Wyatt Earp sought revenge for the murder of brother Morgan.
The evening of March 20, 1882, a Monday, was destined to be a momentous one for small but rapidly growing Tucson, Arizona Territory. The dusty village was buzzing with excitement over the first gaslights to illuminate its streets. Even though the lights had to be individually hand lit, they would symbolically usher in a new era for a town eager to shed its wild and woolly image. Little did citizens know that the old pueblo, den of outlaws and gunmen, would not go so easily into the night.
Two nights earlier down in Tombstone someone had murdered Morgan Earp, shot him from ambush as he played pool at Campbell and Hatch’s billiard parlor. Morgan, who the previous October had fought alongside brothers Virgil and Wyatt and friend Doc Holliday in the West’s most famous gunfight, lived less than an hour after being shot (see “The Mysterious Morgan Earp,” by Lee A. Silva, in the October 2010 Wild West). The March 20 Tombstone Epitaph reported, “The funeral cortege started away from the Cosmopolitan Hotel about 12:30 yesterday with the fire bell tolling out its solemn peals of ‘Earth to earth, dust to dust.’” The paper noted that Morgan’s “body was placed in a casket and sent to his parents at Colton, Calif., for burial, being guarded to Contention by his brothers and two or three of his most intimate friends.” James Earp, a saloonkeeper and older brother of the “fighting Earps,” accompanied the body to Colton, where Morgan’s widow, Lou, also waited.
On the 20th Morgan’s brother Virgil Earp, onetime deputy U.S. marshal and city marshal, also left Tombstone, bound for Colton with wife Allie. Four months earlier Virgil, too, had been shot from ambush, his left arm crippled by buckshot. His well-armed escort party this day included brothers Wyatt and Warren, Holliday, Sherman McMaster and “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson. They traveled by horse and buggy to Contention, from there by train to Benson and then on another train to Tucson. The party had apparently intended to escort Virgil and Allie only as far as Benson, but at some point along the route (most likely in Benson, which had a telegraph office) Wyatt received word that the man who had killed Morgan was in Tucson. “We were notified by persons in Tucson that Ike Clanton, Frank Stilwell, Billy Miller and another cowboy were watching every train coming through to kill me,” Virgil recalled in a San Francisco Examiner interview two months later.
Twenty-seven-year-old Frank C. Stilwell was definitely not a Texan, as many writers have claimed, though research continues as to his actual birthplace— perhaps Iowa City, Iowa, western Missouri or Kansas. Stilwell was no stranger to the Earps or their associates. In 1877 he shot a man near Prescott, and in November 1878 he was accused of the brutal murder of J. Van Houten at the Brunckow Mine. In 1881 he caught the full attention of the Earps, and vice versa, after Virgil brought up Stilwell and partner Pete Spence on federal charges in connection with robbery of the Bisbee stage. Wyatt now considered Stilwell the prime suspect in Morgan’s murder.
Wyatt and party were carrying breechloading shotguns,Winchester rifles, sidearms and multiple cartridge belts when they stepped from the train in Tucson. Clearly, they expected a fight. Nothing happened immediately, but the heavily armed escort caused quite a stir. Eyewitness accounts mentioned “four men dressed in dark clothes and carrying guns” and “all heavily armed.” The train newsboy told Tucson baggage clerk David Gibson, “I guess there will be hell here tonight.” The Earp party dined at the trackside Porter’s Hotel as they awaited the 7:15 p.m. departure of the westbound Southern Pacific. Engineer S.A. Batman noticed a man armed with a Winchester pacing back and forth alongside the train and was told it was “one of the Earps guarding a party going through to California.” He later noted that as Virgil and Allie emerged from the hotel, two men with Winchesters walked behind them. “They got on the cars, the one outside still looking everywhere,” the engineer said.
Stilwell was indeed in town, facing charges stemming from the Bisbee stage robbery. And Ike Clanton was a scheduled witness in the next day’s hearing for strong-fisted Charleston saloonkeeper Jerry Barton, accused of shooting a Mexican two weeks earlier. Witnesses later placed Stilwell and Clanton together at Porter’s. Indications were the pair, and possibly other Cowboys, intended to strike again at the Earps.
In his May 28, 1882, interview in the San Francisco Examiner, Virgil Earp stated: “Almost the first men we met on the platform there were Stilwell and his friends, armed to the teeth. They fell back into the crowd as soon as they saw I had an escort, and the boys took me to the hotel to supper….While waiting for the train to move out, a passenger notified me that some men were lying on a flatcar near the engine. Just then the train moved out, and immediately the firing commenced.”
If Stilwell and Clanton were indeed atop a flatcar awaiting a parting shot at Virgil, they bolted quickly enough when they saw the well-armed Earp party on the platform. Clanton again fled for his life. Locomotive fireman James Miller later testified that Stilwell ran “down the track on the east side of the engine and cross the track in front of it.” Stilwell’s movements suggest he, too, was trying to escape. “Saw four armed men pass on the west side of the engine and down to the left of the coaches standing on the sidetrack,” said Miller. “In about five minutes afterward heard five or six shots fired in rapid succession.” Engineer Batman heard “some cheering in the direction in which the shots were fired.” Tombstone diarist and longtime Earp supporter George Parsons summed up the results of that shooting: “Tonight came news of Frank Stilwell’s body being found riddled with bullets and buckshot. A quick vengeance, and a bad character sent to Hell, where he will be the chief attraction until a few more accompany him.” Moments after the shooting the California-bound train with Virgil and Allie aboard pulled out of the yard.
Stilwell’s body wasn’t discovered until dawn on March 21. A track man for the Southern Pacific stumbled upon the Cowboy where he fell—alongside the track 100 yards north of Porter’s Hotel—riddled with bullets. A brief autopsy by Dr. Dexter Lyford found no less than five separate gunshot wounds, which he described as “single ball wound under the armpits, passing completely through the body; a rifle ball through the upper part of the left arm; a load of buckshot passing through the liver, abdomen, and stomach—this was fired at very close range; a rifle ball through the fleshy part of the right leg; load of buckshot through the left leg.” Tucson diarist George Hand noted that Stilwell “was shot all over, the worst shot-up man that I ever saw.”
Wyatt Earp had his revenge with the help of Doc Holliday, who it was said loved Morgan like a brother. Accordingly, Doc had squeezed off a few extra rounds into Stilwell’s body. Stilwell had been armed but evidently had not drawn the Frontier Model Colt .45 found in his pocket the next morning. In a May 14, 1893, interview in The Denver Republican,Wyatt gave his version of the shooting: “I ran straight for Stilwell. It was he who killed my brother. What a coward he was. He couldn’t shoot when I came near him. He stood there helpless and trembling for his life. As I rushed upon him, he put out his hands and clutched at my shotgun. I let go both barrels, and he tumbled down dead and mangled at my feet. I started for Clanton then, but he escaped behind a moving train of cars.”
Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride (which would claim several more Cowboy lives) had begun. Delayed by the shooting, Earp’s posse missed the eastbound train to Benson and hiked nine miles east to Papago Station, where they flagged a passing freight train at around midnight. They would arrive in Tombstone in time for breakfast. Although an appointed deputy U.S. marshal, Earp had operated outside the law in killing Stilwell. The morning after, Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul wired warrants to Cochise County Sheriff John Behan. But Behan did not serve the warrants that evening when the opportunity arose; Earp’s federal posse likely intimidated him.
Within a week gravediggers buried Stilwell’s body at the old Tucson cemetery adjacent to the train depot. Tucson’s Arizona Weekly Citizen reported that the coffin was “conveyed to the grave in an express wagon unfollowed by a single mourner.” Historian Roy Young says the newspaper was in error and that the account should have read “a single mourner, a friend of his in life,” referring to Ike Clanton.
Today’s Tucson Historic Depot [www .tucsonhistoricdepot.org], at 414 Toole Ave. between Congress and Pennington streets, is different than the one that saw so much action on March 20, 1882. Porter’s Hotel is gone, too, long since replaced by the 1941 depot and a dirt parking lot. On March 20, 2005, Tucson celebrated the 125th anniversary of the arrival of rail service to the city. It also unveiled bronze statues of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday by artist Dan Bates to mark the Stilwell killing 123 years before. It seems present-day citizens in the bustling Arizona city wish to remember wild and woolly Tucson.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.