from the roughs to leave town, and if I stayed 24 hours, I would follow George O’Connor. Paid no attention to notice but took every precaution to always be on guard.” The town, he said, “was not only full of thieves, thugs and desperate characters, but there was some quarrelsome, shooting miners…determined that no newcomer should have authority over them.”
Duggan soon demonstrated his steel. As rowdies tore up the Tontine saloon and restaurant, he entered alone, singled out the ringleader and ordered him outside. “What if I don’t go?” sneered the ruffian. “Then say a Hail Mary,” the marshal coolly responded, “because you’re a dead man where you stand.” The establishment grew quiet, and the thug slunk out.
Duggan paid little heed to regulations. He fired policemen for the slightest infraction and, using a six-shooter as his authority, even deposed a municipal magistrate he found too lenient in imposing penalties on miscreants. One night August Rische, a mining magnate and partner of Tabor, became drunk and disorderly, and Duggan threw him in the calaboose. When Tabor remonstrated, Duggan replied he had treated Rische like any common drunk, and if Tabor kept jabbering, he would find himself locked up with his partner. Tabor backed down.
Another night, he faced a large mob intent on lynching a black man who had stabbed a white man in a fight. “I started out alone to get ahead of the mob,” Duggan recalled. “I stood in the middle of the street with a cocked revolver in each hand and told them I would kill the first man who attempted to pass.…I managed to make them understand that some of them were sure to be killed if they persisted …and from that time on they understood that I would not do to fool with.”
Duggan was normally well mannered and soft-spoken. “Sober, there was no more courteous, obliging person,” wrote a Leadville newspaper. But, the paper added, “Under the influence of liquor, he was the incarnation of deviltry and had as little regard for human life as a wild beast.” On a drunken binge in February 1879 Duggan assaulted a Tontine bartender, who accused the marshal of becoming “violent and abusive,” threatening his life with a drawn revolver, knocking him down and calling him “all kinds of bad and dirty names.” Duggan was suspended but then reinstated when the bartender, not wanting the marshal as an enemy, withdrew his charges.
When his term in office expired in April 1879, Duggan declined another stint. He said that he was accompanying his wife to Flint, Mich., her hometown, for an extended visit. P.A. “Pat” Kelly succeeded him but soon lost control of Leadville. The city fathers, as Duggan remembered it, asked him “to come back at once and take the marshalship, as they did not believe that anyone else could prevent the roughs from running the town.” After Duggan became marshal again that December, he replaced all of Kelly’s policemen and cracked down on the hoodlums.
Duggan turned in his badge in April 1880 to open a livery stable. In May 1880 during a miner’s strike, he was a lieutenant with the Tabor Tigers, an organization of Leadville sporting men that helped the state militia maintain order. On November 22 of that year, he argued with a man, Louis Lamb, who pulled a gun on the ex-marshal. Duggan drew and fired a round directly into Lamb’s mouth, killing him instantly. Duggan was cleared on the standard plea of self-defense, but Lamb’s widow proclaimed she would wear her “widow’s weeds” until she could dance on “murderer” Duggan’s grave. Other citizens took her side, and Duggan’s livery business suffered. In 1882 he and his wife moved to Douglass City, where he tended bar and became a deputy sheriff.
In 1887 Duggan returned to Leadville to take a job as a patrolman. He often faced reprimand for brutalizing suspects. After Duggan beat up a popular businessman in March 1888, a police judge fined him $25, and the patrolman went on a two-week drinking binge. On the night of April 8–9 the hard-drinking Duggan argued with a dealer at the Texas House, and invited the man and his employer, Bailey Youngson, outside to settle the affair with pistols. Both declined. Duggan finally staggered out of the gambling hall at 4 a.m. After just a few steps, he took a bullet to the back of the head and fell to the ground, unconscious but still alive.
Bystanders carried Duggan into a drugstore. When he came to, he said that Bailey-Youngson had shot him. Later, though, he told officers it was “one of the gang.” The officers asked if he meant Youngson. “No,” Duggan said, “and I’ll die before I ever tell you.” Those were his last words. Seven hours after being shot, he died.
Duggan was buried in Denver. Louis Lamb’s wife had to content herself with dancing on the bloodstained sidewalk where he had been shot down and leaving her widow’s weeds on Mrs. Duggan’s doorstep. Authorities arrested Youngson, partner Jim Harrington and employee George Evans as murder suspects. Only Youngson stood trial. He was acquitted.
After years of anonymity, Mart Duggan made news in September 2005 when historians discovered Duggan’s unmarked Denver grave. A handsome tombstone was erected in 2010. In 2011 Donahue B. Silvis featured Duggan in a screenplay based on Leadville’s history. Colorado Videos of Leadville has since announced a soon-to-be released DVD, Leadville’s Story of Marshal Martin Duggan.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.