Thursday, March 10, 2016

Old West Hangings -- Dancing On Air

By Terry McGahey
Associate Writer / Historian

As most of us know Hollywood very rarely gets anything correct when it comes to situations that took place in the Old West. In the case of legal hangings, lynching, and mobs storming the jail house to lynch a prisoner, these things actually did take place. Also, the myth that some men to be hung had faced their mortality bravely was not a myth. Some truly did face the hangman's noose with bravado right up to the time they dropped through the gallows floor and entered into their lasting eternity.

Take for instance the legal hanging of the Halderman brothers, Thomas and William, who were hanged in Tombstone on November 18, 1900 at 12:40 P.M. They were convicted of killing a constable and a eighteen year old boy along with the shooting of the constables assistant. According to the Tombstone Epitaph, when the iron door opened leading from the jail a solemn hush prevailed and all eyes of the crowd turned in that direction.

As they appeared the younger of the two, Thomas, said, "Hello Hombres, the sun's hot ain't it?"

William then stepped up to the front under the dangling noose and surveying the crowd below said with a wave of his hand, "Nice looking crowd."

 He even smiled and remarked "Some of you fellers are shaking already." Thomas then held the rope and also looked over the crowd, then turned to his brother and said. "Those people look all right." He then looked at the noose and placed it over his own head.

After the formality of the death warrant had been read they were asked if they would like to make a statement. Thomas spoke up promptly and in a clear voice he said, "I have nothing to say and guess it would not do any good anyway, I forgive you all and hope you will forgive me."

William then said, "This will be an experience that ought to benefit all of you. I hope I will meet you all. I pray for you and hope you will pray for me."

The black caps were then drawn over the heads of the prisoners and both men in chorus said, "Goodbye boys. pray for us."

Each said "good bye," and the crowd answered "Good bye." The Trap was sprung and the bodies were cut down just 28 minutes later.

Below is a Headline by the Tombstone Epitaph:
Dancing On Air

The Bisbee Bandits Atone for Their Crimes on the Scaffold; An Ignominious but Well-Merited Fate  Bravely Met The "Final Launch Into Eternity" Successfully Accomplished by Sheriff Ward.

In the instance of the Bisbee Massacre not only do we have the legal hanging of five men all at once, but we also have one of the proven circumstances where a lynch mob took a prisoner from jail and lynched him.

By 1883 Johnny Behan was no longer the sheriff of Cochise County, he had lost by a landslide to Sheriff J. H. Ward who, unlike Behan was able to find deputies who were no friends of outlaws, in fact just the opposite.

Five desperadoes as well as another who wasn't there during the holdup but who had planned it, held up a general store owned by Mr. A. A. Castanada in the copper camp of Bisbee, Arizona on December 8, 1883. The men who actually pulled off the robbery were Dan Dowd, Red Sample, Tex Howard, Bill Delaney, and Dan Kelly. The man who planned the robbery was a fellow by the name John Heath.

Three of these men plundered the store while two others, Dowd and Delaney, stood guard outside and callously murdered three men and one woman. The plan was to force any citizen who happened by into the store during the robbery. The first man killed was J.C. Tappenier who had attempted to retreat from the situation and was ruthlessly shot down and killed instantly.

John Heath Lynched Arizona 1884
The report of gunfire brought many citizens into the street, when at that time, the bandits began firing indiscriminately up and down the street which led to the killings of three more individuals.

The bandit's victims were D. T. Smith, J. R. Nolly, and Mrs. R. H Roberts, bringing the total of four citizens callously murdered by the actions of these bandits. As they were running toward their horses Deputy Sheriff Daniel began shooting at the bandits wounding Red Sample.

Almost immediately Deputy Sheriff Daniel organized a posse of which John Heath was a member, and who had helped garner people for the posse which followed pursuit shortly after the dastardly deed had been committed.

News of the tragedy had been sent by courier to Tombstone and Deputy Sheriff Bob hatch, Si Bryant, and others were also put into the field searching for the bandits but all trace of them had been lost.
From some of the ranches the posse had stopped at, they were able to get full descriptions of the men along with their names. Evidence was also obtained implicating Heath as the prime mover of the whole affair and immediately upon Daniel's return Heath was arrested.

Rewards of $1,500.00 per man was offered and circulars (wanted posters) were distributed which helped lead to the successful capture of each and every one of the bandits.

First captured was Kelly, who was disguised as a tramp in Deming New Mexico. Then followed the arrests of Howard and Sample in Graham County by Deputy Sheriff Hovey of that county.

Deputy Sheriff Daniel received information that Dowd and Delaney were in Mexico where he followed them and captured Dowd at Corralitas, in the state of Chihuahua.

Delaney was captured soon after at Minas Prietas, in the state of Sonora. All of the bandits had been captured in just 45 days after their heinous crimes had been committed on the streets of Bisbee.

All six men were held and tried in Tombstone being that it was the county seat. The trial began on February 9th of 1884 and all were convicted of murder in the first degree on February 11th, then sentenced to hang on the 19th with the exception of John Heath who had requested his own trial instead of being tried with the others.

Heath was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the Bisbee Massacre as it was called, and the people of Bisbee were outraged to say the least.

After hearing of Heath's conviction it is said that somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 men from Bisbee stormed the jail in Tombstone and took Heath, leaving the others behind because they were already sentenced to hang.

The lynch mob then took Heath to Toughnut Street, either to 2nd or 3rd street or somewhere in between and hung him from a telegraph pole on February 22nd in the year 1884.

As for the others they were hung legally on March 28, 1884. All except John Heath were interned into a mass grave in Tombstones Boot Hill Cemetery.



  1. My g-grandfather, as Sheriff of Pima County, was invited and did participate in the hangings---he was pretty good at it. My g-grandmother kept a personal file of their lives in A.T. and this series of events is prominent in her memoirs. The relationship between the community and the condemned is fascinating. Good story.

  2. I think public hangings should be brought back in order to bring down the crime rate.

  3. You know you're gonna die when you hear the hangman say, "May God have mercy on your soul". But at least Tuco from "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly" was right about one thing. Before that moment happens, when you're still at the end of the rope, you can feel the devil bite your ass. As always, Tom your dear Old West amigo, Benny.


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