In 1878 a young, eager-to-resign 9th U.S. Cavalry lieutenant faced his greatest challenge, not from Indians but from a pair of outlaws—‘Curly Bill’ Brocius and ‘Dutch’ Martin.
Late one afternoon in May 1878 two desperate, shabbily dressed riders approached an Army ambulance wagon rolling along at a steady pace along the road from El Paso, Texas, to Las Cruces, New Mexico Territory. The duo had been lurking about the villages along the Rio Grande, looking for an easy mark, when they heard that an officer from Fort Bliss would be traveling the road, carrying a large sum of money. Satisfied with what they saw, the horsemen passed the Army wagon and galloped ahead. Once hidden around a bend a few miles down the road, they donned masks, cocked their weapons and waited. It would be an easy job —or so they thought.
The target of the impending robbery was Lieutenant Ben-Israel Butler, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and son of Benjamin Franklin Butler, who had been a Union major general during the Civil War. Although Ben was a relative newcomer to the West, he was already set to leave it all behind. With him in the wagon were two other men— George Shakespeare, an experienced driver, and Charles Johnson, a buffalo soldier serving as guard. At about 4 o’clock on that spring afternoon the wagon approached the bend in the road. As it rounded the curve, the two masked men rode out, pointed their guns at the driver and ordered him to halt. Shakespeare had no time to comply before the horsemen callously opened fire.
The desperados were later identified as “Curly Bill” Brocius and Robert “Dutch” Martin. According to a correspondent in El Paso, the two were “as ugly a pair of jailbirds as one would wish to see.” Although Martin never gained widespread notoriety as an outlaw and has largely been forgotten, Brocius managed to commit enough wrongdoings at the right times and places to be well remembered today. Curly Bill’s main claims to fame were shooting a well-liked town marshal in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in 1880 and then being arrested by none other than sometime lawman Wyatt Earp. The 1878 attack on the Army wagon—cowardly, brutal and unsuccessful—did nothing to enhance the reputations of either Dutch or Curly Bill. The targeted young lieutenant, however, responded well to his first and only real frontier test, coming not from hostile Indians but from a couple of inept but dangerous badmen.
Ben-Israel Butler was born on June 6, 1855, into wealth and privilege. His father, Benjamin F. Butler, was a not always successful, sometimes controversial Civil War officer. General Butler was determined that his son continue the military tradition he had started. Ben-Israel duly enrolled at West Point and graduated with the class of 1877.
That July, 2nd Lt. Ben-Israel Butler signed his oath of office in Boston, proudly witnessed by his father, and began his military service. The young graduate was assigned a field position, so that, as his father put it, “he might have, in addition to his instruction at the academy, the knowledge of the movement and care of troops in field and in actual service.” In the fall Butler was assigned to a company of 9th U.S. Cavalry buffalo soldiers. The white officer and his black enlisted men were to be stationed at the inappropriately named Fort Bliss, near El Paso. In late January 1878 the troops landed in the midst of a veritable viper’s nest.
Over the previous two months the region had erupted in violent turmoil as bitter personal, political, racial and economic rivalries over local salt deposits culminated in what would become known as the El Paso Salt War. Outnumbered and in fear of being overrun by enraged Mexican locals, El Paso County Sheriff Charles Kerber had asked for reinforcements from the “good citizens” of the nearest major white settlement—Silver City, New Mexico Territory. The 20-odd men who answered the call to arms, however, were a mixed bag. Some were patriotic soldiers of fortune, while others were simply revenge-seeking outlaws, intending to literally “rape and pillage.”
The Silver City Rangers, as they became known, arrived in El Paso County on December 21, 1877, and were officially under the command of Dan Tucker, a trigger-happy deputy sheriff from Grant County, New Mexico Territory. The outlaw element in the ranks, however, probably answered to John Kinney, head of a local gang of cattle rustlers. Tucker’s inability, or unwillingness, to control the Silver City men meant Kinney and his crew were allowed a free hand to terrorize the small communities under the cloak of “official service” to Sheriff Kerber.
After brief but violent clashes in the small settlements of San Elizario and Ysleta, the Silver City volunteers were mustered out of service on January 10, 1878. However, not all the men returned to Silver City. One of the unfortunate legacies of the Salt War would be that the worst of them lingered in that remote section of west Texas. The “Kinney men,” as they became known, sized up the area’s ineffective law enforcement and liked what they saw. Two Kinney outlaws that now plagued the small communities along the Rio Grande were to make a lasting impression on the men of the 9th Cavalry.
For Lieutenant Butler this new world was far removed from West Point or the luxuries of his family home in Boston. The New York Times reported the 22-year-old endured his extremely “monotonous and tiresome” duties in and around “the dirty, dusty, Mexican inhabited villages…[with] no comforts, no society and hardly the necessities of life.” Butler wasn’t cut out for this kind of soldier’s life, and barely three months after his arrival at Fort Bliss he tendered his resignation.
On May 9 Ben-Israel Butler wrote to the Adjutant General’s Office, acknowledging its acceptance of his decision, and then made plans to return to Boston. He spent a few final days socializing with his fellow officers before packing and mapping out his route. On the first leg he would ride an Army wagon about 50 miles north to Las Cruces and connect with a stagecoach to the territorial capital at Santa Fe. From there he could continue his journey east by train.
The Army ambulance wagon, pulled by a mule team, left Fort Bliss at about 2 p.m. on May 21. Butler rode in back, partially concealed by the wagon’s curtains. Up front were driver Shakespeare, age 29, and guard Johnson, 25. Shakespeare, an Ohio native, had joined the 17th Illinois Cavalry at 15 to fight in the Civil War. After mustering out of the service, he had gone West to drive stagecoaches, before going to work for the Army as a civilian wagon master in New Mexico. Johnson, a Kentucky native, was the Company G trumpeter and a six year veteran of the 9th Cavalry. He was armed with a carbine.
The trio planned to travel 25 miles to the forage station at Jackson’s Ranch, spend the night and continue to Las Cruces in the morning. They were only a few miles out of Fort Bliss when passed by the two brazen riders, who made no effort to conceal their identities. The soldiers recognized them as the desperate-looking loafers who had been loitering in El Paso County for the past few weeks. They were wearing the same clothes, and even their horses were familiar. Butler, Shakespeare and Johnson were no doubt glad to see the men ride away. Little did they know they would encounter the gunmen again a few miles farther down the road.
At the second meeting the pair remained on horseback but now wore masks, their guns cocked and leveled. They showed little patience, shooting even before Shakespeare could obey their order to halt. One slug hit him in the shoulder, tore through his upper chest and exited near his spine, throwing him back into the wagon. Trooper Johnson took three bullets—one entered his left hip and exited from his upper thigh, a second pierced his left abdomen, and a third ripped into his right shoulder. He also collapsed into the wagon, still gripping his unfired carbine. Other slugs holed the wagon curtains and split the door railing, narrowly missing Lieutenant Butler. One of the holdup men, it was later reported, used a shotgun during the attack.
The wounded Shakespeare had dropped the reins, which entangled the mules, forcing them to stop. Butler then grabbed Johnson’s carbine, jumped from the rear of the wagon and turned the weapon on the two outlaws. But before he could fire, the robbers suddenly lost their nerve. They wheeled their horses and fled the bloody scene. The motive for their attack was presumed to be money, as it was imagined Butler was carrying a considerable sum for his journey home. However, the outlaws’ violent ineptitude, followed by supreme cowardice once the tables had slightly turned, meant their stickup yielded nothing.
Butler quickly attended to his bleeding companions, dressing their wounds and making them as comfortable as possible in the back of the wagon. He then gathered up the reins and drove on. After traveling about a mile, he saw several riders in the distance, and his first thought was that the outlaws were returning to finish the job. Johnson thought the same thing. Despite bleeding profusely from his three wounds, the gritty trooper raised himself up in the wagon and pointed his carbine, intent on making a stand. To the relief of the trio in the wagon, the riders were not outlaws but Texas Rangers, led by 25-year-old 1st Sgt. Asbury Crawford Ryall.
After Ryall assigned a man to help Butler transport Johnson and Shakespeare to safety, he took four other Rangers to pursue the holdup men. According to a contemporary report, Butler then drove the wagon to a nearby ranch, while the Ranger assigned by Ryall rode back to Fort Bliss for help. Arriving at about 6 p.m., the Ranger related the attack to Colonel James Wade. The colonel assembled a detachment of Company B and also sent an Army surgeon named Clarke with a wagon loaded with bedding, medical supplies and rations to ride out and attend to the injured men.
Meanwhile, Ryall and his four Rangers tracked the outlaws to a border crossing. Unable to continue the manhunt into Mexico, they gave Mexican authorities accurate descriptions of the desperadoes—now identified as Curly Bill Brocius and Dutch Martin—and asked them to make the arrests. Officers of the 9th Cavalry, naturally angered by the attack, sought to expedite the proceedings by offering the Mexican authorities $25 for the arrest and return of each outlaw. It seemed to work. Within a day the men were in custody.
Arrested with Brocius and Martin was “Buckskin Joe” Haytema, whose horse and weapons they had used in the at tempted robbery. After paying $75 for the trio, the officers arranged for their extradition. The outlaws, according to the Mesilla Valley Independent, were transported to a military jail near Fort Bliss and charged with “assault with intent to murder.”
Johnson and Shakespeare, the two wounded in the wagon attack, were admitted to the Army hospital at Fort Bliss.
Charles Sewall, a 27-year-old surgeon, took the slugs out of Johnson’s shoulder and abdomen. Despite an initial grave prognosis and erroneous press reports of his death, Johnson pulled through and was released from the hospital six weeks later. Shakespeare also survived his wound. The bullet-riddled, bloodstained wagon remained at the fort, serving as testimony to how fortunate the two were to have survived the ambush.
Curly Bill Brocius and Dutch Martin were placed in the custody of Texas Rangers at Ysleta. As the town lacked a proper jail, a fortified room at Ranger headquarters served as their home for the next five months. The Rangers locked up the prisoners on cold nights and kept them chained to a stake in the yard on warm nights. Finally sent to trial that September, Brocius and Martin were found guilty and sentenced to five years at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville.
The prisoners appealed, arguing for a new trial on the basis that Mexican authorities, no doubt keen to see the gringos sent to prison, had warned their alibi witness to keep away from the proceeding. But Brocius and Martin didn’t wait for the results of their appeal. The son of a Mexican cellmate smuggled a hacksaw into the prison, and on November 2 the outlaws cut through their shackles, tunneled beneath an adobe wall and vanished.
Though they had escaped their cell, neither outlaw could escape his violent destiny, and neither stayed away from his native land for long. Martin returned to the New Mexico “bootheel” region and resumed his life of crime. Operating from a small ranch, he stole livestock and was not too fussy about what he took, rustling pigs and mules as well as cattle and horses. His luck ran out in late November 1880, when four rival rustlers caught up to Martin near Steins Pass and shot him in the head. It was a fitting end for a man likely mourned only by his wife and one or two unsavory associates. The name “Dutch Martin” has been all but forgotten.
Curly Bill Brocius returned from Mexico to continue his own bungling life of crime in southeast Arizona Territory. Riding with a loose confederation of San Simon thieves, he rustled stock on either side of the border and drank the profits. On October 28, 1880, he distinguished himself by accidentally shooting down Tombstone Marshal Fred White. That evening the marshal asked the intoxicated Curly Bill to surrender his pistol. As Brocius handed the weapon —barrel first—to White, it discharged. Wyatt Earp, a Pima County deputy sheriff at the time, then pistol whipped Brocius and, with the help of brother Morgan, arrested Curly Bill. The wounded White died two days later.
Brocius spent the next two months in the Tucson jail before being exonerated, in part because the dying White had said the shooting was unintentional. Curly Bill returned to the Tombstone region, celebrating his January 1881 release by terrorizing the hamlet of Charleston. That May a companion shot Brocius in the neck during a drunken argument in Galeyville, but he survived. By year’s end the outlaw was wanted in Cochise County for cattle rustling, and by late March 1882 he was dead. Wyatt Earp and a federal posse had stumbled onto him in the Whetstone Mountains, near Tombstone, and killed him in the ensuing gunfight. Earp unloaded a shotgun into Brocius, inflicting horrendous wounds. Charles Johnson would have approved.
Ben-Israel Butler was not destined to read of Brocius’ demise. A few days after the attack on his wagon, the soon-to-be ex-lieutenant resumed his long journey home. Still wanting to somehow emulate his famous father, Ben enrolled at Columbia Law School in New York and set his sights on joining his father’s firm in Boston. The younger Butler graduated but would never achieve his goal. Diagnosed with Bright’s disease, Ben died of acute kidney failure on September 1, 1881. He was 26.
Sergeant Asbury Ryall, who had pursued Martin and Brocius after the attempted robbery, quit the Texas Rangers in August 1878. After a brief stint as an Arizona Territory saloonkeeper, he taught school in Arkansas. There, he married one of his pupils, raised a family and lived out a long and fruitful life. He died in 1937 of natural causes.
On his release from the Fort Bliss Army hospital in July 1878, trooper Charles Johnson resumed limited duties with the 9th Cavalry. In 1880 he was stationed at Fort Concho, Texas, but still hadn’t fully recovered from his gunshot wounds. Johnson resigned from the Army in November 1882 at Fort Sill, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), after a decade of service. He spent the next eight years traveling the country, working odd jobs and seeking medical treatment. For two months of 1885 and 1886, the former trumpeter visited a doctor in Hot Springs, Ark., hoping to relieve his suffering. In 1890 he applied for an Army pension based on the debilitating effects of his wounds. “All of these wounds have crippled me a great deal, more or less, ever since, and particularly the wound in my stomach,” Johnson stated. “For the next two years after my discharge [from the Army] there was a discharge of matter from the wound in my stomach.” Despite an offer of aid from Boston lawyer Benjamin Butler, father of the late lieutenant, the Army denied Johnson’s pension claim. Johnson was last recorded living in Ogden, Utah Territory, in 1891. Details of the buffalo soldier’s remaining years are unknown, but he no doubt carried the scars from the 1878 attack as a constant reminder the rest of his days.
Wagon master George Shakespeare resumed his job with the Army once he had recovered from his gunshot wounds. By 1880 he was stationed at Fort Cummings, New Mexico Territory. In 1882 he moved to Deming, where he married and operated a freight business. Shakespeare became a stalwart of the Deming community, and in the 1890s he purchased and edited the Deming Headlight. He continued in that capacity for 15 years until a fire destroyed the business in 1908. He then went on to manage, fittingly, a local theater. Shakespeare lived out his days in Deming and died in March 1922 while sitting in a rocking chair. The Headlight mourned his loss with a respectful obituary, though it made no mention of that long-ago day when outlaws Dutch Martin and Curly Bill Brocius shot and nearly killed him.
Peter Brand of Australia writes often about Arizona Territory and Wyatt Earp [www.tombstonevendetta.com]. Suggested for further reading: Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande, by Paul Cool, and Curly Bill: Tombstone’s Most Famous Outlaw, by Steve Gatto.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.