We’re all familiar with the story of the Bisbee and Tombstone mob that broke John Heath (Heith) out of jail and strung him up from a telegraph pole for his role in the Bisbee Massacre. The deed was immortalized by a photographer.
But hundreds of Bisbee residents were ready to lynch a couple of the other perpetrators of the heinous crime as they were being brought from Clifton, where they were captured, to the county jail in Tombstone.
Had Sheriff Jerome Ward not been aware of the potential of facing an angry mob, the lynching would have come to fruition, hanging two of the six men months before their expiration date.
The massacre had taken place on Dec. 8, 1883 and that night the perpetrators left town under the light of a full moon. The posse wouldn’t catch their trail until the next morning. The five men split up, heading to eastern Arizona, New Mexico and two destinations in Mexico, taking their meager booty along.
The two who went to the Clifton area, James “Tex” Howard and Comer W. “Red” Sample, had among their share a watch that could be identified. And it was. The local constabulary of (what was then) Graham County arrested them and called for Cochise County officials to come get them.
The Sacramento Daily Record-Union, in its edition of Dec. 22, reported that around Tombstone and Bisbee, “rumors were rife and threats openly made” that Tex and Red “should not live to enter the jail.”
The report, datelined Tombstone, Dec. 21, said that “upon the arrival of the regular stage last night there were fully 300 men in and about it, it having been noised about that the Sheriff would arrive with them.”
“It was well known that since the departure of Ward for Clifton a party of men from Bisbee had been at Fairbank,” the story said. Fairbank was the closest railroad station to Tombstone at the time.
“Their only object could have been the lynching of the prisoners,” the newspaper report continued. “Under the circumstances, it looked as if their threats would be carried out.”
But Ward reported to his under sheriff, Wallace, that he had left the train at Contention, a few miles before the train got to Fairbank.
“Wallace quietly selected fifteen men known for coolness and bravery, and by his instructions they got into the Sheriff’s office unnoticed, where they were armed and made ready for any attempted rescue.
“Your correspondent was allowed to be with the party enrolled, and as the minutes rolled swiftly away the suspense got irksome.”
Then a horseman dashed by, “his animal reeking with foam,” and the men in the office thought that their plans had gone awry. But it was not so, and “not a lounger was to be seen about the Court house.
“The anxiety was getting painful, when on the run up came a vehicle containing Sheriff Ward and deputies, and with them the prisoners, who, in the twinkle of an eye, almost, were out of the wagon and safe behind the bolts and bars, from which they will never emerge alive.”
The correspondent was accurate in a sense that they would not survive their time in Tombstone. But they would get their trial, with their three cohorts and with John Heath.
“Death is their certain portion,” wrote the correspondent, “either by law or at the hands of Judge Lynch.” On this day, thanks to the planning of Sheriff Ward, Judge Lynch would be denied.