Longtime Arizona Territory lawman Pete Gabriel waited for his former deputy-turned-enemy at the bar in Florence. Joe Phy soon showed up, armed with six-shooter and bowie knife.
Pete Gabriel rested his lean frame against the mahogany bar of John Keating’s Tunnel Saloon, nervously fingering the .45 Colt tucked into his waistband. His wary eyes darted repeatedly to the saloon’s batwing doors. It was the evening of May 31, 1888, in Florence, Arizona Territory. Gabriel, once the county sheriff, knew that Joe Phy, his former deputy and bitter enemy, was looking to kill him. Long years of a rough-and-tumble existence on the frontier, tinged with many close brushes with death, had brought the veteran lawman to the brink of the most dangerous encounter of his adventurous career. What was about to happen would not have surprised anyone who knew his life story.
John Peter Gabriel was born on November 17, 1838, in Kruft, Prussia (present-day Germany), the fourth of six children. When the boy was 9, his parents emigrated to the United States, settling with their brood in Wisconsin. Two years later, Pete’s father died, and his mother was unable to feed her little ones. Prominent attorney and politician Ninian E. Whiteside kindly took in Pete, but Whiteside soon got the itch to join the California Gold Rush. So, Whiteside, wife Caroline, their children and Pete packed up and crossed the Great Plains by covered wagon. On this dangerous trip young Pete Gabriel began to gain the skills in horsemanship, mule skinning, scouting, hunting, trail breaking and marksmanship that would serve him well as an adult.
Once in California, Whiteside settled at Parks Bar, 18 miles above Marysville on the Yuba River. Marysville, then gateway to the northern mines, was a rowdy, violent new city, and Pete Gabriel grappled to maturity there and in the rough-and-tumble mining camps of Yuba County. In those days of wild, masculine society, rudimentary government and scant law enforcement, all men were expected to “kill their own snakes,” solve their own problems. Miners carried firearms and were expected to use them, whether confronted by attack or verbal threats. Pete Gabriel fully absorbed the frontier ethic of hard drinking, hard work and self-redress with a Colt revolver.
Ninian Whiteside became a judge and well-known politician in Marysville and Sacramento. In 1856, when Pete was 17, a daring exploit demonstrated the steely nerve that would mark his life. One night Caroline Whiteside, pregnant with her fifth child, went into labor, and Pete volunteered to fetch a doctor. The raging Yuba was seemingly impassable, but mounting his horse, Pete managed to ford the swirling current. Riding hard to the doctor’s home, he soon arrived back at the riverbank across from the Whiteside place. Dismounting, Pete had the doctor climb into his saddle, then plunged into the torrent on foot, leading physician and horse across the Yuba. The healthy newborn, Bolin J. Whiteside, would grow up idolizing Pete Gabriel.
By 1859 young Pete had struck off on his own. He crossed the Sierra Nevada and worked for the famed Colonel Frederick West Lander, superintendent of the main overland wagon route. Pete probably helped build the Honey Lake Wagon Road, the last and westernmost portion of the road from Colorado Territory. He gained valuable experience, and in 1860, probably through the influence of Judge Whiteside, Gabriel landed employment as a mule skinner and hunter under Josiah D. Whitney, leader of the first comprehensive geologic survey of California. One of the surveyors described Gabriel as “a capitol fellow in his line—young, game, posted as to mules, can tell a story, sing a song, shoot rabbits (and dress, cook and eat them)—a most valuable man.” Pete stayed with the survey party a year, then joined the Idaho gold rush. He prospected, served for a time as a deputy sheriff and married Marie Rinehart in May 1864. By 1870 Pete, his wife and young daughter had settled near Prescott, Arizona Territory. Before the year was out, he would survive his first shooting incident.
On Christmas night in 1870, Gabriel was at a saloon in Kirkland Valley, 26 miles southwest of Prescott. He and a gambler named Boyce were drinking and playing poker. Gabriel spotted Boyce dealing from the bottom of the deck and ordered him to “desist and play fairly.” Then Gabriel drew four jacks, and Boyce claimed Pete was cheating. According to one account, Boyce tried to grab the pot; in another, he drew a knife on Pete. Gabriel jerked his six-gun and fired three times. One round tore through Boyce’s head, killing him instantly; another struck the thigh of a patron asleep in a corner of the saloon. Gabriel was charged with murder, and the case came to trial in July 1873. A hung jury meant Gabriel faced a retrial.
Meanwhile, the fact Gabriel had been drinking and gambling and shot two men on Christmas likely tried his marriage. The union was not a happy one, and the couple eventually divorced. Gabriel was soon back in California, serving as a deputy under Los Angeles County Sheriff William R. “Billy” Rowland. In September 1873, notorious bandido boss Tiburcio Vásquez fled into eastern Los Angeles County following the Tres Pinos Tragedy, in which his gang had murdered three people while raiding a northern California town (see story in the August 2010 Wild West). Gabriel participated in the manhunt for Vásquez; one outlaw turned informant, but the leader escaped.
On January 12, 1874, Gabriel accompanied Sheriff Rowland and a small posse to the Rancho Potrero Grande near El Monte to evict a band of squatters. As they approached the barricaded house, squatter Bernard Newman opened fire. Gabriel dropped with a perforated lung. Rowland and his men brought the desperately injured deputy to Los Angeles, then returned with a larger force and arrested Newman. Doctors expected Gabriel to die, but the tough frontiersman was not ready to cash in his chips. He was laid up for months, which sidelined him from the continuing manhunt for Vásquez. A posse organized by Rowland finally captured the bandido in May 1874.
In 1875 Gabriel was well enough to return to Prescott and face the pending murder charges. At an October trial, the jury acquitted him on grounds of self-defense. Gabriel then drifted south to Florence, where in November 1878 he won popular election to the office of Pinal County sheriff. In 1880 the 41- year-old sheriff married Carrie Wratten, the 17-year-old daughter of a friend. (Their age difference, coupled with Pete’s heavy drinking and an increasingly violent temper, eventually put an end to that marriage, too.) Gabriel’s popularity with voters won him re-election that same year. In that office, he fought lynch mobs and tracked down stage robbers, murderers, horse thieves and cattle rustlers, earning a reputation as one of Arizona’s finest, most dedicated sheriffs. Indeed, he became one of the best-known lawmen in the Southwest.
In June 1882, Gabriel was visiting Tucson when he unsuccessfully tried to quell a feud involving noted gunfighter Jim Levy (or Leavy) and Tucson’s leading gambler, Johnny Murphy. Gabriel was a key witness when Murphy and fellow gamblers Bill Moyer and Dave Gibson shot down Levy. The three broke jail while awaiting trial. That summer Gabriel played a prominent role in the manhunt for Lafayette Grime and Curtis Hawley, who had robbed a mining company mule train near Globe, killing Wells Fargo messenger Andy Hall and another man. Despite his excellent record as sheriff, Gabriel lost the November election. He continued to work privately as a lawman. In 1883 he rode with his good friend, famed Tucson Sheriff Bob Paul, in pursuit of the Red Jack Gang, which had robbed a stage and killed Wells Fargo messenger Johnny Collins.
Gabriel held mining claims in Tombstone and in the mountains near Florence. In 1883 he reportedly sold one of his mines for the then-munificent sum of $30,000. A year later he was elected to his third and last two-year term as Pinal County sheriff. He appointed as deputy 39-year-old Josephus Phy. A miner and freighter, Phy had been an unsuccessful candidate for sheriff in Phoenix in 1872 and later served at times as deputy sheriff of Maricopa County. Phy was veteran of several encounters with Indians and outlaws. He and Gabriel became close companions. Both men were forceful and had bad tempers, but Gabriel was the better liked of the two. As the editor of the Arizona Weekly Enterprise put it, Gabriel was “popular with the voters in spite of all his faults.” Richard E. Sloan, then district attorney and later governor, described those failings, saying, “[Gabriel] had a reputation for being exceedingly quarrelsome and especially ugly when drinking, which frequently occurred.” Sloan admitted the sheriff “badly scared” him but nonetheless praised his abilities: “Gabriel was the finest pistol shot I have ever known, equaling, I am sure, the best the West ever produced. It was no trick at all for him to knock over a jackrabbit some 50 yards distant while he sat in a buggy driven at a rapid rate.”
On September 15, 1886, Sheriff Gabriel rode into Florence and learned that desperado and horse thief Ramon Saratega had been terrorizing Bailey Street and threatening to kill a Mexican woman. He turned to his undersheriff, George Evans, and demanded, “What in hell have I an undersheriff for who permits such actions in my absence?”
“Mr. Gabriel,” Evans replied, “I don’t care to come into contact with this fellow, as I might be compelled, in attempting to arrest him, to kill him. Besides, he has often said that he did not fear you and that you could not arrest him.”
“He said that, did he?” Gabriel retorted angrily. “Well, we’ll see about that.”
Confronting Saratega on Bailey Street behind J.M. Ochoa’s store, Gabriel ordered the desperado to surrender. Saratega instead put spurs to his horse, at the same time reaching for his sixshooter. Gabriel whipped out his revolver and fired. The heavy pistol ball ripped through the outlaw’s lower back, struck his horse in the back of its head, and animal and rider collapsed into the dusty street. The horse died instantly, Saratega the next morning. If anyone in Arizona Territory doubted Pete Gabriel’s skill with a handgun, that episode dispelled any such doubts.
In the summer of 1886, Gabriel had decided to return to mining and forgo running for sheriff in the fall. Instead, he threw his support behind Joe Phy. Phy’s opponent was Jeremiah Fryer, a popular hotel and livery stable operator. During the campaign, Casa Grande teamster Tom Montgomery claimed that Phy had disparaged Fryer by saying he was “running for sheriff against a scrub.” When Gabriel upbraided him for the insult, Phy denied making it. On September 25, 10 days after the Saratega shooting, Gabriel, Phy and several friends traveled the 32 miles east from Florence to Casa Grande to confront the teamster. It was evening when they arrived, and the party separated. Phy found the teamster outside the American Hotel and demanded, “Is your name Montgomery?”
On receiving an affirmative reply, Phy yanked his six-shooter and felled the teamster with a heavy blow to the temple. While Montgomery was down, Phy continued to pistol whip him about the head. When Mrs. James Woods tried to intervene, the enraged deputy took a swing at her. As a crowd gathered, Phy backed into the street, six-gun in hand, and threatened to “wipe out some more sons of bitches.” A judge issued a warrant for Phy, and Gabriel arrested his deputy, stripped him of his badge and ordered him to vacate his office in the courthouse. Phy refused to leave, only doing so when the county board of supervisors evicted him. Gabriel withdrew his support for Phy, and Fryer clinched the November election.
This sparked a bitter feud between Joe Phy and Pete Gabriel. Political enemies of each spread rumors and fanned the flames. Gabriel was especially jealous of his pretty young wife, Carrie, who was less than half his age. He became convinced she was having an affair with Phy. Recalled one of Pete’s friends, “It used to make Gabriel furious if he seen Phy and his wife in conversation, even at little social functions.” Once Gabriel was in Sheriff Fryer’s office when he spotted his little daughter outside, passing a note to Phy. Gabriel seized a rifle, but friends restrained him. Phy walked off, oblivious to the danger. The “love note” turned out to be an order for groceries.
On another occasion, Phy was brooding over his problems at home, when he picked up a shotgun and stepped toward the door. His roommate Pete Brady asked him where he was going, and Phy spat back, “I’m going to kill that bastard!” Brady told him if he did, he could never return home. Phy reconsidered and set down the gun.
In the spring of 1888, Gabriel was spending much of his time at his mine in the Dripping Springs Mountains northeast of Florence. Meanwhile, Phy announced he would again run for sheriff in the fall. His enemies taunted him by claiming Gabriel would run against him. True or not, Phy believed it and became increasingly bitter. Some believed he “had become mentally deranged.” Phy and Gabriel met on several occasions, and each time Phy insulted and threatened him, but the former sheriff could not be goaded into a fight. One of Gabriel’s friends cautioned him to be alert at all times. Gabriel responded: “I can look after Joe. Even if he shoots me through the heart, I’ll get him.”
On May 31, 1888, Gabriel, accompanied by a friend, drove from his mine into Florence. On his arrival in town, he was warned Phy was looking to pick a fight. Gabriel, drinking freely as was his custom, paid no heed, and that evening he went to the Tunnel Saloon (named for its tunnellike cellar, where patrons could escape the heat) for drinks with owner John Keating. Bystander Sidney Bartleston saw Gabriel enter the saloon and rushed to tell his friend Phy the ex-sheriff was in town. Phy buckled on his gun rig, grabbed a fancy bowie knife and headed for the Tunnel. Gabriel was resting at the bar when he spotted Phy peering in the window. He reached for his gun, but Phy disappeared. Several patrons entered the saloon, and each time Gabriel dropped his hand to his six-shooter, tucked into his waistband.
An hour later, at 8 p.m., Phy returned. One witness said his pistol was drawn; another claimed it wasn’t. Regardless, Phy stepped into the saloon, setting off one of the most violent gunfights in Southwestern history. Pete yelled out, “Joe!” and both men opened fire at close range.The opening shots snuffed a lamp, and patrons were too busy running for their lives to give detailed accounts, but Phy moved sideways from the door, shooting as he went, while Gabriel returned fire, working his way along the bar toward the door. The men exchanged 11 shots in a matter of seconds. As Gabriel reached the door, Phy lunged forward, six-shooter in his right hand and bowie knife in his left, and fired point-blank into Gabriel’s chest. The bullet tore into Pete’s right lung. Another slug from Phy’s gun pierced Gabriel’s intestines.
The veteran lawman reeled but stayed on his feet, backing out the door and returning fire, shot for shot. Bystanders scattered in a panic as one of Gabriel’s bullets struck Phy in the left thigh, shattering the bone; another slammed into his belly. As the ex-deputy buckled over in pain on the sidewalk, Pete fired a kill shot, the ball tearing into Phy’s right shoulder and slashing down through both lungs. As Phy dropped into the street, he squeezed off a final shot, gasping, “Oh, my God, I’m down!” Keating and Dave Gibson—the latter of whom had killed Jim Levy—rushed to Phy. Keating asked the obvious: “Are you hurt, Joe?” Phy gasped,“Yes, I am gone.” Gibson reached down to help Phy, saying, “Raise his head.” But Phy did not want Gibson’s help. He swung his knife, cutting the gambler’s leg, and snarled “You murdering son of a bitch!”
Bystanders carried Phy to the stage company corral and fetched Dr.William Harvey, who could do little but remove one bullet. At half past midnight, Phy died from internal bleeding. Gabriel fared better. Friends carried him to an adobe house beside the sheriff’s office. Harvey was called but did not come. One story says the doctor was a friend of Phy and refused to treat Gabriel. In another version, Gabriel exclaimed: “What! My family physician treating my enemy before coming here? Tell him I won’t have his services. I don’t want him here.” Whatever the truth, the town’s only doctor did not treat Gabriel.
Pete lay in agony for 41⁄2 hours until Dr. Thomas Sabin was summoned from his home 18 miles away. Sabin told him, “You are shot through the intestines and right lung, and your condition is hopeless.” Gabriel snapped back through gritted teeth, “Well, I had one lung shot away in Los Angeles years ago, but, by God, I will beat you to it and be without lungs and still be a better man than any of my enemies.”
Gabriel was true to his word. Within a month he was back on his feet, and six months later he was in the saddle as a deputy sheriff, hunting Southwestern stage robber Ham White. A year later Gabriel took part in the manhunt for the Apache Kid, who with three companions had killed a sheriff and a guard taking them to Yuma prison. Gabriel eventually left law enforcement for good to focus on mining. For years he suffered nightmares about the killing of his former friend. “Phy’s death haunted Gabriel the rest of his life,” confirmed one companion. On July 30, 1898, the former lawman died from drinking poisonous water at his mine in the Dripping Springs Mountains.
Pete Gabriel was one of the great lawmen of the Southwest, but he is not remembered for that. Instead, rightly or wrongly, he is known mainly for his role in one of the OldWest’s classic gun duels. His remarkable career as a peace officer has all but vanished in that pall of gun smoke at the Tunnel Saloon.
California author John Boessenecker’s latest book is Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vásquez. He thanks Judy Pintar, great-granddaughter of Pete Gabriel, for her help with this article.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.