Sunday, October 1, 2023

Fred White, Tombstone Marshal

Tombstone City Marshal Fred White

Over the years since the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, much has been written about the Earps', Clanton's, and others involved in that famous feud. Not nearly as much has been written about Marshal Fred White who was killed by Curly Bill in the empty lot where the Bird Cage Theater was later built.

Not much is known about Fred White between the time of his birth in 1849 in New York City according to the 1880 census and his arrival in the Arizona Territory. Most everything I could dig up was during his time spent in Tombstone as the town’s first City Marshal but nothing before that period.

As with most movies made in Hollywood, reality is not the norm. In many of the movies about Tombstone and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral the actors portraying the actual participants are much older. Fred White was only between 31 and 32 years of age depending on his actual birth date. 

For example, in the movie Tombstone, his part was played by the much older actor Harry Carey Jr. While Harry Carey Jr. was always regarded as a great actor, it did surprise a lot of folks when the then 60-year-old actor was chosen to play Marshal Fred White who was in his early 30s when he was killed.

Known as a likable and professional lawman Marshal White was well respected by all of the different elements in Tombstone as well as by the cowboy element, including Curly Bill Brocius. In fact, it was known that Curly Bill would joke around with Marshal White from time to time and the two actually got along well together. Marshal White had arrested a few of the cowboys now and again but still had no problem with them.

What this tells me is that Marshal White did not involve himself with the cowboys' rustling operation because he was only the Tombstone Marshal, so his jurisdiction only fell within the town limits. So as far as the cowboys' dealings went, that was the responsibility of the Pima County Sherriff. Unlike the Earps, he had no vested interest in businesses in town and distanced himself from the political rivalries that involved many of Tombstone’s population and was known to treat everyone fairly settling for only his income as town marshal.

On Thursday, October 28, 1880, several of the cowboy element were in town drinking heavily and began shooting at the moon. Marshal White confronted the cowboys and without incident, they handed over their guns voluntarily. When he encountered Curly Bill, who was very intoxicated, he asked Bill for his gun and Bill handed it to White barrel first on half cock. Half cock on the old six-shooters was basically a safety but when Marshal White pulled on the barrel the gun went off shooting him near the groin area.

Afterward, Curley Bill was said to terribly regret the incident because he liked Marshal White. Marshal White lingered for two days before passing away on Saturday. October 30th, 1880. Prior to the Marshal's demise, he cleared Curly Bill of the incident stating that it was an accident. It's true. Curley Bill was acquitted of Marshal White's murder after Marshal White provided deathbed testimony that the shooting was an accident.

Later in the Tucson Court, it was proven that Bill's gun could go off while on half cock so Judge Neugass dismissed the charges making this a horrible accident. Marshal White is buried in the old Tombstone Cemetery later to become known as Boothill.

Marshal White had served in law enforcement for five years. From all I could find with research about Marshal White, it seems to me that he was one of the most fair and decent men in the old west to ever wear the badge instead of like many who were of both sides of the law when it became convenient to do so.

Story By Terry McGahey
Associate Writer/ Historian 

This once-working cowboy is best known for his fight against the City of Tombstone and their historic City Ordinance Number 9, America's most famous gun-control law. He was instrumental in finally getting the famous Tombstone City Ordinance Number 9 repealed, and having Tombstone fall in line with the State of Arizona. 

If you care to read how he fought Tombstone's City Hall and won, please check out: 

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