Bisbee Massacre

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Bisbee massacre
A marker at the Boothill Graveyard for the five outlaws who committed the Bisbee Massacre.
Date December 8, 1883
Location Bisbee, Arizona Territory, United States
Also known as Bisbee Murders, Bisbee Raid
Deaths 4

The Bisbee massacre, also known as the Bisbee murders, or the Bisbee raid, occurred on December 8, 1883, in Bisbee, Arizona, when a gang of bandits robbed a general store and killed four people. Five men were later convicted and executed on March 28, 1884 for the crime. They were the first criminals to be legally hanged in Tombstone, then the county seat.

John Heath, who had organized the robbery, was tried separately and sentenced to life in prison. He was taken from jail and hanged by a lynch mob on February 22, 1884. Today, the graves of the five bandits are a popular tourist attraction at the Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone.[1][2]

Robbery and massacre[edit]

John Wesley Heath was a saloon owner in Bisbee. Born in Ohio on December 15, 1844, he moved with his family to Terrell, Texas when young. He later got involved as a cattle rustler, and eventually settled in Arizona. At the time of the robbery, he was serving as a deputy sheriff of Cochise County. The county paid so little that Heath opened a saloon and dance hall; he was not above banditry at times to support himself.

Heath learned that a $7,000 payroll for the Copper Queen Mine was being held at the Goldwater & Castaneda Mercantile store, which was the largest in town. He recruited five associates to steal it on the morning of December 8, 1883.[1][2] They were outlaw cowboys: Daniel "Big Dan" Dowd, Comer W. "Red" Sample, Daniel "York" Kelly, William E. "Billy" Delaney, and James "Tex" Howard, all ethnic Irish Catholics.

When they arrived in town, three of the bandits remained outside the store with the horses, while two others went inside for the money. Finding that the payroll had not yet arrived, they decided to empty the safe, in addition to robbing valuables from the employees and customers. According to differing accounts, they took between $900 and $3,000, as well as a gold watch and other articles of jewelry.

As the two robbers headed out the door to mount their horses, the three bandits outside began "shooting up the town" for their getaway. They first killed J. C. Tappenier, a customer in the store struck by a bullet that came through the front window. After hearing the shot, Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith came running down the street and was shot and killed. A few seconds later, a bullet passed through the wall of a nearby boarding house and killed Mrs. R. H. Roberts, who was pregnant. Another wounded a man named John A. Nolly as he stood outside the door of his office. A last bullet hit a bystander in the leg as he was running away.[3]

In less than five minutes, the bandits had killed three people and wounded two others; Nolly died soon after of his wounds. The robbers left town "at a leisurely pace,'" stopping to rob people along the way. At Soldier's Hole, a site east of Bisbee, they divided the money and went their separate ways.[1][2][3]

"A reward of $2000.00 was offered for the arrest and conviction of the persons implicated in the crimes. As the desperadoes, with one exception, all wore masks, it was at first difficult to trace them."[4]

Posse captures suspects[edit]

The people of Bisbee quickly contacted County Sheriff Jerome L. Ward, located in Tombstone. He recruited two posses, the first under his command. The second was led by Deputy William Daniels. Daniels went to Bisbee to begin investigating and questioned John Heath among others. Heath had hidden in his saloon during the shooting. Heath told Deputy Daniels that he knew the wanted men and offered his help. Daniels knew that Heath had an "unsavory reputation"; he later accused him of having led the posse on a false trail.

Daniel Dowd and William E. Delaney were captured by Deputy Daniels across the international border in Sonora, Mexico in January 1884. Kelly was caught in Deming, New Mexico, and the final two were arrested in Clifton, Arizona. During interrogation, the bandits said that John Heath had prior knowledge of the robbery, so the sheriff arrested him for questioning. Heath later confessed to having organized the robbery, but said he had nothing to do with the shootings.[1][2][3][5]

Trial of the five[edit]

The trial of the five suspected killers began in Tombstone, the county seat, on February 17, 1884. All were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang on March 28. Nellie Cashman, a local philanthropist, protested the death sentences.

Lynching of John Heath[edit]

The lynching of John Heath on February 22, 1884.

John Heath was tried separately, on February 20. After the jury convicted him of second-degree murder, Judge Pinney sentenced him to life at the Yuma Territorial Prison. The men of Cochise County were not satisfied. On February 22, a large lynch mob, reported as 50 to 150 men,[1][4][6] broke into the county jail, where Heath was being held pending transfer to the Yuma Prison. They took him at gunpoint and left unharmed his five convicted associates awaiting their executions in March. The mob tried to hang Heath at the county jail, but were stopped by Sheriff Ward.

They took him away down the street and hanged him from a telegraph pole at the corner of First and Toughnut streets. Heath's last words were: "I have faced death too many times to be disturbed when it actually comes. ... Don '​t mutilate my body or shoot me full of holes!" The verdict of the coroner's jury into the incident concluded: "We the undersigned, a jury of inquest, find that John Heath came to his death from emphysema of the lungs--a disease common in high altitudes--which might have been caused by strangulation, self-inflicted or otherwise."[1][2]

While a grave marker for John Heath is erected at the Boothill Graveyard, records document that his body was returned to his family in Terrell, Texas. There he was buried at the Oakland Cemetery in an unmarked grave.[1]

Newspaper accounts[edit]

The alleged grave of John Heath at the Boothill Graveyard, Tombstone, Arizona.

The lynching at Tombstone was covered nationally, reported by the New York Times as well as by western newspapers. A February 24, 1884, issue of the Times said:

As noted above, he declared his innocence.[7] The mob left Heath "hanging for half an hour, when he was cut down."[6]

After the lynching, a coroner's inquest was held, with the jury finding as a verdict that Heath died from "emphysema, which might have been caused by strangulation, self-inflicted or otherwise."[7] A placard was posted on the telegraph pole used for the hanging; it read: "John Heith [sic] was hanged to this pole by citizens of Cochise County for participation in the Bisbee massacre as a proved accessory at 8:20 A.M., Feb 22, 1884 to advance Arizona."[7]

After his death, Heath was described as "a notorious gambler, burglar, horse and cattle thief" by The Kaufman Sun (Terrell, Texas) on February 28, 1884.[8]

Legal executions[edit]

A plaque at the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park listing the names of the men legally hanged in Tombstone.

After the trial and conviction of the five bandits, residents celebrated their day of execution in March 1884. Sheriff Ward sent out invitations to a select number of people to view the hanging from a purpose-built bleacher. In addition, a local businessman erected a grandstand of his own outside the jailyard and began selling tickets at $1.50 per seat. Disgusted when learning of these plans, Nellie Cashman, a local philanthropist, protested to Sheriff Ward, before chopping up the grandstand with friends the day before the executions.[2] During this row, seven persons were injured, one breaking a leg and another an arm.[6]

According to the Tombstone Epitaph, more than 1,000 persons witnessed the hangings. Each of the bandits protested his innocence and that of Heath, lynched a month earlier. Expressing faith in Christianity, they asked for their bodies to be delivered to the local Roman Catholic priest, Father Gallagher. They were dropped together and, except for Dowd, died quickly.[6]

Learning that a medical school intended to exhume the bandits' corpses for research, Cashman intervened, hiring two miners to guard the graves of the bandits for ten days.[6] A joint gravestone marks the graves of the five legally executed bandits, which can still be seen in Tombstone.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Kathy Weiser (2013). "John Heath and the Bisbee Massacre". Legends of America website. Retrieved June 5, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Arizona Trails: Cochise County, Arizona: The Bisbee Massacre". Retrieved June 5, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c Wilson, R. Michael (2007). Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions. Globe Pequot. ISBN 978-0-7627-4389-6. 
  4. ^ a b Cochise County, Arizona/Newspaper Articles/Murders: "Five Murderers Suspended from One Beam at Tombstone Arizona/ A Riot as a side show", Tombstone Epitaph, 29 March 1884, Genealogy Trails website, accessed 18 August 2014
  5. ^ McLoughlin, Denis (1977). The Encyclopedia of the Old West. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-7100-0963-0. 
  6. ^ a b c d e "Five Murderers Suspended from One Beam at Tombstone Arizona/ A Riot as a side show". Cochise County, Arizona/ Newspaper/ Murders. Arizona Geneaology Trails. 29 March 1884. Retrieved June 5, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c "Bisbee Massacre Historical Text" - Page 2, "How An Arizona Mob Disposed Of One Of The Bisbee Murderers"], New York Times, 24 February 1884, at Legends of America website, accessed 18 August 2014
  8. ^ "Bisbee Massacre Historical Text" - Page 2, The Kaufman Sun, 28 February 1884, at Legends of America website

Further reading[edit]

  • Madeline Ferrin Pare with Bert M. Fireman, Arizona Pageant - A Short History of the 48th State Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Historical Foundation, 1875, pp. 231–232
  • Thomas Way, Frontier Arizona (A Milestone Book), Carleton Press, 1960

Coordinates: 31°26′30″N 109°54′57″W / 31.4417°N 109.9159°W / 31.4417; -109.9159