Fred White (marshal)

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Frederick G. "Fred" White
Born Frederick G. White
c. 1849
Died October 30, 1880
Tombstone, Arizona Territory
Nationality United States
Occupation Marshal
Known for First Tombstone town marshal

Frederick G. "Fred" White (c. 1849 – October 30, 1880) was a young lawman, the first "town marshal" (equivalent to chief of police) of the new mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona Territory. White was elected to the town police position on January 6, 1880. At the time, Tombstone was officially still a town, defined as having fewer than 1,000 residents, and did not become an official city, with over 1,000 residents, until a year later. Before that time, White died in office in a notorious accidental shooting, and was succeeded in office by Virgil Earp.

Although White is usually portrayed, as in the film Tombstone, as an elderly or older man, he was actually only 31 or 32 years of age at the time of his death. He was born in New York according to the 1880 Census. Some claim that the Ghost of Fred White still haunts the street where he was shot.[1]

Policing Tombstone[edit]

In the months before his killing, Fred White formed an alliance and friendship with Wyatt Earp (then deputy undersheriff for the Southern portion of Pima County, which included Tombstone). White had established himself as a likable and professional lawman, and contrary to later depictions in film, was well respected by the Cowboys. He often arrested individual Cowboys, but rarely had any problems in doing so. On the rare occasion that one resisted arrest, he used force as needed, and seemingly had the support of other Cowboys in doing so. He got along particularly well with "Curly" Bill Brocius, and Brocius often joked with him.[citation needed]

White was regarded as removed from the complex business, personal, and political rivalries involving many of Tombstones residents. Unlike other city employees (including Earp and his siblings), who owned or at least partly owned many of the towns businesses and tried to steer its populace and visitors towards those under their ownership, White had no personal stake in any such enterprises, settling instead for his regular salary as town marshal. He was well respected by the town in general and by all accounts treated everyone fairly.

Accidental shooting[edit]

On the night of October 28, 1880, several Cowboys entered town and began drinking, with several of them firing their pistols in the air at different locations. Marshal White proceeded to confront each of them, disarming them. All of those confronted by him gave up their weapons voluntarily, without incident. Late that night, White encountered "Curly Bill" Brocius at the East end of town, on a dark street in a vacant lot where the Birdcage Theater now stands. Brocius was intoxicated and he (or his companions) were firing pistols into the air. White instructed Brocius to surrender his pistol. Brocius did this by pulling the weapon out of his pocket, handing it barrel first to White. Wyatt thought later that the pistol's hammer was "half-cocked" over a live round (it was later found to have contained six live rounds), and when White grabbed the barrel and pulled, the weapon discharged, shooting White in the groin area.

Wyatt Earp, who saw the shooting and flash but could not clearly see the action in the dark pistol-whipped Brocius, knocking him unconscious, and arrested him. Wyatt told his biographer many years later that he thought Brocius still armed at the time and didn't notice that Brocius' pistol lay on the ground in the dark, until Brocius was already down.[2] Brocius was arrested by Wyatt Earp and his brother Morgan, both of whom were working as Pima County sheriff's deputies at the time.[3]

Brocius was said to have terribly regretted the shooting of White, whom Brocius apparently liked, and maintained that it was an accident. The next day, Wyatt Earp and another deputy took Brocius to the county jail in the county seat Tucson, possibly saving him from being lynched when White died (at the time, Tombstone had a one room wooden jail very near the scene of the shooting, which was famous for its flimsiness).

White lingered for two days, dying on October 30, 1880. However, prior to his death, he gave testimony that ultimately led to Brocius being cleared of any wrongdoing. White stated that the pistol fired accidentally, and that Brocius, intoxicated, evidently did not realize the pistol was cocked. It was due to White's testimony, as well as a demonstration for the court that Brocius' pistol could be fired from the half-cock position, that Judge Neugass in Tucson dismissed the charge against Brocius.[4]

Despite his regret over the shooting death of White and his assistance from Earp in being taken out of town (Earp also ended up testifying on his behalf), Brocius did not accept being pistol-whipped by Wyatt Earp during his arrest. This was one factor that led to increasing tensions between the Earps and the Cowboys. After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the murder of Morgan Earp, Wyatt Earp pursued and killed Brocius in a gunfight in the countryside outside Tombstone.

White was buried in what is now known as Boot Hill cemetery (i.e., the old city cemetery), in Tombstone.

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