Saturday, November 21, 2015

Harry C. Wheeler -- A Lawman & Patriot Who Stood Tall

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.

Frankly, while he was right that I have found the story about Harry C. Wheeler as surprising, I'm hoping he is right in that you enjoy reading about this man.

You see, unlike many of the Old West characters who we hear about, with most of what people know being just amplified legends and little fact, Harry Cornwall Wheeler was one of the real deals who more folks should know about.

Harry Cornwall Wheeler was an Arizona lawman who 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. An excellent marksman with a rifle or pistol, Wheeler then 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 slipped through the rear door of the Palace Saloon. Bostwick's face was shrouded in a red bandana, reportedly complete with eye-holes. He brandished a Colt .45, and shouted, "Hands up!"

Four employees were on duty in the Palace that night. They were the bartender, a craps dealer, a roulette dealer, and a porter. Along with the employees were four customers. One, believed to be M.D. Beede, slipped out the front door and ran up Congress Street.

Inside the Palace Saloon, Bostwick ordered all there to "Throw up your hands and march into the side room. Hold ’em up higher! Hold up your digits!" as the men filed by him. Bostwick then went over to the craps table and help himself to the money that lay scattered about.

Outside on Congress Street, Beede 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 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 wildly.

Wheeler fired again and this time a 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."

On February 27th, 1907, Arizona Ranger Sergeant Harry C. Wheeler attempted to detain a man named J. A. Tracy in the town of Benson, Arizona. No one knows why he was being detained, but it didn't sit well with Tracy who resisted arrest and instead produced a hideout gun immediately opening fire on Wheeler.

Wheeler went for his pistol to defend himself. 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, and after some time Wheeler fully recovered.

Soon after that in 1907, Wheeler replaced Thomas H. Rynning as Captain of the Arizona Rangers, and 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.

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.

At the turn of the century, smuggling across the border with Mexico was a serious problem. Arizona became a "dry" state with the banning of alcohol on January 1st, 1915. But because Cochise County was bordered by Mexico and the state of New Mexico, both considered "wet",  it quickly became a conduit for both American and Mexican bootleggers and alcohol smugglers.

Next came the Gleeson Gunfight which would be Harry C. Wheeler's last shootout.

On the night of March 5th, 1917, Sheriff Wheeler and Deputy Gibson were returning to the latter's home at Gleeson in a 1915 Oldsmobile Touring Car after a day of searching the Chiricahua Mountains for smugglers. But, because they were exhausted and could not safely drive in the dark, at sunset the two lawmen decided to stop and make camp for the night.

The location was about two miles east of Gleeson, along the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. However, not long after they had rolled out their blankets and laid down next to the car, a salvo of fire came in from some Mexican outlaws positioned behind some rocks about 200 yards away from the railroad tracks.

The first shot smashed the front window out of the car. Wheeler immediately grabbed a box of ammunition and his rifle to begin returning the fire while Gibson had only his revolver and the ammunition on his gun belt.

After climbing up to the top of the railroad berm to get a look at their attackers, the two lawmen could hear the outlaws shouting insults to them in Spanish, saying, "We‍ '​ll fix you gringos! Come and get us now!"

They were also able to determine that there were at least four attackers, by counting where the muzzle flashes were coming from. And yes, the firefight lasted for nearly an hour as the two sides exchanged fire with over 100 rounds of ammunition was expended.

It was said that the Moon was behind the lawmen and low on the horizon, which made them easy targets, so they decided to lie prone and wait until the Moon went down to make a charge towards the outlaws. Meanwhile, the outlaws were advancing under covering fire.

Finally, when they were about fifty yards from the railroad, one of the outlaws fired at Wheeler and just barely missed him. Wheeler, who was a champion marksman, then steadied his rifle on one of the rails and rapidly fired six shots at the Mexican's muzzle flash. A second later, Wheeler heard the sounds of groans so he knew he had hit his target.

Although the fighting continued, Wheeler's successful hit stopped the outlaws' advance and sent them back towards cover. Then, when the Moon disappeared below the horizon, the lawmen made their charge and found the outlaws' camp hastily abandoned.

The Mexicans slipped away into the desert and left ten cases of whiskey behind. They were found attached to four donkeys and, on the following morning, horse tracks were observed heading towards the Chiricahua Mountains. Wheeler also discovered a large pool of blood and tracks made by a man's knees and elbows. No body was found though so it remains uncertain if anyone was actually killed as result of the shootout.

Sheriff Wheeler and Deputy Gibson decided against chasing the outlaws right away, since their car was damaged by incoming fire. Instead they went to Courtland, where Wheeler telephoned his chief deputy, Guy Welch, who was in Tombstone.

Welch then brought some more guns and ammunition to Courtland, as well as another deputy, to help in the pursuit. Wheeler knew that since the outlaws were in the Chiricahuas and most-likely heading south to cross the border, they would have to go through Apache Pass in order to enter Mexico.

Knowing this, Wheeler and his men abandoned the pursuit and went to Tombstone on April 7th, 1917, to drop off the confiscated whiskey, and on the next day they went to Apache Pass and succeeded in capturing two of the outlaws, who were then put in the Gleeson Jail.

One of the prisoners was the gang's leader, Santiago Garcia. When Garcia was asked why he opened fire on Wheeler and Gibson, Garcia said that he thought the lawmen were rival bootleggers and he was afraid that his cargo would be hijacked. According to Garcia, he and his men retreated only when they found out that Wheeler and Gibson were lawmen.

Ultimately, Wheeler and his men failed to capture the remaining outlaws, who escaped into Mexico, and they were immediately tasked with investigating a murder in Douglas and the finding of a dead body near Bisbee, the latter having died from a gunshot to the head.

A few months later in June of 1917, Sheriff Wheeler faced a different problem when a Communist affiliated IWW Labor Union Local, a Union composed mainly of miners in Bisbee began a strike against the Phelps Dodge Corporation.

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 in America, the corporation acquired mines and mining companies, including the large Copper Queen Mine in Arizona. It operated its own mines and acquired railroads to carry its products. By the late 19th century, Phelps Dodge was known as a 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, who were there to cause unrest.

IWW members were commonly termed "Wobblies" and were an international radical labor union that was founded in 1905 by Socialist/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. Their activities were in the papers and Sheriff Wheeler knew what he was up against. So he soon deputized 2,200 men from Bisbee and Douglas to act as a posse. Then on July 12th, his posse arrested 2,000 people in Bisbee.

Nearly 1,300 of the strikers and their supporters were eventually deported in 23 cattle cars to Hermanas, New Mexico, in what became known as the "Bisbee Deportation."

Sheriff Wheeler established guards at all entrances to Bisbee and Douglas. Any citizen seeking to exit or enter the town over the next several months had to have a "passport" issued by Wheeler.

Any adult male in town who was not known to the sheriff's men was brought before a secret sheriff's kangaroo court. Hundreds of citizens were tried, and most of them who were deported were threatened with lynching if they returned. Along with the radical Communist agitators, long-time citizens of Bisbee were deported by Wheeler's "court".

Soon after this took place, he resigned his post to join the United States Army in early 1918. He was given the rank of Captain and went on to fight in World War I.  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, American casualties amounted to 116,516 war dead from all causes, 234,000 wounded, and 4,500 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 appointed by President Woodrow Wilson investigated 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, and would have included Sheriff Wheeler himself if he had not been serving in France at the time with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. 

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 election, it is 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 the farm in Cochise Stronghold concentrating 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 cam 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.

So yes, to me, he died a straight shooter. He died 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 that is failure.

He took heat for some of the things he needed to do, and frankly I respect that more than anyone can possibly know. But all in all, he stood tall -- all the 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.

And yes, 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.


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