His opponent was a disoriented, hair-trigger saloon owner.
It was a close-quarters gunfight between lawman and killer—the kind of sudden, violent exchange that bears all the hallmarks of a classic Old West shootout. And though the encounter sounds like it might have taken place in Tombstone in the 1880s, it actually unfolded in the mining community of Jerome, Arizona, in May 1912, less than two months after Arizona became the 48th state. David Schreiber was the hard case involved, while his opponent was Johnny Hudgens, a stalwart lawman who is little remembered today.
Although overshadowed by Tombstone, Arizona Territory’s most celebrated mining town, Jerome also boasts a rich history. Sinagua Indians mined the area as far back as 1,000 years ago, while early Spanish explorers found rich copper deposits here as early as 1583. In 1876 a band of prospectors rediscovered the original ore bodies and several new pockets along the steep slopes of today’s Mingus Mountain. In 1882 Frederick Augustus Tritle, who would later serve as Arizona’s territorial governor, purchased an interest in the claims and organized the United Verde Copper Company. Tritle named the new camp in honor of Eugene Jerome, secretary and treasurer of the company. Despite an initial boom, Tritle suffered heavy reverses and eventually sold out. The new owners improved the mines and built roadways to connect the remote camp to a railhead. Within a few years, Jerome was again in the money.
Like many boomtowns, Jerome had its period of lawlessness. In 1895 the community recorded its first killing. The unlucky victim was Charles Ward. He and a railroad engineer named Jake Brown got into an argument, and Brown promptly shot Ward to death. A New York Sun dispatch derided the town for its many saloons, brothels and opium dens, calling it the “Wickedest Town in America.” But the moneymakers in Jerome weren’t complaining. By 1900 it was the fourth-largest community in the territory, with some 3,000 residents, and the local mines were producing 3 million pounds of copper a month. By 1910 the town had mostly outlived its youthful indiscretions. Then, that summer, Jerome’s popular lawman Charlie King was killed in the line of duty. Recruited as his replacement was Johnny Hudgens, former city marshal of Ely, Nev.
Born in 1880, John William Hudgens was elected Ely’s youngest city marshal in 1904. Johnny was a boyish, affable fellow, but when facing down criminals, he transformed into a fearless, deadly adversary with frosty eyes and ice water in his veins. He established his reputation when he surprised and single-handedly subdued four criminals. Disarmed early in the encounter, he engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat with the foursome. Hudgens made headlines for dispatching one of the attackers with a well-placed blow to the head with a pair of handcuffs. Jerome City Marshal Fred Hawkins had heard of Hudgens’ heroics in Nevada and, in the wake of King’s death, asked him to join the police force. Having lived in Jerome as a youth, Hudgens accepted the position and returned to Arizona.
Soon after his appointment, Hudgens was forced to kill. In a situation eerily similar to the King killing, Hudgens responded to a report of a disturbance at a local boarding house. While speaking with the woman of the house, the lawman noticed the silhouette of a man pulling a pistol. Hudgens pulled his own gun in response. The would-be assassin rushed him, and the two engaged in a violent struggle, during which the man bit off part of Hudgens’ thumb. Hudgens was able to free his pistol and shot his attacker in the gut. A year later, he stopped another would-be killer dead with a shotgun blast. In his first two years in Jerome, Hudgens had killed two men, shot two more and engaged in fisticuffs several times, all in the name of the law. That resolve would be severely tested on May 1, 1912.
About 6 o’clock that morning David Schreiber, owner of the Kentucky Saloon, awoke, dressed and headed downtown. Schreiber had a long rap sheet in Jerome, and many townsfolk thought he suffered from dementia. It was rent day, and Schreiber went to collect. The Kentucky was not yet open for business, however, and Schreiber mistakenly strode into neighboring Vogel’s Saloon.
Behind the bar stood young Walter Vogel, nephew of the owner. When Schreiber demanded the rent, Vogel politely dismissed him. Enraged, Schreiber yanked a pistol from his waistband and shot Vogel. The gunman ran off as the mortally injured young man slumped to the saloon floor.
Informed of the shooting, Hudgens headed uptown to the Montana Hotel, where Schreiber lived. The clerk said he had not seen the killer. After a quick survey of the lobby, Hudgens went to check the hotel’s large porch. As he started through the front door, the lawman noticed a man headed toward him, arms by his side. When Hudgens opened the door to let him pass, the man whirled around. It was Schreiber, and he was holding the death-dealing pistol in his hand.
Schreiber raised the gun and fired, the shot striking Hudgens’ left shoulder and dropping him to his knees. Hudgens drew his automatic, but in the heat of the moment failed to fully depress its safety. Finally releasing the catch, he shot Schreiber in the leg, dropping the gun-wielding madman. As Hudgens later testified, he only wanted to disable his quarry, but Schreiber pressed the issue, so the lawman aimed for more “vital” areas.
Barely four feet apart, the men rapidly exchanged shots. Hudgens later said he thought his automatic had “hung fire” (jammed), so he pulled his backup revolver. Actually, the lawman had fired the automatic’s complement of cartridges. Wreathed in smoke Hudgens described as “so thick I could not see very well,” the officer emptied the backup at his adversary.
The fight was over. Hudgens had only suffered the shoulder wound; he picked himself up and sought treatment. David Schreiber’s body bore 14 holes. Only one of the marshal’s bullets had missed. Near death, Schreiber was carried to the same hospital where young Vogel lay mortally wounded. Both men would die before noon. As for Hudgens, less than two months later he was back on duty.
The shootout at the Montana solidified Hudgens’ reputation as a fearless lawman. He would stay on the Jerome police force until a change in city management led to his dismissal. It marked the last time he wore a badge. In 1918 Hudgens moved his family to Oregon, where he built submarines for the war effort. But by the early 1920s, he was back in Jerome, engaged in the freighting business. He died in 1946. As for Jerome, many historic structures remain. It is a tourist town/artist colony and has been called the “largest ghost town in America.”
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.