One of the Old West’s iconic bad guys was an enigma. His first breath was as foggy as his last.
He was born in Indiana, some tell us. Others point to Kentucky, and some Texas. Most agree on the year of 1858. His birth name has eluded researchers for years. Among the best guesses are: William Brosius, Bill Brocious, William Graham, and William Bresnaham. These various aliases have led many a Wild West history buff down a lot of rabbit holes, resulting in some pretty wild speculations. We will get to that later. For the sake of brevity and continuity, let’s call him CB.
He wandered into Arizona Territory about 1879, driving cattle to the San Carlos Reservation for one John Ayers. He was using “William Brosius” at the time. He soon fell in with a San Simon group that became eventually known as the “Cow Boys.” They were not your Roy Rogers-type fellas. They spent their working hours dealing with cattle — someone else’s cattle.
Rumor had it that CB had previous on-the-job training in Texas, which prompted him to sign up for the Arizona drive after an indictment against him. In little time, he became an acknowledged leader of the loosely organized Cow Boys.
CB was a solidly built 6-footer, freckled of face with a curly black mop. Unlike his morose saddle-mate, John Ringo, Curly was an affable soul when not endeavoring in criminal behavior.
He made the front pages in October 1880 when he shot Tombstone Marshal Fred White. He, along with drinking companions Frank Patterson, Richard Lloyd, James Johnson, Shotgun Collins, and two fellas named Ames and Ackerman, left Tom Corrigan’s saloon about midnight. They started “shooting at the moon,” a common practice of whisky-soaked revelers.
The law swung into action. Marshal White appeared with Wyatt Earp. Earp grabbed CB and White took hold of the pistol CB had. The weapon discharged and left White with a mortal gut wound from which he expired days later. Earp clubbed CB to the ground and hauled him off. In a sense, this event was one of the origins of the Earp/Clanton feud that would erupt a year later.
CB was taken to Tucson for incarceration by Earp. Along the way, CB quizzed Wyatt about legal aid, and referred to a Texas beef he had had, lending credence to the Texas rumor. CB was released from custody in December, as the ruling was White’s demise was accidental. Since Wyatt aided the defense, one could conclude that CB gave information to Wyatt about robberies and political shenanigans.
Close callIn May 1881, CB again boosted his reputation, this time at his own expense. He quarreled with his buddy, James Wallace, in the small mining camp of Galeyville. One version had it that CB had shot Wallace’s horse. Whatever the reason, both were drinking heavily and Wallace shot CB in the neck. First report in the AZ Citizen claimed CB was dead. In truth, the ball did extensive damage, but CB survived.
In July, he received a letter from a pal named Tom Harper. Harper sent some advice, “Take warning ... and not be too handy with a pistol.” Harper knew what he was talking about. A few days after he penned the missive in jail, he became a victim of a legal neck-tie party.
It turned out to be a busy month. A Mexican group was ambushed near Fronteras, leaving four dead vaqueros. The outlaws got away with $4,000 in coin. Some of that loot showed up in Galeyville card games, CB’s haunt.
In August, Old Man Clanton, the family patriarch, was among a handful of Cow Boys cut down while sleeping. Mexican quasi-military had caught them while the boys had been moving cattle. The Mexicans were possibly aided by a Wyatt Earp-led posse. The Clantons and CB were intertwined.
Curiously, if not conveniently, he was absent when the famous Tombstone street fight, known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral, started what would be a five-month war between the Earps and the Cow Boy faction. CB was noticeably MIA for sometime, however he was rumored to have taken part in the Morgan Earp assassination in March of ‘82. Wyatt named him later as a participant, although no proof surfaced.
Wyatt and posse conducted a search-and-destroy mission aimed at any known Cow Boy members. Sheriff John Behan took after the badge-wearing Earp posse with one of his own, comprised mostly of Cow Boys. After Wyatt killed Frank Stilwell at the Tucson train station, he was under indictment.
Wyatt camped outside Tombstone. He was awaiting funds to carry his troops. In mid-afternoon of March 24, a Friday, he headed to a known small encampment in the Whetstone Mountains that featured a well. Iron Springs (or Mescal Springs as it was sometimes known) became a killing ground. Wyatt rode unaware into a camp that contained CB and fellow miscreants.
Both protagonists unleashed shotguns. Wyatt was the clear winner. Both sides retreated to safety. Arguments still rage as to whether this happened.
Dead or alive?Wyatt said he killed CB. In an interview with a Denver newspaper in May of ‘82, Doc Holliday, who rode with Earp, said Wyatt killed CB. Fred Dodge’s memoirs pointed to a participant in the Iron Springs fight who had been also shot by Wyatt. He, on his death bed in Charleston, named Earp as CB’s killer.
George Parsons, who kept a detailed diary of his Tombstone days, wrote of his knowledge of CB. Parsons was well connected with Tombstone’s well-placed citizenry His lead line in a daily entry was “Curly Bill has been killed at last!”
The Nugget in Tombstone, a decidedly pro-Cow Boy organ, offered a $1,000 reward for proof of CB’s death. Not to be outdone, the Epitaph, a pro-Earp paper run by former Mayor John Clum, countered with a $2,000 reward for info that showed that CB was still alive. Nobody collected.
The legendary outlaw was rumored to have been carted to the Patterson Ranch, at the confluence of the San Pedro River and Babocomari Creek, for burial in an unmarked grave. Patterson, you will recall, was a participant in the Marshal White shooting. The thought was if CB was not found, then the Cow Boys would insist Wyatt had not done him in.
Another clue to the mortal shooting was a desperate attempted robbery gone bad. It occurred the next day in Charleston. Two men killed mining engineer M. L. Peel in a botched deed. The two men went to the Chandler ranch east of Tombstone to get some money owed so that they could flee.
These men were known compadres of CB. Their panic was a result of watching their leader get gunned down by Earp. Later, one was killed, the other captured.
In any event, Curly Bill was not heard from again. Case closed.
But wait ... Earp detractors began to surface claiming he was a fraud. Several books explore the belief CB did indeed not fall to Wyatt’s blasts. The latest one was a weak effort to track CB. The author concluded CB survived and lived on. The theory starts on the shaky ground that the author knows the real Curly Bill.
Problem is there were more than a few Curly Bill’s roaming the West. I found one in Texas. He popped up in an arrest book while searching for Doc Holliday in Fort Griffin.
A national western magazine published an article that “re-found” the Whetstone Mountains shooting site. When this author challenged the editor, it was pointed out that Wyatt Earp did a diagram (in my files) of the incident and labeled the site, adorned with willow trees. The “newly discovered” site was a few miles away and was called Cottonwood Springs.
I pointed out to him that there were no springs at the second site and that Wyatt surely would know the difference between a cottonwood tree and a willow. His response? “What do we make of that.”
For some in the Earp field, a buck or two, and perceived glory, can reshape the truth.
Beware the re-invention of history.
Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western writer, lecturer and researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the Green Valley News.