I know what Tombstone (above) City Marshal Ben Sippy was feeling when he took his leave of absence on 6 June, 1881. He was feeling trapped. Which would be odd only if humans were one dimensional heroes and villains. In the flesh Ben was a hell of a lawman. Just after his election in January of 1881, Marshal Sippy faced down a mob of Cow Boys who wanted to string up the young hot headed gambler Micheal "Mike" "Johnny Behind the Deuce" O'Rouke. The Earps, Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan stood behind him, as well as Bat Masterson. Not a bad supporting cast. Never the less it was Ben Sippy who ran the risk of being shot first, and he did not waver. He should have been famous as a cold eyed, steel nerved western lawman, you might say a real life Wyatt Earp. Instead he became an historical footnote, because of the malaria that seemed to hang over him. Ben Sippy couldn't seem to handle money.
Ben had been chosen to finish out Fred White's term as Town Marshal by The Tombstone Epitath, and its editor John Clum. And the January election that saw Clum elected mayor, also saw Ben Sippy elected Marshal in his own right. But almost immediately the relationship between the Town Marshal and town turned sour. It was a repeat of Ben's experiences in Weatherford, Texas, just west of Fort Worth. Under his tenure as law officer and tax collector in both towns, money started to evaporate. And his bills started to pile up, unpaid. It wasn't that Ben was openly crooked, like Cochise County Marshal Johnny Behan and his "10% grafters" would prove to be. It seems that Ben just could not handle money, his own or other people's. The constant need to plug his financial dikes seems to have distracted him, as if he was financing an addiction - but whether it was an opium den, or laudlem, one particular woman, women in general or just whiskey nobody knew. And after 22 June, 1881, nobody was interested.
It started just after 4:30pm that day - the longest day of the year - when a quartet of porters at the small Arcade Saloon were struggling to manhandle a full 300 pound,46 inch tall by 24 inch wide, 46 gallon oak barrel of whiskey out from behind the bar. It was a time of day when sensible Hispanic residents were practicing the art of the siesta. But the mercenary Americans refused to bow to such common sense. The thermometer had peaked well above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, The air was so dry, the sweat evaporated right off the work men's skin.
Out side, both Allen (above, Arcade is on right, half way up the street) and Fifth streets (opening to the right) were nearly empty. And in the shadowy narrow interior of the Arcade, languid drunks nursed warm beers while listless games of faro and poker were being played almost out of habit. But the owner, being a penny pincher by profession, ordered the weary stock men to pause in their efforts, to allow interia to regain its hold on their awkward burden, remove the barrel's tap and measure the liquid within. He did not want to miss even a dime of credit for the sour whiskey. So the workmen did as they were told. Which is how they damn near burned down the entire town of Tombstone.
Once tapped it had been discovered the whiskey in the barrel had "gone sour", succumbing to the heat and an inefficient seal, the alcohol evaporating and the heat spoiling the grain broth left behind. Braving the "waft of acetone" and fungus billowing up from small opening, one workman slid a stick gauge (above) into the liquid, but let it slip from his fingers. It disappeared with a slunk into the thickening witches' brew. And after uttering a curse at his own mistake, the poor dumb soul leaned over the barrel to see if he could spy the missing tool in the murk, and he forgot the lighted cigar clenched in his teeth.
As the Tombstone Nugget explained, "A terrific explosion followed, scattering the blazing fluid in all directions and enveloping the whole structure in flames in the twinkling of an eye." But, the Nugget noted with a touch of annoyance, "...of the four men who stood around that portentous barrel not one of them was even singed." The Arcade, however, was not so lucky. The flames greedily consumed the bone dry wood, erecting a wall of flames that blocked the front door of the tiny establishment. As if a switch had been thrown, the suddenly electrified patrons, in unison, abandoned their languid reposes, and scrambled for the back door.
Three doors west, in the Golden Eagle Brewery, owner Edward Milton Joyce heard shouts of "Fire!", saw the flames, and tried to rescue $1,200 in cash from his safe. But the flames drove him out of the building. Around the corner on Fifth Street, at "Saffors and Company Bank", the manager had the opposite problem. At the first shouts of fire, he threw all the cash into the safe and spun the dial, and just managed to escape as the building roof crashed in behind him. The entire block went up in flames within five minutes.
Within another half hour, the blazing beast had consumed the tinderbox buildings north to Fremont Street, and south to Toughnut. Wrote John Clum, "Everybody went wild. Your correspondent picked up a little girl who was returning from school and got bewildered...I passed one house where a lady and her two daughters were engaged in...futile efforts to get a five hundred pound piano out of the house..."
When the flames hit the row of "bawdy houses" east of Sixth Street the denizens were forced to drop whatever they had in in hand, and wearing in what they had or did not have on, to run out of doors. One prostitute ran from her place of business carrying "a bird-cage in hand, and a dress in the other. Another rushed frantically down the street, attired in a robe of Burlap, with vail of green mosquito netting on her bead. " Amazingly, somehow, nobody was killed or even seriously burned.
Four square city blocks - 60 buildings, 20% of the town - were consumed within 45 minutes. The only thing that stopped the fire was a desperate bucket brigade and because the down wind end of the fire ran out of town to burn. In three quarters of an hour one hundred souls lost their living space, and $300,000 went up in smoke, most of it uninsured. And yet before the last ember had winked out, somebody put up a sign in front of a pile of timber ashes, which read, "We will reopen when it cools."
The fires never touched the mines, and with silver still coming out of the ground and wages still being paid, rebuilding began almost immediately. Eighteen days later Ms. Clara Brown attended the opening of the rebuilt "Golden Eagle" - now renamed "The Crystal Palace". She assured her readers in far off San Diego that "The Palace " was "...simply gorgeous...The bar is a marvel of beauty...Every evening music from a piano and a violin attracts a crowd..." There were fewer wood frame structures this time, many opting for adobe, such as the new Wells Fargo Office and the Bird Cage Theatre ", built in the vacant lot where Sheriff Fred White had died.
Since Marshal Sippy was out of town, Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp (above) stepped in. He hired dozens of temporary officers to police the burned out areas, ending all looting. He assigned 18 men as around the clock guards for the safe at the Wells Fargo office, now repository of most of the town's cash. He did so well that by the end of June, Ben Sippy had been fired. Ben left behind angry creditors, but no solid evidence of any crimes committed. But Ben also gave the town it's new marshal - Virgil Earp, now wearing 2 hats, with jurisdiction not only in the town, but across the entire territory as Deputy Federal Marshal for Tombstone.
While the rebuilding was reaching its peak, Joe Hill rode back into town, collecting the watch and cash he had left with Virgil. But he brought only bad news - depending on how you looked at it. All 4 of the men who had tried to rob the Bisbee stage were now dead. Escapee Luther King had been killed, probably by his fellow Cochise County Cow Boys, because he had identified his accomplices to the Earp posse. Harry Head and Jim Crane were executed by the same because they had botched the robbery, and killing the driver Bud Pierpot had brought too much attention on the rustlers.
But most troubling of all for the Cow Boys was the death of one time jeweler Bill Leonard, who ran south, away from the vengeful Cow Boys and the determined Earp posse, until he found friends who had yet to hear of the Bisbee stage fiasco. But in escaping across the border into Mexico, Bill Leonard crossed paths with a rustling party returning north with 800 head of cattle, lead by Old Man Clanton. Unfortunately, the Clanton party were being tracked by Sonorian Ruales under Commandant Felipe Neri.
Just at dawn on 13 August, 1881 about 25 Mexican militia opened fire on the rustlers, killing 4 of them - Bill Leonard probably died in his sleep. Dick Gray and Billy Lang died trying to escape. And "Old Man" Newman Hawes Clanton was shot while leaning over the breakfast fire. The slaughter in the canyon was undeniable proof that law and order was closing the open frontier, from both sides of the border. The anarchy, which had allowed rustlers a viable business model, was being squeezed out of existence.
For the Clanton and the McLaury families, the death of their patriarch (above) was a body blow. The grief, and the tightening web of law enforcement on both sides of the border, induced a feeling of helplessness, and anger. Wyatt Earp would later testify that after the Guadalupe Massicure, “Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury,....shunned us, and Morgan, Virgil Earp, Doc Holliday and myself began to hear their threats against us.” The fuse that had been burning for 20 years, had suddenly been cut short.
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