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Downing didn’t talk about his past, and his acquaintances didn’t ask a lot of questions

Bill Downing. Arizona Historical Society, TucsonWilliam F. “Bill” Downing was an ornery man with a mysterious past, much like a character in countless Hollywood Westerns. Downing, though, was real if unsung. He is best known for joining Burt Alvord in a turn-of-the-century train robbery at Cochise Station, Arizona Territory, and for shooting a man named Slim in Willcox’s Elite Saloon. Recently uncovered documents suggest that Downing was not just another train robber and not just another killer issued a questionable verdict of “self-defense.” He was, in short, a real bad hombre. By the time quarrelsome Bill Downing tangled with an Arizona Ranger named Speed, an entire town was clamoring for his death, with not a single friend to help him even the odds.

Some contemporaries insisted Downing was really Frank Jackson, a onetime key member of Texas’ notorious Sam Bass Gang. Almost certainly they were wrong; the vital statistics of the two men reveal major physical differences. Other old-timers recalled that Downing arrived in Arizona Territory with the handle Fate Hudson. Evidence supports the possibility that he may, in fact, have been Lafayette Hudson, a habitual Indian Territory offender who took “French leave” and disappeared from the Fort Smith, Ark., jail hospital on June 22, 1895.

Regardless of what troubles he might have had in the past, the man eventually known as Bill Downing drifted into Cochise County with his wife in the late 1890s. Like many other men who appeared in the Western territories, Downing didn’t talk about his past, and his acquaintances didn’t ask a lot of questions. He and his wife settled near the small Sulphur Spring Valley mining town of Pearce, and Bill went job hunting at nearby ranches. But if he had come to the Sulphur Spring Valley to turn over a new leaf, he failed. His past might not have come back to haunt him, but bad habits did, and new troubles lurked just around the corner.

On August 8, 1883, New York natives John A. Rockfellow and Walter E. Servoss, joined by hardened Kentucky adventurer A.J. “Jack” Spencer, rode into the Sulphur Spring Valley and established Esperanza Ranch (NY brand) at the mouth of a canyon leading to Cochise Stronghold on the east side of the Dragoon Mountains. For the rest of the century, the ranch thrived amid rustlers, outlaws and renegade Apaches, and there was generally work for experienced hands. Downing hired on at the NY. Valley locals like Dos Cabezas cowhand Mort Wein at first judged him to be a “very friendly, nice-talking fellow,” but soon discovered that “he’d get more-less quarrelsome” when he was around a bottle. “Downing wer a verry dangeros man,” Pearce rancher Jesse James Benton recalled, “and all wais ready to tell oun the other feller and never wer liked among the cowboys for that.”

The Downings soon moved to nearby Willcox, where Bill joined the band of cronies associated with Albert R. “Burt” Alvord, the precinct constable. Downing quickly gained notoriety when he tangled with William S. “Slim” Traynor, a onetime outlaw, mine guard and veteran “Rough Rider” of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry.

Mustered out in September 1898, Traynor had returned to Arizona Territory, where cattle inspector Edwin Russell Hooker hired him to look after his father Henry Hooker’s Sierra Bonita range interests. A man whom Wein insisted “wadn’t afraid of anything,” Traynor operated out of Willcox and “suspicioned” Downing of brand burning. “[He] was so sure that Downing was one of them that he accused him openly, and until that time, why, he and Downing had been the best of friends,” Wein recalled. “But…[Traynor’s] friends looked the same to him as anybody else—if they stepped over the line and broke the law. So he met Downing and told him just what he thought about him. Traynor hadn’t made no talks in regard to killing Downing, but Downing had, in drinking, sometimes when he’s drinking, well, he had made some kind of threats about what he was going to do.”

On the evening of May 19, 1899, Traynor and off-duty bartender Henry C. Taylor sauntered into Tom Fulghum’s Elite Saloon on Maley Street. Traynor failed to notice Downing, seated against the wall on a barrel near the middle door that separated the bar from the gaming room. Taylor and the former Rough Rider headed for the bar, where Traynor struck up a conversation with bartender W.L. Van Leer. Taylor, meanwhile, spied Tom Burts, seated on a barrel beside Downing. “Come up, Tom, and take a drink,” he called out. As Burts rose, so too did Downing. “Come on, Downing, and have something,” Taylor invited.

When Taylor called to Downing, Traynor dropped his hands from the bar and turned left to face Downing. “I had not reached the bar at that time but was standing to the left of [Traynor] and partly behind him,” Burts later testified. As he approached the bar, Burts continued, “Downing grabbed me by the left arm and jerked me around and back nearly facing him and said something which I did not understand. Downing then fired. I thought when he fired the first shot that he was firing at me and also thought so when he fired the second shot. I think there was four shots fired. During the shooting, the room was full of smoke and the firing very close and just in front of me, and I did not know who he was firing at unless at me.” In reality, he was firing at Traynor.

Downing later claimed that he had accepted Taylor’s invitation to take a cigar. “As I answered, [Traynor] whirled around as though he went after his gun. As I stepped up to the bar, I was watching him on account of the threats he had made, and I looked outside. I thought it was a life-and-death matter and drew my gun and jerked Thomas Burts back so as not to shoot him and commenced shooting. Am not certain as to how many shots I fired.” Evidently no one checked Downing’s revolver, but Constable Alvord’s report revealed that Traynor’s body bore wounds from three bullets. One had torn through his breast and exited his shoulder; the other two had penetrated his skull.

Traynor, in turn, had not fired or even yanked his six-shooter. “I took the pistol and belt off the person of the deceased,” Constable Alvord testified. “I found the pistol loaded with five cartridges and one empty chamber. The pistol was in the scabbard when I took it off the deceased.” Even so, the coroner’s jury found that “W.F. Downing was acting in self-defense and was justified.” Mort Wein argued what most locals knew: “It wouldn’t have been self-defense, because Traynor wouldn’t shoot him without ‘Probication.’”

Several months later, Alvord and Downing conspired with two of the constable’s sometime deputies—William L. “Billy” Stiles and Tom Burts’ brother Matt—to hold up the Southern Pacific’s westbound No. 10. Late Saturday night, September 9, 1899, Downing tended the horses as Stiles and Burts stopped the train at Cochise Station (11 miles west of Willcox) and seized between $2,000 and $3,000. Little more than five months later, on February 15, 1900, Jesse “Three-Fingered Jack” Dunlap, Tom “Bravo Juan” Yoas, Robert Brown, and George and Lewis Owings attempted a holdup of the New Mexico & Arizona’s northbound No. 1 on the Nogales-to-Benson line at Fairbank. Jeff Milton, who had a long career in law enforcement, served as the Wells Fargo express messenger that day. He thwarted the attempt, although a bullet struck him in the left arm between the shoulder and elbow, shattered the bone and left his arm useless. Evidence later revealed that Alvord and Stiles had planned the heist.

Eventually captured and indicted for his role in the Cochise Station train robbery—a capital offense in Arizona Territory—Downing came to trial on December 10, 1900 (Territory of Arizona vs. W.F. Downing, case No. 745A). By the afternoon of the second day, nearly 170 potential jurors had been examined and disqualified on the death penalty clause. “While many believed in capital punishment,” the Arizona Daily Citizen (Tucson) reported, “they would not apply such a penalty in cases where no lives were lost.” With a jury finally impaneled, Downing confederates Stiles and Matt Burts testified for the prosecution. Even so, Judge George Russell Davis’ final instruction obviously impacted the jurors: “The punishment [death] is provided by the statute, and you, gentlemen of the jury, cannot fix the punishment. And if you find the defendant guilty as charged in the indictments, the Court has no other discretion in the matter than to impose the death penalty.” Jury foreman L.A. Smith announced the not guilty finding on the evening of December 12. “The fact is that members of that jury were firmly convinced that the defendant was guilty of train robbery,” The Bisbee Daily Review later asserted, “but not withstanding the Arizona statute making the offense punishable by death, they refused to return a verdict of guilty.”

A federal indictment—attempting to rob the U.S. mail and assaulting mail clerk C.R. McEwen with a dangerous weapon—quickly followed, and the trial began in Tucson on April 4, 1901 (U.S. vs. William Downing, et al., case No. 1461a). It ended five days later with a guilty verdict and a sentence of 10 years confinement in the Arizona Territorial Prison. Inmate number 1733 was ushered through the Yuma prison sally port on April 11. Described as 5 feet 8 3⁄4 inches tall and 139 pounds with black hair and hazel eyes, the 40-year-old former cowboy had a number of years to reflect on his outlaw ways and the dire straits that faced his wife.

Alone and destitute, Mrs. Downing got a job in the Tucson home of A.F. Franklin. Later, on April 17, 1902, Tucson civic leader and entrepreneur John Ivancovich hired her as a domestic. The next morning she was found dead in the servants’ quarters. That afternoon, a coroner’s jury determined that she had died of heart failure and attributed it to worry and nervousness brought on by the conviction and sentence of her husband.

With time off for good behavior, Bill Downing was released from the Yuma prison on October 8, 1907. Confinement had not improved his disposition. Bitter and mean, he returned to Willcox, opened the notorious Free and Easy Saloon at the corner of Maley Street and the Alley (a lane behind Railroad Avenue businesses that fronted a couple of receiving corrals and a number of the cribs) and willfully defied the law—“practically nothing from gambling to shooting up the town was barred,” according to the Arizona Daily Citizen. Constable Bud Snow, assisted by Arizona Ranger William Slaughter “Billy” Speed, arrested Downing on July 1, 1908, for serving women at the Free and Easy. He pled guilty and paid the $50 fine. The next day, Snow and Speed again arrested him, this time on a charge of assaulting a barber; Downing was fined $10.

Repeated offenses prompted a number of Willcox citizens to circulate a petition to have Downing’s license revoked, and Captain Harry C. Wheeler received two telegrams from Jasper C. Page, the Willcox justice of the peace, seeking the assistance of Arizona Rangers to protect the town from the “drunk and unruly” saloonkeeper. As resident ranger Billy Speed was off scouting at the time, Wheeler sent up Sergeant Rudolph Gunner and Private John McKittrick Redmond from Naco. According to one account, the ranger captain “had heard Downing’s threats to kill any officer who interfered with him and accordingly gave Sergeant Gunner specific orders to shoot him, Downing, at the first break he, Downing, might make of an offensive character.” The two rangers quickly reached Willcox, found that “Downing had quieted down and was as docile as could be,” and headed back to Naco.

When Speed returned to Willcox, Wheeler wrote him to keep an eye on doings at the Free and Easy. “As Downing is posing as a defier of the law and threatened to kill any officer who interferes with him in his lawlessness, and as he made his especial threats against you and Constable Snow to the effect that he will kill you both the first time you attempt to arrest him, I hereby direct you to prepare yourself to meet this man whenever a warrant is placed in your hands for his arrest, and upon his least or slightest attempt to do you harm, I want you to kill him, for I believe he will otherwise kill you. He is determined to kill someone, and it is a certainty he desires to murder several people in Willcox, and taking his character and his avowed intentions into consideration, I want you to take no chance with this man in any official dealing you may have with him. Of course I would desire a peaceful arrest, but if anyone must be hurt, it must not be yourself.” Speed took the captain’s instructions to heart.

On Monday, August 3, 1908, Downing complained to Constable Snow of repeated problems with Cuco Leal, a woman who lived at the Free and Easy. He wanted Leal out of the house but did not want any trouble. Snow later recounted that Downing had also insisted he did not want Speed around, and “if Speed ever stuck his head inside of the door, he would shoot [it] off, and if he does not come in, he would kill the son of a bitch anyway, when the time came.” Downing’s dislike of the ranger was deep-seated. While Speed had served on the 1899 coroner’s jury that had ruled Downing’s killing of Traynor self-defense, he had also been a prosecution witness two years later during Downing’s trial for train robbery.

Downing and Leal clashed again the following evening. Ralph E. Cushman, the Southern Pacific agent and Wells Fargo operator at nearby Dragoon, later testified that he had had “some money on the table, nine dollars,” which was stolen, and that Downing “suspected [Leal] of getting the money.

“I told him [Downing] that I wanted to spend the money and did not mind if it was taken away from me,” Cushman recalled. “He went out and upbraided the woman, and she hit him in the head with a glass, and he tried to push her away, and I stepped in between them.”

Leal fled to rival George McKittrick’s Ranchman’s Corral saloon. McKittrick, a fearless and bitter Downing adversary—he had sworn out the two July warrants for Downing’s arrest—was the former Willcox constable who had taken Johnny Boyett into custody for the July 6, 1900, killing of Warren Earp, the youngest of the “Fighting Earps.” The saloon owner again hunted up Justice Page, who issued another warrant for Downing’s arrest. Afterward, McKittrick rented a room for Leal at the hotel and cautioned her to steer clear of the Free and Easy. Page, meanwhile, handed the warrant to Snow. The constable later testified, “[I went] Speed’s house and told him I had a warrant for Downing and that I had to arrest him, and Billy told me to let it go until morning, and we will attend to when he comes out of the house.”

Wednesday morning, August 5, Downing started his day with a breakfast of whiskey and was in an ugly humor. “They are after me to arrest him,” he told Cushman, who had spent the night at the saloon. Then Downing announced he would head for Justice Page’s office. The agent advised him to “act like a man and go down and pay your fine if you are guilty, and if you are not guilty, you could get clear.” Downing walked to the bar to retrieve his secreted revolver. As he moved to put the six-shooter in his pocket, Cushman warned, “Don’t be a damn fool.” Even in his stupor, Downing heeded the caution, replaced the gun and blurted out that they were coming after him. “If I don’t come back,” he added, “the saloon is yours.” He then stumbled out the front door and started down Maley Street toward the Railroad Avenue intersection. It was 6:45 a.m.

Snow spied Downing emerge from the saloon and raced to tell Speed, who was in John P. Cummings’ barbershop. Only then did the constable tell Speed of Downing’s threat to “kill the son of a bitch.” But Cummings had forewarned the ranger several weeks earlier. “Downing told me about the trouble he had with the officers here and about him having to pay fines,” the barber later related, “and he told me to tell Speed and Snow both, that if they ever came to arrest him again, it would be a fight to the finish and that he would get them or that they would get him.”

When Downing spotted Snow on the corner, he hurried to the rear of a nearby shack, ducked inside and glanced out a window as Speed and Snow walked up the street and then separated. Snow walked behind the shack as Speed started down the Alley. After a couple of minutes, their quarry emerged. As Speed rounded the corner of the Alley, Cummings hollered that Downing was coming. The ranger crossed to the middle of Maley Street and strolled toward Downing.

As the two adversaries closed, Speed ordered Downing to raise his hands. He obeyed, but as the ranger approached, Downing dropped his hands and quickened his step in an apparent effort to maneuver into pistol range. Speed continued to yell at him to raise his hands, but the gunman ignored the demand and continued forward. Suddenly, Downing reached behind his left hip, an action that convinced bystanders McKittrick, Cummings and Joe Brady that he was going for a gun. Speed waited until the two were about six steps apart before acting on Captain Wheeler’s admonition “to kill him, for I believe he will otherwise kill you.” Speed raised his .30-40 Winchester and fired. Downing dropped as though paralyzed; he lived for about three minutes. The bullet from the ranger’s rifle had smashed into his right breast, punctured his right lung and exited beneath his right shoulder blade.

Arriving quickly on the scene, Constable Snow removed a watch and chain, two rings, spectacles, two handkerchiefs and $212.55 from Downing’s body. There was no weapon. Had the drunken saloon owner forgotten he had left his revolver behind the bar of the Free and Easy? Jack White, the Cochise County sheriff, thought otherwise. At the time of Downing’s release from prison, White explained, “[he] was looking well and was full in the face. Not long afterward, he was thin, worried, despondent and was drinking hard all the time.” White believed that “Downing deliberately walked to his death at the time he was shot, and that he had made up his mind to that, with the intention of getting as many of his enemies as he could before he cashed in.”

Whatever prompted Downing’s reckless action, a hastily gathered coroner’s jury, comprising several of Willcox’s leading citizens, found that “the shot was fired by said Speed in the performance of his duty as an officer and that he was perfectly justified in the act, and, therefore, we exonerate him from all blame in the matter.”

A petition quickly made the rounds in Willcox that, according to one account, had been “pretty generally signed by everyone to whom it was presented, requesting the board of supervisors to forever refuse a license for the sale of liquors in the saloon formerly run by W.F. Downing, deceased.” In few words, Arizona Ranger Captain Wheeler encapsulated the community’s reaction to Downing’s demise: “This is the first time I have known a dead man to be without a single friend and the first time that I have known a killing to meet absolute general rejoicing in all this town and precinct.”

The wife-and-husband team of Karen Holliday Tanner and John D. Tanner Jr. of Fallbrook, Calif., have co-authored many well-researched books and articles about the Wild West. Karen is also the author of a 1998 biography, Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, about her famous relative. Suggested for further reading: The Odyssey of Burt Alvord: Lawman, Train Robber, Fugitive, by Don Chaput; The Arizona Rangers, by Bill O’Neal; and Log of an Arizona Trail Blazer, by John Alexander Rockfellow.