At about 11:30 p.m. on December 28, 1881, some two months after the so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral had rocked Tombstone, assassins opened fire on City Police Chief Virgil Earp outside the Oriental Saloon in that same divided community. At least three men fired double-barrel shotguns from their dark hiding place across the street. Virgil’s left side took most of the pellets, and doctors were forced to remove several inches of shattered bone from his upper left arm. Virgil’s distraught brother Wyatt was still assuming the worst when he telegraphed Crawley P. Dake, the U.S. marshal for Arizona Territory, a few hours later.
Tombstone, Arizona Territory, December 29, 1881
Marshal Dake readily agreed, and Wyatt Earp, now with federal authority, assembled a posse of gunmen to protect his family and to hunt for the men who had shot his brother. One of the prime suspects was Ike Clanton, who wanted revenge after an inquest had cleared the Earp brothers of any wrongdoing in the O.K. Corral fight.
Wyatt knew he must choose trustworthy men who would not be intimidated by further threats or acts of violence by the Cowboys, the group of alleged rustlers who had lost three of their own (Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury) in the October 26, 1881, street fight with three Earps (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan) and Doc Holliday. The possemen not only would help Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp enforce the law but also would act as bodyguards for the Earp brothers (Warren, as well as Morgan and Virgil) and their wives. Doc Holliday, a gambler, a lunger and a diehard friend, continued to stand by Wyatt during these dark days, and now the deputy marshal gathered some more help — gunmen who had mysterious, if not dubious, backgrounds and tough reputations. For $5 a day, these men were willing to place themselves in extreme danger, though they all probably had different motivations for riding with Wyatt Earp.
The first of these men was John “Texas Jack” Vermillion. A carpenter by trade who was said to have hailed from Virginia (not Texas), Vermillion gave his age as 36 in 1881. He had arrived in Tombstone from New Mexico Territory and had proved his worth to the Earps after the June 1881 town fire, when he was deputized by Virgil to help keep lot jumpers at bay. Here was a man who could enforce the law in times of trouble. Vermillion apparently wore his hair long and was sometimes called “Shoot-Your-Eye-Out Jack.” Recent researchers have said that his full name was John Wilson Vermillion, that he had been a sharpshooter with the Virginia Cavalry during the Civil War, and that he was rumored to have been a lawman in Missouri.
Sherman W. McMaster, who was 28 in 1881, was the most complex and valuable deputy among Earp’s group, as he possessed an extensive knowledge of the local terrain and personally knew many of the Cowboys said to be gunning for the Earp family. Born in Galena, Ill., to a wealthy family and well educated in Rock Island, Ill., McMaster saw service with the Texas Rangers in 1878-79. Stationed in El Paso, he tracked renegade Indians, chased horse thieves, and acted as a scout for the 9th Cavalry, which was situated nearby.
McMaster’s Texas Ranger Company held outlaw (and future Clanton and McLaury confederate) “Curly Bill” Brocius prisoner over a five-month period in 1878, and McMaster was later said to have associated with the San Simon Cowboys. To further complicate matters, Sherman was also accused of army mule theft and stage robbery in company with the infamous Cowboy Pony Diehl. Although these charges were never proved, Wyatt admitted that McMaster had been friendly with the Cowboy element, and he was, therefore, able to make use of his inside knowledge. McMaster spoke fluent Spanish, rode fine horses and was skilled with a gun (Bat Masterson’s brother Thomas called McMaster the fastest man on the draw he had seen). He is thought by some to have been an undercover operative for not only Earp but also Wells Fargo. If that was true, McMaster’s open association with the Earp posse ended any hope he had of staying in Arizona, and he may have seen Wyatt’s posse as his paid ticket out of the territory.
Perhaps the most dangerous man deputized by Wyatt Earp was Jack Johnson. Earp biographer Stuart Lake referred to him as “Turkey Creek Jack” Johnson, but his real name, according to Wyatt, was John William Blount. He was 34 in 1881 and had a unique reason for joining the posse. A native of Missouri who was raised in the lead mining area of Neosho, he became a wanted man and was forced to flee the state in 1877 after he and his brothers were involved in a violent street battle in Webb City, Mo. One brother, Bud, killed a man in a quarrel in May 1881 in Tip Top, Arizona Territory, and was sent to Yuma Prison. John Blount, using the alias Jack Johnson, then went to Tombstone to see if Wyatt Earp could help get his brother pardoned. Indeed, Wyatt assisted with a petition to the governor, and Bud Blount was eventually freed. As a way to repay his debt, Johnson joined the posse. Johnson was also said to have previously associated with the Cowboys and therefore, like McMaster, was able to pass on important inside information.
Origen Charles Smith and Daniel “Tip” Tipton, two gamblers who supplemented their incomes with mining ventures, completed the Earp posse. Smith, a 37-year-old native of Connecticut, had a close and long connection to the Earp family. Charlie was fluent in Spanish, having spent several years in Texas working in saloons. In Fort Worth he had been associated with barman James Earp, the oldest of the Earp boys, as well as saloon owner and future Earp business partner Robert J. Winders. Smith took a hand in at least two Fort Worth gunfights and sustained a serious chest wound in 1878. The following year, Smith came to Tombstone with Winders and immediately became associated with all the Earps.
Tipton, also 37, arrived in Tombstone in March 1881 with a shady reputation earned during the early days of the mining boom in Virginia City, Nev. Tipton, who sported several tattoos on his hands and forearms, was a former Civil War Union seaman who took up mining and gambling after the war. In 1879 he spent time in the Gunnison district of Colorado before coming to Tombstone at the request of his friend Lou Rickabaugh, a gambling kingpin who needed help during the town’s so-called Gamblers War (see story in the October 2004 Wild West). Rickabaugh was a business partner of Wyatt Earp. Tipton was said to have traveled to Tombstone in the company of another Earp ally, Bat Masterson. By the time of the serious trouble with the Cowboys in October 1881, Masterson had left Tombstone, but Tipton was still there supporting the Earp faction.
COWBOY WATCH AT THE COSMOPOLITAN
After spending the first half of January watching out for Cowboys and watching over his injured brother, who had lost the use of his left arm but would survive, Wyatt Earp decided it was time for action. On January 23, 1882, Wyatt and his possemen rode out of Tombstone with warrants for Virgil’s suspected attackers — Ike and Fin Clanton and Pony Diehl. On the ride, they arrested the fiery Maynard and forced him to lead the way as they descended on the nearby Cowboy hangout of Charleston. The posse went door to door in Charleston but failed to find the Clantons or Diehl. After riding out of town, the men scouted through the countryside, eventually setting up a camp near Tombstone at a place known as Pick-em-up.
Unbeknown to Wyatt, the Clanton brothers had surrendered themselves and were already back in Tombstone. To make matters worse, on January 30, a deputy sheriff rode out to Pick-em-up and served his own warrant on Earp posseman Sherman McMaster, who was wanted for “borrowing” two horses from the Contention mine the previous fall. No resistance was offered, and the entire Earp posse returned to Tombstone, where McMaster was bailed, and he and Charlie Smith booked into the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Courtroom dramas dominated the Tombstone newspapers throughout February 1882, as both factions sought justice through the legal system. McMaster gave evidence against Ike Clanton during the latter’s hearing on the attempted murder of Virgil Earp. Although Ike’s hat was found at the scene of the crime, he provided an alibi and the charges were dismissed due to inconclusive evidence.
On February 9, Ike Clanton went to the town of Contention and filed new charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday relating to the O.K. Corral shootout, but these charges were later dismissed. With tensions close to breaking point on February 15, Earp deputy Dan Tipton and the ever-ready Ben Maynard came close to a gunfight in Tombstone’s Alhambra Saloon. Tipton was left with a bloody eye, and both men were fined. Two days later, the Earp posse was riding again. Heavily armed, they left Tombstone with warrants for the arrest of Pony Diehl, who was now wanted for a January 1882 stage robbery. That expedition proved fruitless, and Wyatt and his men eventually returned empty-handed to town.
As March 1882 progressed, an uneasy quiet fell over Tombstone. Wyatt and his men had heard that the Cowboys were plotting more revenge attacks, but no one knew for sure when, or where, the attacks would take place. There seemed to be an air of inevitability about further violence occurring. Tipton would later state that members of the Earp faction had been repeatedly warned to be on the lookout for a Cowboy ambush, and on March 18, it finally came. At about 11 p.m., Morgan Earp was playing pool at Campbell and Hatch’s Saloon, while Tipton, McMaster and Wyatt watched. As Morgan turned his back to a rear door to play a shot, gunshots tore through the door widows and struck him in the back. Morgan collapsed at the scene and died within the hour.
A coroner’s jury later identified the men suspected of killing Morgan as Cochise County Deputy Frank Stilwell, his friend Pete Spence (or Spencer), and three of Spence’s employees — Indian Charlie, Frederick Bode and an unnamed half-breed. The cowardly assassination of his brother was a turning point for Earp and his posse. Until that time, Wyatt had attempted to rely on the legal system to bring Virgil’s assailants to justice. He now understood the futility of that effort and knew the only way to deal with Morgan’s murderers was to kill them.
VENDETTA CLAIMS FIRST VICTIM
The party arrived safely at Tucson that evening and went to the nearby Porter’s Hotel for dinner. At the end of the meal, the rest of the group helped Virgil and Allie back onto the westbound train. At that point, two men thought to be Ike Clanton and Frank Stilwell were seen lying on nearby flatcars with guns pointed at the train. Wyatt quickly alighted from the train and moved quietly between the cars. He would later claim that both men saw him and ran. Wyatt chased hard after the men, who separated among the rail cars. McMaster, Holliday and Johnson also gave chase. A railroad fireman testified that he saw one man running along the tracks followed by four armed pursuers. Wyatt claimed that he caught up with one would-be assassin and fired both barrels of his shotgun when the man made a grab for it. The remaining posse members then arrived at the bloody scene and proceeded to fire more shots into the corpse. The dead man was Frank Stilwell.
Stilwell’s corpse was found in the Tucson rail yard the next morning, but Earp and his men were long gone. A witness would later say that he heard six to 10 shots and at the same time heard men cheering. One eyewitness claimed that Stilwell “was shot all over…the worst shot-up man I ever saw.” The coroner’s inquest later found at least five separate gunshot wounds on the body — one for each member of the Earp posse. They had wanted to send a clear message to Ike Clanton and the other Cowboys: There would be no more attempted arrests from now on; Wyatt and his men would dispense their own law.
After the killing, Wyatt and his possemen had watched Virgil’s train depart and then had searched the rail yard for Clanton and his men. Having no luck, they then walked in the darkness to the Papago station, where they hopped a freight train and rode back to Benson. Next, the group rented a wagon and drove to Contention, probably joining “Texas Jack” Vermillion, who had not traveled to Tucson but had stayed behind in Contention with their horses. The posse then rode back to Tombstone and immediately went to the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Later that day, Charlie Smith and Dan Tipton joined them, and plans were made to again leave town.
The coroner’s jury in Tucson duly found that five members of Earp’s posse were responsible for the death of Stilwell, and warrants were issued for their arrest. A telegram sent to Sheriff John Behan in Tombstone advised him that his deputy had been murdered and asked him to detain the men responsible. When Behan arrived at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, he found Earp and his posse walking through the lobby to the street, armed to the teeth and in no mood to chat. Behan approached the group and said he wanted to see Wyatt, but all the men brushed past him. As Wyatt passed the ineffectual sheriff, he remarked, “You may see me once too often,” or something similar. He and his men strode on to a nearby corral, where they mounted their horses and rode defiantly out of Tombstone.
After spending that night in a camp outside of town, the Earp posse rode hard in the direction of the Dragoon Mountains. Pete Spence operated a woodcutting business in the foothills, and the posse hoped to catch not only Spence but also the other three men named in the coroner’s report. On the morning of March 22, Wyatt’s party rode into Spence’s camp, but failed to find him. Spence had judiciously surrendered in Tombstone, and an Indian known as Hank had already been arrested. Two Earp posse members, probably McMaster and Smith, questioned a worker in Spanish at the camp, and then the group rode up a hill in the direction of a half blood known as Florentino.
The eight-man posse must have been convinced they had their man, because they opened fire. Florentino ran but was quickly brought down in a hail of bullets. Wyatt Earp would later say that Florentino was one of the men who had stood watch for the murderers on the night Morgan was killed. During the inquest into the half blood’s death, he was further identified as Florentino Cruz. The Arizona Weekly Citizen later published a letter, stating that he was also known as Philomeno Sais, and he was wanted in connection with the robbery and murder of two U.S. marshals in 1878. The Arizona Weekly Star added weight to this argument, as it had previously identified the 1878 murderer as Florentino Saiz. Whatever his correct name, he was guilty as far as the Earp posse was concerned.
After the killing, the posse rode out of the area, and on March 23, Smith and Tipton separated from the others to obtain information in Tombstone. The two men immediately ran into trouble. Sheriff Behan liked the odds this time and arrested both of them for “resisting arrest and conspiracy.” The men were immediately bailed, and Smith left town to rendezvous with the posse while Tipton remained in Tombstone. Smith met with Earp and then was sent back to town to obtain $1,000 in expense money for the posse. Wyatt and his men were to meet Smith later in the Whetstone Mountains, at a watering hole known as Iron Springs.
SHOOTOUT AT IRON SPRINGS
The afternoon of the 24th was warm, and Wyatt loosened his cartridge belt as he led his men toward Iron Springs. To his surprise he did not find Charlie Smith but a gang of Cowboys, who opened fire without warning. Earp jumped from his horse with a shotgun in his hands, while McMaster, Johnson and Doc Holliday wheeled their horses and sought cover. Vermillion’s horse was shot and collapsed, pinning Texas Jack’s leg. At the first shot, according to Earp, McMaster recognized “Curly Bill” Brocius and cried out his name.
Earp then returned fire and blasted Brocius with his double-barrel shotgun, almost cutting the Cowboy in two. Amid the gun smoke and mayhem, Wyatt pulled up his cartridge belt and attempted to mount his horse while taking fire from the remaining Cowboys. He fired in their general direction as Cowboy bullets struck the pommel of his saddle and the heel of his boot. One slug hit with such force that Earp believed he had been wounded. He somehow managed to partially mount his horse and scampered back to safety, picking up Texas Jack Vermillion as he went.
The Earp posse had miraculously survived the gunfight without any serious casualties, other than the loss of Texas Jack’s horse. Bullets had perforated Wyatt’s coattails and McMaster had sustained a grazed side when a bullet cut through the straps of his field glasses and tore through his clothes. The posse rested, counted their blessings and then rode back toward Tombstone. The Cowboys would later deny that Curly Bill Brocius had been killed at Iron Springs. Although debate raged in the Tombstone newspapers, Earp always maintained he had blasted Brocius, and the fact remained that Curly Bill was never seen in Tombstone again.
Charlie Smith’s exact movements are hard to trace at this stage. Apparently he rejoined Earp’s posse just after the Iron Springs shootout, but he did not supply the much-needed funds. That task would eventually fall to Dan Tipton. In any case, on March 26 Earp and his men rode out to Dragoon Summit Station, where they stopped an eastbound train at 1 p.m. and hunted unsuccessfully through the carriages. Whether they expected to find a messenger with additional funds, or Ike Clanton himself, is not exactly clear. They needed money and a place to rest before deciding their next move, so they rode north to Henry Clay Hooker’s Sierra Bonita Ranch. Hooker was an influential cattle rancher in nearby Graham County and a supporter of Earp’s actions.
The Earp posse arrived at Sierra Bonita on March 27. There, they fed their worn-out horses and took advantage of Hooker’s hospitality. Early that same morning, Dan Tipton left Tombstone on the first stage heading for Benson, carrying $1,000 from mining man E.B. Gage for the posse. At Benson, Tipton boarded a train to Willcox, where he rented a horse and rode to Hooker’s ranch. Lou Cooley, a stage driver and likely Wells Fargo operative, also provided the Earp posse with additional funds, from the express company. Wyatt and his seven men now had traveling money and fresh horses. They left Hooker’s ranch the next morning and set up a camp on a nearby butte. From their vantage point, they could see the approach of any riders from rival posses, and they waited for a possible confrontation. It never came. Sheriff Behan and his men eventually arrived at Sierra Bonita, but they were refused assistance. According to one report, Hooker mockingly told Behan where to find the Earps, but the sheriff rode off in the opposite direction.
The eight-man Earp posse remained in the area for a few more days, but the so-called Vendetta had run its course. With two hostile posses on their trail, Wyatt and his men were outnumbered and knew it would be extremely dangerous to stay in Arizona any longer. Early in April 1882, Wyatt and his posse rode to Silver City, New Mexico Territory. They spent one night in the home of a friend, and the next day sold their horses and saddles, before taking a stage to Deming. From there they traveled by train to Albuquerque and made plans to move to the relative safety of Colorado. Charlie Smith parted company with the group in Silver City and headed back to make Tombstone his home. He was the only member of the Earp posse to do so.
Once in Colorado, the posse fragmented. Wyatt and Warren Earp, Dan Tipton and Texas Jack Vermillion headquartered at Gunnison. Doc Holliday went to Denver, while Johnson and McMaster probably reunited with their respective brothers in Leadville. The men had found their sanctuary, as Colorado Governor Frederick Pitkin refused extradition requests from the Arizona territorial authorities.
In time, the law did catch up with some of the surviving Cowboys. Johnny Ringo was shot dead — some say by his own hand — in July 1882, while Ike Clanton was gunned down in 1887 resisting arrest. Johnny Barnes was said to have died of wounds sustained at the Iron Springs shootout, while Pete Spence, Fin Clanton and Pony Diehl were eventually convicted of various crimes and all did time in state penitentiaries.
Written by Peter Brand, from Australia,who has done extensive research on the Vendetta (see his Web site www.tombstonevendetta.com) and writes for the Western Outlaw-Lawman History Association (WOLA) Journal and the National Outlaw-Lawman Association (NOLA) Quarterly.
Tombstone is 65 miles or so from my house. I have visited often and enjoy the lore. samD
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