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Disorder in the Court: ‘The Lamentable Occurence’

By Dorothy Daniels Anderson
12/28/2014 • Wild West

Violence over water rights didn't break out at the Kirkland Valley ranches—only later at the courthouse in Prescott. (Cartography by Joan Pennington, from an 1884 source map)
Violence over water rights didn't break out at the Kirkland Valley ranches—only later at the courthouse in Prescott. (Cartography by Joan Pennington, from an 1884 source map)

Blood, ink, papers and broken furniture littered the courtroom. ‘Everyone’s dead!’ one man screamed as he ran from the courthouse. ‘They’re killing each other like sheep up there!’

In 1883 folks in Arizona Territory’s Yavapai County speculated widow Clarissa Kelsey would be unable to hang on to a ranch supporting hundreds of cattle. A woman in the Southwest rarely owned such a large and complex enterprise. In the five years since husband Jacob’s unexpected death at age 48, she had achieved much with the help of a few hired hands. Jacob had fallen in love with Arizona’s wide-open spaces during his time as a manager of the Vulture Mine near Wickenburg. Determined to prove the naysayers wrong, Clarissa was working hard to sustain her late husband’s dream.

Widow Kelsey scrutinized the 20 acres of corn and the vegetable garden she had planted, then glanced at the relentless blue sky. Not a cloud broke the horizon. Time to have the men open the gates of the acequia to irrigate the thirsty plants. A hired hand approached her. The water in the irrigation ditch from Kirkland Creek had dropped to a trickle. She sent a couple of men to investigate.

They found that Kelsey’s 50-year-old neighbor, Patrick McAteer, had planted twice his usual amount of corn, more than 80 acres, knowing that the drought that year would have cattlemen begging for his corn at any price. McAteer had blocked a section of the acequia to divert all the water from the damned-up portion of Kirkland Creek to his land, and men with rifles patrolled the acequia and dam. Even today water remains a precious commodity in semiarid Arizona. But in 1883 the acquisition of water, like gold, caused people to cheat, lie, fight and die.

Back in 1878 Jacob Kelsey had taken McAteer to the District Court of the Territory of Arizona over the latter’s refusal to share the waters of Kirkland Creek. In testimony McAteer had argued he was “entitled to the use of the water by right of prior location…and that the plaintiff, Kelsey, is entitled to all” he didn’t use.

Since Jacob’s death Clarissa had relied on son-in-law Charles Beach, who had married Cora, Clarissa and Jacob’s only child, for advice on the business side of ranching. She now dispatched one of her hands 25 miles north to the territorial capital, Prescott, to get Charley.

An ambitious and successful businessman, Beach had owned and edited the Arizona Miner newspaper since 1876, but his commercial interests extended far beyond journalism. His fortune at the time of his death in 1889, according to the Los Angeles Express, “consisted of $33,000 dollars in a Prescott bank, $65,000 in bonds with the Prescott & Arizona Central Railroad, 11,000 cattle, five city lots in San Francisco, controlling interests in 14 cattle ranches in Arizona” and ownership in many Arizona mines.

One can only speculate on what was said at that meeting between Clarissa Kelsey and her son-in-law upon his arriving at the ranch and seeing McAteer’s armed men patrolling the acequia. Beach was a handsome charmer. Clarissa had watched daughter Cora fall under his spell, and the couple had married in nearby Wickenburg on August 10, 1870.

But Charley had one major fault—a roving eye. Whenever the philandering became too much, Cora, tight-lipped, would visit relatives in New York. Every time that happened, Beach would take the next train east and persuade her to forgive him. He always brought her back.

Sharing a common border with Patrick McAteer had never been easy for the Kelsey family. He was a drunkard with a violent temper. Born in Ireland on December 5, 1832, he had been a stonemason by trade. He came to Albuquerque, New Mexico Territory, in December 1863 and later migrated to Arizona Territory to seek his fortune in mining. An article in the Arizona Miner four years later referred to him as the “General,” as he had successfully fought Apaches.

In 1866 McAteer purchased John Roberts’ ranch adjacent to the Kelsey property and became a successful farmer. In 1872 the Arizona Miner lauded the quality of his produce when he produced an onion weighing more than 2 pounds “raised from seed brought from the Rio Grande.” Depicted as “a big, burly and eccentric Irishman” and a “tip-top fellow,” McAteer never married. In 1870 he was elected to the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors and in 1879 was elected to represent the county in the House of Representatives for the 10th Territorial Legislature.

Beach insisted the only solution to McAteer’s resumed diversion of the acequia was to take him to court again and sue for the water rights. Clarissa expressed concern. Since Patrick McAteer had won the 1878 case and had been given full rights to the water flowing from Kirkland Creek into the ditch and had allowed her to use the water for the last five years, could they once again bring him to court? Did he not have a right to do what he wanted on his own property?

Beach recommended they hire Territorial Attorney General Clark Churchill, who had represented the Kelseys in the 1878 case. Forty-seven-year-old Churchill, the Pennsylvania-born son of a doctor, was described as “hale and hearty in appearance” and “a picture of strong and vigorous manhood.”

During the 1878 court case Beach had testified in defense of the Kelseys’ rights, creating bad blood between him and McAteer. Beach described an 1865 meeting with William Kirkland, who originally owned the land split between McAteer and the Kelseys: “I had broken my wagon’s axle. I went to Kirkland’s house to ask for a piece of lumber. He went with me to the creek, and we cut down a walnut tree for my use, and while we were there, Kirkland proposed to sell me his ranch.” Beach said Kirkland also told him the water in the acequia was to be freely shared.

But in a July 15, 1878, affidavit McAteer had testified he “never gave anyone permission to take or use water from Kirkland Creek.” He insisted the Kelseys had no legal claim or entitlement to use the water because they had nothing in writing. Therefore, he had exclusive rights to all the water.

Associate Justice Charles Silent of the Arizona Territory Supreme Court had agreed with McAteer and his witnesses and determined McAteer did have exclusive right to all the water flowing through the irrigation ditch being fed by Kirkland Creek. “It appears from the defendant’s pleading that his appropriation of the waters of Kirkland Creek was prior to that of the plaintiff, and his appropriation was actual, bona fide and complete at the time the plaintiff acquired his rights.” Justice Silent had also used this case to clarify water-rights usage for the territory, since he felt there was insufficient judicial or legislative law on these matters.

Despite the ruling, Clarissa Kelsey had continued to use the water from the creek for five years, until McAteer blocked the acequia in 1883. Perhaps McAteer thought by denying Clarissa water for her land and cattle, he could acquire a prime Arizona ranch on the cheap. Beach announced he had no intention of allowing that to happen. Charley didn’t take kindly to people trying to take advantage of people he cared about. Anxious for the new case to begin, Clarissa Kelsey resorted to her wells to water her cattle and save as much of her corn as possible.

The atmosphere on the second day of the case, a Saturday morning, “was damp and sluggish,” reported the Prescott Weekly Courier on December 1, 1883. The Yavapai County Courthouse for the 3rd Judicial District Court, built just three years earlier, dominated Prescott’s skyline. Its two-story square-brick frame topped by a windowed, octagonal tower showed the time in each cardinal direction from four enormous clock faces. A broad set of stairs led up to a columned portico entrance that enhanced the sense of judicial solemnity.

Clarissa Kelsey settled onto a hard wooden seat in the courtroom. Chief Justice Charles Grafton Wilberton French of the Territorial Supreme Court would preside. The room was crowded with officers of the court, lawyers, witnesses, farmers and ranchers from every part of the county concerned about how this battle for water rights might affect them. Twenty-three-year-old court reporter William “Buckey” O’Neill had been assigned to record the proceedings. For a time he had worked for Charley Beach as a reporter on the Arizona Miner. James “Uncle Jimmy” More, who also owned property along the creek, greeted Clarissa and explained he would have to wait outside until it was his turn to testify. Beach chatted with acquaintances, making everyone aware of his presence.

The court session began at 9 o’clock. Silence descended on the proceedings as Justice French entered in well-tailored garments. A neatly combed gray beard framed the lower half of his face, which was dominated by large commanding eyes.

Farmer Moses Langley was sworn in as a witness on Clarissa’s behalf. Born in New Hampshire, Langley came to Arizona Territory to mine in 1864 and had lived in Kirkland Valley since 1866. During questioning Moses said he owned farmland beside Kirkland Creek and reiterated his support of Kelsey’s right to free use of the water. “I have known and worked parts of said ranches now occupied by McAteer and Kelsey each year since 1866 up to 1870.” He added that no one had complained when the ditch was further extended for use into Kelsey land.

When Churchill finished questioning Langley, McAteer’s counsel, Charles Rush, the young, ambitious district attorney, began his cross-examination. He asked Langley to recall “an affidavit made by him in 1878, which stated facts entirely different from what the witness had just testified to.” Langley acknowledged the prior affidavit, but the question presented him with a dilemma. If he agreed with the earlier affidavit, he would be accused of lying. If he denied the earlier statement, he risked being incriminated in falsifying a legal document. Either way he could go to jail, and the jury would view his testimony as worthless.

According to the Weekly Courier, Rush started to read a portion of the affidavit “held in his hand” when Churchill approached and snatched the document from him. Rush continued reading the affidavit over Churchill’s shoulder. Churchill objected, saying the whole affidavit should be submitted to evidence, as reading a portion of it made for a “garbled” statement. Rush and Churchill argued about that point. Finally, Churchill interrupted McAteer’s attorney and said, “‘Your Honor, I’m not addressing my remarks to opposing council but to you, the court.”

“Mr. Churchill, you must not charge me with garbling an instrument,” Rush interjected. “The rest of the affidavit was not pertinent.”

“I insist the entire affidavit be read, which would show the true intent of these statements!” yelled Churchill. Then he turned and looked directly at Rush. “If you say that you did not garble the affidavit, you lie.”

An uneasy murmur rose from spectators in the gallery as each lawyer’s face turned red. In the West calling a man a liar was an intolerable insult. Justice French gaveled the court to order, but Rush seized an inkstand and threw it at Churchill’s head. He then vaulted a table, grabbed Kelsey’s attorney by the throat and choked him. “John C. Herndon, Rush’s partner,” reported the Courier, “rose in his seat and struck Churchill from behind.”

Clarissa kept her seat but watched as son-in-law Charley Beach came to Churchill’s aid and, wrote the Courier, “struck Mr. Rush some telling blows.” Even elderly rancher Jimmy More, hearing a commotion in the hallway, ran into the courtoom and tried to pry the two attorneys apart. Herndon threw another inkstand at Churchill, and George Tinker, the attorney general’s secretary, rushed to his boss’s rescue. Justice French continued to pound his gavel, demanding order in the court, as the thuds and grunts of the combatants intermingled with the shouts and screams of the spectators.

Kelsey looked over at McAteer, who had been quiet up till then, like a man in a drunken stupor. His face suddenly waxed fearsome as he leaped to his feet, drew out an enormous double-bladed knife and strode toward the fighting lawyers. By that time Beach and More had had some success in separating the combatants. But McAteer didn’t appear to be after Churchill or Beach. He was headed for More.

“Mac, for God’s sake, don’t cut me!” cried Uncle Jimmy, but McAteer drove the knife into the old man’s left arm anyway. The blade passed through it, “severed an artery and sank into More’s chest.” Blood spurted as McAteer pulled the knife clear. More screamed and staggered toward a courtroom door.

McAteer then turned his attention and his knife on Beach, slashing at Clarissa’s son-in-law. The knife caught Charley in the neck, missing his jugular vein by less than an inch. The force of the blow knocked him over the railing into the gallery. Court reporter Buckey O’Neill shoved McAteer away from the fray and for his trouble was “slashed painfully between the first two fingers of his left hand.”

As McAteer stumbled backward, the wounded Beach righted himself, pulled a .38 Colt revolver from his jacket and fired. The roar of the gun silenced the courtroom.

The bullet from Beach’s revolver struck McAteer beneath the left shoulder blade and severed his spinal cord. McAteer’s eyes glazed over as he slumped to the ground. Blood, ink, papers and broken furniture littered the courtroom. Churchill, who had taken several blows to the head, lay on the floor beneath a smashed chair. “Everyone’s dead!” one man screamed as he ran from the courthouse. “They’re killing each other like sheep up there!”

Clarissa noticed that Uncle Jimmy had dragged himself out of the courtroom. She later learned he had made it down the stairs and into the street, “leaving a trail of blood behind.” According to one account, More “fainted at Dr. Kendall’s drugstore and was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where his arm became infected and had to be amputated.” The Arizona Journal reported that Beach “was conveyed to a lower room in the courthouse and afterwards to his residence, where the wound was dressed by Dr. [Frank] Ainsworth.” According to the same paper, “McAteer lay on the south side of the courtroom and was afterwards conveyed to the residence of Joseph Ehle, where he had been rooming, and was attended by Dr. [James] McCandless, who pronounced his wound as almost certain to prove fatal.” His legs appeared paralyzed.

That same December issue of the Journal reported that Justice French, described as a “stickler for courtroom etiquette,” later called Attorney General Churchill and District Attorney Rush into his court and fined each of them the exorbitant sum of $500 for contempt of court.

Over the next few days Clarissa and Cora nursed Charley Beach and waited to hear about Patrick McAteer. On January 2, 1884, after what the Arizona Miner called “a month and a day of suffering,” McAteer breathed his last at the Ehle residence. The funeral took place at 2 p.m. the next afternoon at the Catholic Church. Members of the Territorial Legislature declared, “Yavapai County had no more honorable, honest or truer citizen than Patrick McAteer.”

Such a lurid incident naturally drew reporters from far and wide. To cease the clamoring for any shred of gossip, Justice French called the reporters into his chambers and issued instructions:

I have invited the members of the press with a view to expressing my opinions on the lamentable occurrence of last Saturday. It is my judgment that the least said about this matter until the grand jury considers it the better. I shall instruct the grand jury that they must pay no attention nor base their actions on what has appeared in the press, or the reports that have been circulated on the streets, but consider only the facts and merits of the case from the witnesses themselves. I would request the citizens also not to discuss the matter and have advised those who were present not to talk about the matter. Since its occurrence I have ascertained that there was no peace officer in court, but it was so instantaneous and quick that it seemed to me and to those with whom I have talked that if there had been 50 officers present the affair could not have been prevented. It was one of those occurrences that burst out like a flash of powder and was beyond any control.

“Apparently the newspapers followed the court’s admonition,” noted the Arizona Journal, “as the only mention of the affair that could be found in newspapers were reports of the postponement from time to time of the grand jury’s inquiry.”

The coroner’s office found that Charles Beach’s gun had killed Patrick McAteer and sent Charley before a grand jury on a murder indictment. “The grand jury looked at the circumstances,” reported The Arizona Champion, “and as [Beach] acted in the courtroom, he was justified in doing the shooting.” Charley was acquitted, and things were looking up for the Kelsey family. Back in Kirkland Valley no one stopped Clarissa’s ranch hands when they cleared the blocked acequia. Her late husband’s spread was safe at last. Charley offered to buy the place, enabling Clarissa to retire to the moist ocean breezes of Los Angeles. The unending demands of ranch life would keep her son-in-law busy and away from the temptations of town living. Maybe Clarissa would even get a grandchild.

A year and a half later an article in Tucson’s Arizona Citizen, dated March 21, 1885, reported that C.W. Beach, former editor of the Arizona Miner, had made a significant purchase from O.J. Woodward, a relative of the late McAteer: “All his right, title and interest to the McAteer ranch in Kirkland Valley, consisting of land, improvements, 300 head of stock and water privileges. This purchase not only gives Mr. Beach title to one of the finest properties in Yavapai County and control of the entire water system of the Kirkland Valley, but virtually settles the long-contested case of Kelsey vs. McAteer.”

In 1888 a miracle of sorts occurred when, after 18 years of marriage, Cora gave birth to a son, Byron Comstock Beach. But Cora and Clarissa both knew this would not put an end to Charley’s philandering. They didn’t have to put up with it much longer, though. On the evening of September 17, 1889, six years after the bloody courtroom showdown, Beach was sitting in his room at a Prescott lodging house, writing a letter to his young son, who with his mother was in Los Angeles visiting with Grandmother Clarissa, when a shotgun blast through the nearest window struck the letter writer in the face. The blast, according to the Prescott Weekly Courier, tore into Charley’s left eye, “knocking him over and killing him instantly.”

A man named George Young was arrested after neighbor Mrs. A.M. Albright, who lived across the street from the lodging house, told the Prescott Hoof and Horn that after the shooting she “saw a man with a shotgun run away from the house.” She thought he looked like George Young of Skull Valley. In custody Young refused to confirm there had been any animosity between Beach and himself, although the Hoof and Horn said Young “suffered grievous injury at the hands of the deceased, bringing about an estrangement in his domestic relations, and bitter feelings existed.” The September 20 edition of the Weekly Courier added that Young “professed ignorance of the crime and has not said much since.” A coroner’s inquest headed by Judge Henry Fleury had no choice but to declare “that the deceased came to his death by a gunshot wound that was fired by some person unknown to the jury.”

Uncle Jimmy More took charge of Charley’s remains. The feisty rancher had survived McAteer’s attack in the courtroom and would live until 1903, dying in Flagstaff at age 82. Notified by telegraph of her husband’s murder, Cora returned to Prescott to make funeral arrangements. She was named executrix of her husband’s estate. He had died a wealthy man, and it seemed like Cora and young Byron would have no worries. But the news only grew worse.

Beach had assured the Kelseys his first wife had died, but she was in fact very much alive, residing with her younger son, Robert Marian Beach, and his family in Colorado. Throwing in with older son Louis, they borrowed money to legally contest any right Cora had to Charley’s estate. There was no formal will, only a casually written letter in Charley’s hand listing Byron as his heir.

Cora was devastated, having believed that for 19 years she had been legally married to Charley. The lawyers only shook their heads and counseled patience. They foresaw a lengthy legal battle that would last years and drain the estate. Clarissa Kelsey wouldn’t live to see its resolution, dying in 1895.

Clarissa had always liked Charley Beach. Everyone did. “Like most all men he had his faults,” wrote the Prescott Weekly Courier, “[but] he had, too, a great many traits of character.” The paper concluded: “No matter what his bad acts were, every brave, honorable man will condemn the cowardly manner in which he was killed.” As for the Beach estate, the lawyers proved correct. The case dragged on for 18 years until a court finally declared Byron Beach, Cora’s son, heir to what little remained.

Author Dorothy Daniels Anderson of Phoenix did much of her research for this article at the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives.

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