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 T. Heath was a saloon owner in Bisbee. Born in Texas in 1855 to John and Sarah Heath, he moved with his family to Louisiana when young. The Heath family eventually returned to Texas where, in 1875 John Heath married Virginia Tennessee “Jennie” Ferrell. During his time in Texas, Heath was indicted for several crimes including cattle rustling, robbery, burglary, and running a house of prostitution. In 1882, Heath left Texas, settling first in the town of Clifton, Arizona, where he opened a saloon. In November 1883, Heath pulled up stakes gain and headed to Bisbee in the company of James "Tex" Howard. Along the way, Heath and Howard met up with some friends of Howard, Dan "Big Dan" Dowd, Omer W. "Red" Sample, and Daniel "York" Kelly. The three men accompanied Heath and Howard as far as Buckles' ranch, about 10 miles outside of Bisbee. Heath and Howard arrived in Bisbee on November 20, 1883. Heath immediately partnered with a local man named Nathan Waite and together they began preparing for the opening of a new dance hall. "Tex" Howard returned to his Buckles' ranch and his confederates. Heath and Waite's dance hall would open on December 8, 1883 - the same evening as the robbery.

It was common knowledge that the payroll for the Copper Queen Mine was held at the Goldwater & Castaneda Mercantile store arriving just in advance of the company's payday on the 10th of each month. cowboys: Daniel "Big Dan" Dowd, Comer W. "Red" Sample, Daniel "York" Kelly, William E. "Billy" Delaney, and James "Tex" Howard were aware of it as well and decided that they would rob the store and secure the money for themselves.

On the evening of December 8th, 1883. the five outlaws rode into Bisbee. They tied their horses near the Copper Queen Mine Smelter at the end of Main Street and walked back down to Goldwater and Castaneda's. Upon arriving at the store, three of the bandit, including "Tex" Howard, who had neglected to wear a mask, entered the establishment while the other two remained outside. Finding that the payroll had not yet arrived, the bandits 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.

While their three compatriots were inside looting the safe, the two bandits outside, who were both armed with Winchester repeating rifles, began "shooting up the town." Their first victim was assayer J. C. Tappenier, who had just exited the Bon Ton Saloon beside the mercantile. The bandits ordered him to go back in and, when he refused, they shot Tappenier in the head. After hearing the shot, Cochise County Deputy Sheriff D. Tom Smith, who was having dinner with his wife across the street at the Bisbee House, came running out on to the street. He too was told to go back inside. Smith refused to comply, saying he was a law officer. One of the bandits was heard to say, "Then you are the one we want!" immediately before they opened fire on him. Deputy Smith was killed instantly and fell back beneath a freight wagon. Moments later, Mrs. Annie Roberts, who was with child, came to the door of the restaurant she owned with her husband. Mrs. Roberts was shot once, the bullet passing through her body and shattering her spine. John A. Nolly, a local freighter, was standing near his wagon when a bullet tore through his chest. Nolly would die later that evening. A local man, known only as "Indian Joe," was wounded in the leg as he was trying to escape the melee.[3][4]

The bandits exited the store and ran for their horses, indiscriminately firing at anyone they saw. Deputy Sheriff William "Billy" Daniels, who had come from his saloon when he heard the shooting commence, emptied his revolver at the fleeing outlaws, but missed. The bandits made their horses, then turned and rode back up Main Street, up and over Mule Pass and out into the desert night. In less than five minutes, the five outlaws had killed two people and wounded three others; Nolly died soon after of his wounds as did Mrs. Annie Roberts. At Soldier's Hole, a site east of Bisbee, they divided the money and went their separate ways.[1][5][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."[6]

Posse captures suspects[edit]

Riders from Bisbee were immediate sent to Tombstone, the county seat, to notify Cochise County Sheriff Jerome L. Ward. That same evening, Deputy William Daniels formed two posses. The first posse, which left immediately after the robbery included John Heath, Nathan Waite, and Henry Frost (a local gambler and acquaintance of John Heath). Waite and Heath were deputized by Deputy Daniels. Daniels formed a second posse, which took to the field after daybreak on December 9th. Daniels' posse soon caught up with Heath and the others. During the manhunt, Heath noticed that the outlaws' tracks separated with three horsemen going east and the two others going south. Heath directed Daniels attention to this, but Daniels refused to acknowledge the evidence (at Heath's trial, Deputy Daniels would accuse Heath of trying to mislead the posse). Later, when they had lost the tracks altogether, Deputy Daniels conceded. He allowed Heath, Waite, and Frost to follow the southbound tracks (which led them to Tombstone), while he doggedly followed the others. Daniels' posse eventually lost the trail altogether and returned to Bisbee empty-handed. Heath, Waite, and Frost lost the trail of their quarry outside of Tombstone. Exhausted, the three men spent the night in town and, after meeting with Under-Sheriff Wallace (Sheriff Jerome Ward being out of town), returned to Bisbee. Heath and Waite were arrested the following day. Waite was released, but Heath was held in jail as a suspected accomplice.[7][8]

Because he had neglected to wear a mask. "Tex" Howard was quickly identified as one of the robbers. After further investigation, Deputy Daniels was able to determine the names of the other four men suspected of being involved. Suspicion fell upon Heath as he was acquainted with Howard and had been seen in the company of the other four men at Buckles' ranch. the first of the outlaws to be apprehend was Daniel "York" Kelly. Kelly was caught near Deming, New Mexico. "Tex" Howard and "Red" Sample made the mistake of returning to their old haunts in Clifton, Arizona. While there, the outlaws paid a visit to a local bartender named Walter Bush. After they rode out, Bush went to the authorities. A posse was assembled and within a matter of days, Howard and Sample were captured and placed behind bars. Daniel W. Dowd and William E. Delaney had, as Heath asserted, left the others outside of Bisbee and traveled down in to Sonora, Mexico. Dan Dowd was captured by Deputy Daniels across the international border in Corralitos, Sonora. William Delaney was apprehended by Deputy Daniels with the aid of Deputy Sheriff Robert Hatch in the town of Minas Prietas, Sonora where he had been detained after getting in a brawl with a local mine foreman.[1][2][3][9][10]

Trial of the five[edit]

On February 6th, the grand jury "found indictments against Dowd, Kelly, Sample, Howard and Delaney". The men appointed as their legal counsel included James B. Southard, Col. Stanford, Thomas J. Drum, F. V. Price, and Col. William Herring (father of Sarah Herring Sorin, on of Arizona's first female attorneys). The trial of the five suspected killers began in Tombstone, the county seat, on February 17, 1884. The evidence against the men was fairly conclusive. Four of the five of them had been recognized either during the robbery or as they ran from the mercantile. Additionally, there was a chain of physical and circumstantial evidence linking the men to the crime. The trial lasted only three days. After an hour's deliberation the jury brought back a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. On hearing the verdict, Daniel Kelly was reported to have remarked, "Well boys, hemp seems to be trumps". On February 18th, after their motions for a new trial were quashed by Judge Daniel Pinney, the five outlaws were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until they were dead.[11][12]

Lynching of John Heath[edit]

The lynching of John Heath on February 22, 1884.

At his request, John Heath was tried separately. His trial began on February 12, 1884. He was represented by Colonel William Herring. The prosecutors could not produce a witness who could tie Heath to the robbery. Certainly he had known the outlaws previously, but proving he had conspired with them was problematic. In the end, County Attorney Marcus Aurelius Smith called on Sergent L. D. Lawrence, of the 3rd Cavalry, who had been indicted for killing two men during a saloon brawl in Willcox, Arizona and had been incarcerated with Heath and the others since their arrest. Sgt.Lawrence swore he had heard Heath and the outlaws discuss the robbery and how and why their plan had failed. Heath's attorney questioned Lawrence as to whether he had made a deal with the County Attorney Smith to testify against Heath in exchange for a lighter sentence in his own case. Lawrence swore he had not but, in May of 1884, when he came to trial for the murders of the two men in Wilcox, he was represented by Smith's private law firm and tried before Judge Pinney. He was found guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter and sentence to only two years in the Yuma Territorial Prison.[13][14][15][16]

The jury, which split several times over the verdict, with some calling for conviction and some calling for acquittal, finally chose a "compromise verdict" and convicted Heath of second-degree murder [17] 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][18][6] broke into the county jail in the bottom of the Tombstone Courthouse, where Heath was being held awaiting his appeal in the case. After disarming the guards, the mob took Heath at gunpoint from the jail and left unharmed his five convicted associates awaiting their executions in March. As the mob exited the courthouse with the prisoner, Sheriff Ward attempted to intervene. He was physically tossed aside.[19]

The mob took Heath down Toughnut street and lynched him from a telegraph pole at the corner of First and Toughnut streets. Heath's last words were: "Boys, you are hanging an innocent man, and you will find it out before those other men are hung. I have one favor to ask," he said, "that you will not mutilate my body by shooting into it after I am hung." His executioners agreed. Heath was then blindfolded and the noose was placed around his neck. Members of the mob then pulled the rope until Heath was suspended beneath the pole, where he slowly strangled to death. When the body finally came to rest, a placard was placed on the telegraph pole, bearing the following inscription:[20]

Was hanged to this pole by the
for participating in the Bisbee massacre
as a proved accessory
AT 8:00 A.M., FEBRUARY 22, 1884
(Washington’s Birthday)

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 and the Chicago Tribune as well as by western newspapers. A February 24, 1884, issue of the Times said:

...Arriving at the place selected for the hanging one of the party climbed a telegraph pole and passed the rope over the cross-bar. Heath pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and, placing it on his knee, coolly and deliberately folded it, and, placing it over his eyes, asked someone in the crowd to tie it.

As noted above, he declared his innocence.[21] The mob left Heath "hanging for half an hour, when he was cut down".[6]

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.[18]

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 the day of their execution in March 1884. Sheriff Ward sent out invitations to a select number of people to view the hanging, 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.[18]

According to the Tombstone Epitaph, more than 1,000 persons witnessed the hangings. a special gallows had been built for the occasion - one which could accommodate all five of the outlaws. On the morning of their execution, they were shaved and dressed in matching black suits. Sheriff Ward allowed them to walk unfettered to the gibbet and to wear their hats. Once on the platform, the men were bound again. Each of the bandits protested his innocence and that of Heath, who had been lynched a month earlier.[citation needed]

Having converted to Catholicism during their tenure in the county jail,[citation needed] the outlaws asked for their bodies to be delivered to the local Roman Catholic priest, Father Gallagher. Their hats were then taken from them and black hoods pulled down over their heads. The nooses were subsequently adjusted around their necks. It was then Daniel "York" Kelly, his voice muffled by the hood which covered his features, said, "Let her go!" On March 28, 1884, at 1:18 p.m. James "Tex" Howard, Dan "Big Dan" Dowd, William Delaney (or DeLaney), Omer W. "Red" Sample, and Kelly were executed. They were dropped together and, except for Dowd, died quickly. Dowd's body was seen to twitch and jerk for several minutes as he strangled to death. The bodies of the Bisbee bandits were allowed to hang there in the early spring air for a full half hour before they were officially pronounced to be dead. Then, at 1:45 p.m. the corpses were cut down and “placed in neat but plain coffins” and conveyed to the city morgue, where they were each identified in turn by Gallagher.[22]

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 Weiser 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d "Arizona Trails: Cochise County, Arizona: The Bisbee Massacre". Retrieved June 5, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c Wilson 2007.
  4. ^ Tombstone Republican February 10 and 23, 1884
  5. ^ Tombstone Republican February 10 and 23, 1884
  6. ^ a b c d Epitaph 1884.
  7. ^ "The Tombstone Republican. 23 February, 1884"
  8. ^ "The Tombstone Daily Epitaph. 17 February, 1884"
  9. ^ McLoughlin 1977.
  10. ^ "The Tombstone Republican. 19 January, 1884"
  11. ^ "The Tombstone Daily Epitaph. 12 February, 1884"
  12. ^ "The Tombstone Republican. 16 February, 1884">
  13. ^ "The Tombstone Republican. 23 February, 1884"
  14. ^ "The Tombstone Daily Epitaph. 17 February, 1884"
  15. ^ "Territory of Arizona vs. L. D. Lawrence. Case 170"
  16. ^ "The Arizona Weekly Citizen. 17 May, 1884"
  17. ^ "The Tombstone Daily Epitaph. 20 February, 1884"
  18. ^ a b c "Bisbee Massacre Historical Text" - Page 2, The Kaufman Sun, 28 February 1884, at Legends of America website
  19. ^ "The Arizona Weekly Citizen, 1 March, 1884"
  20. ^ "The Arizona Weekly Citizen, 1 March, 1884"
  21. ^ "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
  22. ^ "Dancing on Air". The Tombstone Republican. March 28, 1884.
  • McLoughlin, Denis (1977). The Encyclopedia of the Old West. Taylor & Francis. pp. 132, 143. ISBN 978-0710009630. 
  • Wilson, R. Michael (2007). Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions. Globe Pequot. pp. 67–68. ISBN 978-0762743896. 
  • The Tombstone Republican
  • The Tombstone Epitaph
  • The Arizona Weekly Citizen
  • The Arizona Daily Star
  • The Arizona Weekly Star
  • The Clifton Clarion

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