1848 - 1929
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Killing Curly Bill
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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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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