They had known each other for years before the 1900 shooting.
A pleasant, soft-spoken Texan and cattleman by trade, John Nathan Boyett rode into Arizona Territory in the late 1880s hoping to become a successful rancher. Known to friends as “Johnny,” he had no way of knowing he would become a much sought-after curiosity, the object of gossip and speculation, a disappointment to his own family and the man to put the only Earp buried in Arizona into his Willcox grave.
The 1900 Cochise County, Arizona Territory, census records that Boyett was a white male, 38 years old, born February 29, 1862, in Texas, the third of six children. His parents had migrated to Texas from Tennessee. Johnny could read and write, owned a ranch and was single.
By then Boyett had forged an important alliance with the family of Colonel Henry Clay Hooker, owner of the sprawling Sierra Bonita ranch north of Willcox. No photos of Boyett are known to exist, but Forrestine Cooper Hooker, daughter-in-law of Colonel Hooker, left a vivid description of Johnny: “I came very closely in contact with him. My husband had a real admiration for Boyett, who was quiet, capable and educated above the average cowpuncher of those days. He was a fine-looking man, tall, muscular yet slender, with a clean-cut profile, firm chin, blonde mustache and steel gray eyes. I never heard Boyett use a rough, coarse word, and he did not quarrel with other men.”
While working his own ranch, Boyett served as a range foreman for Forrestine’s husband, Ed Hooker, at the Cienaga ranch. It lay just four miles from the main Hooker headquarters, where Johnny often took meals with the family.
Meanwhile, unbeknown to Boyett, he was on a collision course with handsome Warren Earp, the youngest of the Earp brothers of Tombstone fame. Born in Pella, Iowa, on March 9, 1855, Warren was almost seven years older than Johnny. Their relationship remains ambiguous. In 1935 Mary Katherine Cummings (aka “Big Nose Kate”), by then a resident at the Arizona Pioneers’ Home in Prescott, mentioned Johnny and Warren in an interview to a priest. Cummings, longtime paramour of Doc Holliday, had lived 15 miles from Willcox in 1900 when Boyett killed Warren, thus she heard all the news. “Warren Earp’s death in Willcox,” she reportedly said, “was the result of an altercation between two individuals involved in an unnatural male relationship.”
Warren Earp had mostly lived at the California home of parents Nicholas and Virginia Ann until he was 35. Having no known profession except for owning a racehorse and occasionally driving stagecoaches, Warren had drifted in and out of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in the early 1880s when his older brothers were making headlines in the community. In March 1881 he was fined in Tombstone for discharging a gun within the city limits.
Warren was not in Tombstone that October when brothers Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan, with support from Holliday, killed Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton in the street fight known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Nor was Warren in town when gunmen maimed Virgil from ambush in December. But he was in Tombstone when an assassin shot down Morgan on March 18, 1882. Wyatt Earp’s vendetta against the Cowboys followed, and Warren participated in the manhunt. For gunning down Frank Stilwell at the Tucson train station two days later, Wyatt and the members of his posse became wanted men and were run out of the territory. Warren skedaddled back to California and hung around his father’s house in San Bernardino until 1893, when his mother died. Within the year Nicholas had again wed (his third marriage), this time to a younger woman who likely balked at the idea of cooking and doing laundry for a sullen, unruly stepson closer to her own age.
Leaving the nest, Warren Earp spent the next seven years in and out of trouble as he bummed around from place to place. Warren had stabbed a man in San Bernardino and assaulted a professor in Yuma before arriving in Willcox in 1894 and registering in Room No. 4 at the Willcox Hotel. Earp returned to San Bernardino for a while, then returned to Willcox, where he took up driving a stagecoach. In 1895 a local newspaper reported he had broken his wrist in a fall from a runaway stage. In 1896 Warren served an 18-day jail sentence in Solomonville, Arizona Territory, for petty larceny, having pinched $20 from a monte table. Earp is listed in the Cochise County Great Register of 1898 as a 42-year-old barkeep in Will cox. Trouble seemed to follow Warren wherever he went.
In 1890s Willcox both Warren Earp and Johnny Boyett had ties to Colonel Hooker. Warren was never a cowboy, but Hooker reportedly gave him a job as a livestock inspector. Modern-day Earp defenders say Warren served as a range detective for the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, though this has never been proven. More likely Hooker helped Warren find employment as a courtesy to friend Wyatt Earp, whom the colonel had admired in the 1880s.
Meanwhile, Johnny Boyett had invited brother Sam and Sam’s wife, Edna, to move in with him at his ranch. The arrangement, however, did not last long. Sensing trouble, Edna wrote to her family back home in Texas that Johnny had “fallen in with bad company.” The couple returned to the Lone Star State. The June 1900 Hays County, Texas, census lists Sam and Edna Boyett as residents. On March 12, 1901, they would have a son they named Fred Owen.
Had Edna feared Warren Earp? Perhaps his temper, knife-wielding reputation and notoriety as a drunken bully worried her. If so, it likely came as no surprise that in the early morning hours of July 6, 1900, Warren took a fatal bullet at the Headquarter saloon, also known as Brown’s saloon, in Willcox. At the time the barroom was filled with cowboys still celebrating the July Fourth holiday.
Boyett and Earp walked into the saloon together at about 1:30 a.m., arguing between themselves. Both likely had been drinking elsewhere. Some men playing cards overheard Warren telling Johnny he’d learned Boyett had been offered $150 to kill him. Johnny answered that he wasn’t looking for trouble, to which Warren taunted, “Go get your gun.…I have mine.” Boyett shouted, “I’m not afraid!” then stormed out of the saloon. Earp, meanwhile, ducked out the back.
Minutes later Boyett burst through the front door gripping a six-shooter in each hand. “Where is that son of a bitch?” he shouted. The card players took the hint and abandoned their game. Others made a hasty exit from the building.
Earp would have been wise to stay away. But he walked back into the barroom, where he dared the enraged Boyett to shoot. Warren even advanced toward Johnny, jeering as he opened his coat to make a better target. Four shots rang out, perhaps by way of a warning, but Earp didn’t turn away. The fifth shot found Warren’s heart, killing him instantly.
Responding to the scene, a deputy found a penknife in Earp’s hand, though some suspected it had been placed there to give Boyett an alibi. Regardless, Sheriff George McKittrick arrested Johnny. In the morning a coroner’s inquest found that Earp had met his death from a bullet fired by Boyett. At a preliminary hearing that afternoon Judge William F. Nichols, finding insufficient evidence to bring an indictment, promptly released Johnny. That same afternoon a burial crew lowered Warren’s body into an unmarked grave in the southwest corner of the Willcox Pioneer Cemetery.
As a friend and business associate of the prominent Hooker family, Boyett was known to nearly everyone in the area,
and most people who knew him liked him. He and Earp had known each other at least five years before their deadly confrontation. Perhaps the authorities sought to avoid putting Boyett through a court procedure in which he would have to testify publicly about his relationship to Warren. Also, many people in Cochise County still resented the Earps’ escapades in the 1880s and had welcomed the day the brothers left the territory. Warren Earp certainly had not made many friends since returning to the county, and it wasn’t hard for residents to wish him a permanent farewell. Thus, Johnny Boyett walked away a free man, and townspeople quietly swept the saloon killing under the rug.
Not that it could remain under the rug forever. Perhaps fearing retaliation from Warren’s older brothers Wyatt and Virgil, Boyett sold his holdings in Arizona Terri tory and returned to Texas, where indications are he was sad, lonely and filled with remorse. He worked as a miner in a limestone quarry in Comal County and became a recluse, apparently never dis cussing Warren or the summer of 1900 shooting. Boyett died in Hays County, Texas, on December 16, 1919, at age 57, from “gastritis” (the cause listed on his death certificate). He was buried at the Fischer Store Cemetery.
Apparently the Boyett family chose to shun Johnny. He had no wife or children, and the newspapers record no obituary. Even the information on his death certificate is scant. He had been a private man and would no doubt be forgotten today had he not encountered one of the Earps, quarreled with him and shot him dead. Boyett took with him to the grave details of his relationship with Warren, reasons for their tempestuous rift and why the animosity led to the shooting tragedy in a Willcox saloon.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.