I am pretty certain what 31 year old Town Marshal Frederick G. "Fred" White (above) was thinking, as he appoached the empty lot near the corner of Sixth and Allen Streets, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. It was just about 12:30 on the chilly night of Thursday, 28 October, 1880, and Fred had spent most of the evening chasing down and collecting guns from drunken cowboys. None of these intoxicated miscreants wanted to hurt anyone or anything. In the same way a solitary young bull charges about an open field, or adolesent stags butt heads, it is natural that humans, particularly young males, will occasionally want to blow off a little steam. But the difference between a chimpanze thrashing the underbrush with a branch, and a human, is that humans have invented gunpowder and guns and alcohol.
This was why Tombstone made it illegal to carry a gun in the city limits, except when entering or leaving town. As a man of average intelligence - which by all accounts Fred was - and being a friendly and compasionate fellow - as everyone knew him to be - Fred knew that guns plus people plus alchol plus time eventually equals somebody getting shot. As freelance journalist Clara Spalding Brown noted the same idea when writing about Tombstone and its environs - "When saloons are thronged all night with excited and armed men, bloodshed must needs ensue occasionally."
There were half dozen men in the vacant lot between Toughnut and Allen Streets. They were just "shooting at the moon", using their pistols as noisemakers. Fred approached the men quietly but firmly, as he always did. The drunk "Cow Boys" - Frank Patterson (of stolen mule fame), Ed Collins, James Johnson (who worked on the Clanton ranch with his brother Bill), Arthur Ames, Robert Loyd and Curley Bill Brocius - all knew Fred and liked him. And even knowing they faced a $10 fine, they all seemed willing to hand over their guns. Fred must have been certain this would be his last such encounter that night.
The first to surrender his gun was "Curly Bill" Brocius (above). Brocius was pretty drunk, and yanked the weapon out of his pocket. As Fred White grabbed the barrel, the gun went off. The crack shattered the Arizona night. Fred groaned, doubled over and fell. In an instant a new figure appearded out of the dark, and pistol whipped Brocius to the ground.
When the shooting party first started, Wyatt Earp (above) was one block to the east, beneath the tent canvas of Owen's Saloon (below, right), where he dealt faro. Republican friends had recently secured him an appointment as a deputy sheriff for the southern part of Pima County, making him a tax assessor and collector as well. That earned him 10% of everything he collected. But that was "maybe" income, and for Wyatt, dealing faro was a sure thing.
Still, hearing the gunfire, Wyatt walked away from the table to investigate. He saw Fred White approaching the men, and sensing danger, Wyatt borrowed a pistol from fellow statecoach guard Fred Dodge, and walked down the street to back up the sheriff. When Ed White was shot, it was Wyatt who leapt to the wounded man's defence and disabled the shooter. The other cowboys scattered into the dark of a nearby wash and somebody started shooting at Wyatt. Almost immediatly Wyatt was joined on the street by Morgan Earp and Fred Dodge.
Fred Dodge recalled years later that, "When Morg and I reached him, Wyatt was squatted on his heels beside Curly Bill and Fred White. Curly Bill's friends were pot-shooting at him in the dark...." In his book "Under Cover for Wells Fargo", Dodge explained, "Wyatt said to me, "Put the fire out in Fred's clothes." When he looked, Dodge saw that Brocius' shot had been so close, the muzzel blast had set Marshal White's vest smoldering. Added Dodge in a letter, "Wyatt's voice was even and quiet as usual."
Once the shooting from the aroyo had slackened, volunteers carried Marshall White to the Fifth Street side of the Golden Eagle Brewery building (above), and up the stairs to the second floor office of Doctor H.M. Matthews, who was also the county coroner. At the same time Dodge and the Earps led Curley Bill off to the "lockup", a 10' X 12" windowless structure. All the way there, Billy Brocius kept asking, "What have I done?" The lawmen then proceeded to track down the others in the confrontation. Within hours all 6 of the drunks were safely in the lockup.
According to Dr. Matthews, the bullet from Brocius' gun entered Fred White's body "Four inches below and three inches to the left of the naval.... traveling downward...(and) pierced the small intestine..." Eighty years before the discovery of antibiotics, to all intents and purposes Fred White was dead the instant the bacteria inside his intestines were released into his abdomen.
Opiats kept Fred White pain free for 2 days, giving him time to dictate a statement that the shooting had been accidental. He died on Sunday, 31 October, with his father and friends at his bedside. The gun belonging to Curley Bill Brocius was picked up in the street. It had only one round fired. Curley Bill had not even been responsible for the shooting that drew Marshall White to the confrontation.
In the morning, in the courthouse at Third and Toughnut Street (above), in front of Tucon's Judge Gray, Frank Patterson pleaded that he had been trying to quiet the shooting party. The others, who paid a $10 fine, each supported his story. Arthur Ames was fined an additonal $30 for carrying a concealed weapon. Brocius asked to have his case held over until he could get an attorney. And given the popularity of Ed White, the Earps thought it best to transport the cowboy to Tuscon to stand trial.
The first result of the shooting was that Deputy Federal Marshal Virgil Earp was asked to tempprorally fill the job as Town Marshall, until a special election could be held on Saturday, 13, November, 1880. But with the bounty of economically business oportuinites available in Tombstone, the race eventually narrowed to either Earp or the 33 year old miner, Benjamin Sippy. The financially challenged Sippy won the November ballot, 259 to 311 votes. Editor of the "Epitath", John Clum (above) chose to be optimistic, suggesting Sippy "...should recieve the support and assistance of all good citizens." In fact, Ben Sippy would prove to be brave, clear headed and determined, when he was on duty. He spent his first months in office arresting speeders on the streets of Tombstone.
Later that November, William "Curley Bill" Brocius stood trial in Tuscon for Fred White's death, before Judge Neugass. Fred White's dying statement was read into the record and Wyatt Earp even testified he thought the gun had gone off "half cocked".
Judge Neugass had little choice, and dismissed the charges. Curley Bill (above) walked out of court a free man. Even though Wyatt's testimony had helped clear him of the murder charge, Brocius never forgave Wyatt Earp for the pistol whipping. It was yet another firm step on the road to the most iconic 30 seconds of violence in the history of the American west.
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