I can't imagine what the hell Pete Spence - aka Elliot Larkin Ferguson - was thinking when he and that smug violent little (5.4") lunatic Frank Stillwell (above) held up the south bound Bisbee Stage on Thursday, 8 September, 1881. The Sandy Bob line carried no strong boxes so this less than dynamic duo were reduced to robbing the passengers, miners and gamblers who had little cash southbound, going into the little mining town 25 miles south of Tombstone. And probably every one of the 200 residents squeezed into the narrow "Puerta de los Mulos" knew Pete and Frank personally, since the pair jointly owned a livery stable in Bisbee. Stillwell was just 24, but he had already gunned down an Hispanic waiter who brought him tea instead of coffee. But Spence had been a Texas Ranger. Not for long, since he was also a little crazy, but he should have been too smart for this hold up.
Some thought this lunatic larceny had something to do with Robert Crouch, a 50 year old California coach driver who had entered a cut-throat competition with the established Arizona Mail and Stage Company. Because the new entrepreneur had red hair and a freckled face, they called him and his business the "Sandy Bob" line. And it was a hard business in the best of times. Paying passengers and freight barely met operating costs. The Arizona Mail could also count on a $15.00 a month fee for carrying Wells Fargo insured strong boxes 3 times a week between Charleston and the rail head at Benson. But the real profits were in carrying the United States Mail. Seeking to promote growth, the USPS paid $50 a month for daily delivery between Tombstone and Charleston, and $78.00 for three times a week delivery between Tombstone and Bisbee.
But when Arizona Mail and Stage balked at delivering to the tiny San Pedro River community of Hereford, 7 miles due west of Bisbee, "Sandy Bob" snapped it up. He was even willing to wait to be reimbursed by Arizona Mail, which continued to collect from the USPS. So maybe there was a nefarious plot to generate bad publicity for the upstart Sandy Bob line, and they hired Frank and Pete as their agents. But that seems unlikely because the future of all stagecoach lines in Arizona had been determined in March around a conference table in far off Boston, Massachusetts.
On one side of that table sat William Barstow Strong, President of the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad conglomerate. On the other sat the President of the Southern Pacific Railroad et al., Mr. Charles Crocker. At this meeting the SP agreed to lease their tracks between Lodi, New Mexico and Benson, Arizona for use by ATSF trains. And ATSF agreed to share profits from a new line they would build south from Benson, through the mill town of Fairbank, Arizona, to the border at Nogalas Mexico, where it would connect with their Sonoran line, reaching the Pacific via the port of Guaymas. The minute that agreement had been reached, the most profitable stage coach lines in Arizona were living on borrowed time. So why go to all the trouble to annoy a competitor when everybody's business was going to shrink over the next six months to a year?
Like the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre, the beginning of the Benson to Guaymas rail line was another indication that the age of outlaws was coming to an end. Two months earlier, about midnight on Thursday, 14 July 1881, the career of freelance and infamous hot head Henry McCarthy, aka William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid (above), came to an abrupt end in rural Lincoln County, New Mexico when he was shot dead slipping into his girlfriend's bedroom.
And the day before the Bisbee Stage Mutt and Jeff robbery, a successful 15 year criminal career, which included at least 9 bank robberies, 8 train and 4 stage coach holdups also came to an end. On a tight turn 2 miles west of Glendale, Missouri the James gang pulled off their last armed train robbery. The division of the paltry $6,000 take, caused some discouragement among the members.
And 6 months later, in St. Joseph Missouri, Mr. Thomas Howard, aka Jesse James himself, would be assassinated by one of his own gang. These were indicators.
In a decade the Federal government would recognize what was happening that summer of 1881. The Census Bureau would announce in 1890 there was no longer anywhere in America with less than 2 persons per square mile, nor significant numbers migrating west. The frontier had ceased to exist. And according to historian Fredrick Jackson Turner (above), "The Significance of the Frontier..." in America was that it had made Americans exceptional - more violent, more inventive, less restricted by traditions.
The same census also determined that over the previous 40 years the population of native Americans had been reduced by almost half - 401,000 to 248,000 - proof that Americans were not like other nations who butchered and starved minorities, such as the Ainu in Japan, the Armenians in Turkey, the Hindus in Pakistan, the Muslims in India, and the Romani, the Cathars and the Irish in Europe. Except of course we did. But all that was big picture stuff.
The little picture was that Pete Spence and Frank Stillwell needed a couple of hundred dollars for the up coming weekend. And Frank was so disliked that one Tombstone resident predicted that when he died Frank would be the "chief attraction" in hell. So on that dark night of 8 September, 1881, these two chuckle heads wearing masks blocked the road and forced the passangers to hand over any "sugar" they had on them. All noticed the smaller of the thieves repeatedly used that word - "sugar" - to refer to money. It was a favorite phrase of Frank Stillwell, a man whose inquest jury laughed when the coroner described his body as the most shot up corpse he'd ever seen. And Cochise County Marshal Johnny Behan knew the instant he received the telegram announcing the Sandy Bob hold up, that Frank Stillwell had to be the chief suspect. He was, after all, one of Johnny's own deputies..
And this might be the proper moment to ask why the crooks never thought to cut the telegraph lines which criss-crossed southern Arizona. The Apache did, every chance they got. But "white" criminals never seemed to think of delaying law enforcement by just clambering up the nearest pole and snipping the thin wire. And it was not just the fools Stillwell and Spence. In March the would-be robbers of the Benson stage had also left the telegraph wires intact, allowing for immediate pursuit. But I digress.
Part of Deputy Marshal Frank Stillwell's job was collecting county taxes, but Behan noticed the money from Bisbee always seemed to be late and always seemed to be short, which meant so was Johnny's 10% cut. So Behan, not usually known for his dedication, wasted no time in dispatching to Bisbee ,a 28 year old mining engineer, fast draw shooter and part time deputy, David Nagal along with 35 year old Deputy William Milton "Billy" Breakenridge (above). Billy was also a Federal Deputy Marshal, and a cool man with a gun. And knowing that Frank Stillwell was the suspect, he and Dave were joined by deputized Federal Marshals Wyatt and Morgan Earp, and Wells Fargo detective, Marshal Williams.
The Tombstone lawmen interviewed the passengers of the held up stage, and learned about the thief who asked for "sugar". And in checking the crime scene they identified a distinctive boot heel mark in the sand. Checking with a Bisbee cobbler, they were told that Frank Stillwell had new heels put on his boots that very morning. A search of the shoemaker's trash produced the source of the distinctive heel prints, and all 5 lawmen proceeded directly to the livery stables where they found Frank and Pete, still recovering from their night time crime spree. The master criminals were arrested and transported directly back to Tombstone. Which is where things started to get confused.
Charged with highway robbery and theft, both men were arraigned in front of a Justice of the Peace on Tuesday 13 September. Bail was set at a hefty $7,000 each. And then, to the Earps surprise, Frank's bail was guaranteed by his old boss, Charles Hamilton "Ham" Light. Light had managed teamsters in Prescott, and Frank Stillwell had been his enforcer. Then about 1880, "Ham" moved to Tombstone. He owned a corral there, and rented out apartments on the northwest corner of 3rd and Fremont, in his Aztec house. It got is name because it also contained the offices of his Arizona Trading Company. In other words, Charles "Ham" Light was far more than he appeared to be.
Light's willingness to put up $7,000 in property to guarantee Frank Stillwell's appearance in court, would seem to indicate a couple of things. Either "Ham" trusted that Frank would show up or he feared what Frank would tell the lawmen if he was supported by Light. There was also the possibility that like Luther King before him, once out of jail, Frank Stillwell would shortly be dead. That possibilty was reinforced when Johnny Behan chose this time to fire Frank for "accounting irregularities". But the rapidity with which both bails were supplied - Ike Clanton guaranteed Pete Spence's $7,000 bond - hinted that if "Ham" Light and Ike Clanton were not the money men behind the Cochise County Cowboy's rustling ring, they were both closely connected to those who were.
Whatever the reason for the quick bond, the Earps (above) were not willing to allow these two miscreants out of their clutches. Almost immediately Pete and Frank were re-arrested, and transferred to Tuscon for trial in Federal court, beyond the immediate reach of the Cow Boy forces in Tombstone. To make matters worse, the Republican Tombstone Epitath now insisted the pair were being charged with the robbery of the Tombstone to Contention stage coach.
Knowing Pete Spence (above) and Frank Stillwell were innocent of that charge, the McLaury brothers and the Clanton family were convinced the Earps were now framing their opponents, as the Cow Boys had done to Doc Holliday. As Wyatt Earp later testified, "since the arrest of Spence and Stilwell, veiled threats were being made that the friends of the accused will 'get the Earps.'" In fact the pair had been charged with interfering with the United States Mail, which justified the Federal charge.
It didn't matter. By the end of September 1881, with Pete (above) and Frank in jail, the Cow Boys could feel walls, real and imagined, closing in on them. They were willing to believe in a conspiracy against them, because they had conspired against others. And in response to the rising tensions, the Earps moved their families into adjoining rooms at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Both sides were hunkering down into armed camps.
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