Book Review: A Killer Is What They Needed, by David Grassé

A Killer Is What They Needed: The True, Untold Story of Commodore Perry Owens, a Sheriff of the Arizona Territory, by David Grassé, Graphic Publishers, Santa Ana, Calif., 2013, $34.95

Commodore Perry Owens has long been a footnote in the chronicles of Wild West lawmen. Though his story is not quite “untold,” historians have written comparatively little about the quick-draw Arizona Territory sheriff with the memorable name and rock-star mane of reddish-brown hair. Several authors have mentioned him in passing, and Wild West has run articles that touched on his lively career. But no one had taken on the challenge of a comprehensive biography.

David Grassé stumbled across Owens in Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble’s Roadside History of Arizona (1986), wrote a college-level paper about him and promptly leapt into the research rabbit hole that claims those with a penchant for writing and an interest in Western history. His resulting biography is the first definitive look at this Tennessee-born Quaker and sometime cowboy (and possibly outlaw) turned seemingly fearless territorial enforcer.

Owens, like other noted Western lawmen (e.g., Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett), is best remembered for one particular violent episode—a September 4, 1887, gunfight sparked when Owens alone sought to serve a murder warrant on notorious killer and rustler Andy Cooper (aka Andy Blevins), who had holed up with compatriots in the Holbrook home of his brother Charlie Blevins. In the resulting bloody exchange Owens killed Cooper and two others, wounded a fourth man, yet emerged without a scratch and avoided prosecution. In his chapter on the gunfight Grassé is unapologetic in his critique of the sheriff’s methods: “His actions on that September Sunday afternoon in Holbrook can only be described as reckless and foolhardy. In his effort to prove his mettle as a lawman to both his superiors and to his constituency, he had killed three men, wounded a fourth and endangered the lives of several innocent persons.” Regardless, Owens had secured a spot in frontier history.

In his meticulously researched book Grassé uncovers other engaging if less sanguinary stories from Owens’ life and clears up more than a few running myths (the origin of his historical name, his reasons for drifting west, much ado about his “do,” his alleged wanton slaughter of Navajos, etc.). Holes remain, particularly at the beginning and end of Owens’ life. Perhaps those details will emerge from Grassé’s next foray down a rabbit hole.

Dave Lauterborn

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