Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project
THE EARLY ARIZONA TERRITORY CORONERS AND HISTORY
By Kathy Block
APCRP Historical Staff
Early Arizona Territory coroners and their records can be an interesting source of information about historical events and people. The brief notations in a county coroner's register offer glimpses of tragedies that led to the deaths of many early citizens. Six famous deaths are explored in this article as well.
An 1870 mortality schedule from Arizona City, Yuma County has a hand written note at the bottom of the form: “I expect a great many violent deaths, this being a frontier county where all disputes are settled by the use of weapons, and it occurs between transient and single men who have no families.” Eleven of the 31 deaths (35 percent) were from gunshot wounds, skull fractures, or stabbings!
Coroner's Register, First Page.
For comparison with Yuma County, I used deaths on a “Coroner's Register No.2, Register of Actions & Fee Bk. Cochise County, Arizona Territory, 1881-1901.” There were 474 deaths listed on almost 11 pages of this record. Only 24 could be identified as women. The rest were either men or unknown. Here's the results, grouped by categories of deaths, using the coroner's descriptions. (Some confusions may result.)
GUNSHOT WOUNDS: 210 TOTAL (44 percent of total deaths recorded).
Gunshot wounds, some murders and some self-defense: 130 (27 %)
Accidental gunshot wounds: 18 (incl. 2 women) (0.4 %)
Pistol shot wounds: 16 (incl. 3 women) (0.4%)
Gunshot wounds from law enforcement: 16 (0.4%)
Gunshot wounds from Indians: 15 (Incl. 2 from Apaches) (0.4%)
Self-inflicted gunshot wounds “with suicidal intent”: 15 (0.4%
Unusual deaths: 57 (12 %)
Medical: 51 (11 %)
Suicide: 47 (10 %)
Train Accidents: 41 (.09 %)
Mine Accidents: 35 (.07 %)
Unknown causes: 33 (.07%)
Drowning: 8 (.02%)
Fire: 5 (.01
Some of the “unusual deaths” were quite varied. Examples:
A kick in the groin; hit on the head with a rock; falling into a well; thrown from buckboard trying to control unmanageable team; poisoning from bite of a Gila Monster; fall from cliff while under the influence of liquor; neck broke by stroke of a man's fist; and, for a woman, “'Rape' effects of an outrage committed upon her person.”
Train Accidents included: Attempt to couple cars while in motion; scalding from defective flue in engine; run over by engine while asleep on RR track; train wreck; shot attempting to hold up train; and run over attempting to board train while in motion!
Mine Accidents commonly were results of poor work conditions or carelessness: Fall into chute; explosion of giant powder; car loaded with coal overturned - “death by coal”; blow from falling rock in cave-in; suffocation by poisonous gas; and wounds received thru own carelessness!
People killed themselves, called “a fato de se” in some reports. Some men and women poisoned themselves with chloroform, overdose of morphine, chloral hydrate, laudanum, opium, or “alcoholic stimulants.” A few died from self-inflicted stabs or cuts by knife or razor. One died from a deliberate drowning and one hanged himself. Another died from an injury to his head “caused by his own hand.” (Suicides by gunshot were also included in the statistics for gunshot deaths.)
Early day functions of a coroner were done by citizens summoned by a Justice of the Peace, to investigate these deaths that were reported in the Coroner's Register. Sometimes a panel of law enforcement officers or just a sheriff and a deputy, were convened. Almost every man (there didn't seem to be any women on these investigations!) rode horses to the scene to view a body and usually, with a sheriff present, viewed a deceased person and determined the cause of death. (This would be fairly obvious for gunshot wounds and stabbings.) In cases of murder, a jury might be subpoenaed for a formal inquest, with jurors and witnesses sworn in, evidence presented, and a verdict given. This could be held in a regular county courthouse with a Justice of the Peace or Judge presiding as a coroner. News accounts in old newspapers and records regularly reported on their activities.
Edward Franklin Bowers (1839-1879), elected Yavapai County Sheriff in 1875, discussed a coroner's jury in “Pioneer Remembrances: Black Notebook” regarding circumstances leading to death of gunslinger in a shootout with law officers. The jury consisted of a Justice of the Peace, a U.S. Marshall, another man, and a Constable. Here's an example of how these inquests were recorded in death records:
William Crawford. Born 1856. Died: Prescott, Yavapai County, Arizona Territory, Oct. 29, 1873. COD: Effects of liquor. Coroners Inquest.
There are six famous deaths recorded on the Cochise County Coroner's Register:
on Body of: Year Inquest Inquest Cause of Death Coroner
Clanton, Wm. 1881 26-Oct 1-Dec Gun shot wounds. HM Malthews
Earp, Morgan 1882 16-Mar 22-Mar Gunshot wound HM Malthews
Earp, Warren 1900 8-Jul 12-Jul Gunshot wound at the hands
of John N. Boyett WF Nichols
McLowery, Frank 1881 26-Oct 1-Dec Gunshot wounds. See Inquest HM Malthews
(McLaury) papers of Wm. Clanton
McLowery, Thomas 1881 26-Oct 1-Dec Gunshot wound. See Inquest HM Malthews
(McLaury) papers in Clanton case.
Ringo, John 1882 14-Jan 3-Nov Unknown but supposed gunshot Citizens
wounds. Statement of John Yoast
dated July 14, 1882.
WM. CLANTON, FRANK MCLAURY, THOMAS MCLAURY (Misspelled as McLowery on list) were killed in the famous gunfight at O.K. Corral, Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in 1881.
MORGAN EARP was killed in Tombstone in 1882.
WARREN EARP was shot in Willcox in 1900.
JOHN RINGO, an outlaw, was buried in a grave in West Turkey Creek Valley near where his body was found.
Contemporary accounts in old newspapers give details about the role of a coroner in these deaths.
The three deaths in Tombstone in the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” came from a gunfight which was the result of a personal, family, and political feud. The following robbery attempt was the stimulus, but there were many complicated background events. Three cowboys attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying $26,000 in silver bullion that was en route from Tombstone to Benson, the nearest railroad freight terminal. Just outside of Contention City the driver and a passenger were both shot and killed. Virgil Earp (Deputy U.S. Marshal Sheriff) and his brothers Wyatt and Morgan pursued the cowboys suspected of the murders. They were tracked down to Tombstone and killed. The three were Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton.
Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers graves in Boothill Cemetery, Tombstone
Photo courtesy: Kathy Block
A somewhat sympathetic article in the Arizona Weekly Citizen, Oct. 30, 1881, “At the Morgue” described the scene: (Note McLaury is spelled McLowry here.)
“The bodies of the three slain cowboys lay side by side, covered with a sheet. Very little blood appeared on their clothing, and only on the face of young Billy Clanton was there any distortion of the features or evidence of pain in dying. The features of the two McLowry boys looked as calm and placid in death, as if they had died peacefully, surrounded by loving friends and sorrowing relatives. No unkind remarks were made by anyone, but a feeling of unusual sorrow seemed to prevail at the sad occurrence. Of the McLowry brothers we could learn nothing of their previous history before coming to Arizona. The two brothers owned quite an extensive ranch on the lower San Pedro, some seventy or eighty miles from this city, to which they had moved their band of cattle since the recent Mexican and Indian troubles. They did not bear the reputation of being of a quarrelsome disposition, but were known as fighting men, and have generally conducted themselves in a quiet and orderly manner when in Tombstone.”
William “Billy” Harrison Clanton; was born in 1862 in Hamilton County, Texas, one of the 7 children of Newman Haynes Clanton and Mariah Sexton Clanton. He was 19 years old when he was shot to death on October 26, 1881, in his first and last shootout! He helped his widowed (1866) father, “Old Man” Clanton on their Charleston Ranch near Charleston, established in 1877, and may have assisted in rustling livestock. His father also was a gold miner and prospector. Billy was best known for being a member of a group of outlaw cowboys, often called “The Cowboys.” that had ongoing conflicts with lawmen, particularly Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp. The Clanton’s repeatedly threatened the Earp’s because they interfered with “The Cowboys” illegal activities. Billy is buried in Boothill Cemetery, Tombstone, to the left of the McLaury brothers.
The McLaury brothers were in Tombstone to conclude a cattle deal. Tensions between the Earp’s and “The Cowboys” had escalated. Ike Clanton, brother of Billy, had been cited earlier in the day for carrying a weapon in town, after which Tom had arrived to get Ike. Tom and Wyatt Earp had a heated exchange and Wyatt later testified he saw a pistol in Tom's waistband and confronted him. The famous shoot-out occurred with the Earp’s and Doc Holliday against the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton, joined by Billy Claiborne.
Robert “Frank” Findley McLaury; was born March 3, 1848 in Courtright Center, New York, son of Margaret Knowland and Robert Houston, farmers. His father was also a lawyer. Frank was one of 11 children that included 6 sons! The family lived with his grandfather after his mother died of typhoid in 1859. He died of gunshot wounds in Tombstone at the age of 33. His allegiance was to “The Cowboys”, and he worked as a ranch hand, miner, outlaw, and cattle rustler. He was only 5'4” tall.
Thomas McLaury was a younger brother of Robert. He was born June 30, 1853, in Courtright Center, New York. He was 28 years old when he died. Like his brother and Billy Clanton, he was a member of “The Cowboys.” He also was a ranch hand, miner, outlaw, and cattle rustler. He and his brother Frank owned a ranch outside Tombstone during the 1880's. The Tombstone shootout was also his first and last gunfight. Tom was just 5'3” tall.
Afterward, brother William McLaury, an attorney, spent most of his finances trying to charge Doc Halliday and the Earp’s with murder. The prosecutor explained that the $3,000 that Tom had on him when he died was from the sale of a herd of cattle. Some disputed the charges that Tom was a cattle rustler. On Feb, 16, 1882 Justice Smith of Contention arrested Doc Holliday, Wyatt and Morgan Earp on the charge of deliberate murder of Billy Clanton. They were quickly released, however. An extensive investigation over a period of four weeks was undertaken, with evidence published in the daily papers stating the Earp’s were just carrying out their duties. The examining magistrate looked over the testimonies and discharged the defendants and completely exonerated them, and the Grand Jury of Cochise County, then in season, declined to find any bill of indictment. The Arizona Weekly Citizen, March 26, 1882, then concluded: “These facts are sorely entitled to sufficient consideration to prevent the homicide thus legally declared to be justifiable from being classed with deeds of secret murder.”
Some historians believe that William McLaury, who was frustrated in his attempt to find out how and why his brothers were murdered, organized the “Vigilante Justice” that crippled Virgil Earp and murdered Morgan Earp after the Earp’s and Doc Holliday (1851-1887) were set free.
The exoneration of the Earp’s and Doc Holliday did not end the conflicts.
The next person killed by gunshot was Morgan Samuel (or Seth) Earp, on March 18, 1882, about a half year after the O.K. Corral gun battle. Morgan, born April 24, 1851 in Pella, Iowa, was 30 years old when he died. Morgan was married to Louise Houston in 1875, only 7 years before his murder His parents were Nicholas Earp and Virginia Ann Cooksey. His father was a farmer, cooper, and municipal constable in Turtle, Illinois. The father was in this position for about 3 years until he was convicted of bootlegging! The farm was sold to pay his fines and the family moved back to Iowa, where Morgan was born. He was the younger brother of Virgil and Wyatt Earp. Morgan, who had been wounded in the O.K. Corral shootout earlier, was in the saloon of Campbell & Hatch in Tombstone and shot to death in an ambush.
A coroner's jury investigated the killing of Morgan Earp, publishing their findings in The Tombstone Epitaph on March 26, 1882:
“We, the undersigned, a jury empaneled by the Coroner of Cochise County, Territory of Arizona, to inquire whose body is that submitted to our inspection, when, whom and by what means he came to his death, after viewing the body and hearing such testimony as has been brought before us, find that his name was Morgan S. Earp, age about 29 years, a native of Iowa, and that he came to his death in the city of Tombstone....by reason of gunshot or pistol wound inflicted at the hands of Pete Spence, Frank Stilwell, a party by the name of Freise, and two Indian half-breeds, one whose name is Charlie....”(Signed by 7 men).
Below the report was the news that Deputy Sheriff Bell arrived from Charleston in charge of Indian Charlie, charged with the murder of Morgan Earp. “Charlie was a little playful in Charleston a day or two since, and shot at a man, shot out some lights, etc.”
An article the next day commented:
“It is seldom that a jury of investigation are enabled to bring out so strong an array of evidence upon a preliminary examination as in the present case. Unfortunately for the cause of law and order, the violent taking off of Stillwell, at Tucson, on Monday night, has put him beyond the reach of earthly tribunals. Peter Spence has surrendered himself to the sheriff and is now in custody. His examination will come before Judge Wallace at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning.”
The reason for the reference to the “violent taking” of Stillwell is that the Sheriff of Cochise county apparently didn't think it necessary to hunt for the murderers, who escaped. The Earp’s then “took the law in their own hands and it is supposed killed Frank Stillwell, a noted stage robber and desperado and one of the parties whom the coroner's jury held responsible for the murder of Morgan Earp.”
Morgan Earp's remains were taken by train by his surviving brothers to Colton, California for burial in Hermosa Memorial Gardens, Colton, San Bernardino County, California.
The deaths of the Earp brothers by gunshot hadn't ended. A little over eight years later, on July 6, 1900, Warren Baxter Earp, the youngest brother of Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil, James and Newton Earp, was killed by gunshot in Willcox, Arizona Territory. Warren was born March 9, 1855 in Pella, Iowa. He was 45 years old and was a lawman and mail stagecoach driver. Warren was not involved in the shootout at O.K. Corral, though he was a deputy for his brother Virgil. He was killed by Johnny Boyett. There had been “bad blood” between them for some years. According to a news account in the Arizona Republican, July 10, 1900:
“Earp had the disagreeable habit when under the influence of liquor of running Boyett all over town. Boyett, it seems, never sought a quarrel and always sought to avoid Earp when he was looking for trouble....It was not long ago that Earp got Boyett in a saloon, and with a six-shooter pressed to his stomach, made him promise that if he and Earp ever had another quarrel a killing would result.”
The quarrels ended tragically on a Friday morning when the two men met in a restaurant at the back of Brown's saloon. A drunken Earp started to abuse Boyett, then the two men went into the saloon. Supposedly Earp challenged, “Boyett, get your gun and we will settle this thing right now. I've got my gun, you go and get yours!” Boyett got his gun from his hotel room and advanced to the middle of the restaurant and called out, “Where is that S.O.B?” Just then Earp peered in the door of the restaurant and Boyett fired some shots at him, not killing him. After some running around after Earp, firing more shots, Boyett confronted Earp in the saloon and warned him to not come closer. When Earp continued to advance, Boyett fired a fatal shot into Earp's chest. It turned out that Earp was armed only with a half-opened pocket knife. A sheriff reported that Boyett was always a peaceable man and put up with a great deal from Earp.
Joe Boyett, who shot and killed Warren Earp, had a hearing on July 19, 1900 before Justice W.F. Nicholson and the case was discharged (not charged). Boyett claimed that he “feared for his life”. Boyett later retired from a job at the Hooker Ranch, returned to Redlands, California, and died in Texas. He kept a low profile, fearing retribution from the remaining Earp’s.
Warren Earp was buried in Willcox Pioneer Cemetery, Willcox, Cochise County, Arizona. He was the only member of the Earp family to die and be buried in Arizona!
These were all violent deaths by gunshot! One final famous death was that of Johnny Ringo.
John Peters “Johnny” Ringo was born May 3, 1850 in Greensfork, Indiana, and died July 13, 1882, aged 32, in the Chiricahua Range of Cochise County. He was the son of Martin Albert Ringo and Mary Peters. His father was killed by an accidental shotgun blast and buried along the trail in Wyoming as the family traveled by wagon to California. Johnny was 14 at the time.
John Ringo's body was discovered in Turkey Creek Canyon of West Turkey Creek Valley, and buried nearby. He was a noted outlaw member of “The Cowboys” of Cochise County and was affiliated with Ike Clanton and Frank Stilwell in 1881-1882.
A lengthy article in the Tombstone Weekly Epitaph, July 22, 1882, gives some details. The reporter had a few sympathetic comments:
“There were few men in Cochise County or Southeastern Arizona better known. He was recognized by friends and foes, as a recklessly brave man, who would go any distance, or undergo any hardship to serve a friend or punish an enemy. While undoubtedly reckless, he was far from being a desperado and we know of no murder being laid in his charge. Friends and foes are unanimous in the opinion that he was a strictly honorable man in all his dealings, and that his word was a good as his bond.”
Johnny Ringo's body was found by John Yost (spelled Yoest on the coroner's report) who was acquainted with him for years. Yost, a wood hauler, was driving a team along the road and noticed a man apparently asleep in the middle of a clump of oaks. At first Yost passed by, but then looked back and saw his dog smelling the man's face and snorting. He stopped his team and returned to Ringo, sitting, with his body leaning backward and resting against a tree. He noted a hole large enough to admit two fingers about halfway between the right eye and ear, and a hole correspondingly large on top of his head, probably the outlet of the fatal bullet. A .45 caliber revolver was firmly clenched in his hand, which was almost conclusive evidence that death was instantaneous.
Yost immediately sent for help, and in about fifteen minutes eleven men were on the spot! A statement was written for the Coroner and Sheriff of Cochise County. It included information on the position of Ringo's body, the gunshot wound, and the fact that these were the only marks of violence visible on the body. His other weapons and clothing were also listed. Several of the men identified the body as John Ringo, who was well known in Tombstone. He had been dead about 24 hours. The remains were buried close to where they were found. Today the grave is marked by a pile of stones and a Historic Site sign.
Grave of Johnny Ringo. Wikipedia.
Testimony to the Coroner from various people strongly suggested suicide. Prior to his death by gunshot, he'd been drinking heavily at nearby Galeyville. Before then he'd been on an extended “jamboree” in Tombstone and left there only ten days before. According to the reporter:
“He was subject to frequent fits of melancholy and had an abnormal fear of being killed. Two weeks ago last Sunday in conversing with the writer he said he was as certain of being killed, as he was of living then. He said he might run along for a couple of years more, and may not last two days.”
The reporter also stated earlier:
“Many people who were intimately acquainted with him in life, have serious doubts that he took his own life, while an equally large number say that he frequently threatened to commit suicide, and that event was expected at any time. The circumstances of the case hardly leave any room for doubt as to his self-destruction.
The Coroner's Register of Cochise County, Arizona Territory, 1881-1901, does not state suicide, but “unknown, but supposed gunshot wound. Statement of John Yoast (Yost), dated July 14, 1882”, reported by citizens. Historians may never know the truth, as stated on the marker by his grave. Various accounts claim he was murdered, with no agreement on who may have shot him.
The Historical Site marker reads:
THE REMAINS OF THE NOTED
GUNMAN AND OUTLAW LIE HERE.
A TEAMSTER TRAVELING FROM
WEST TURKEY CREEK FOUND THE
BODY SITTING IN THE FORK OF A
NEARBY OAK TREE WITH A BULLET
HOLE IN THE RIGHT TEMPLE.
A CORONER'S JURY REPORTED THE
DEATH TO BE A SUICIDE, AND RINGO
WAS BURIED ON THE SPOT. THERE
WERE OTHERS WHO VIEWED THE
BODY AND MAINTAINED THAT THE
July 13. 1882 DEATH OF RINGO
Archaeological and Historical Society
and the Arizona Historical Society
In conclusion, research into six of the deaths on this coroner's report reveals some of the history and stories behind deaths by gunshot in the early days of the West in Cochise County, Arizona Territory.
The 11 page Coroner's Register for Cochise County, Arizona Territory, 1881-1901 was prepared by Arizona State Archives Library, Phoenix, Arizona. The complete pdf file can be found at: www.mycochise.com/1881-1901.
Old newspaper articles are found on: www.chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
Information on various people and events, and historic photos from Wikipedia at en.wikipedia.org. and other internet sites.
Genealogical information from Family Search site (familysearch.org) and various internet sites.
Good biographies of famous people in involved in the “Gunfight at OK Corral” are on: www.eaglefreeenterprises.org/warren_earp.
The author tallied the individual entries on the coroner's reports on index cards. Any errors are my own.
Thank you, as always, to Ed Block for careful proofreading and comments.
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