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Bidwell: Forgotten Founder of Tombstone?

By Robert F. Palmquist
5/10/2018 • Wild West Magazine

Mining entrepreneur Richard Gird reaped a fortune in silver with the Schieffelin brothers but denied under oath that Thomas J. Bidwell was ever his partner in the Tombstone strikes.

In the spring of 1882, Ed Schieffelin, his brother Effingham and several partners left San Francisco on the schooner H.L. Tiernan, northbound, as Ed put it, “on a prospecting trip with a little stern-wheel river steamer on deck, to run up the rivers when we got there.” Schieffelin, who with brother Albert and partner Richard Gird had struck it rich a few years earlier around Tombstone, Arizona Territory, could afford to finance this prospecting venture in style.

Gird, a mining entrepreneur and assayer who had thrown in with the Schieffelin brothers in 1878, began 1882 at the California ranch he had purchased with his share of their silver bonanza. On January 1, in a sporadically kept journal, he recorded: “At the ranch all at home and happy, if it were not for…a sort of undignified attempt of certain unprincipled blackmailers to try and make some of my good actions (in befriending an unfortunate man into whose company my business called) cause me trouble by trying to prove that my friendship for the man amounted to a partnership. And the man being now dead, his heirs were entitled to a share of the property.”

The “unfortunate man” was longtime Gird associate Thomas J. Bidwell, who had died in San Francisco on July 8, 1880. The lawsuit, mounted by representatives of Bidwell’s children, would strain Gird’s substantial resources, along with his patience, and in the process provide much more detail about the founding of Tombstone than did the later accounts of Ed Schieffelin and Gird himself.

Gird and Bidwell had long histories in Arizona Territory by the time of Bidwell’s death. Born in Missouri on March 29, 1833, Bidwell was listed on the 1880 U.S. census for Tombstone, just prior to his final trip to San Francisco. His age is listed as 47; his occupation, unaccountably, as “minister.” (Probably it should have read “miner,” though he was certainly no hard rock miner.)

One newspaperman called Bidwell a “perpetual legislator,” for his multiple terms in Arizona’s territorial legislature. He served as probate judge of Yuma County, by appointment of Governor Anson P.K. Safford, and as justice of the peace in Signal and later in Tombstone. Many people addressed Bidwell as “Judge,” while friends like Gird called him “Tom” or “Old Tom.” He had two minor children, daughter Nancy and son Rolfe, by his wife, Frances Bishop, who died in 1876, a few days after Rolfe’s birth.

The June 19, 1880, Tombstone Epitaph reported: “Judge T.J. Bidwell bid a farewell to Tombstone on Monday last [June 14, 1880], and turned his face toward the sea breezes of the Pacific. The judge came to Tombstone about two years ago and has watched its developments with mental satisfaction and financial benefit. Recently, his health has been very bad, and he found a change necessary. He will spend the summer in Nevada and California and hopes to visit Arizona again in the fall.” In fact, Bidwell had traveled to San Francisco for surgery and would die there on July 8, 1880, during what one account referred to as “a delicate surgical operation.”

Born on March 29, 1836, at Cedar Lake, N.Y., Richard Gird joined the California Gold Rush in 1852. He met Bidwell in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, and they were on-again, off-again partners in a number of ventures, including an unprofitable trip to Chile in 1858. After that, they took up ranching, prospecting and, in Bidwell’s case, politicking in the new territory of Arizona. Bidwell used his influence to have Gird, who possessed surveying and assaying skills, officially commissioned by the new territorial government to create a colored topographical map of Arizona. By 1877 Gird was working for the Signal Mining and Milling Company as an engineer and assayer, and Bidwell was selling lots for the Signal town site company, a sideline he would resume in Tombstone. Gird joined Ed and Al Schieffelin early in 1878 and shared in their fabulous silver discoveries in the district Ed christened “Tombstone.” At Gird’s urging, Bidwell soon followed his friend to the new camp.

Gird, on hearing of Bidwell’s death in July 1880, traveled to San Francisco and sent a telegram to Bidwell’s sister-in-law and her husband, Mrs. and Mr. O.D. Rolfe of Gold Hill, Nev., informing them of the sad news. Gird also purchased a ranch at Temescal, Calif., for Nancy and Rolfe Bidwell and their guardians, taking title to the property in his name and that of the Rolfes. As Gird bitterly recalled in his journal, the Bidwell children’s attorneys construed the real estate purchase as “sordid,” suggesting that Gird only helped the children to buy off Bidwell’s relations and deter them from staking a claim against Gird for a share of proceeds from the Tombstone mines.

Relations between Gird and the Rolfes rapidly deteriorated. Gird summarized the allegations of Mrs. Rolfe—whom he demonized as “the arch fiend of malignant venom”—as “the proposition…that Bidwell was my universal partner and that consequently his children were entitled to half my estate. The excuse was that we were partners in a small stock ranch in Thompson Valley, Yavapai County, Arizona [before Tombstone], and the proposition was to extend the partnership to the Tombstone mines.” Indeed, the complaint filed in San Bernardino County, Calif., on May 1, 1882, alleged that Gird had closed out his interest in the Schieffelin-Gird Tombstone discoveries for more than $600,000, and that by virtue of what Gird termed the “universal partnership” theory, $300,000 “was the property of, and belonged to the estate of, said Bidwell, deceased.”

The Rolfe claim attracted an array of notable attorneys, chief among them William M. Stewart, mining lawyer and ex-senator from Nevada. “Big Bill” Stewart’s reputation waxed and waned, depending on circumstances and the parties making the assessment. To one modern biographer, he stood as a magnificent “Gold and Silver Colossus”; another dubbed him an opportunistic “Servant of Power.” The flamboyant Stewart was already embroiled in several important Tombstone mining cases and transactions when he signed on to represent the Bidwell children and their guardians, the Rolfes. Significantly, from the standpoint of disclosure, Big Bill Stewart was also a long-standing friend of former Arizona Governor Safford, who had worked with Gird and the Schieffelin brothers to develop the Tombstone mines.

Joining the prosecution team of Stewart and his San Francisco partner, William Herrin, was Converse Willard Chamberlin Rowell, an Arizona veteran who had prospered in California as San Bernardino’s city attorney and later as county attorney. (In 1871 Rowell had served as hapless prosecutor of the Camp Grant Indian massacre defendants, who were found not guilty after only a few minutes’ jury deliberations in a widely publicized trial.)

On May 22, 1882, San Bernardino attorneys Byron Waters and M.A. Wheaton filed Gird’s answer to the complaint, which denied that Gird and Bidwell “were ever engaged together, either as partners or otherwise, in any…mines or mining stocks or mining property or mining corporations.” Eventually, Gird hired experienced San Francisco litigators Harry I. Thornton and Richard Mesick—veterans of mining cases throughout the West— to question witnesses at depositions and the trial.

The Bidwell lawsuit attracted considerable newspaper attention, with the Tucson, Prescott and Yuma papers all reporting the claim for the “snug little sum” of $300,000. The parties’ attorneys fanned out across the country, gathering testimony by deposition, a process necessitated by the transient character of mining camp populations. The witness list included many former associates of Gird or Bidwell or Tombstone itself, including Safford and the Corbin brothers of Philadelphia, New York and New Britain, Conn., money men who had invested heavily in the Gird-Schieffelin claims.

“[The] first thing,” Gird later complained, the Stewart team did “was to put me on the stand and put me through a three days’ examination. I was not well, but I got through it some way, and it was finally read and copied and signed, and I went about my business, but not for long.” At his deposition, Gird admitted that while in Tombstone he had hired Bidwell to perform several discrete tasks, such as arbitration of a water-rights dispute and a business trip east to market Tombstone Mill and Mining Company stock. But according to Gird, his only partnership had been with Ed and Al Schieffelin; he and Bidwell had had no joint business interests in Tombstone “in no shape or in any amount whatever.”

At the deposition and afterward at trial, Stewart pressed Gird for disclosure of letters and other papers Gird had scooped up immediately after Bidwell’s death from Bidwell’s rooms at Tombstone and from his last stop in San Francisco. In his journal, Gird recorded the request as merely another imposition: “An attempt was made to get hold of all my papers, which my lawyers thought advisable to keep.”

In fact, the plaintiffs’ lawyers sought to recover as much correspondence of Gird, Bidwell, Safford, the Schieffelin brothers, the Corbins and related parties as they possibly could, since no document signed by the parties explicitly established a Gird-Bidwell mining partnership. The letters they obtained might be used to imply such a partnership. Some of the correspondence Stewart and Herrin received from Safford—addressed by both Gird and Bidwell as “Dear Gov”—seemed to show Bidwell operating on behalf of the Tombstone Mill and Mining Company in a fashion more suggestive of a partnership role than that of an occasional company employee. On February 20, 1880, for example, Bidwell wrote Safford (Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 44): “It is necessary to get the mine developed sufficiently to enable us to run both mines for three or four months. Dick [Gird] is of the opinion that it is now, and Al and Ed [Schieffelin] think not; and I have very grave doubts of it.” Such passages seemed to put Bidwell on an equal footing with the three acknowledged partners.

Aside from such inconclusive documentary evidence, plaintiffs did obtain statements from Tombstoners such as founding Mayor William Harwood and mill superintendent S.W. Wood and investors like the Corbin brothers that pointed to multiple times when Gird had stated, “[Bidwell] is as much interested in this thing [Tombstone mines] as I am, and I want him to know what is going on.”

Prominent Tombstone citizens also lined up on Gird’s side. Pioneer merchant John A. Allen testified in Tucson on August 18, 1882, that Bidwell “never directly or indirectly led me to understand that he was a partner in any sense with Mr. Gird.” And Tombstone discoverer Ed Schieffelin emphatically stated: “I do not know that Bidwell ever owned any mines in Arizona. He never invested any money in, or did any work in or prospected for any mines to my knowledge.”

In what Gird termed a “masterly” argument by attorney Richard Mesick, the defense succeeded in blocking wholesale disclosure of the correspondence and papers Gird had recovered after Bidwell’s death. Still, when trial began in San Bernardino in January 1883, the evidence— much of it in deposition transcripts or letter exhibits— seemed mountainous. The parties, their attorneys and witnesses packed the opposing wings of Starkey’s Hotel in San Bernardino. Said the San Diego Sun: “A half million dollars is the stake being played for—and as far as the lawyers are concerned, the goose is certainly very high.”

After reading the lengthy deposition testimony into the record and hearing from present witnesses, the attorneys presented the jury with a single question: “Was Thomas J. Bidwell, deceased, an equal partner with the defendant, Richard Gird, in the mines, and the proceeds thereof, located by said Gird, and Ed. and Al. E. Schieffelin, in the Tombstone mining district, in the year 1878?” On March 3, 1883, the jury returned with a simple answer: “No.”

Gird exulted in his victory, at least until Stewart and company appealed the case to the California Supreme Court. Gird’s attorneys assured him that the appellants’ success was unlikely, but having already paid out $53,000 in legal fees toward what he termed the “Bidwell blackmail case,” Gird chose to cut his losses and settle with the Rolfes. In August 1886, the Los Angeles Herald reported that the case had finally settled “in the neighborhood of $100,000,” with Stewart and Herrin being allowed a fee of $25,000. Gird, in his journal, set his total expenses in the case, including legal fees, at a flat $200,000.

Richard Gird refrained from writing his own account of the Tombstone strikes until 1907, declining, he said, “for obvious personal reasons.” When he did publish the article, he hailed the Schieffelin brothers, describing Al as “a fine character,” while painting Ed as “given to personal displays” but “honorable and true.” Privately, he had written that the lawsuit had revealed “who were my enemies.…Harwood…the Corbins, whom I had saved from bankruptcy, Governor Safford, whom I had made what little money he had. And a long list I do not care to mention or burden my memory with.” Of Judge Thomas J. Bidwell, “Old Tom,” Richard Gird wrote not a word.

 

Arizona author Robert F. Palmquist writes often about Tombstone subjects. Suggested for further reading: History of the Discovery of Tombstone, Arizona—as Told by the Discoverer, by Edward Lawrence Schieffelin (Ben T. Traywick, editor).

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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