The United States is a nation of immigrants. Between 1580 and 1775, the population of Europeans went from zero to around 3.5 million. They arrived in waves, of course, and the attitudes toward new arrivals vacillated between enthusiastic welcome and dark exclusion. European settlements began to dot the Eastern seaboard in the early 1600s. The Spanish settled Florida, the British in New England and Virginia, the Dutch in New York, and the Swedes in Delaware. Some of these people came for religious reasons, others were drawn to the prospect of a new beginning, and some to escape poverty, landlessness, and authoritarianism. The first arrivals laid claim to the best property nearest the seacoast; later arrivals claimed the western lands. By the mid-1700s, much of the Eastern seaboard lands had been taken, which meant that later arrivals were forced further west, beyond the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and eventually, to its western slopes.
Immigrants arriving in waves is a good analogy; there was a continuous influx of humanity, which forced the new Americans westward, always westward. In this sense, the American frontier may have been more of a necessity than an inspiration. Still, either way, it was a challenge to a people whose courage matched their determination.
I do not believe most of us can imagine the difficulty of the challenges facing the westward migrants. Severe injury and death were always “just around the corner.” There were no doctors of any merit in those early days, so people who were seriously injured probably died from those injuries. Disease was another major killer, along with drowning in the numerous streams, creeks, and rivers — particularly during seasonal floods. Predatory animals posed a genuine concern, but they were of less concern to the Europeans than predacious Indians.
The frontiersmen moved westward in spurts; some of the settlers made a westward leap more than once. Of course, the settlements were necessary for survival and unknown to the migrants, stepping stones toward the future. The barely adequate settlements transitioned into villages, and then towns, and then cities and the ever-westward moving people became the seeds from which America flowered.
In bits and pieces, the frontier shrank until finally, it disappeared completely. Before then, just outside the villages and towns, within a few hundred meters, the wilderness resumed. Today’s old west towns were once part of that American frontier — all of them at one time vibrant and alive with a wide variety of human beings. Some of these people remained behind as the westward trek continued for others. They put down their roots … at least for a time. One of the oldest settlements (dating to 1775) was Tucson, Arizona, a major US city that flourishes. A few miles away, to the southeast, there is another old town. It isn’t as old as Tucson, of course, but it still exists — but only as a tourist trap. They call it Tombstone (established in 1879). Tres Alamos was a thriving town in 1875; it became one of many ghost towns in fourteen years.
Life was unbelievably difficult for many men and women who became the westward pioneers. I am sure that the frontier men and women always did their best to raise their children, but there were occasions when their best simply wasn’t good enough. Frontier families were always under a lot of stress. Approaching their breaking point, angry fathers and mothers became disinterested in their children. In some cases, the children were “just another place at the table.” Daughters were “married off” at an early age. Boys as young as twelve left home to find their way in the world. In the mid-1800s, boys weren’t runaways — they were people looking for work.
Impact of the Civil War
Two million soldiers fought for the Union; 750,000 fought for the Confederacy. Most of the men who fought, regardless of which uniform they wore, were farmers. The average civil war soldier was in his early twenties. If there was only one accomplishment of the American Civil War, it produced men capable of remorseless killing — a true statement no matter which side the soldier served. When these young men returned to their homes, they found one of two things: destroyed homesteads or unemployment. If things were wrong in the northern states, it was doubly so in the south. Within the former Confederate states, reconstruction was nowhere more difficult than in Texas.
Whether they left home at an early age or returned home to destroyed communities, many of these boys emerged from their circumstances as troubled persons. Most of them were entirely too susceptible to the harmful influences of their peers. In almost every case, troubled young men turned into dangerous young men.
John Heath’s Master Plan
One such lad was a fellow named John Wesley Heath. We don’t know much about his early years. Some historians claim that he was born in Ohio in 1844; others say he was born in Texas in 1855, but according to “Find-A-Grave,” he was born in 1851 in Bowie County, Texas. Either way, while living with his parents in Terrell, Texas, the teenaged John was implicated in two serious incidents: cattle rustling, and the other was armed robbery, although no one was ever charged. It is uncertain whether the incident was related to a family enterprise. When John was 20-years old, he married Jenny Ferrell, but their marriage is about all historians know about Miss Jenny.
Cochise County, Arizona, was a wild and dangerous place in the 1880s, and for several reasons. The discovery of silver in Cochise Country drew thousands of prospectors and miners looking for that vein of ore that would make them rich. To accommodate these men when they weren’t inside the mines, and to help them decide where to spend their money, dozens of saloons provided all the usual entertainments: rotgut whiskey, gambling tables, and painted ladies. Such amusements were available around the clock. The County was also rife with corrupt politicians, lawmen, and judges. Opposing outlaw groups fought one another in the streets, and more than a few merchants were willing to do anything for a fast buck.
And then there was a loose collection of misfits and cowhands who individually and collectively posed a real danger to the innocent town folk. They called themselves The Cowboys, easily identified by the red sash they wore around their waists. They were dangerous men whose names were John Ringo, Billy Brocius, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury — to name a few.
Of all the criminal elements in Cochise County (the drunks, gamblers, cheats, and gunmen), the Cowboys were the worst of the lot — dangerous men who were bullies, thieves, and terrorists. They operated with impunity in Southeast Arizona, aided and abetted by county lawmen. They also made frequent raids into Mexico where they rustled cattle and horses, raped, pillaged local rancheros, and set fire to ranchos and graneros — warnings to the owners of Mexican haciendas not to resist their decadent behaviors. The stolen cattle were often sold to butchers in Benson, Bisbee, Charleston, Douglas, and Tombstone, who made a good living by offering stolen meat to their town folk, which the townies were happy to buy at reduced prices.
John Heath was living in Bisbee, Cochise County, Arizona, in 1880, where briefly employed as a deputy sheriff. The pay for this kind of work was relatively low, and the deputy’s duties mind-numbingly dull. Low income and idle hands too often led old west lawmen, like John, to find other ways to line his pockets — in many cases, money earned by breaking the laws they were sworn to uphold.
Eventually, John Heath gave up his position as a deputy to open up a Bisbee saloon. By every account, Heath made a good living in the entertainment industry. The Cowboys were his frequent customers. Of course, while John made good money, there was never enough, so John Heath sat down and thought about increasing his bottom line. Assisting John were his good friends, fellows named James “Tex” Howard, “Big Dan” Dowd, Omer “Red” Sample, Billy DeLaney, and Dan “York” Kelly.
Since there was no bank in Bisbee, the Copper Queen Mine owners contracted with the Goldwater & Castaneda Mercantile Store to receive and store their payroll until dispensed to their employees. Typically, the monthly payroll money amounted to around $7,000.00, arriving in Bisbee one or two days in advance of the company’s scheduled “payday,” the tenth of each month.
Heath’s associates rode into Bisbee on the evening of 8 December 1883 and tethered their horses to the hitching rail outside the company’s smelter at the end of Main Street. Tex Howard led two of the men into the store while two others remained outside. Unlike the other boys, Tex had left his kerchief at home that day, so of the three, Tex was the only man the store clerk and customers could later identify. Tex entered the store brandishing his pistol. “I’ll be taking the mine payroll,” he announced.
The one snag in Heath’s plan, which came as a surprise to Tex Howard, was that the payroll was late to arrive. Howard, who was known for his somewhat grumpy disposition, was not happy to hear this news. He raised enough of a fuss that the two outside men quickly put on their face masks and ran inside.
Tex Howard forced the store owner to open his safe, which contained around $800 and a gold watch. It was far less money than Howard expected and, since his mood hadn’t changed significantly, he decided to rob everyone inside the store, as well. The two backup cowboys went back outside to “keep watch.”
Thanks to Howard’s cussing and shouting, the town folk were aware that something was going on inside the G & C store. As local assayer, Mr. J. C. Tappenier left the Bon Ton Saloon, which was next door to the mercantile store, one of the cowboys ordered him back inside. Tappenier, who may have had a few too many drinks, belligerently answered, “I will not go back inside.” One of the lookouts, armed with a rifle, shot Mr. Tappenier dead.
At that moment, Cochise County Deputy Sheriff D. T. Smith was having dinner with his wife at the Bisbee House, a local restaurant (which no doubt served stolen beef steaks). Hearing the report of a rifle nearby, Deputy Smith rushed outside. He saw Tappenier laying in front of the saloon and a cowboy standing not far away with a rifle. Smith identified himself as a lawman and demanded to know what was going on. The cowboy responded by shooting Smith, as well.
Mrs. Annie Roberts and her husband owned the Bisbee House restaurant. Although with child, Annie waited tables. She, too, heard the two rifle shots and went to the door to see what was going on. The cowboy saw her in the doorway and shot her, as well. The bullet killed her baby and severed her spine. Local teamster John Nolly was, at that moment, standing next to his wagon when the cowboy shot him in the chest. Both Nolly and Mrs. Roberts died later that evening.
With a bag full of loot, Tex Howard and his affiliates ran from the store and headed for their horses outside the smelter, shooting at everyone they saw. Sheriff’s deputy Billy Daniels ran out of a saloon and emptied his pistol at the fleeing robbers but failed to hit anyone. Tex and his four cohorts rode to a place known locally as Soldier’s Hole, and this is where they divided up their loot before going their separate ways.
Serving Old West Justice
Within a few minutes, Deputy Daniels dispatched riders to Tombstone to notify Cochise County Sheriff Jerome Ward of what had happened and then formed two posse groups to pursue the murderers. Daniels deputized saloon owner John Heath, his friend, gambler Henry Frost, and a third man named Nathan Waite to lead the first posse. At daybreak on 9 December, Daniels led the second posse, which soon overtook Heath’s group. Heath informed Daniels that it appeared to him that the horsemen had split up. Three horse tracks headed east, he said, and there was a sign that two horsemen had headed south toward Tombstone. Daniels was skeptical but told Heath to take his men and follow the southward track. Both groups lost the trail. Heath and his men, with their horses exhausted, spent that night in Tombstone; Daniels and his posse returned to Bisbee in the evening.
On 10 December, Heath, Frost, and Waite met with under-sheriff Wallace in Tombstone and then returned to Bisbee. The next day, Sheriff Ward arrested Heath and Waite as suspected accomplices in the robbery. Ward released Waite after a few hours of interrogation but retained Heath in custody. The basis for Heath’s arrest was that Deputy Daniels believed Heath misled him about the horse tracks going off in different directions.
Meanwhile, the Copper Queen Mine owners offered a $2,000.00 reward for the capture and conviction of the thieving, murdering cowboys. It would not be easy to pinpoint all the robbers since 80% were wearing masks to conceal their identity. Tex Howard, however, was rather quickly identified as one of the five desperados. It didn’t take Daniels long to identify the other four, however. Tex Howard was a known associate of Heath and both Heath and Howard seen in the company of Dowd, Sample, DeLaney, and Kelly over at the nearby Buckles Ranch.
The first of the five outlaws arrested was York Kelly, taken into custody at Deming, New Mexico. Tex Howard and Red Sample made the mistake of returning to their hangout in Clifton. While in Clifton, Howard and Sample visited with their pal Walt Bush, who tended bar at a local saloon. After a few drinks, Howard and Sample spoke of what they’d done, and Bush notified the town marshal. Within a few days, lawmen arrested both men and placed them in jail. Dowd and DeLaney made their escape to Sonora, Mexico.
Deputy Daniels rode to Sonora, working on a hunch where he soon determined that a gringo matching Dowd’s description was over in Los Corralitos, just outside Sonora — where Daniels arrested him. A few days later, Daniels and Deputy Bob Hatch arrested DeLaney in the small Mexican town of Minas Prietas. DeLaney was vacationing in a Mexican jail cell on account of getting into a fight with another fellow at a local cantina. Given the reward, Mexican officials were happy to release DeLaney into Daniel’s and Hatch’s custody.
On 6 February, a county grand jury delivered indictments against Howard, Dowd, Sample, DeLaney, and Kelly. The accused hired attorneys James Southard, Thomas Drum, F. V. Price, William Herring, and Colonel Stanford to represent them. Their trial began on 17 February 1884, and the evidence against the defendants was overwhelmingly conclusive. Local town folk recognized four of the five either during the robbery or as they ran from the mercantile store. The trial lasted for three days, after which the jury deliberated for about an hour before delivering their verdict: guilty of first-degree murder. Upon hearing the jury’s verdict, Kelly reportedly remarked, “Well, boys, hemp seems to be trumps.”
Defense attorneys immediately moved for a new trial, but Judge Daniel Pinney denied the motion and proceeded to sentence. All five men would hang.
John Heath requested a separate trial, which convened on 12 February. William Herring represented him. The prosecution was unable to produce a single witness who could tie Heath to the robbery. Herring offered the proposition that while his client undoubtedly knew the other defendants, there was no evidence that Heath had conspired with them to commit the robbery. County Attorney Marcus Smith was resourceful, however. Smith located a prisoner who could testify against Heath. Sergeant L. D. Lawrence, assigned to the Third Cavalry Regiment, had been indicted for killing two men during a saloon brawl in Wilcox. Jailers had placed Heath and the other defendants in Lawrence’s cell while awaiting trial.
Sergeant Lawrence offered courtroom testimony that he had overheard Heath and the others talking about the robbery and then moaning about how the plan had failed. Herring questioned Lawrence about whether he had made a deal with Attorney Smith for a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony. Lawrence swore that he had not made any deals with Smith. In any case, Lawrence’s testimony was enough to secure a guilty verdict for second-degree murder. Judge Pinney sentenced Heath to life in the Arizona Territorial Prison.
Post-Trial Vigilance Committee
It is definitely true that some men in the world do not, and never did, have a sense of humor. The menfolk of Cochise County were among them, and they were not happy with Judge Pinney’s sentence. On 21 February 1884, a large mob of armed men gathered in and around the saloons of Tombstone, Arizona, not far from where John Heath awaited his sentence. There were several “committees” that, over some space of time, were reduced to one committee of seven elected men. Their task was to enter the Tombstone courthouse, retrieve John Heath from his cell so that they could adequately consider an appeal of his sentence.
The County Jailer assumed that the loud knock at his door was from a Chinese cook scheduled to bring breakfast to the jailhouse. When the jailer answered the knock, seven burly men forced themselves inside, pointing their guns at the sheriff and jailers. The Committee of Seven convinced Sheriff Ward to release John Heath into their care. No — they didn’t want those other five men; they’d only come for Heath. Sheriff Ward put up a struggle to prevent Heath’s release, but it was to no avail.
With John Heath firmly in tow, the committee marched from the county jail/courthouse over to the intersection of First and Toughnut Street, stopping at the first telegraph pole encountered. As one man climbed the telegraph pole and rigged it with a rope, Heath said to the men, “Boys, you are hanging an innocent man, and you will find this out before those other men are hung. I have but one favor to ask: that you will not mutilate my body by shooting it after I am hung.”
Once the committee agreed not to mutilate his body, John Heath stopped struggling and allowed the men to place a blindfold over his eyes. After placing the noose around his neck, the vigilance committee then began hauling his body up the telegraph pole where the gathered men could watch him strangle to death. When it was certain that John Heath was dead, someone put a sign on the telegraph pole that read, in part: “John Heath was hanged to this pole by the citizens of Cochise County at 8:00 a.m. on 22 February 1884, Washington’s Birthday. Advance, Arizona.”
Tombstone medical doctor and coroner George E. Goodfellow, apparently a man with a good sense of humor, listed the cause of death as “self-inflicted emphysema of the lungs.”
Thus endeth the story of John Wesley Heath. As for the other boys — Heath’s playmates — they came to an end as well. The town undertaker buried their remains in the Tombstone “Boot Hill” cemetery. The execution of Howard, Dowd, Sample, DeLaney and Kelly was Tombstone’s first legal hanging — and the second, third, fourth, and fifth. As brutal as the hangings might sound, none of these men ever again robbed or murdered anyone.
 William Herring was the father of Sarah Herring Sorin, Arizona’s first female attorney. Some accounts identify Herring as a member of the Cochise County Vigilance Committee. This would be very interesting, if true.
 At Lawrence’s trial, he was represented by an attorney associated with Smith’s private law firm. Appearing before Judge Pinney, Lawrence was convicted of manslaughter and served two years in the Arizona Territorial prison.