Thomas Allen Cullinan
The Toughest Lawman
to Ever Walk a Wild West Town

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

Junction City, Kansas had the fortune – or misfortune – to be located near Fort Riley during the decades following the Civil War. The post-war army was a hard place, reduced to a bare minimum by the post-war Congress and charged with the formidable task of taking the western expanses away from the Native-Americans. It was no surprise that many of those who served were little more than dregs of society, desperate men whose only adult experience had been in the Civil War armies and had no place to go. They found a place for their antisocial behavior in the rugged Indian Wars. Many were ex-Confederate veterans grudgingly wearing the hated Union uniform. Within the army, these sociopaths were frequently transferred from post to post to get rid of them and frequently being concentrated into undeserving military posts. Fort Riley was one of them.

On August 21, 1871, six of the post’s worst rode into Junction City looking for their idea of a good time. Already drunk, they started their entertainment as soon as they set foot on the city's main street. Jake Craft, known on the post as the "Tennessee Terror," roared, "Let’s wake this town up" and proceeded to kick a crate off the sidewalk into the street.

An unsuspecting elderly man emerged from a store with a paper bag, stopping in fear right in front of the ruffians. One seized the bag, pulled the old man's hat down over his eyes and ripped the bag open, spilling half a dozen onions onto the street. With a drunken shout, another picked them up and proceeded to break as many windows as he could hit. His companions roared in approval.

The little mob was headed for the saloon when the rearmost man felt himself seized by the collar and spun around. It was the last thing he knew as a huge fist connected under his left jaw, sending him into darkness. He dropped like a dead tree.

Five drunken soldiers stared in disbelief. That was Craft, the toughest of them all. Two of their number charged the tall, lean man standing quietly over their fallen comrade. Two swift blows, one to the chin, one behind the ear, and they joined Craft in the dirt. Three down.

A fourth brandished a butcher knife stolen from the Fort Riley mess. An iron hand seized his wrist and an open palm strike to the face knocked him flat. Four down. The remaining two made tracks for the fort, leaving their downed companions to their fate.

They had just met the new City Marshal, Tom Allen Cullinan, the most unique and unusual lawman in American Western history.

Tom Allen, as he was affectionately known by Junction City citizens, would remain the City Marshal of Junction City for 33 years. Stories of his exploits almost defy belief and there is great satisfaction in them. How often would any of us wish to be able to dispense justice as he did. He carried a gun and was expert in its use but had a strong aversion to using it. He had no qualms, however, about dispensing justice by beating a miscreant to a bloody mess in any kind of hand-to-hand tussle his antagonist might wish; either "by the rules" or "not by the rules." The latter meant "anything goes," including biting, eye-gouging, hair pulling, stomping, choking, and any other dirty idea conceived in the heat of battle. Considering the primitive level of medical care "back in the day," injuries incurred in that kind of combat would be born throughout a man's life. Such brawls were considered great entertainment back in the day. There were, indeed, more than a few men – and women – in the old west missing parts of ears, fingers, even eyes lost in the ferocity of the moment. Interestingly, Tom Allen survived his entire pugilistic career without a scratch and the few photographs of him show a gentle, pleasant, and unmarred face.

Tom Allen was a true son of the old sod, born in Kilrush, Ireland in 1838. Though his parents were relatively prosperous farmers, Tom very early on showed a remarkable talent for capably going his own way. At the tender age of eleven years, he ran away from home and signed on as a cabin boy with a merchant ship and spent the next six years sailing the world, gaining a reputation as an honest, skilled, and reliable seaman; while in the Crimea, he was even given temporary command of one ship by its ill captain. Tom eventually ended up on the Great Lakes of the United States where he survived a shipwreck on Lake Erie. Perhaps that prompted a career change; he transferred his skills to river boats and became a skilled and well-paid Mississippi River boat pilot.

During the winter of 1857-58, he joined the American Fur Company, trapping and hunting along the Yellowstone River and in Taos Valley, New Mexico. That summer he worked on a ranch jointly owned by Lucien Maxwell and Kit Carson and so impressed them that he was offered a partnership in the ranch, but he declined the generous offer. The urge to move on was too great.

Moving on to the area around Denver, Colorado, Tom Allen tried his hand at mining, where he was soon involved in a claim dispute, a not infrequent occurrence. With his three partners, he constructed a small fortified cabin. When the opposing claimants arrived – a force of some 80 men – Tom invited one of them inside; once he saw the invincibility of the defenses he advised the others to gave up the idea of force and the gang quickly departed for easier pickings.

How Tom gained his expertise in fisticuffs is not recorded; most likely it was during his shipboard days, but his first known fight happened in Denver when he saw a man strike his wife. Taking great offense at this display of boorish behavior to the fairer sex, Tom challenged the man to fight – no holds barred. The fight lasted only a few minutes, but Tom’s lecture to his badly beaten foe on the evils of domestic violence lasted an hour and a half!

Another miner, known as "Terror of the Gulch" once attempted to divert water from Tom's sluice box. Tom challenged the Terror to personal combat, either by the rules – or without. Unwisely choosing the latter, the Terror was so badly beaten that he quickly quit the country. He would not be the last to take to the road after a tryst with the happy warrior.

Several merchants employed Tom to explore part of the Colorado River (the reason for the mission is lost, but it was eight years before John Westley Powell's expedition). Unfortunately, Tom and his partner were captured by the Utes after traveling some 250 miles. The Utes were one of the most cruel and warlike of the Plains tribes. When one of the braves pulled his ear, Tom flattened him with one blow and brashly confronted the chief, claiming that the Utes were cowards and he would challenge his best warrior to personal combat. Barehanded man-to-man fighting was never the Indians' forté. There is no record of whether the chief obliged Tom's challenge, but was more likely impressed by his bravado and belligerence; in any event, he released the pair unharmed.

During the Civil War, Tom Allen enlisted in the Union Army as a scout. His activities eventually took him to Leavenworth, Kansas, at that time occupied by an unruly group of Jayhawkers who had already shot and wounded two policemen and forced the town marshal to leave town. His sense of public duty aroused, Tom took the vacant position of Chief of Police and promptly engaged in a series of rough and tumble arrests. Within thirty days, order was restored. His sense of public order satisfied, Tom resigned his position and moved on with his scouting duties for the army.

Immediately after the end of the war, Tom Allen assumed the position of City Marshal of Junction City, Kansas. His exploits, including the confrontation with the six drunken Fort Riley troopers, became legend:

A recruit from the fort, backed by twelve companions, confronted Tom Allen and was sent back to the fort in an ambulance. The welfare of his companions is not recorded.

On another occasion, by happenstance Tom entered a saloon as it was being vandalized by eight troopers. One by one, he knocked seven of them senseless and hauled the entire lot to the hoosegow. Only one managed to escape back to the fort. The next morning, Tom Allen appeared at the commandant's office, demanding the arrest of the surviving trooper. When the commandant realized who the officer was, he exclaimed, "Great Scott! That's the man that licked my sergeant. He can have him."

Tom was summoned once to confront a drifter who had apparently committed "a beastly offense to a little girl." Rather than take the miscreant to court, he summarily punished the six-footer by beating him to a bloody mess.

A drunk, who Tom had arrested gently multiple times, finally decided to even the score and called the marshal out into the street, a large rock in each hand. The marshal's right cross was the first blow of many and the badly mauled drunk never took another drink, for which he was thereafter grateful to the unbending marshal.

The only time Tom Allen ever shot anyone was when another group of troopers arrived in town armed, against army regulations. In the ensuing inevitable scuffle, one trooper had the temerity to actually try to shoot the marshal, who was as good with his gun as with his fists. Two quick shots purposely wounded the man without causing serious injury.

One of the more colorful events concerned a tall red-headed ruffian who came to Junction City sometime in 1884, apparently to pick a fight with the famous marshal. Brandishing a Colt revolver, he started by causing panic in a general store. An unusually tolerant Tom Allen confronted him and ordered him to be on the next train leaving in half an hour. Tom must have been preoccupied with something else at the time. In any event, the stranger caused the same provocation later in the evening at a hotel. Again, Tom Allen issued a warning, but the next day, the same thing happened, this time in a cheap saloon. Tom's patience ended and he arrested the man on the spot. As he escorted the man out of the saloon, the fellow made a serious mistake.

"You're not man enough to take me in," he said and attempted to backhand the marshal. Bad move. Five minutes later he was a bloody mess, minus his Colt, eyes blackened, his clothing smeared with his own blood. He was then dragged to the jail, held until the next train was ready to depart and deposited, blood-encrusted clothing and all, to where ever the train was bound.

It was Tom Allen's last confrontation with amateur prize-fighters who came to test his mettle. In his 33 years as Junction City Marshal, he never killed anyone and was never injured. These are only a few of the many stories about his amazing life. He was admired for his fearless and wise judgment in carrying out his duties with the full support of the citizens of his city. One wonders how he would have fared as a professional prize fighter. He died in bed on June 18, 1904, loved and respected by the citizens of the city he had served so well for so long.

Biography of Thomas Allen Cullinan of Junction City, Kansas; prepared by the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 9, 1905

Kirchner, Paul; The Deadliest Men: The World’s Deadliest Combatants throughout the Ages; Colorado: Paladin Press, 2001