Bisbee was young but already booming in late 1883 when a holdup in the southern Arizona Territory town led to what became known as the Bisbee Massacre. In the 1870s a man known only as Indian Joe had showed veteran prospector George Warren a rich copper deposit in the Mule Mountains, whose twisty, rocky canyons appealed to area Apaches. Warren had filed a claim, but not until Camp Huachuca was built in 1877 could any mining be done. Within a few years, the hard-drinking Warren had lost his claim and Ben and Lewis Williams had started the soon-to-be legendary Copper Queen mine. The mining town that rose in the Mule Mountains, about 25 miles south of Tombstone and five miles from the Mexican border, was named for Judge DeWitt Bisbee, one of the Copper Queen backers.
By the time the territory legislature created Cochise County with Tombstone as the county seat in 1884, the Copper Queen was already producing ore day and night, and a nearby smelter was processing it. To accommodate the miners and smelter workers, wood-framed houses were being quickly built on the steep hills of what became a two-canyon town. Early businesses set up in what was called Tombstone Canyon. Later, saloons came to dominate the other canyon, known as Brewery Gulch.
Jose Miguel Castaneda and Joe Goldwater sold their interest in a general merchandise store they operated in Tombstone to open a similar store in Bisbee in 1882. Joe Goldwater was the younger brother of Mike Goldwater, grandfather of the late Senator Barry Goldwater. There being no bank in Bisbee, the Castaneda-Goldwater store cashed the miners’ paychecks and extended credit to them until payday. Payday was Saturday, and in order to meet the large Copper Queen payroll, cash was sent by stage from a bank in Tombstone. For security reasons, the money was carried on different stage runs. Sometimes the cash was on one of the Friday runs and other times one of the Saturday runs.
On Saturday, December 8, 1883, five men rode into town and stopped near the store. Upon entering the front door, two of them pointed their six-shooters at Peter Doll, the bookkeeper, and ordered him to raise his hands. Doll had been busy with the books, and when he looked up, he froze, too upset to do anything but stare at the men. They ordered him again to raise his hands, which he did. They then ordered him to go into the office and open the safe. He said that he could not do as they asked because he did not know the combination. The two robbers were still insisting that he open the safe or be shot when another outlaw brought back Joe Goldwater and forced him to open the safe. The three outlaws then cleaned out the money.
In the meantime, more Bisbee citizens came into the store and were ordered to put their hands up. Three of the bandits stepped outside to keep others from entering. Goldwater’s partner, Jose Castaneda, was ill and resting in a bed in the rear of the store. One outlaw discovered him there and asked him where his money was. Castaneda said it was all in the safe. The man then lifted him from the bed, reached under the pillow and pulled out a bag of gold coins.
John C. Tapinier, an assayer, was walking up to the store, but he stopped when he saw the three men standing in front. One of the men shot him twice, and Tapinier fell. The gunman’s two companions joined in, and the trio started shooting at everyone they saw.
Anna Roberts was upstairs in the boarding house she ran with her husband across the street from the Castaneda store. Upon hearing the shooting, she went to a window to see what was going on and was promptly shot. Mrs. Roberts was pregnant with her first child, and the bullet killed them both.
Deputy D. Tom (“Pick handle”) Smith came under fire and ducked into the nearest door, which happened to be the shop of a gunsmith named Kreigbaum. Tom Smith got his nickname because he carried a pick handle instead of a gun when on duty. He said he did not want to kill anyone. He must have had a change of heart, because he now accepted a revolver and ammunition. Both he and the gunsmith stepped outside and opened fire on the three gunmen in front of the store. The outlaws immediately returned fire, and in the shootout Smith was killed and Kreigbaum wounded.
Another deputy, William A. (“Billy”) Daniels, was in front of Pierce’s saloon when the shooting started, but he ran inside, along with several others, to escape the rain of lead. Pierce’s saloon was only a vacant lot away from the general store and anyone in front of the saloon was in danger. Fred Nolley was wounded trying to get into the saloon, where he collapsed and died a short time later. Deputy Daniels left by the back door and worked his way around to where he could see one of the shooters. He opened fire, but all five outlaws ran to their horses and rode off.
In addition to the three dead men and one dead pregnant woman, several other citizens were wounded. Indian Joe had been shot in the leg, but it must not have been a serious wound since he reportedly lived to be more than 100 years old, dying in 1930. The robbers took about $2,500, much less than they had expected. The stage with the payroll money had not yet arrived. The entire robbery and escape occurred in less than 10 minutes.
Daniels formed a posse and started after the five robbers. John Heith (often seen as Heath), a member of the posse, kept leading it in the wrong direction, which allowed the robbers to get away. Daniels became suspicious that Heith, who owned a dance hall in Bisbee, might be involved.
Later, Thomas Jarrett rode in from Frank Buckles’ ranch, where he was employed, and told Sheriff Jerome Ward that the robbers had been camping at the ranch. He identified them as John Heith, James (“Tex”) Howard, C.W. (“Red”) Sample, Dan Dowd, William Delaney and Dan (“Yorky”) Kelly. Heith, Jarrett added, had left several days before the robbery while the other four had left the day of the robbery. All but Heith had returned later that evening, December 8, and then had departed for good.
Heith was not aware that he had been implicated in the robbery. Deputy Sheriff Stewart Hunt arrested him while he was walking along a street in Tombstone. Yorky Kelly was arrested in Deming, New Mexico Territory. Tex Howard and Red Sample were nabbed near Clifton, also in New Mexico Territory. Both of those men had been wounded during the gunfight, Sample in the arm and Howard in the back. The wounds were not life threatening, but Dr. George E. Goodfellow treated them before the two were jailed.
Deputy Daniels tracked the remaining two robbers, Dowd and Delaney, to Mexico. Delaney was working in a mine in the Sierra Madre, while Dowd was working in another mine in Sonora. Sheriff Ward convinced the Mexican police to arrest Delaney and return him to the border, where he was immediately taken into custody. Daniels went after Dowd. He got no cooperation from Mexican authorities, but he eventually roped Dowd like a steer, tied him up, put a gag in his mouth and smuggled him over the border in a freight wagon.
All six men were tried in Tombstone in the Superior Court of Cochise County, with Associate Justice D.H. Pinney presiding. The prosecutor was Smith Robinson, and an able defense attorney represented each of the defendants. The trial started February 9, 1884, and lasted 10 days. Heith was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in the penitentiary at Yuma. Howard, Sample, Dowd, Delaney and Kelly were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to be hanged.
The verdict of second-degree murder and the life sentence were not well received in Bisbee. The general feeling was that Heith was as guilty as the others and also deserved the death sentence. Early on the morning of February 22, 1884, a group of 20 to 50 men left Bisbee and rode to Tombstone. There, they were joined by a gathering of Tombstone citizens and marched to the jail.
The group then selected seven men from Bisbee to enter the jailhouse and demand that John Heith be turned over to them. When jailer Billy Ward opened the door and found himself looking down the barrels of several revolvers, he handed over the keys to the cells without a fight. Heith was removed from his cell and dragged to the front door, where Ward intervened. The sheriff demanded that they return Heith to his cell and return to Bisbee. Several men took hold of the sheriff and carried him down the courthouse steps to get him out of the way.
The aroused citizens brought Heith to a telegraph pole at the corner of First and Toughnut streets. A rope was passed over the crossarm. Heith took a handkerchief from his pocket, folded it and asked one of the men to tie it over his eyes. He then informed the crowd that they were hanging an innocent man and that they would learn the truth when Dowd and the other robbers were hanged. He then added, “Boys, I have only one request to make, don’t fill my body with bullets when I am dead.” In the next minute, John Heith was swinging at the end of a rope.
After the lynching, a photographer took some pictures of Heith and some of the men from Bisbee. Then the group broke up and returned home. No attempt was made to hide the identities of those involved in what may have been the only lynching ever in tumultuous Tombstone. When Sheriff Ward came to remove the body, he found a sign attached to the telegraph pole that read:
was hanged to this pole by the
CITIZENS OF COCHISE COUNTY
for participation in the Bisbee massacre, as proved accessory,
at 8:20 A.M., FEBRUARY, 22, 1884
At the inquest held into the death of Heith, the foreman of the jury asked Dr. Goodfellow, “Have you examined the body of the deceased?” “Yes,” the doctor said, “I have. I find that the deceased died of emphysema of the lungs which might have been caused by strangulation self-inflicted or otherwise.”
The execution of Howard, Sample, Dowd, Delaney and Kelly was scheduled for March 28, 1884. A scaffold was erected on the west side of the courthouse large enough to support five hanging men. A grandstand was set up for the anticipated crowd, with paid admission planned, but by the morning of the 28th it had been removed. Tombstone businesswoman Nellie Cushman and friends may have been behind this effort to prevent the execution from becoming a grand spectacle.
Nevertheless, at 12:45 p.m., the five men were taken from their cells in the courthouse and led down steps to the courtyard. They then walked up the steps of the gallows, where they were arranged in a line. They were each given an opportunity to speak, if they wished, before the nooses were placed around their necks. Each of the men claimed that he was innocent, and that Heith was also innocent. They also asked that their bodies be handed over to Father Gallagher, a Catholic priest, for burial.
Ward pulled the lever to spring the trap at 1:15 p.m. and all five convicted men dropped to their deaths. Even without a grandstand, some 1,000 men witnessed the execution from the buildings around the courthouse or while crowded in the yard. Dr. Goodfellow examined the bodies and pronounced them dead at 1:40 p.m.
The February 23 edition of the Tombstone Epitaph carried a full account of the lynching of Heith. Two paragraphs from this article explain why the people of Bisbee were motivated to go to Tombstone and take the law into their own hands:
When Judge Pinney sentenced Heith to be confined in the Yuma Penitentiary for life, for complicity in the Bisbee murders, a conviction seized the people that this man who, in the minds of all, was guilty of planning and carrying out one of the most heinous crimes ever committed within our borders, was not only going to escape his just punishment, death, but that, sooner or later, he would again be at large, breathing the free air of heaven and probably planning more crime, even greater in magnitude, if such were possible, than the late robbery and murders at Bisbee.
This feeling, coupled with the statement that his attorney intended making an appeal in his case to the Supreme Court, and that his father, who is said to be a man of wealth in Texas, would reach here in a day or two, to enter into the defense of his son, were the causes that led to the hanging of Heith yesterday morning.
Today the courthouse in Tombstone is a museum. About halfway down the main corridor, a short flight of steps leads down to an exit door. At the top of the steps, the names of the men who walked down these steps to their deaths on the gallows are posted: Dan Dowd, Tex Howard, Red Sample, William Delaney and Dan Kelly. At Bisbee, the last mines closed in 1975, but the town survived and saw a rebirth in the 1990s as a scenic artists’ colony. In 2000 the population was just over 6,000.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.