Book Review: Judge William H. Stilwell, by Roy B. Young

Judge William H. Stilwell: Bench and Bar in Arizona Territory, by Roy B. Young, Young & Sons Enterprises, Apache, Okla., 2011, $29.95

For those who can’t get enough information about the wild days of Tombstone and vicinity—specifically the “Cowboy problem” or “Earp problem,” depending on your point of view—this 186-page biography is just what the Doc ordered. New Yorker William Stilwell, appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Arizona Territory in December 1880, was a firm judge who at times became frustrated by the inability of the courts to thwart the outlawry running rampant in his neck of the woods (mostly Cochise County). Stilwell’s tenure as judge, as historian and Doc Holliday biographer Gary Roberts writes in the foreword, “provides insight into the legal, political and economic context to the Earp-Clanton troubles.” Warning: This particular Stilwell sides with the Earps, although he is a distant cousin of Frank Stilwell, killed in March 1882 during Wyatt Earp’s vendetta against the Cowboys. Author Roy Young, editor of the Wild West History Association Journal, claims his own Stilwell heritage and began to look into the history of the Stilwell family at age 12. This book, he says, is the first of a trilogy; the second will cover frontier scout Jack Stilwell, the third outlaw Frank Stilwell.

Judge Stilwell handled cases involving cattle rustling and shootings but also mining and other business cases. After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer held a hearing that resulted in the release of the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. Stilwell’s grand jury took no action in the Earps and Holliday’s killing of the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton, but it did hand down to others 37 indictments for murder, robbery and other crimes. John Ringo appeared before the judge several times. On May 24, 1882, the grand jury indicted Sheriff John Behan for malfeasance of office, charging him with the mishandling of funds. But President Chester Arthur removed Stilwell as justice, and the next justice dropped the charges. Stilwell, though, remained on the frontier, serving as a defense attorney and as district attorney and earning a reputation as one of the ablest lawyers in the territory. He left Tombstone for Phoenix in 1894 and continued his legal career. He died of pneumonia in May 1928, just short of his 79th birthday.


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