The event forever known as the Bisbee Massacre took place on Main Street at the Castaneda and Goldwater Mercantile Emporium on December 8, 1883. What started as a robbery to grab the monthly payroll of the Copper Queen Mine escalated to murder leaving five people dead including Annie Roberts’s unborn child. The bandits escaped and in an extraordinary and effective effort by County Sheriff Jerome Ward and his deputies all were captured and jailed in Tombstone in just 45 days.
The five gang members who committed the robbery and murders—Red Sample, Tex Howard, Mick Kelly, Big Dan Dowd and Billy Delaney—went to trial on February 9. Judge David H. Pinney presided. The evidence against the defendants was strong and the prosecutor’s case well-prepared. All five were found guilt on February 11 and sentenced to die on the gallows.
Their ringleader, Bisbee dance hall owner John Heith, was tried separately but concurrently. The record does not describe how simultaneous trials were conducted by the same judge but it must have been interesting to watch.
Heith’s dance hall was just behind the Castaneda and Goldwater store where he was busy on the evening of December 8 while his pals did the messy work out on the street. But he had been identified by an old prospector in the Chircahua Mountains when the gang used his cabin to plan the caper. The old man, named Pardee, clearly recognized and remembered Heith as the leader.
As overwhelming as the evidence seemed, the jury, probably to everyone’s surprise, brought in a verdict of 2nd Degree murder. The maximum penalty for that crime was life in Yuma Territorial Prison and when Judge Pinney delivered the sentence on February 21, there was widespread outrage in Tombstone and Bisbee.
Heith and his five cronies were kept in the county jail well-guarded in separate cells. Heith, always crafty and clever, was caught with several saw blades in his hat band. He was moved to a different cell that opened into the jail office where he could be watched more closely.
On the same day as Heith’s sentencing, prominent mining men from Bisbee met in Tombstone with some of that town’s leading citizens. All agreed the verdict and sentence were unsatisfactory. The men felt the court and law had failed to provide justice and they were determined to set things right before Heith was transferred to Yuma.
A plan was put into action the next day, February 22. It was fairly complicated for an impromptu affair and involved delaying the start of the morning shift in the mines around Tombstone and inviting the miners to attend a hanging. Sheriff Ward, needless to say, was kept in the dark. Miners did join the crowd including the Bisbee delegation at the firehouse. There was no attempt to conceal identities.
The mob overpowered Ward’s son Will, the jailor, and special guard Jim Krigbaum (who had ridden from Bisbee to Tombstone the night of the massacre) and took Heith by force.
They led him at the end of a rope down Toughnut Street and hanged him from a telegraph pole. By all accounts he died bravely protesting his innocence. A well-known photograph exists of Heith hanging from the pole.
Sheriff Ward convened a coroner’s jury that afternoon. They faced a difficult task. The hanging was generally popular with the public and the leaders of the lynch mob were prominent men; everyone who’d been there had seen them. Finally, county doctor George Goodfellow settled the matter with his opinion: “I find that the deceased died of emphysema of the lungs which might have been caused by strangulation self-inflicted or otherwise.” The jury accepted the decision and Heith’s body went to Boot Hill though some accounts claim it was later disinterred and taken to Texas.
On March 28 per Judge Pinney’s sentence, the five remaining gang members went to the scaffold specially constructed at the Court House. There was high interest in the execution amongst the residents of Cochise County. Invitations to view the hanging were limited and one enterprising promoter built a grandstand on private land next to the courtyard. He was planning to sell tickets. Sheriff Ward was concerned that the larger crowd would pose a security risk. However, it turned out to be a non-issue. Legendary Tombstone businesswoman Nellie Cashman was repelled by the whole idea and, the night before the execution, she prevailed on some of her miner friends to tear the grandstand down. That cancelled the big show for the general public and the promoter’s big money making scheme.
No one can say the prisoners were not given due consideration: a hearty last meal, fresh shave, new black clothing and a priest for final comfort were provided. At 1pm, they were marched out and the warrants read. Four of the convicted used their last words to deny their guilt and three declared Heith to be innocent. They stuck together to the end. Eighteen minutes later it was over and the five joined their leader at Boot Hill.
The horrific crime on Bisbee’s Main Street echoed well beyond the hangings. Sheriff Ward was blamed for not stopping Heith’s lynching. Though evidence showed he had performed as well as anyone could facing an angry mob, Tombstone was trying to remake its image in the wake of the lynching and the Earp-Clanton shoot out near the O.K. Corral just two years earlier. The Sheriff was eased out of office.
Today, the events of December 8, 1883 are a distant memory in Bisbee’s history though the brutality of the crime lingers as its name—The Bisbee Massacre—shows. The Castaneda and Goldwater Mercantile Emporium is long gone and the spot on Main Street where it stood is occupied by a modern gallery for art and fashion. Bisbee, the rough mining town, was carved out of a steep canyon and hard rock. Like so much of the west, it grew fast and attracted colorful characters. Violence and brutality were unavoidable by-products of growth and progress as tough, hardy people made new lives and settled the Queen of the Copper Camps.