Mysterious Johnny …

Cochise Deputy StarExcept for San Francisco, California, there was not much opulence in the Old West.  In place of lavishness most of the old west towns offered an abundance of saloons, gambling houses, and brothels.  With one saloon or gambling house after another, and brothels lining the entire length of Court Street, Congress Street, Maiden Lane, Sabino Alley, and Pearl Street, Tucson, Arizona stood out as a good example of this.  Tucson was paradise for morally depraved individuals, and it wasn’t bad for those working in the service industries, either.  In 1877, a fifteen­-year-old boy named Michael O’Rourke was in Tucson learning his trade; people called him Johnny Behind the Deuce[1].

Ed Schieffelin was always looking for rocks.  When he wasn’t scouting for the US Army out of Fort Huachuca, he wandered off post into the desert looking at rocks.  People laughed at his odd fascination with rock formations.  The Arizona desert was a dangerous place.  White men with any sense would try to avoid meeting up with Chiricahua Apache Indians, and no one with sense wandered alone in the desert.  Except Ed, of course.  But he was warned about this on several occasions.  One veteran soldier told him, “Ed, the only stone you will find out there is your tombstone.”

Ed did find his stone at a place near Goose Flats.  Ed Schieffelin found silver and he called his mine Tombstone.  Word of Ed’s discovery spread far and wide.  The news acted like a magnet, pulling in a wide range of people: prospectors, miners, cowboys, homesteaders, land speculators, gunmen, and those skilled in the service industries, such as lawyers, gamblers, barmen, and the Calico girls … many of whom made the sixty-two mile trip southeast from Tucson.  In 1878, Michael O’Rourke was one of these new arrivals.  He was sixteen years of age.

Tombstone was an intoxicating town.  In just a few years, the town’s population increased from one to around 4,000 to 5,000 people, all seeking fortune.  Walking down the street, one would encounter finely dressed men in derby hats, high-collared shirts, natty neckties, and fine wool coats; in their company, superbly dressed ladies .  They shared the boardwalks and dusty pathways with smelly cowboys, miners, and prostitutes.

Michael O’Rourke loved Tombstone, where anyone could stay at the Palace Hotel if they could afford the fifty cents per night room fee, which was a reasonably priced accommodation back then.  The hotel had a dining room, private baths to accommodate men and women, and comfortable mattresses that were mostly free from infestation.  But the good news for O’Rourke was that the Palace Hotel was hiring, and he found work there as a porter.  He eventually supplemented his pay from the Palace by working in a local mine where he earned $4.00/day for his labors.  Two jobs helped to fund his gambling addiction.

ORourke M 001When he wasn’t working, Michael frequented Foster and Hand’s Saloon; they served free meals[2] and ran a Faro table[3].  Faro was known for its fast action, easy-to-learn rules, and good odds of winning —when played honestly.  The game uses one deck of cards and is open to any number of players.   During the late 19th century, Faro was the most popular gambling game in the United States (replaced by poker in the early 20th century).  Note: Picture shown at right was discovered at “Find A Grave dot com,” purporting to be the photograph of Michael O’Rourke.  In 1882, O’Rourke was 22-years of age.  This photograph appears to be the likeness of a more mature man.

There was very little human dignity in Tombstone; people of every sort joined in the wild revelry.  “Cat wagons” of prostitutes enticed men to join them in nearby brothels for a few minutes of carnal pleasure.  This too was a gamble because socially transmitted diseases were rampant at the time.  There were drunken fights, of course, but since no one could legally carry firearms inside Tombstone, most of the danger was limited to illegal six shooters, knives, and broken whiskey bottles.  Drunks and rabble-rousers usually ended up in the town jail, paid a fine the next morning, and rejoined in the fun again the next evening.

Sometime in 1880, Michael pulled up stakes and crossed the San Pedro River into Charleston, a wild  boom town where one’s daily routine consisted of gambling, visiting with the painted ladies, fighting, swearing, and drinking rot-gut whiskey.  Eighteen-year-old Michael did come to think highly of himself, but it was not an opinion shared by anyone in Charleston … until the event of 14 January 1881.

On that day, Quinn’s Saloon was crammed with miners, cowboys, and soldiers from Fort Huachuca.  Mining engineer W. P. Schneider decided to cash in his gambling chips.  He’d had enough and had lost a fortune in an all­­-night game of cards.  Getting up from the table, Schneider suggested that the winner of the night was a card cheat.  He directed his comment toward  Michael O’Rourke, who responded in kind.  Both men went for their pistols; Michael was a bit faster on the draw and in an instant, the popular Schneider lay dead on the filthy floor of Quinn’s Saloon.  Quite suddenly, Michael O’Rourke was somebody.  He was, in fact, the lone prisoner of town constable George McKelvey, who promptly arrested him after the shooting.

John Ringo

Gunman Johnny Ringo

Schneider, as it turns out, had made substantial contributions to the growth of Charleston.  More than this, he was well-liked by the miners who worked for Schneider.  The more these men drank that night, the angrier they became over the fact that Michael O’Rourke had shot down “a good man.”  Eventually, the talk turned to justice, and as the night wore on, lynching Johnny Behind the Deuce seemed more and more like a good idea.  The miners were egged on by the gun-slinger Johnny Ringo[4].  In a few hours, miners gathered in the street outside Quinn’s Saloon.  Someone fetched a rope.  Well­-armed men with too much whiskey and too little sense began to suggest that they could overwhelm the town police, which consisted of one man: Constable McKelvey.

While it was true that George McKelvey was only one man, it was also a fact that McKelvey had sand.  There was  no way he would turn over his prisoner to a mob.  McKelvey hitched up a couple of mules to a buckboard wagon, loaded his prisoner into the back of it, and galloped toward Tombstone with the drunken mob of miners in hot pursuit.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

Two miles outside of Tombstone, the mounted mob was within rifle range of McKelvey and O’Rourke.  Bullets whizzed around the two men all the way into town and by the time the wagon reached Jack McCann’s “Last Chance Saloon,” the poor animals collapsed from exhaustion.  McKelvey dragged his prisoner through the bar wing doors of the nearby Oriental Saloon, where the lawman Wyatt Earp sat gambling.  McKelvey yelled out that two hundred vigilantes were pursuing him.  Earp told his two brothers, Morgan and James, to take O’Rourke over to Jim Vogan’s bowling alley.  “If they get past me,” he instructed, “give him a gun and turn him loose.”

Vogan’s Bowling Alley had high walls.  Earp, cradling a shotgun, stepped in front of the miners, which stopped them in their tracks.  “Drag him out!” someone shouted.

Wyatt calmly replied, “Don’t make any foolish plays, boys.  The price you’ll pay won’t be worth that tinhorn inside.”

One of the mobsters answered, “Earp can’t stop us all.”  Earp cocked both hammers of the scattergun, the sound carrying into the street.  The shotgun’s two large barrels made an impression to those standing in the front, nearest Earp; two blasts would shred the men, and Earp was wearing sidearms, as well.

While Wyatt Earp confronted the miners, Tombstone Town Marshal Ben Sippy, Virgil Earp, and Johnny Behan loaded O’Rourke into another wagon and raced off toward Benson, where O’Rourke was escorted by train to Tucson.  Charged with murder, O’Rourke was turned over to Tucson Undersheriff Charlie Shibell to await trial.

Michael O’Rourke was not particularly fond of life in jail and made two escape attempts.  The first was unsuccessful, but on 14 April 1881, he made good his escape.  The Tucson jail was adjacent to the Leatherwood Corral, owned and operated by Mr. Jimmy Carroll.  O’Rourke scaled the wall into the corral, crept northeast toward Church Street, passed through the alley next to the IXL Lodging House, and made his way past the Southern Pacific railway tracks toward the Santa Catalinas.  He had a good head start on Sheriff Shibell, who mounted a posse.  Despite using Indian trackers, any indication of where O’Rourke went next disappeared near the Papago settlement some two miles outside town.

Johnny Behind the Deuce disappeared from history.  Disappeared means exactly that, but rumors of his whereabouts continued for quite some time.  Some of these had him living in New Mexico, others claim that he continued living in Cochise County, Arizona until one night, he crept upon the sleeping Johnny Ringo along Turkey Creek and shot him through the head.  There is no substance to any of these rumors, of course; that’s why they remain rumors.  There is also no evidence that Wyatt Earp held off a lynch mob with a shotgun to save O’Rourke from a necktie party.  We do know this incident occurred, however, from a report published by the Tombstone Epitaph the next day:

“In a few minutes, Allen Street (in Tombstone) was jammed with an excited crowd, rapidly augmented by scores [of men] from all directions.  By this time, Marshal Sippy, realizing the situation at once, in light of the repeated murders that have been committed and the ultimate liberty of the offenders[5], had secured a well-armed posse of over a score of men to prevent any attempt on the part of the crowd to lynch the prisoner; but feeling that no guard would be strong enough to resist a justly enraged public long, procured a light wagon in which the prisoner was placed, guarded by himself, Virgil Earp, and Deputy Sheriff Behan, assisted by a strong posse well­-armed with rifles and shotguns.  At this juncture, a well-known individual with more [averdupois][6] than brains, called to the officers to turn loose and fire into the crowd.  But Marshal Sippy’s sound judgment prevented any such outbreak as would have been the certain result, and cool as an iceberg he held the crowd in check.  No one who was a witness of yesterday proceedings can doubt that, but for his presence, blood would have flown freely.  The posse following would not have been considered; but, bowing to the majesty of the law, the crowd subsided, and the wagon proceeded on its way to Benson with the prisoner, who by daylight this morning was lodged in the Tucson Jail.”

All we know for certain is that Johnny Behind the Deuce appeared from nowhere and then, a few years later, he vanished from the face of the earth.


[1] Michael was a gambler, but not a very good one.  He became known as Johnny Behind the Deuce because he would frequently bet heavily when he was holding no more than a deuce in his hand.

[2] In many respects, modern-day Las Vegas, Nevada parallels old Tombstone.  Las Vegas offers low-cost meals and hotel accommodations.  Of course, the mattresses are uncomfortable because the casino owners prefer that their clients gamble all night rather than getting a good night’s sleep.  Whatever the hotel owners loose in the cost of hotel rooms and fine dining they make back in gambling losses.  The house always wins.

[3] Also called Pharaoh, Pharao, and Farobank.  The game originated in France in the late 17th century, derived from Bassett and Monte Bank family of games.  The wealthiest people played Bassett because only they could afford significant losses.  Monte Bank was a Spanish game that later became the national card game of Mexico.  In this game, the dealer pays on matching cards.  The swindle game three-card monte is a variety of Monte Bank.

[4] See also: The Hoodoo War; Cowboys and Carpetbaggers.

[5] The Epitaph was referring to the recent release of the accused murderer Curly Bill Brocius.

[6] The word used was likely intended to be “avoirdupois,” which means bulk, heftiness, weightiness.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mysterious Johnny …

  1. Andy says:

    An intriguing story. The old West might have lacked opulence, but it made up for that in interesting characters, places, and, of course, pastimes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kidme37 says:

    Even in the 1980’s when I visited Tombstone, it wasn’t much to look at.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: An Act: To Provide for the Protection of Texas | Old West Tales

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