William Brocius

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William Brocius
William "Curly Bill" Brocius
Curly Bill Brocius in a photo from the Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone. The photo is unauthenticated.
Born c. 1845
Believed to be Crawfordsville, Indiana, United States
Died March 24, 1882
Iron Springs, Arizona Territory, United States
Cause of death Gunshot
Nationality American
Occupation Cowboy, outlaw, rustler
Years active 1865–1882
Opponent(s) Earp family
Allegiance The Cowboys

William Brocius (c. 1845 – March 24, 1882), better known as Curly Bill Brocius, was a gunman, rustler and an outlaw Cowboy in the Cochise County area of the Arizona Territory during the early 1880s. His name is almost certainly an alias, and there is evidence linking him to another outlaw named William "Curly Bill" Bresnaham who had committed an 1878 attempted robbery in El Paso, Texas.

Brocius had a number of conflicts with the lawmen of the Earp family, and he was named as one of the individuals who participated in Morgan Earp's assassination. Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp and a group of deputies including his brother Warren Earp pursued those they believed responsible for Morgan's death. The Earp posse unexpectedly encountered Curly Bill and other Cowboys on March 24, 1882, at Iron Springs (present day Mescal Springs). Wyatt killed Curly Bill during the shoot out. In his journal written in October 1881, George Parsons referred to Brocius as "Arizona's most famous outlaw".


Brocius' birth date, birth name, and birthplace are not known. Because of his nickname, "Curly Bill" Brocius has been confused with "Curly Bill" Graham, a different outlaw of the same geographical region and time period. Graham was killed in a gunfight by Deputy Sheriff James D. Houck on October 17, 1887, and buried in Young, Arizona, and is not considered by historians to be the same Curly Bill of Charleston and Tombstone.[1]

Earlier names[edit]

In newspapers of the time, Brocius was known alternately as "Curly Bill" and "Curley Bill." His surname has also been spelled as "Brocious", although the former is the spelling used for his maildrop in Arizona Territory, according to one published letter of the time.[1]

Historical research into Brocius' death turned up two possible earlier identities. Denis McLoughlin in The encyclopedia of the Old West reports that Brocius was from Missouri and named William B. Graham.[2] He said Brocius rode for various Texas cow outfits and was known in Kansas.


One of the possible photos of Brocius is found in the Bird Cage Theater Museum in Tombstone. There is no way to authenticate it. Two other photos of Brocius were purported to have come from his family. They are also unauthenticated. Brocius was said by several writers who knew him to have been well-built with curly black hair and a freckled complexion.[1]

Brocius was described by contemporary Billy Breakenridge in his book Helldorado: Bringing the Law to the Mesquite as being the most deadly pistol shot of the Cowboys, able to hit running jackrabbits, shoot out candle flames without breaking the candles or lantern holders, and able to shoot quarters from between the fingers of "volunteers." When drunk, Brocius was also known for a mean sense of humor and for such "practical jokes" as using gunfire to make a preacher "dance" during a sermon or forcing Mexicans at a community dance to take off their clothes and dance naked. Wells Fargo agent Fred Dodge reported both incidents in his memoirs, and both were alluded to in local newspapers.[1]

Possible origin in Texas[edit]

In late October, 1880, Wyatt Earp transported Brocius to Tucson for trial in the shooting death of Marshal Fred White. During that trip Brocius told Wyatt Earp that he had escaped from prison in El Paso, Texas. The El Paso Daily Times speculated that he was the man that Texas Ranger Thomas Mode shot in the right ear.[3] According to Earp, Curly Bill asked him about lawyers during the journey, and Earp recommended a man named James Zabriskie. Curly Bill had said he could not use Zabriskie because Zabriskie had years earlier been his state prosecutor for a crime he had been convicted of in El Paso, Texas—a robbery in which a man had been killed. The Tombstone Epitaph reported that "Within the past few years he stopped a stage in El Paso County, Texas, killing one-man and dangerously wounding another. He was tried and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary, but managed to make his escape shortly after being incarcerated."[4]

Later historical work based on these events has linked Brocius with a man known as William "Curly Bill" Bresnaham who was convicted in a robbery attempt in Texas in 1878 along with another known cowboy of the Tombstone area named Robert Martin. The men were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but both escaped, presumably to the southwest Arizona Territory. Since both Robert Martin and Curly Bill became known as leaders of the rustlers in Arizona Territory, they are likely the same Robert Martin and Curly Bill of the Texas crime.[1] Wyatt Earp reported that Brocius told him he was from Texas.[4] According to historian Robert M. Utley, Robert Martin was a member of the Jesse Evans gang of outlaws in New Mexico during the mid-to-late 1870s. Billy the Kid briefly joined this group before going to work for John Tunstall.[1] Evans's gang, a looseknit consortium of desperadoes known as "The Boys", ended up fighting against the "Regulators" during the Lincoln County War. Because of the time frame, the location, and his friendship with Martin, Curly Bill Brocius may have been a member of the Evans gang as well.[1]

Arrival in Tombstone[edit]

Brocius arrived from either Texas or Missouri about 1878 and went briefly to the San Carlos Reservation with a herd of cattle, before arriving in the Arizona Territory.

Shooting of Fred White, 1880[edit]

In a drunken revelry, some of Curly Bill's friends were firing pistols into the air on October 27, 1880 in a dark vacant lot between Toughnut and Allen streets, near where the Birdcage Theater now stands. Tombstone's Town Marshal Fred White attempted to disarm Brocius and grabbed his weapon by the barrel. The gun discharged, striking White in the groin.[5]:117 Wyatt Earp had borrowed Fred Dodge's pistol and he pistol-whipped Brocius. At the preliminary hearing for Brocius afterward, Wyatt testified that he had heard White say: "I am an officer; give me your pistol.” When he got close, he saw Brocius remove his pistol from his scabbard and White grab it by the barrel. He said he put his arms around Brocius from behind to see if he had any other weapons, and White "gave a quick jerk and the pistol went off." White fell to the ground, wounded. When the pistol discharged, Wyatt buffaloed Brocius and arrested him. Brocius complained, "What have I done? I have not done anything to be arrested for.”[4]

Wyatt told his biographer John H. Flood, Jr. many years later that he thought that Brocius was still armed at the time and did not notice that Brocius' pistol lay on the ground in the dark, until Brocius was already down.[6]

White was carried to a doctor and they initially thought he would recover, and the next day he gave a statement that exonerated Curly Bill of murder. But that night White's condition worsened.[5]:117

Brocius later claimed that his gun discharged accidentally and reportedly immediately regretted shooting White. He testified at his trial that he did not consider himself to have committed a crime. Brocius waived his right to a preliminary hearing, and Pima County Deputy Marshal Earp immediately took Brocius to Tucson for trial, possibly averting a lynching, as White was very popular as town marshal. White died two days after Curly Bill shot him. Before dying, White testified that he thought the pistol had accidentally discharged and that he did not believe that Curly Bill shot him on purpose. Wyatt Earp supported this testimony, (ironically, given their later feud) as did a demonstration that Brocius's pistol could be fired from half-cock, and the fact that it had been found to contain six rounds, with only one of them fired (an unsafe way to carry a single action revolver in 1880). After spending most of November and December 1880 in jail awaiting trial, Brocius was acquitted with a verdict of accidental death.[citation needed]

Outlaw Cowboy[edit]

Brocius was an Outlaw Cowboy and a rustler, and was for a time also a tax collector for Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, making other rustlers pay taxes on their stolen cattle (the money went into the sheriff's coffers and added to his salary).

Brocius was known to develop a mean sense of humor when drunk. He was reported to have perpetrated such "practical jokes" as using gunfire to make a preacher "dance" during a sermon and making Mexicans at a community dance take off their clothes and dance naked. (Both incidents were reported by Wells Fargo agent Fred Dodge in his memoirs, and both incidents are alluded to in the newspapers of the time).[7]

On March 8, 1881, Brocius and his friend Johnny Ringo rode to Maxey, near Camp Thomas, Arizona. Cowboy Dick Lloyd got drunk while drinking and playing poker in O'Neil and Franklin's saloon. After shooting and wounding one man, Lloyd rode his horse into the saloon where Brocius was drinking. Brocius and several other men resented the interruption and about a dozen of them, including Brocius, shot and killed Lloyd. Owner O'Neil took the blame and was acquitted.[8]:472

On March 15, 1881, three outlaw cowboys attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying US$26,000 in silver bullion near Benson. Popular stagecoach driver Eli "Budd" Philpot and passenger Peter Roerig were murdered. Cowboy confederates were suspected. Virgil and Wyatt Earp, Fred Dodge, and Harry Breakinridge tracked down the men and arrested Luther King, who implicated Bill Leonard, Harry "The Kid" Head, and Jim Crane.[9]

On May 25, 1881, Brocius was drinking heavily in Galeyville with his friend of several months and Lincoln County War veteran Jim Wallace and eight or nine other cowboys. Wallace insulted Brocius' friend and ally, Tombstone Deputy Marshal Billy Breakenridge. Breakenridge ignored him, but Brocius took offense and insisted that Wallace accompany him and apologize to Breakenridge. Brocius threatened to kill him. Wallace complied, but Brocius afterward heaped abuse on Wallace, announcing, "You damned Lincoln County sonofabitch, I'll kill you anyhow." Wallace left the saloon and Curly Bill followed him. Feeling threatened, Wallace shot Curly Bill, wounding him in the cheek and neck.[7] Marshal Breakenridge arrested Wallace but the court ruled he acted in self-defense.Tombstone Dr. Goodfellow treated Brocious who did not fully recover for several months. On October 6, 1881, George Parsons rode through the McLaury brother's ranch in Sulphur Springs Valley as part of an Indian scouting party and noted that Brocius had not yet completely recovered from his wound but was well enough to ride.[10]

Curly Bill may have first met Pony Diehl around this time as well. Diehl was implicated in several Cowboy criminal activities later on.

In July 1881, Bill Leonard and Harry Head attempted to rob William and Isaac Haslett general store in Hachita, New Mexico. The Haslett brothers killed Leonard and Head during the hold-up. Brocius and friend Johnny Ringo were claimed to have ridden to New Mexico to avenge their friends' deaths and killed both Haslett brothers.[2] However, there were no witnesses to this crime and Curly Bill's involvement in the Hasletts' death has been doubted by many historians due to Curly Bill's severe wounding at the end of the previous month.[10]

In July, some reports say that Brocius ambushed a Mexican trail herd in what became known as the Skeleton Canyon Massacre. Six vaqueros were killed and the remainder captured, then possibly tortured and murdered.[2] Curly Bill reportedly sold the Mexican beef he stole to Newman Haynes Clanton the next month. When Old Man Clanton was on the trail herding the beef to Tombstone, he and four others were in turn ambushed in the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre and murdered by Mexicans. There are no verifiable contemporary reports of Curly Bill's involvement in these episodes, and Brocius was not charged with any crimes related to these events.[7] Brocius had been shot by Wallace only six weeks earlier, on May 25, and again some reports dispute whether he was well enough to take part in these events, as he was reported by Parsons to have been still recovering (though able to ride) even early in the following October.[10]

Assassination of Morgan Earp[edit]

Following the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, Brocius robbed the Tombstone-Bisbee stagecoach on January 6 and the Tombstone-Benson stage the next day. Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp gathered a posse and rode after the men but was unable to find them in the Chiricahua Mountains. Brocius returned to Tombstone on March 17.[2] He was named by Pete Spence's wife Marietta Duarte as a participant in the assassination of Morgan Earp. Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer disallowed her testimony because it was hearsay and because she could not testify against her husband. Lacking evidence, the prosecution dropped all charges against the Cowboys. Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp killed outlaw Cowboy Frank Stilwell in Tucson on March 20, 1882 while guarding his brother Virgil en route to California.

Gunfight at Iron Springs[edit]

The Whetstone Mountains

On March 24, 1882, the Earp party was expecting to meet Charlie Smith at Iron Springs (later Mescal Springs), in the Whetstone Mountains. Charlie was bringing cash from Tombstone about 20 miles (32 km) to the east to help pay posse expenses. As they surmounted the edge of a wash near the springs, they stumbled upon Brocius, Pony Diehl, Johnny Barnes, Frank Patterson, Milt Hicks, Bill Hicks, Bill Johnson, Ed Lyle, and Johnny Lyle, cooking a meal alongside the spring.[11]

According to Wyatt Earp--and an anonymous report to the Tombstone Epitaph--Wyatt was in the lead of the Earp party when they suddenly came upon the Cowboys' camp less than 30 feet (9m) behind an embankment. He dismounted, shotgun in hand, as the Cowboys seized their weapons. Texas Jack Vermillion remained cool under fire and stuck close to Wyatt during the fight. Lacking cover, Doc, Johnson, and McMasters retreated. Warren Earp was away on an errand at the time.

Eighteen months prior, Wyatt had protected Curly Bill against a mob ready to lynch him for killing Sheriff Fred White, and then provided testimony that helped spare Curly Bill from a murder conviction.

Now Curly Bill fired at Wyatt with his shotgun from about 50 feet (15 m) but missed. Wyatt returned fire with his own shotgun, killing Brocius with a load of buckshot to his chest.[12] Curly Bill fell into the water at the edge of the spring and lay dead.[13]

The Cowboys fired a number of shots at the Earp party. Texas Jack Vermillion's horse was struck and killed. Wyatt's long coat was punctured by bullets on both sides. Another bullet struck his boot heel and his saddle-horn was hit as well, burning the saddle hide and narrowly missing Wyatt. Firing his pistol, Wyatt shot Johnny Barnes in the chest and Milt Hicks in the arm. Vermillion tried to retrieve his rifle wedged in the scabbard under his fallen horse, exposing himself to the Cowboys' gunfire. Doc Holliday helped him gain cover. Wyatt had trouble remounting his horse due to a cartridge belt that had slipped down his legs. He was finally able to get on his horse and retreat. McMasters was grazed by a bullet that cut through the straps of his field glasses.[11]

Earp biographer John Flood wrote that Curly Bill's friends buried his body on the nearby ranch of Frank Patterson near the Babocomari River. This is close to the original McLaury ranch site about 5 miles (8 km) west of Fairbank (before the McLaurys moved to the Sulphur Springs Valley in late 1880) and is believed to have originally belonged to Frank Stilwell.[citation needed] Brocius's grave site has never been identified.

Proof of death[edit]

Some accounts dispute whether Wyatt shot Curly Bill. Steve Gatto in The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography cites evidence that Brocius may have been out of the territory at the time of the supposed death. This is backed by a December 1881 indictment by the Cochise County Grand Jury for theft of 19 cattle on Curly Bill. Further supported by Sheriff John Behan's filing for expenses in February 1882, for his deputies going to El Paso, Texas, after reports that he was seen there.

Fred J. Dodge, an undercover operative for Wells Fargo in Tombstone, asked Curley Bill's associates about his death. He wrote that he talked to "J. B. Ayers, a saloonkeeper of Charleston where the outlaws and rustlers headquartered, told me that the men who were in the fight told him that Wyatt Earp killed Curley Bill and that they took the body away that night and that they buried him on Patterson’s ranch on the Babocomari."[14] The Tombstone Nugget first put up a $1,000 reward for proof Curly Bill lived, and The Tombstone Epitaph countered with a $2,000 reward. Neither was ever collected.[14] Brocius was not wanted by the law in Arizona and if he was not dead had no reason to disappear. He also was unlikely to return to Texas where, according to Wyatt Earp's recollection, he was probably still wanted for murder.[14]

Portrayals in film and television[edit]

Additional reading[edit]

  • Sifakis, Carl. Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts on File Inc., 1982.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "About William "Curly Bill" Brocius". Eagle Free Enterprises. Retrieved October 17, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d McLoughlin, Denis (1977). The Encyclopedia of the Old West. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 978-0-7100-0963-0. 
  3. ^ (El Paso Daily Times, July 18, 1883)
  4. ^ a b c "The Killing of Marshal Fred White". Legends of America. December 27, 1880. Retrieved May 27, 2011.  Quoted from the December 27, 1880 edition of the Arizona Daily Citizen
  5. ^ a b Barra, Allen (2008). Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 440. ISBN 978-0-8032-2058-4. 
  6. ^ John H. Flood Manuscript, 1926, p. 85
  7. ^ a b c "William "Curly Bill" Brocius". Retrieved May 17, 2011. 
  8. ^ Nolan, Frederick (2009). The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History (Rev. ed.). Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press. ISBN 978-0-86534-721-2. 
  9. ^ "Wyatt Earp Trial: 1881—A Mysterious Stage Coach Robbery—Clanton, Holliday, Told, Leonard, Doc, and Ike". Retrieved 2011-02-08. 
  10. ^ a b c "Tombstone, Arizona – Historical Accounts". Legends of America. May 26, 1880. Retrieved May 27, 2011.  Quoted from the May 26, 1881 edition of the Arizona Daily Citizen
  11. ^ a b "Wyatt Earp's Vendetta Posse". HistoryNet.com. January 29, 2007. Retrieved February 18, 2011. 
  12. ^ Kjensli, Jan. "Wyatt Earp – Wyatt Earp – man, life and legend". Retrieved May 2, 2011. 
  13. ^ Shillingberg, William B. (Summer 1976). "Wyatt Earp and the Buntline Special Myth". Kansas Historical Quarterly 42 (2): 113–154. 
  14. ^ a b c "http://www.tombstonevigilantes.com/curly.html". Tombstone Vigilantes. Retrieved October 17, 2011.  External link in |title= (help)
  15. ^ ""Let's Hang Curly Bill" (January 26, 1960)". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved January 20, 2014. 
  16. ^ "Robert Foulk". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved February 24, 2013. 
  17. ^ "Death Valley Days: "A Mule ... Like the Army's Mule", October 5, 1968". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved October 26, 2012. 

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