People change their names for all kinds of reasons. In the old west, it was more likely that a man or woman was running away from something, a result of having something to hide, or possibly as simple as not wanting to be found. This was the case of John Armstrong, who in time would be known as Milt Yarberry —a thoroughly dangerous gunman.
Armstrong was born and raised in Arkansas. Around 1860, the Armstrongs became involved in a land dispute of unknown scope, but it must have been quite serious because John killed a man as a result of it. According to our understanding, the Armstrong family was locally respectable and the incident did little more than bring them shame. For this reason, John Armstrong left home for another county and, owing to the fact that he was wanted for murder, he changed his name. A few months passed and John was living in Helena, Arkansas when a confrontation between he and another man resulted in the other fellow’s murder. We have no facts of this second murder, only the rumor that has followed Armstrong’s reputation. In any case, we know that he fled again, and changed his name.
Calling himself Milt Yarberry, he joined up with the outlaw Dirty Dave Rudabaugh  and Mysterious Dave Mather. In 1870, Mather was working as a laborer and was boarding with a cousin. The pay must not have been enough, because between 1870-73, Rudabaugh, Yarberry, and Mather committed several robberies operating mostly out of Missouri and Arkansas. When the three men were implicated in the murder of a prominent rancher in Sharp County, they split up and took flight. For his part, Mather went back to Connecticut and signed on as an able seaman, eventually making his way to New Orleans. Rudabaugh went to South Dakota where he found robbing stagecoaches lucrative and suitable for his hitherto demonstrated skill set. Yarberry settled in Texarkana, on the Arkansas side. When a bounty hunter appeared in town, asking questions about John Armstrong, Yarberry killed him. A bounty of $200 was offered for the arrest of John Armstrong (a.k.a. Milt Yarberry).
Yarberry fled to Texas and, as many men before him, enlisted in the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers. After mustering in, he was assigned to Jack County  and, although he didn’t remain with the rangers for very long, he served honorably and earned a good reputation for toughness and fidelity.
In 1876, Yarberry was in Decatur, Texas (in Wise County), living under the name John Johnson. Partnering with a man named Bob Jones, he opened a saloon. All might have been well had a second bounty-hunter not shown up asking questions around town looking for a fellow wanted for murder in Sharp County, Arkansas. Yarberry quickly sold his half of the saloon to Jones and left town. A few days later, the bounty-hunter’s body was discovered a few miles out of town riddled with holes from a .44 caliber handgun.
For the next few years, Yarberry kept on the move. In 1877, he was in Dodge City, Kansas; a year later, in Canon City, Colorado. In Colorado, he established a partnership with Tony Preston and established a saloon and variety house. Eddie Foy  performed at the variety house. In an interview several years later, Foy said that Yarberry was a good violinist, but somewhat negligent in paying his debts. When Eddie Foy and Jim Thompson had completed their engagement, which had lasted several weeks, Yarberry and Preston were unable to settle the account. This prompted Thompson to steal a barrel of whiskey and considered the matter closed. What surprised Foy is that Thompson had the guts to go up against Milt Yarberry.
On 6 March 1879, as a result of some disagreement between Tony Preston and a local barkeep, a man who actually worked in two saloons, the barman entered Preston’s saloon and shot him. Preston was seriously wounded and Yarberry joined the posse to pursue the shooter. The man eluded them, but he turned himself in to the town marshal the next day. He explained the he only ran away because he was afraid of being lynched. Either his story was pure gas, or Preston was locally popular in Canon City. In May, when Preston was well enough to travel, he and his wife Sadie packed up and moved to San Marcial, New Mexico. Some writers suggest that Yarberry’s saloon was a brothel, which is entirely plausible given the reputation of Las Vegas at that time.
Eventually, Yarberry sold his share of the business to Steamboat and moved to San Marcial, New Mexico where he rejoined Tony Preston. Preston was still recovering from his wounds. Within a month or so, Yarberry departed San Marcial, and took with him Sadie Preston and her four year old daughter.
Yarberry and Sadie arrived in Albuquerque, where Milt befriended county sheriff Perfecto Armijo. With Armijo’s support, Yarberry obtained an appointment as Town Marshal, the city’s first lawman. He apparently was needed because in 1880, Albuquerque was plagued with gun violence. Within a short time, Yarberry confronted two separate gunmen and , as both men resisted arrest, Yarberry killed them both.
In January 1881, a man named Harry A. Brown drifted into town. He was a self-proclaimed gunman without fear or common sense. Earlier, in 1876, Brown had participated in thwarting an attempted robbery by Dave Rudabaugh and others near Kinsley, Kansas. Although he was never known to have shot anyone, he bragged about having killed several men. This may have been typical of drifters in the old west, particularly those with drinking problems. His drink shortened his temper and he was known for pulling his gun with little provocation.
Brown and Sadie became acquainted, under circumstances that aren’t entirely clear, but by February the two were romantically involved. On the night of 27 March, Brown and Sadie were having dinner at Gerard’s Restaurant. Up until this day, Yarberry was not aware that the two were involved. Sadie had left her daughter at home in Milt’s care while she “took her love to town.” John Clark, a coach driver, had taken the couple to the restaurant and was the only eye-witness to what then transpired.
Brown and Sadie entered the restaurant and were seated. Shortly after, Yarberry appeared walking up the street holding the hand of Sadie’s daughter. Someone mentioned to Brown that Yarberry was coming down the street, so Brown walked out the doorway to Gerard’s. Yarberry walked past Brown with the little girl in tow, took her to her mother, and then a moment later, walked back outside. He spoke a few words to Brown and Brown became irate.
Brown accompanied Yarberry to a nearby vacant lot, still speaking in loud voices, Brown saying that he wasn’t afraid of Yarberry. Before they reached the vacant property, Sadie appeared in the doorway to Gerard’s and called out to Brown. Brown immediately hit Yarberry in the face while drawing his weapon and firing. The bullet grazed Yarberry’s hand. Yarberry then drew his weapon and fired two quick rounds into Brown’s chest, which effectively ended Brown’s career as a gunman.
Sheriff Armijo took Yarberry into custody and held him for an inquest. Several witnesses testified that they heard Brown say on more than one occasion that he intended to kill Yarberry, others testified that Brown had drawn his weapon first. The inquest cleared Yarberry on the grounds of self-defense, but some citizens complained and demanded a grand jury to hear the evidence. A grand jury convened in May 1881. Yarberry’s attorney, S. M. Barnes, Esq., introduced a parade of witnesses on Yarberry’s behalf and the charge of murder was dismissed.
On 18 June, Yarberry was sitting on the porch of his friend’s home, Elwood Maden, conversing with gambler Monte Frank Boyd. As they were talking, a shot was heard coming from the direction of the Greenleaf Restaurant. Yarberry and Boyd ran to see what was going on. The next few moments were confusing and witness accounts were inconsistent. Apparently, Yarberry asked a bystander if he knew who had fired the shot. They man pointed toward a man who was walking away from the restaurant and Yarberry called for him to wait; Yarberry wanted to have a few words with him. Within mere seconds, three shots were fired, and Charles D. Campbell lay dead on the street.
Sheriff Armijo arrested both Yarberry and Boyd. Yarberry claimed that Campbell, who was not known to him, had turned toward him with a gun, and so he fired in self-defense. One of Campbell’s bullet wounds was in his back, but Yarberry explained that it must have happened when, having been shot, Campbell’s body turned after being shot in the chest. Campbell was armed, but no one could verify Yarberry’s story, that when Campbell turned around, his gun was already drawn. Still, as before, Yarberry and Boyd were cleared at a preliminary inquiry.
Once again, some citizens complained that Yarberry was being “let off.” Boyd took his leave of Albuquerque and headed west, toward Arizona . Yarberry was again taken into custody and held for trial. A grand jury indicted him in the murder of Campbell. New Mexico’s governor, Lionel Sheldon , having only recently assumed office, was reconciled to stop the killing in New Mexico. It was the time of the Lincoln County War and a fellow named William F. Bonney was running amok. Sheldon intended to make an example of Yarberry. The territorial attorney general, William Breedon, prosecuted the case. Yarberry was represented by Jose Francisco Chavez and John H. Knaebel. During the trial, Thomas A. Parks, an attorney from Platt City, Nebraska, testified that he saw the entire event. He saw no gun in Campbell’s hand. It was damning testimony.
Yarberry, in defense, pointed out that Campbell’s gun had been fired, and that Campbell had fired it at least once at him. No one could testify for Yarberry, but no one, save Parks, could refute his testimony. Yarberry also testified that he had fired only once, hitting Campbell in the chest, adding that the only reason he had shot Campbell was because Campbell had fired at him first.
The trial lasted three days. Yarberry was convicted of murder and was sentenced to hang. While awaiting execution, on 9 September 1882, Yarberry and three other men escaped from the Santa Fe jail. New Mexico authorities placed a $500 bounty for his recapture. The other escapees were quickly recaptured, but Yarberry was more elusive. Santa Fe County Sheriff Romulo Martinez organized a posse and the manhunt had begun. On 12 September, Santa Fe Police Chief Frank Chavez captured Yarberry twenty-eight miles outside of town.
In February 1883, Yarberry’s appeal was denied. Knaebel filed additional appeals with the federal government, insisting that his client was innocent, but his efforts proved to no avail. In his final interview, a journalist observed that he looked pale, to which Milt Yarberry replied, “Maybe. But I ain’t sick, and I ain’t scared, neither.”
On 9 February, under guard provided at the order of Governor Sheldon, the so-called Governor’s Rifles, Yarberry was marched to the gallows. His friend, Sheriff Armijo was tasked with pulling the lever to the trap door, through which Milt Yarberry/John Armstrong fell. Around 1,500 people attended Yarberry’s hanging. His last words were, “Gentlemen, you are hanging an innocent man.”
Long after Yarberry’s death, his supporters, which included Sheriff Armijo, continued to insist on his innocence. According to Armijo, the issue wasn’t guilt or innocence. The issue was that the more affluent members of the community wanted him dead because men like Yarberry impeded commerce inside the town limits.
- New Mexico Historical Society
- Nash, J. R. The Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994
- See: They Were All Dirty
- The county is named in honor of Patrick Churchill Jack and William Houston Jack who served Texas in the Texas revolution. In 1874-75, Jack County was on the edge of Comanche country.
- Eddie Foy (1856-1928) was an actor, comedian, dancer, and vaudevillian. Vaudeville was a stage performance that included comedy, poetry, songs or ballads, and dancing. It was popular in the United States from around 1875 to 1930.
- Boyd was killed by Navajo Indians the following year.
- Sheldon, a former Union (Brevet) Brigadier General, was a carpetbagger who, during reconstruction, served in the US House of Representatives from Louisiana (1869-75) and received an appointment as Territorial Governor of New Mexico in 1881. In 1886, he moved to Los Angeles, California where he practiced law. He died in Pasadena, California in 1917.