One of three gamblers said those four words as they raised their six-shooters and prepared to gun down the dangerous but presently unarmed gunfighter in Tucson.
Collapsing on a dusty street in downtown Tucson, Arizona Territory, in June 1882, gunman James Leavy gasped his last words: “My God! Has it come to this?” Riddled with bullets, Leavy’s body bled out as curious onlookers rushed to the scene seeking answers. Who did the shooting and why? Was it murder or done in self-defense? Until now the lives of Leavy’s killers have been largely shrouded in mystery, and the life of Leavy has nearly faded into oblivion despite his prowess with a six-shooter and numerous gunfights.
During his life, and even after death, those who knew him described Jim Leavy as an honorable and intrepid fighter.Some remembered him as a man willing to give anyone a fair show. But he was also considered a hard case and a dangerous man. One Deadwood pioneer recalled Leavy’s ability as a gunman, claiming he was second only to James Butler “Wild Bill”Hickok. For a brief time Leavy’s notoriety spread far and wide,surpassing even that of his former business partners Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Of the hundreds of gamblers and gunmen in the trans-Mississippi West, few fostered a more fearsome and geographically transcending reputation than Leavy.
By some accounts Leavy survived 16 shootouts. Although most can’t be properly documented, that is not unusual for a legendary Old West gunfighter. That Leavy is not better known today (no photograph of him is known to exist) is somewhat of a mystery. But details are coming to light on his career as a gunman, thus landing him a spot among what author Richard Maxwell Brown terms the “glorified gunfighters.”
The early life of James H. Leavy is riddled with mystery. His last name is often misspelled “Levy,” but letters he wrote and legal documents show the addition of an “a.” He was born in Ireland, probably in 1842, and though he was likely Catholic, much of Leavy’s modern legend as a shootist rests upon the fact he was thought to be Jewish (no evidence has turned up to support this claim). In early 1852 young Jim departed Liverpool,England, with his parents and sailed to the United States,docking at New York City on May 14. While still in his teen she traveled west and found work in the gold mining camps of California. When news broke of significant silver strikes in Nevada in the late 1860s, Leavy ventured to the rough-and-tumble mining camp of Pioche in southeast Nevada’s Lincoln County. It was there Leavy likely learned about gun handling and gun play from another Irishman, Richard Moriarty, alias Morgan Courtney, who had built a reputation as a feared gunman and participated in at least three gunfights.
Leavy got into a gunfight of his own in Pioche in May 1871. A prospector named Mike Casey claimed to have shot another man that March in self-defense, but Leavy testified that he had witnessed the shooting, and that Casey had fired first. The angry Casey tracked down Leavy, and the two engaged in a wild shootout in an alley. Leavy killed Casey, but Casey’s friend Dave Neagle, a future Arizona lawman, in turn shot Leavy through the jaw, leaving the Irishman with a disfigured and sinister face.
Two years later Leavy learned that several assailants had gunned down Courtney, his Pioche gunfighting mentor. A present-day marker for Courtney in Pioche reads:
Feared by Some
Respected by Few
Destroyed by Others
Shot in Back
The Black Hills gold rush drew Leavy to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876. The next year he turned up in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, where in March he shot it out with gambler Charlie Harrison. Eyewitness and fellow gambler Bat Masterson, impressed by Leavy’s deliberate and deadly aim, immortalized the Harrison-Leavy duel in a 1907 article he wrote for Human Life magazine:
[Harrison] fairly set his pistol on fire, he was shooting so fast, and managed to fire five shots at Levy [sic] before the latter could draw a bead on him.…Levy took his time. He looked through the sights of his pistol, which is a very essential thing to do when shooting at an adversary who is returning your fire.
Gambler and all-around badman John “Crooked Mouth” Green—whom detective agency heir William Pinkerton described as “a notorious Chicago crook and plug-ugly of the worst description”—later testified under oath about Leavy the victorious duelist. “I have known him by reputation for 10 years…Cheyenne, Deadwood and different places,” Green said. When asked if Leavy’s reputation had been “for peace and quietness or the reverse,” Green responded: “His reputation has always been that of a very dangerous man. A man that would kill a man without the least provocations, a desperate man and a desperado.” Green added that Leavy’s reputation had spread as far as Chicago and St. Louis.
It was in newly established Tomb- stone, Arizona Territory, that Jim Leavy associated with fellow gamblers Earp and Holliday,even venturing into local business dealings with the famed duo in late1880. Neagle, the man who had shot him in the jaw a decade earlier, was also in Tombstone, but evidently peace reigned between the two former adversaries, as no record of any conflict has surfaced. By spring 1882Leavy had made his way some 70miles northwest to Tucson, whereon the night of June 5 he became embroiled in an argument with local gamblers and faro dealers John Murphy and William Moyer at the Fashion Saloon on West Congress Street. After losing heavily at the Murphy-Moyer table, Leavy announced, “The game is foul.” Leavy, Murphy and Moyer continued the argument, according to the later testimony of eyewitness William Gale, and Leavy confronted the pair:“You have been making a talking fight.Now you’ve got to fight.” Talk of a duel followed, but no immediate action was taken. With the fired-up Leavy calling it a night, most witnesses assumed peace was again at hand.
At about 10 p.m. Leavy was walking with gambler friend George Duncan toward the Palace Hotel on South Meyer Street. As Leavy approached the hotel entrance, several shots rang out nearly simultaneously. Despite the overhead gaslights, hotel clerk William Hopkins could only make out the flashes of the guns and not the faces of the shooters. Several witnesses later testified that Leavy cried out:“My God! Don’t shoot me! I am not heeled!” According to Dr. Dexter Lyford, the man who examined the body, Leavy dropped beneath an awning near a bootblack stand across the street from the hotel. He had been shot five times—like his Pioche mentor Courtney—with all but one of the bullet wounds being potentially fatal.
According to Lyford, Leavy had entry wounds on the right and left side of his neck just above the collarbone; each ball had traced its way down Leavy’s spinal column and lodged in his vertebrae. The third wound Lyford described came from a ball that had entered Leavy’s right side, near the sixth or seventh rib, and traced upward, lodging in the heart. The fourth wound was in Leavy’s right arm above the elbow, with the ball exiting below the entrance wound. The final wound, and perhaps the most grotesque, was from a ball that had passed through Leavy’s upper lip, lodging in the soft bone between the eyes. The trajectories of the latter two balls suggest Leavy had been shot again when already down.
The curious onlookers who converged on the shooting scene heard Murphy and Moyer, as well as their gambler friend Dave Gibson, each take credit for the killing of Leavy. A preliminary hearing began three days later, June 8, with prosecutor Hugh Farley going up against Tom Fitch, who represented Murphy, Moyer and Gibson. The attorneys elicited testimony from 42 witnesses, including miner Tom Langley, who heard one of the trio declare, “Here is our game!” as they raised their six-shooters at Leavy.
Langley continued his testimony: “After Levy [sic] fell, Gibson walked to where he lay and shot in the direction where he lay. To the best of my knowledge he fired two shots at him after he fell. He walked off down the street and said, ‘There lays the son of a bitch; he is dead.’” On June 10 the judge ruled there was probable cause to send the three accused men to a grand jury. Ordered to enter a plea by Wednesday October 11 at 10 a.m., each man replied not guilty and demanded separate trials be held. On October 23, however, Murphy, Moyer and Gibson, along with six other prisoners (including Arizona Territory badman Joe Casey) escaped from the Pima County Jail in what the Arizona Weekly Citizen trumpeted as A Bold and Successful Break for Liberty by Desperate Criminals.
A posse set out after the escapees, but the trio who killed Leavy remained on the lam for months. It wasn’t until July 1883 that William Moyer became the first of the three to be captured. After former defense attorney Fitch recognized him while gambling in Denver, Moyer surrendered, with detective David Cook making the arrest. Shortly after Sheriff Bob Paul returned Moyer to Pima County, the prisoner gave a brief interview to the Arizona Weekly Citizen. “You are charged with the murder of Levy [sic]; were you connected with that affair?” asked the reporter. “Levy was a hard man,” replied Moyer, whom the reporter described as being dark-complexioned and having a smooth face, “with the exception of a small mustache and chin whiskers,” and a well-formed forehead that“is high and retreats back on a gentle upward incline.” The reporter snidely added, “A phrenologist would say that had the moral and mental faculties been cultivated in early life,it would have been of a higher and more noble form.” The reporter noted Moyer also seemed more “the timid, bashful man of the pencil amid a lot of gigantic Mexicans busy playing with greasy cards.” It would appear the prisoner was a man who, at least physically, was out of his element.
Moyer was charged with murder in the second degree, which the court defined as “unlawful killing with malice aforethought.” Fitch again defended him. “The law of self-defense,” the attorney argued, “was not that a man should wait till a man began shooting, but if he believed a man to be seeking his life and saw him making a motion, he had the right to defend himself. Levy [sic] was a desperado.” Fitch tried to establish a degree of credibility for Moyer by describing his “honorable calling as a banker.” The newspaper pointed out Moyer was in fact “a faro banker.” The defense attorney con tended that Murphy, Gibson and a third “unknown” party (not Murphy) were present that day, and, furthermore, that if Murphy had been there, he would not have shot Leavy, unless he had believed Leavy was out to murder him.
Pending an acquittal, an officer from Phoenix was standing by to retain Moyer on an unresolved 10-year-old murder charge. “It is said he [Moyer] blew the top of a man’s head off with a shotgun,” the Arizona Weekly Citizen reported. On December 14, 1883, however, Moyer was found guilty in the Leavy case and sentenced to 99 years in Yuma Territorial Prison. Fitch said he “would not seek an appeal in this case, but that Moyer’s parents would likely do so, as they are abundantly able to do so.”
Even as Moyer was being sentenced, news broke that both Murphy and Gibson had been captured. Officers from San Bernardino, Calif., apprehended the duo in the nearby mining camp of Fenner, and Sheriff Paul soon arrived to collect his prisoners. The pair had reportedly been living in the Fenner area under assumed names, and Gibson had been driving the stage between Fenner and Providence, also in San Bernardino County. The accused murderers would face separate trials.
Murphy was tried first, in early 1884. Unfortunately little record of this proceeding remains. During the brief trial Murphy testified he was born in Ireland and had been dis charged from the Navy in Florida. He was acquitted of the charges, though not long afterward the newspapers falsely reported Murphy had been found guilty and handed a life sentence in Yuma. The papers soon retracted that report, and Murphy does not appear on the record again until January 17, 1894, when Tucson police arrested him on a vagrancy charge.
Gibson’s trial followed, also in early 1884. It was feared the search for a fair jury in Pima County would consume the entire term of court, so Sheriff Paul opted to have the trial moved to Florence, in Pinal County, and thus spare further delay. Not long after the trial began in late April, Gibson and Murphy sold off their two-fifths interest in the Abbie Waterman Mine, in Pima County, most likely to raise funds for their legal defense. Gibson was charged with “aiding and abetting Moyer with the murder of Levy [sic].” Trial proceedings began on April 29, and arguments lasted less than a week. Gibson, like Murphy, was pronounced not guilty.
Moyer, the only one found guilty in Leavy’s death, was registered at Yuma Territorial Prison as a
33-year-old American, 5 foot 9½ inches in height, with brown hair and blue eyes. Letters soon began circulating in the convict’s defense. Many urged Territorial Governor C. Meyer Zulick to grant Moyer executive clemency, on the basis that Leavy had been a bad and dangerous character, and that Murphy and Gibson had been acquitted on grounds of self-defense. Some letters sought to distance the three men from Leavy’s sporting camp by claiming they were “miners and prospectors by profession” and gamblers only by avocation. The most enlightening letter in Moyer’s defense came from acquaintance Charles Driscoll, who said he had been presented with a petition for executive clemency: I signed it gladly, knowing the facts in the case so well. Knowing also that if anyone should suffer for the killing of Levy [sic], Murphy is the man. I knew all the parties concerned intimately. Knew Murphy better than any of the others, but had known Levy longer. A smooth, intelligent fellow when not under the influence of opium or liquor, but had come to a stage in his career when someone had to kill him turn the table over and making threats generally that would drive all timid players away from the game and out of the house.
The outpouring of letters seemed to help Moyer’s cause, because on March 22, 1888, Territorial Governor Zulick did grant him an executive pardon:
And whereas it is represented to me by leading citizens of the County of Pima, in whose judgment I have confidence, that the circumstances surrounding this case present exceptionally strong grounds for executive clemency.…Whereas an examination of the case establishes the fact that the principal, John Murphy, and accessory, David Gibson, both, subsequently to the conviction of the said William Moyer, were acquitted and found innocent of the crime alleged…the evidence establishes the additional fact that the said Levy [sic] had frequently threatened the life of the said William Moyer, and in the altercation which led to the said Levy’s death, which was upon public highway, the said William Moyer had the same justification for his action as had the said John Murphy and David Gibson.
No doubt Murphy, Moyer and Gibson had acted in premeditated unison to kill Leavy, a man they all feared and whom they believed could not be managed in a fair fight. Some 40 years after Leavy’s murder Arizona pioneer Albert F. Banta, a former district attorney of Apache County and former Pima County deputy sheriff, wrote: “Jim Levy [sic] had more sand in one of his fingers than the three yellow-streaked curs had in their three bodies combined. Given even half a show…Jim Levy would have cleaned up the three at one and the same time—if the cowardly curs had attempted to face the music.”
Following his pardon Moyer disappeared from the record, although years later there was an unconfirmed report he was seen in Alaska. It is possible he died in the vicinity of Globe, Ariz., in the 1920s,or perhaps in Colorado, where he may have had family ties.
Gibson was later hailed as a “soldier, fighting Indians and paving the way for civilization.” Admitted to the Arizona Pioneers’ Home in Prescott on June 23, 1913, he died there at age 73 on August 12, 1917. He was buried at the Pioneers’ Home cemetery, but no headstone has turned up. It was reported that on his deathbed Gibson requested the company of longtime friend state Senator Alfred Kinney. Born in Cleveland in 1844, Gibson had joined the U.S. Army in 1860 and served as a musician with the 14th Infantry in the Civil War until he fled two days after Gettysburg. He was caught and sent as a musician to Fort McDowell in Arizona Territory to finish out his service time. He then drove stagecoaches, a role for which his peers most remembered him. “This pilgrim,” wrote the Prescott Journal Miner, “held the ribbons when the Concord coach plied between Yuma and Tucson along the old Butterfield route, a duty that was attended with danger and privation those of this generation can but little appreciate.”
In 1900 Arizona Territory photographer C.S. Fly took a staged picture of a faro game being played in “full blast” at the Orient Saloon in Bisbee. The caption identifies the dealer as “Johnny Murphy,” and most historians concur it is the same Murphy who gunned down Leavy. This photograph later served as an advertisement for Cyrus Noble whiskey and become an iconic image of the American West. On March 24, 1926, John Murphy died in Tucson of asthma. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Pima County–maintained portion of the city’s Evergreen Cemetery. His death certificate lists his occupation as a “miner,” yet an obituary in the Arizona Republican two days later called Murphy a“pioneer gambler” and a “picturesque character of Tucson’s wide-open gambling days.” The obituary said this resident of Arizona since the 1880s “figured as one of the professional gamblers of Tucson and one of the most skillful rough-and-tumble fighters of the old regime.”
No epitaph memorializes Jim Leavy. He had few friends in life, and it seems he was quickly forgotten after death. Likely buried in a lost grave in Tucson’s defunct Court Street Cemetery, Leavy, despite the praise allotted to him by the likes of Bat Masterson and A.F. Banta, fell through the cracks of time to become one of the West’s true forgotten gunfighters.
Erik Wright, who dedicates this article to late friend and fellow Jim Leavy researcher Mark Dworkin, has written about gamblers Gibson and Moyer for the Wild West History Association Journal. Also see: When Law Was in the Holster: The Frontier Life of Bob Paul, by John Boessenecker; and Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Posse Rider: The Story of Texas Jack Vermillion, by Peter Brand.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.