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Did Wyatt Earp Kill Curly Bill Brocius?

     On March 24, 1882, a gun battle erupted at a spring about fifteen miles west of Contention City between a group that included Wyatt Earp and four men who were camped at the spring.  On March 25, 1882, the Tombstone Epitaph published an article that claimed that Curly Bill had been killed in the violent encounter which it claimed occurred at "Burleigh Springs."  The next day, on March 26, 1882, the Tombstone Nugget reported the following: 

Are informant had an appointment to meet the Earp party at a certain spring [probably Mescal Springs but Wyatt later claimed it was Iron Springs) in the Whetstone Mountains, about fifteen miles from Contention, at noon on Friday [March 24].  He rode up to the spring, which is situated in a canyon, at the appointed time, and was confronted by three cowboys with drawn weapons, who ordered him to dismount, and demanded the cause of his presence there.  He told them he was in search of a stray horse, and had come to the spring, thinking that a likely place to find the animal.  The cowboys, evidently believing his story, abandoned


and invited the stranger to camp there, and prepare his dinner, which invitation was accepted.  While thus engaged the cowboys rode off, and soon are informant also departed in search of the Earp party.  He proceeded but a short distance when he came upon Wyatt Earp. Wyatt informed him that some hours previous they (the Earp party) had come to the spring in pursuance of the appointment.  They had approached within thirty yards, when they discovered four cowboys camped there.  The latter recognized the intruders, and firing from both parties began at about the same time.  One shot from the cowboys passed through the clothing of McMasters, just grazing his side, another killed Texas Jack's horse, a third knocked the pommel off Wyatt Earp's saddle; while another cut th straps of the field-glasses carried by McMasters.  The volley fired by the Earp party apparently did not take effect.  As they turned to run, one of the cowboys, who Wyatt Earp believes to have been


in a spirit of bravado, jumped out from behind a rock, when Wyatt turned in the saddle and fired, and the reckless cowboy fell to the ground.  The Earp party retired behind an adjacent hill and halted.  They were in a position commanding a view of the spring, and shortly after the fight saw a wagon come to the place and, as Wyatt believes, carry away the dead body of Curly Bill. . . .

     Rumors crediting Wyatt Earp's claim began to circulate just as quickly as rumors that discredited the claim that Curly Bill had been killed.  On April 1, 1882, the Tombstone Nugget noted that it had stated that "'Curly William' is alive.  If any one will produce any evidence, affidavits or otherwise, that he is not, we will produce $1000 in fifteen minutes and present the same to them." Neither reward was claimed.

      Also floating about was a rumor that prominent rancher Henry Hooker and the local cattleman's association had place an under-the-table $1000 reward on Curly Bill's head.  If true, this could account for Wyatt Earp cooking up a false claim that he killed Curly Bill in order to obtain a $1000 reward for the deed, which was money badly needed to finance his escape from Arizona.  Whatever his motive, immediately after the Whetstone Mountain fracas Wyatt Earp and his companions heeded toward Hooker's Seirra Bonita Ranch, located about sixty miles north of Tombstone.  The arrived at the Sierra Bonita on March 27, where they were greeted warmly by its proprietor.

     Over the years the "I Killed Curly Bill" narrative became a staple item in Wyatt Earp's repertoire of stories.  In an article by the former lawman published in the August 2, 1896, San Francisco Examiner, Wyatt gave this rendition of the adventure:

We had ridden twenty-five miles over the mountains with the intention of camping at a certain spring.  As we got near the place I had a presentment that something was wrong, and unlimbered my shotgun.  Sure enough, nine cowboys sprang up from the bank where the spring was and began to firing at us.  I jumped off my horse to return fire, thinking my men would do the same, but they retreated.  One of the cowboys who was trying to pump some lead into me with a Winchester, was a fellow named Curly Bill, a stage-robber whom I had been after for eight months, and for who I had a warrant in my pocket.  I fired both barrels of my gun into him blowing him all to pieces. . . .

      In the next installment of his three part series of Wild West yarns, this one published on August 6, 1896, Wyatt inserted an amendment to his Curly Bill account:

Toward the end of my story last Sunday I described the killing of Curly Bill.  By inadvertency I said that he opened  fire on me with a Winchester, I should have said  a Wells-Fargo shotgun.  Later I will tell you where Curly got that gun. . . . 

And now for the story of how Curly Bill became the proud proprietor of a Wells-Fargo shotgun.  Charlie Barthomew was a messenger who used to run on the coach from Tombstone to Bisbee.  Once every month he was the custodian of a very tidy sum of money sent to pay off the miners.  Naturally enough such a prize as that did not escape the attention of such audacious artists in crime as Frank Stilwell, Pete Spence, Pony Deal, and Curly Bill. . . . The robbers came up and made them all throw up their hands.  They took everything there was to be taken, which amounted to $10,000 and sundries.  Among the sundries was Charlie Bartholomew's shotgun, with which Curly Bill afterwards tried to fill me full of buckshot, with results fatal to himself. . . .

       In actuality, neither Curly Bill nor Pony Deal was implicated in the September 8, 1881 stage robbery.  Instead, Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence were arrested for the crime.  Wyatt did not look for Curly Bill for eight months with an arrest warrant.  Proof of this is the friendly meeting at the McLaury's ranch, on October 6, 1881, a month after the stage holdup described by Wyatt Earp took place.  In fact, there is no known evidence that Curly Bill was ever charged with robbing a stage in Arizona.  Although he was later accused of stealing 19 head of cattle and indicted by the Cochise County Grand Jury for theft in December 1881.  The Bisbee stage stickup where Charlies Bartholmew lost his double-barreled Wells-Fargo shotgun took place on January 6, 1882.  Bartholomew named Pony Deal, Al Tiebot, and Charlie Haws as the perpetrators of the robbery, which netted them $6500.  There was no evidence that Curly Bill was involved in the crime (he most likely left Arizona  before the incident occurred).  But here is the amusing part-the scattergun that Wyatt claimed Curly Bill was brandishing on March 24, 1882, was found before his supposed clash with Curly took place.  The March 14, Nugget carried the story:

That Missing Shotgun

     At the time of the Bisbee stage was robbed, the messenger, Charles Bartholomew, was armed with a short double-barreled shogun, a Winchester rifle, and possibly a revolver or two.  After the fight was over and the treasure gone, the shotgun was also missing, and the messenger entertained an opinion that it had been taken by the highwaymen, but subsequent events prove that it was in all probability dropped during the melee.  Last Saturday Deputy Sheriff Frank Hereford, while on his way to Charleston, met a Mexican carrying a gun, which he immediately recognized as property of Wells, Fargo & Co.  The man was arrested, and explained that he had traded a pistol to a cousin for the gun, which was found near the place where the coach had been robbed, and singular as it may seem, both barrels were loaded when it was picked up.  One side of the barrels being rusty served to confirm the Mexican's statement that it had lain for some time on the ground exposed to the elements.  Should it again escape, it will be arrested and punished under the provisions of the vagrant act.

     Well, Did Wyatt Earp kill Curly Bill?  This writer believes he did not.  In simple terms, the evidence that Curly Bill had left Arizona before March 1882 is stronger than the evidence that he was killed by Wyatt Earp.  During the melee at the spring Wyatt was firing and fleeing at the same time, making it almost impossible for him to know the results of his shots-he didn't walk up to a dead victim, roll the body over, and confirm the man was Curly Bill.  Identifying advasaries in the heat of battle at a distance of thirty yards would have been an uncertain enterprise.  Wyatt may have believed he killed Curly Bill but he couldn't have known for sure.
     Many people believe that Curly Bill must have been killed because he was never seen in the territory again following the gun battle at the spring. Yet, Curly Bill was believed to have left Arizona around December 1881 (when he was indicted for theft) and, in fact, county records show that Cochise County Sheriff John Behan filed for expenses paid in February 1882 for his deputies going to El Paso, Texas, (before the battle at the spring on March 24, 1882) in search of Curly Bill after reports circulated that he had been seen there.  If Curly Bill had left the territory in December 1881 then it would explain why he was not seen in the territory again and why he did not simply ride into Tombstone to show that he was still alive (although he then would have almost certainly been arrested on his December 1881 indictment for theft).
    Is there evidence that Curly Bill was alive after March 1882?  Yes-not rock-solid evidence by any means, but a few interesting accounts placing Curly Bill in Chihuahua, Mexico, have been found.  Of course, tracking a drifter such as Curly Bill, a man of many aliases whose true origins continue to elude researchers, isn't easy.  The Weekly Arizona Citizen (Tucson) carried this item on July 14, 1883, which was picked up by the Clifton Clarion:

Arizona News

Curley Bill, a cowboy, who obtained an unenviable notoriety in Tombstone a couple of years ago, and [who] has been reported killed several times since, is said to have discovered in conjunction with another party, some very rich silver mines in Chihuahua.

In at least one account, Curly Bill reportedly married the sister of Eduardo Moreno while in Mexico.  James C. Hancock and other old-timers also wrote of Curly Bill living out his life in Mexico, but none of these accounts is definitive.  However, this author feels there are to many reports pointing to Chihuahua as Curly Bill's place of residence after leaving Arizona to dismiss out of hand the possibility that he lived for many years in the Mexican state.
As for Wyatt Earp's claims over the years of having killed Curly Bill - if three-fourth of a man's story is patently false, how can one accept the rest without contemporary, independent confirmation? And there is no such confirmation for Wyatt Earp's claim to have killed Curly Bill Brocius.

Your host is Steve Gatto, author of The Real Wyatt Earp (Edited by Neil Carmony) (2000), Johnny Ringo (2002), Curly Bill, Tombstone's Most Famous Outlaw (2003).  Steve's latest work, Hurled Into Eternity, The Story of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has not yet been released.

Portions of the text appearing on this site come from the above books.

"bravery and determination were requisites, and in every instance proved himself the right man in the right place."  Tombstone Epitaph