Saturday, November 21, 2015

Harry C. Wheeler -- Lawman & Patriot

A close friend asked me to look into this lawman. He said that my readers would enjoy his story, and that I would be surprised with what I found. Well my friend was right in that I have found the story about Harry C. Wheeler very surprising. Now I'm hoping he is right in that you enjoy reading about this man.

Unlike many of the Old West's characters who we hear about, with most of what people know being just amplified myths and little fact, Harry Cornwall Wheeler was one of the real deals in the Old West. He's someone more folks should know about.

Harry Cornwall Wheeler was an Arizona lawman. He was the third Captain of the Arizona Rangers, the Sheriff of Cochise County, and a soldier in the United States Army in both the Spanish-American War and later in World War One. He did more in his fairly short life than most who lived much longer.

Harry Wheeler was born on July 23rd, 1875, in Jacksonville, Florida. the son of Colonel William B. Wheelsex of the United States Army. In 1897, at age 22, Wheeler enlisted in the 1st Cavalry and fought in the Spanish-American War before being given the rank of Sergeant and a medical discharge in 1902. He was said to be an excellent marksman with a rifle and pistol. After the Army, Wheeler joined the Arizona Rangers in 1903 and was promoted to Sergeant a mere four months later.

On October 23rd, 1904, Harry C. Wheeler was involved in his first gunfight at the Palace Saloon in Tucson, Arizona Territory. It all started just before midnight when Joe Bostwick is said to have slipped through the rear door of the Palace Saloon to rob the place. Bostwick's face mostly covered with a red bandana, reportedly complete with eye-holes. He brandished a Colt .45 Single Action pistol, and shouted, "Hands up!"

Four employees were on duty in the Palace that night. Those employees were the bartender, a craps dealer, a roulette dealer, and a porter. Along with the employees were four customers. One customer who is believed to be a man named M.D. Beede is said to have slipped out the front door and ran up Congress Street looking for the law.

Inside the Palace Saloon, Bostwick ordered all there to "Throw up your hands and march into the side room. Hold them up higher! Hold up your digits!" His instructions were heeded and the men filed by him. Bostwick then went over to the craps table and helped himself to the money that lay scattered about. What he didn't know was that outside on Congress Street, Mr. Beede had found Arizona Ranger Sergeant Harry Wheeler who had just emerged from Wanda’s Restaurant.

Beede approached Wheeler who had turned toward the Palace, and said, "Don’t go in there! There’s a holdup going on!" Supposedly Wheeler calmly replied. "All right, that’s what I’m here for" while pulling his own Single-Action Colt .45 from its holster.

Wheeler then stepped to the front door of the saloon, and immediately Bostwick spotted him and whirled to fire his revolver. Wheeler was already in position and let go with his first shot. His heavy .45 slug grazed Bostwick’s forehead above the right eye, and with that Bostwick fired again. This time he fired wildly.

Wheeler fired again and this time a .45 slug slammed into the right side of Bostwick's chest. Mortally wounded, Joe Bostwick collapsed to the floor.

When interviewed by a reporter for The Tucson Citizen, Wheeler commented:

"I am sorry that this happened, but it was either his life or mine, and if I hadn’t been just a little quicker on the draw than he was, I might be in his position now. Under the circumstances, if I had to do it over again, I think I would do exactly the same thing."

Wheeler was later involved in a shootout in Benson, where he killed a second man. It became known as the "Shootout in Benson." That took place on February 27th, 1907, when Arizona Ranger Sergeant Harry C. Wheeler attempted to detain a man named J. A. Tracy in Benson.

No one really knows why Tracy was being detained. But for whatever reason, it didn't sit well with Tracy who resisted arrest and instead produced a hideout gun.
Tracy then opening fire on Wheeler.

When the first shot went off, it was only then that Wheeler went for his pistol. Shots were exchanged at fairly close range, and when the smoke cleared both Tracy and Wheeler were badly wounded. J.A. Tracy died of his wounds. Luckily for Wheeler, after some time off, he fully recovered. It's said after that, he was a lot more conscientious about searching suspects.

Soon after that shooting incident in 1907, Wheeler replaced Thomas H. Rynning as Captain of the Arizona Rangers. He served as the agency's leader until its disbanding in 1909. Arizona Ranger Captain Harry C. Wheeler was the third Captain in Arizona Ranger history. He is considered an example of professionalism and fortitude.

In 1911, just two years after the Arizona Rangers disbanded, Harry C. Wheeler was elected Sheriff of Cochise County. He was re-elected in 1914 and again in 1916. It was during that time that he took on many growing problems along the border. During the turn of the century, smuggling across the border with Mexico was a serious problem.

When Arizona became a "dry" state with the banning of alcohol on January 1st, 1915, smuggling booze into Arizona became big business. Of course, because Cochise County bordered Mexico and the state of New Mexico, and both still allowing alcohol, Cochise County quickly became a conduit for both American and Mexican bootleggers and alcohol smugglers.

The Gleeson Gunfight

On the night of March 5th, 1917, Sheriff Wheeler and Deputy Gibson were returning to the Deputy's home in Gleeson. They were traveling in a 1915 Oldsmobile Touring Car. They had a full day of searching the Chiricahua Mountains for rum-runners, those smugglers that became such a problem. Because they were exhausted and could not safely drive in the dark, it was sunset when the two lawmen decided to stop and make camp for the night.

The location where they stopped was about two miles east of Gleeson. They decided to camp along the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks there. Almost as soon as they rolled out their blankets and laid down next to the car, they started taking incoming fire from a few Mexican outlaws. Their position was behind some rocks about 200 yards away from the railroad tracks. The first shot smashed the front window out of the car, the other shots were random.

Wheeler immediately grabbed a box of ammunition and his rifle. Gibson only had his revolver and the ammunition on his gun belt. Both Officers returned fire while attempting to gain better cover. Soon they climbed up the top of the railroad berm in an attempt to get a better look at their attackers.

The whole while they were moving forward, the two lawmen could hear the outlaws shouting insults to them in Spanish, saying, "We‍ '​ll fix you gringos! Come and get us now!" Yes, it sounds a lot like these days on the border.

By counting the muzzle flashes and were they were coming from, Wheeler and Gibson determined that there were at least four Mexican shooters firing from four different locations. The firefight lasted for nearly an hour as the two sides exchanged fire with over 100 rounds of ammunition being expended.

It was said that the moon was behind the lawmen and low on the horizon, which made them easy targets. Because of that, they decided to lie prone and wait until the moon went down to make a charge towards the outlaws. In the meanwhile, a couple of the outlaws advanced on the American lawmen under cover fire from the two others behind the rocks.

At about 50 yards from the railroad tracks, one of the Mexican shooters fired at Wheeler. It's said his round just missed him. As for Wheeler, he lay prone on the ground and used one of the rails to steady his rifle. He then rapidly fired six shots at the Mexican outlaw's muzzle flash. It was only a second later that the lawmen heard the sounds of groans coming from his Mexican assailant. In the dark and shooting at the muzzle flashes, he hit his target.

Although the fighting continued, Wheeler stopped the Mexicans assault and sent them the attackers back for cover. Soon the moon disappeared below the horizon, it was then that the lawmen made their charge and found the outlaws' camp had been abandoned in a hurry. The Mexicans ran into the desert to evade capture or being killed. And in the process, they would-be killers left ten cases of whiskey behind. The cases were attached to four donkeys.

That morning, the lawmen found horse tracks heading towards the Chiricahua Mountains. They also found a large pool of blood and tracks made by someone who apparently crawled away. Since no body was ever found, it still remains uncertain if any of the Mexican criminals were actually killed as result of the shootout with the two American lawmen.

Sheriff Wheeler and Deputy Gibson decided against chasing the outlaws right away, since their car was damaged by incoming fire. Instead they walked to Courtland where Wheeler was able to telephone his Chief Deputy Guy Welch who was in Tombstone. Welch brought out more guns and ammunition, as well as another Deputy to help in the pursuit of the Mexican shooters.

Wheeler knew that since the outlaws were in the Chiricahuas and most-likely heading south to cross the border, that they would have to go through Apache Pass in order to enter Mexico. Knowing this, he and his men abandoned the pursuit and went to Tombstone on April 7th, 1917, to drop off the confiscated whiskey.

The next day, they went to Apache Pass and succeeded in capturing two of the Mexican shooters. They then returned them to Gleeson to put them in jail there. One of the prisoners turned out to be the gang's leader. He was a man by the name of Santiago Garcia.

Later when Garcia was asked why he opened fire on Wheeler and Gibson, Garcia said that he and his men thought the lawmen were actually rival bootleggers. He said that were afraid that their cargo of booze would be hijacked. According to Garcia, he and his men retreated only when they found out that Wheeler and Gibson were lawmen.

If this story from a rum-runner doesn't sound right, it shouldn't. Remember, the Mexicans called out during the firefight stating that they knew exactly who they were shooting at. And more importantly, they knew exactly who they were trying to kill.

After that shootout, Wheeler and his men were dispatched to investigate a murder that took place in the town of Douglas. Also, they were sent to look into the death of an unknown man near Bisbee. The man found near Bisbee was found with a gunshot wound to the head.

A few months later in June of 1917, Sheriff Wheeler faced a different problem. Communist affiliated with the IWW Labor Union Local, a Union composed mainly of miners in Bisbee began a strike against a mining concern. Phelps Dodge Corporation was an American mining company founded in 1834 as an import-export firm by Anson Greene Phelps and his two British sons-in-law William Earle Dodge, Sr. and Daniel James.

With the expansion of the Western frontier, besides Eastern and European corporations taking over ranches, many of those same corporations acquired mines and mining companies. That included the very large Copper Queen Mine in Arizona. Phelps Dodge Corporation operated its own mines and acquired railroads to carry its products to be processed. By the late 19th Century, Phelps Dodge was known as a very large mining company.

Sheriff Wheeler knew there would be trouble. The International Workers of the World (IWW) had a reputation as being "bomb throwers," Communist agitators, Socialist, who wanted to attack American industry and were there to cause unrest. IWW members were commonly termed "Wobblies" and were an international radical labor union that was founded in 1905 by a group of Socialists and Communists. The philosophy and tactics of the IWW was described as being violent and revolutionary with ties to Socialists and Anarchists and Communists who wanted to overthrow the United States and our Capitalist system of individual freedom. The IWW promoted Communism through labor take overs and strikes in Europe and on the East Coast of the United States.

The IWW's activities were in the newspapers, and Sheriff Wheeler knew what he was up against. To combat the trouble of a thousand strikers showing up there, with the vast majority of strikers actually being brought in from outside of Arizona, Wheeler deputized 2,200 men from Bisbee and Douglas to act as a posse.

On July 12th, 1917, Sheriff Wheelers posse of 2.200 Deputies arrested 2,000 IWW strikers as they arrived in Bisbee. Of those, nearly 1,300 of the strikers and their Communist supporters were placed in 23 cattle cars and then "deported" out of Arizona. Wheeler sent the union agitators across the border to Hermanas, New Mexico, in what has since became known as the "Bisbee Deportation."

After that, Sheriff Wheeler tightened security in an effort to keep the citizens of Bisbee and Douglas safe from union retaliation. Because of threats to the population, Sheriff Wheeler established guard posts at all of the entrances to Bisbee and Douglas. During that time and for the next several months until the threat of harm passed, all citizens seeking to exit or enter the towns had to present a "passport" which was issued by the County Sheriff. Wheeler was taking the threats from the IWW membership seriously.

Any adult male in town who was not known to the sheriff's men was brought before a court, some called it the "Sheriff's kangaroo court" to find out who they were and what was their intentions for being there. Hundreds of people were tried in that court. Most were found to be indeed IWW members returning to cause harm. They were "deported" out of Arizona by Wheeler's deputies.

Some were actually threatened with being lynched by local vigilantes if they returned. There is a question regarding how many long-time citizens of Bisbee were deported along with the radical Communist agitators. In many cases, it was found that many were sympathetic to the IWW and were conspirators in the union's effort to disrupt life there.

By early 1918, he resigned his post as County Sheriff to join the United States Army to fight in World War One. He was promoted to the rank of Captain and soon went to Europe to fight Germans.

Also known as the First World War, or the Great War, World War One was a global war centered in Europe that began on July 28th, 1914, and lasted until November 11th, 1918. The United States declared war against Germany and mobilized a force of 4,355,000 between April of 1917 and December of 1918.

From this, in just under 20 months of fighting, American casualties amounted to 116,516 killed in action, 234,000 were wounded, and 4,500 were prisoners and missing in action. Yes, that took place in just under a year and eight months.

While Wheeler was gone doing his patriotic duty, a federal commission was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to investigate the labor disputes in Arizona. The commission concluded in its final report, issued November 6th, 1917, that "The deportation was wholly illegal and without authority in law, either State or Federal."

On May 15th, 1918, the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the arrest of 21 men which included Phelps Dodge Corporate executives, Calumet, and Arizona Company executives, and several Bisbee and Cochise County elected leaders and local law enforcement officers. Those law enforcement officers arrested included Sheriff Deputies. It would have included Sheriff Harry C. Wheeler himself if he hadn't been serving in France at the time with the American Expeditionary Force during World War One. 

A pre-trial motion by the defense led to a Federal District Court releasing all of the 21 men on the grounds that "no federal laws had been violated." And even though the Justice Department appealed, the appeal was denied in United States v. Wheeler, 254 U.S. 281 (1920).

In that decision, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White ruled for an 8-to-1 majority that "no federal law protected the freedom of movement." Chief Justice White argued that "protecting a citizens' right to movement was a state function and had to be enforced solely in state court."

Wheeler resigned as Sheriff of Cochise County to enlist in the U.S. Army at the rank of Captain. Then in December of 1918, he was given an Honorable Discharge after being called back to Arizona for further court action based on the Bisbee Deportations. Once cleared, Wheeler attempted to get his old job back as he again ran for Cochise County Sheriff in 1922. But sadly, he was actually defeated in the primary.

After his defeat in the 1922 County Election, it's said that he retired and purchased a peach orchard in Cochise Stronghold about 20 miles north of Gleeson. Harry C. Wheeler was known to travel between his home in Douglas and his farm in Cochise Stronghold. He was said to have been content that he did his duty to keep those in his care as safe as he could. Knowing that, he is said to have concentrated his life on making his farm a success.

A few years passed before he contracted pneumonia and died on December 17th, 1925. Yes, he lived a full life for a man who only lived to be 50 years of age.

For me, after reading about Harry C. Wheeler, I came away seeing him as a great lawman, an outstanding Arizona Ranger, and an American patriot. I can empathize with him having to do things that may be considered controversial. I can understand walking that line to do what is needed to protect those in your care, I have been put in similar situations.

He was a straight shooter. He was a man who lived by the code that says an oath is an oath, duty is duty, right is right, and anything short of upholding your duty and sacred honor is failure. He took heat for some of the things that he needed to do. And frankly, I respect that more than anyone can possibly know.

All in all, he stood tall. Very tall while being someone who did right by the people he was tasked to protect and keep safe. Yes, he could certainly be proud of that. That was his responsibility, and he fulfilled it.

In today's world where we have elected officials who shirk their responsibilities, they can learn a great deal from Harry C. Wheeler. After all, we need more who fulfill their responsibilities and do their duty, abide by their oath, and do right by us who they are tasked to protect and serve.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. Great article. The Arizona Rangers continue to uphold the proud traditions of those Original Arizona Rangers to this day.

    1. Thank you. And I agree about the Arizona Rangers, they are a top notch law enforcement unit.

  2. Some time in the distant future, I'm thinking about making a movie called, "Arizona Rangers". I've talked about it before but so far not everybody has heard about my plans to develop the history of the Arizona Rangers into a film. It's one of many movies I plan on making along with "Getting Drunk With Henry", "Bat Masterson's Revenge", "California Rangers", "Blake's Raiders", "One More Grave In Hell", "Preacher Colt", "Massacre Hill", and "The Hunt For Elmer McCurdy" just to name a few. Now I don't plan on making this movies any minute and I'm not making them right now but what I WILL tell you is that I already have Tom Correa on board for most of the films I just mentioned. "Massacre Hill" will be about a group of soldiers who are forced to fight off hungry cannibals in 1860s Nevada while "Arizona Rangers" will of course deal with the history of the Arizona Rangers. One is a Gothic Western while the other is an historical biopic. As always, wish me luck, Benny.

  3. I've now added three more films to the pile of films I will be making in the near future, actually four. These films are "Django Rises!", where the iconic Spaghetti Western hero goes up against the Mafia in Texas in 1929, "Lilian", where a plantation owner falls in love with one of his female slaves in 1864 Mississippi, "The Trader", about a black slave trader who helps a Texas Ranger track down a runaway slave wanted for murder in Georgia in 1859, and "Paladin", which is based on the TV Western, "Have Gun, Will Travel". I will also be working on a film about a fictitious family feud in Texas called, "Blood Calls For Blood". Wish me luck and here's to hoping I succeed.


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