Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Benson Stage Debacle -- by Joyce Aros

by Joyce Aros

From the June 2006 issue of Tombstone Times

The story has been told and retold. In fact, one could not relate the build-up to the gunfight on Fremont Street without including the account about the Benson stage robbery attempt and the shooting of Bud Philpot. It is one of the major peripheral factors in the events of October 26, 1881.

As it turns out, it may be even more important than that! It has been one of the enduring mysteries of old Tombstone... did Doc Holliday really have anything to do with that attempted robbery and did he actually shoot Bud Philpot?

For me the story was a paradox. On the one hand, though I believed Doc Holliday to be capable of almost anything to do with money, I really had a hard time seeing him as a highwayman. After all, wasn't he a smartly dressed urban man who loved the atmosphere of saloons, cigar smoke and playing cards? Yes, indeed, so what would entice him to be out on a dusty desert road with a bunch of rough cowboy types holding up a stage? It just didn't fit my image.

But then there was the other side of the coin. Kate Elder, his common-law wife. Now, Kate and Doc had a very volatile relationship as was well known at the time. There is some indication that it occasionally came to blows. And these kinds of fights often result in a temporary loss of loyalty by one party or the other. Perhaps this happened in Kate's case, for she did indeed turn on Doc in a way she had not done before. She accused him of murder!

But let me give you the background knowledge you need to understand this whole story. On March 15th, 1881, the Sandy Bob stage out from Tombstone and on its way to Benson was robbed. Actually, it was an attempted robbery. 

The driver, Bud Philpot, was in reality to be the shotgun messenger at the time, and Bob Paul was to have been the driver. But at some point and for some reason, they changed positions, perhaps to give the driver a chance to warm his hands, as March can be chilly in this desert. 

As the stage slowed for a small incline in the road, a masked bandit appeared in the path of the coach and demanded that the driver pull up. Bob Paul immediately raised his shotgun to resist the attempt, but the gunman fired first, killing Philpot. The startled horses bolted and the highwaymen took off, losing out on the desired Wells Fargo booty of twenty-six thousand dollars in pure silver. I cannot tell you how much that would be in today's money, but the general consensus seems to be to multiply by ten.

The driver was able to get the team under control and drove it into Benson where he quickly sent a telegram to Tombstone with the necessary information regarding the attempted hold-up and the subsequent murders of Philpot and Peter Roerig, the hapless passenger who had been shot at as the horses sped away. 

A large posse was gathered and took off after the robbers in a cloud of dust and excitement. This would seem to be some time after ten o'clock at night when the news arrived and was probably closer to midnight by the time men and horses were choking the road with heel dust. 

There were two posses, one led by Virgil Earp. With him were Wyatt, Morgan, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and Marshall Williams. A formidable bunch to be sure. The other group was led by Johnny Behan and did not include such notable names.

Jim Crane, Harry Head, and Billy Leonard were accused of the crime but were never located. One man who was with them, Luther King, was found and brought back to the sheriff's jail, but miraculously escaped shortly thereafter and was never heard from again.

I am not going to ramble on with the continuing details of posse accounts and resulting disappointments for all. The case was never really solved. The outlaws that were believed to be involved met various violent ends in a short time. All except one. It seems there was another man with Leonard, Head and Crane. We are not talking about the in and out escapee. He just held the horses and seemed to have little stomach for the rough stuff; but there was someone else who disappeared into the night right after the attempted hold-up.

At this point I am going to quote an item from a Tucson newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star, dated March 26th, 1882. The article is titled "The Vendetti," and was written after the so-called vendetta ride of the Earp gang after the brothers were attacked. The news piece attempts to review the events leading up to and after the Fremont Street murders.

"...The trouble between the Earps and the Clanton and McLowry boys grew out of the robbery of the Benson stage. On March 15th1881, the stage with Wells, Fargo & Co.'s express left Tombstone for Benson with a large treasure, 'Bud' Philpot driving and Bob Paul as Wells, Fargo & Co.'s messenger. The coach left at 6:00pm and at 7:30pm, while only 200 yards out from the first station, the order to halt was given. Simultaneously with it two shots were fired, one of which killed the driver and the other perforated the cushion upon which Paul was setting. 

The driver fell off, carrying the lines with him, and the horses ran away. Paul emptied his gun, returning shot for shot, but without effect. The horses kept running, and the robbers kept shooting, and in all fired some twenty shots at the retreating stage with its load of ten passengers. 

They succeeded in killing one man who was on top. Paul managed to stop the team, gathered up the lines and drove rapidly to Benson, where he telegraphed the news to Tombstone. Immediately all was excitement. Agent Williams of Wells, Fargo & Co. and the Earp brothers were rushing around, preparing to hunt the robbers. 

At 8:30 that same evening Doc Holliday rode up to a saloon in Charleston, ten miles from the scene of the attempted robbery and inquired of Billy Clanton. On being told that he was not there, started in the direction of Tombstone, which was nine miles distant, and about 10:00 o'clock rode up to a saloon on a back street in Tombstone and called for a big drink of whiskey, which he drank at a gulp, without dismounting. His horse at the time was covered with foam. 

This all happened before the news of the murder reached Tombstone. At midnight the agent and the Earp brothers, with Holliday, left town to meet Paul. It was too dark to follow a trail when they arrived on the ground, so they camped until morning. 

They found three masks made of hay rope and about twenty large-size rifle cartridges. They then took the trail and followed it for about three weeks without catching any one but a supposed accomplice, and he was assisted by some unknown person to escape from the custody of the sheriff while consulting with his lawyer...."

So now you have been over the account twice and it sounds like a pretty routine stick-'em-up for the time period. But wait... it gets better.

Let's take the notorious Ike Clanton and try to flesh him out a bit. He is always spoken of as that miserable loud-mouthed coward that got his kid brother killed and then ran away, groveling somewhere under somebody's back stoop. The movies show him off even worse, almost licking Wyatt Earp's boots as he begs for his life. 

Wow! If that were really so, I don't think Ike Clanton could have spent another 24 hour period in the whole of Cochise county. Cowards were not suffered gracefully by the cowboy crowd and Ike's existence would have been too miserable to bear. Actually, reminiscing old timers around Charleston recall that it was Billy Claiborne and Johnny Behan that were censured by the folks around for not helping the McLaurys and Billy Clanton. There was no bad feeling about Ike Clanton. There has got to be more to the story.

To quote the succeeding paragraph... "The news of Holliday's ride becoming known, coupled with the facts that he was seen mounted and armed in the early part of the afternoon, ostensibly to go to Mexico, caused many surmises, and not a few made the remark that the 'robbers were hunting themselves.' Before the return of the agent's posse it became known that Billy Leonard, Jim Crane and Harry Head were interested in the murder, and it was their trail that Paul was following. Wells, Fargo & Co. offered a large reward for them, but it was of no use...."

Our interest in these lengthy quotes is in regard to John Henry Holliday and his late night ride to... Mexico?... then Charleston... then to a back street saloon in Tombstone... and then to join the midnight ride of the posses. 

If we go back to the middle of the account, we see that about 8:30 pm, an hour after the attempted hold-up and only nine miles away, Doc Holliday turns up in a saloon in Charleston, of all places, when he has been reported to be on his way to Mexico for an extended period of time. 

In Charleston he is asking for Billy Clanton! He has never met the nineteen year old cowboy and logically, should have no interest in him whatsoever, yet here he is well off his supposed path to Mexico to seek this very person. Why? What reason could he have to make such an effort?

Possibly the answer might be found in the correspondence of Will McLaury, the older brother of Frank and Tom McLaury. Will had come to Tombstone just a few days after he received word of the deaths of his two brothers. 

The older McLaury was a lawyer and joined the prosecution team at the Hearing proceedings against the Earps and Doc Holliday regarding the gunfight known as the O.K. Corral showdown. He wrote to his brother-in-law, D.D. Applegate in Toledo, Ohio, a letter wherein he describes what he understands to be the cause of the gunfight. 

I'll quote the pertinent portion ... "The cause of it was this; some time ago, Holliday, one of the murderers, attempted to rob the express of Wells-Fargo & Co. and in so doing killed a stage driver and a passenger and the other parties involved with him the Earp brothers were interested in the attempted express robbery and young Clanton, who was killed, a boy 18 years old, knew the facts about the attempted robbery and had told his brother, J.I. Clanton, Thos. and Robt. And they had got up facts intending to prosecute him Holliday and the Earp brothers and Holliday had information of it. It is now known that the other two men who knew of the murder in the attempted robbery have since then been killed in Mexico, the report was by 'greasers' but at the time they were killed, Holliday was out of town 'said to be visiting relatives in Georgia.'"

It is fair to say that Will McLaury's view of the tragic consequence to his brothers is biased. But the opposing viewpoints are also. However, it still gets better...because we have the action of Big Nose Kate, Doc's girlfriend!

Though most women in that day and age probably knew very little about what their men were doing, Kate was in a unique position. Wives and sweethearts of the menfolk of that day would be more submissive and less likely to make inroads into a mans' world. But Kate, ever plying her trade in the saloons, would not only be less submissive but also able to pick up on a lot of talk and action in the environment she breathed in. And as Doc likely treated her more as a concubine than a wife, he probably talked pretty freely around her as well. She would not be as sheltered from language and back-street talk as would the more respected wife. And so it is reasonable to assume that Kate knew what was going on with the Benson stage robbery and Doc's involvement with it, and by extension, the Earps' activity as well. Her association with the group via Doc had to have allowed her to be privy to some things she had best not share with the general public.

Kate was a drinker. And she started drinking heavily after some sort of argument with Doc that may or may not have gotten physical. She no doubt complained about her treatment to anyone in the saloon who would listen to her, as drunken women are reputed to do. Johnny Behan listened and got an earful. Talk about a happy man! 

At the time, there was a great deal of suspicion that Doc had been involved in the hold-up and was indeed the triggerman. Therefore, when Kate began to complain about Doc's abuse, which she often claimed came from his association with the much-disliked Earps; she also voiced her belief about Doc's contribution to the tragic bloodletting. Could this actually be the chance to incarcerate the unpopular Holliday... maybe even hang him? Behan had to be beside himself with joy.

Never one to miss such an opportunity, Behan likely bought a few more rounds for Kate before giving her pen and paper. Just a little insurance! 

Only a woman scorned and mistreated and tending toward drowning her sorrows would take such a risk. Kate was indeed a sad creature. Angry and hurt, the alcohol caused her to throw caution to the winds and lose sight of any immediate consequences. She signed a complaint against Doc.

The Nugget of July 6th, 1881, reported that Holliday was arrested on July 5th; charged with complicity in the Benson stage hold-up on the complaint of Kate Elder. But, he was freed on a $5000 bail that was put up by Wyatt Earp and friends.

Then Kate was arrested the following day by Virgil Earp. She was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct in one of the town's saloons. For some reason, Virgil did not feel compelled to arrest all the other likely drunken patrons of the saloon. No cell room, I guess.

Kate was held for several days without any formal charges. The Earps were not above 'framing mischief by law,' so to speak, and though this seems like a relatively small but uncomfortable situation, it was a frightening one for Kate. 

It would be naïve to think that the jail time did not include some sage advice about travel arrangements and even some threats from the Earp faction. Kate knew these men and she didn't like them. She complied and recanted for her release. Doc's appearance in court was short as Kate now refused to testify. The case was thrown out, but we get a good look at the way the Earps operate. It should not be forgotten.

Now I want to get back to Doc's hasty ride into Charleston right after the stage was attacked. I am very concerned about his desire to find Billy Clanton. And from what Will McLaury had to say in his letter to his brother-in-law about the whole episode, there's good reason to be. Doc hated the cowboys and just did not associate with them at all. 

Why go looking for a young cowboy late at night, lathering up his horse to do it, when he had never met the boy? In my mind... why else but to threaten or kill him! Either Doc or someone of his group saw the young man in the vicinity of the hold-up. One of the group recognized him. They knew he had seen them commit the crime, just as Will McLaury wrote in his letter. 

Billy Clanton had been working cattle in the area all day. He was heading home to the ranch and was either on the Charleston road or cutting across it. He may even have come close to the group in the dark after they took off their hemp rope masks, for that evening there was a bright moon. At any rate, he knew who pulled off the attempt and he told his brother and the McLaurys. And possibly sealed his fate!

That is how the circumstantial evidence stacks up. Billy's witnessing what happened and then Kate backing it up. Witnesses saw Doc in Charleston right after the stick-up and others saw him race into town to a back-street saloon he likely never frequented, his horse totally winded and lathered when he had said he was off for a few days to Mexico! And, interestingly, Doc was spotted on the road from Charleston that evening by another almost unimpeachable witness, John Slaughter, who was driving with his wife in a buggy. Slaughter said there was no doubt in his mind it was Doc Holliday he saw in the moonlight. Slaughter is a tough one to deny!

But there is yet another suspicious act on the part of the not-too-clever Holliday. On October 26th, 1881, as Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were leaving the Grand Hotel to go hunt up their brothers, Doc Holliday approached Billy, introduced himself and shook hands with the puzzled boy, saying that he was "glad to meet him". 

He didn't approach Frank McLaury or Billy Allen or Major Frink, those who were with Billy. Just Billy Clanton. Billy rarely came into town, so it seems obvious to me, at any rate, after his seeking the young cowboy in Charleston that night unsuccessfully, that Doc wanted to identify the boy... make sure he shot the right one... the eye witness. He did! Billy Clanton was mortally wounded at the onset of the fight on Fremont Street in another hour or so. 

Many witnesses testified that Doc and Morgan Earp shot first, and one of the first ones shot was Billy Clanton, despite his hands raised and his statement that he did not want to fight.

One other little thing of note to throw in the pot; Holliday was a close personal friend of Billy Leonard, one of the robbers. They had known each other before either one came to Tombstone, and the story goes that Doc was known to go and visit Leonard out of town several times before the robbery took place. Though Leonard was a friend of Doc's, he didn't hesitate to describe him as a "shiftless, bagged-legged character; a killer and professional cut-throat and not a wit too refined to rob stages or even steal sheep..."

So what do we make of all this? Did the Earps know what Doc had done? Almost surely! Were they in on it? That's up for debate but it seems possible. For sure they wanted to protect Doc from his own folly and protect themselves from the damning fallout. 

Wyatt had a burning ambition to be the next sheriff of Cochise County, a real money-maker of a job. The kickback from collecting taxes and other fees was considerable, to say the least. But this stuff with Doc Holliday and murder! That could really kill his chances if Doc couldn't be cleared in some way. Wyatt's brain was buzzing!

And of course, the crafty Wyatt came up with a plan. His posse had chased the outlaws all over creation for more than three weeks trying to catch them. It was important that they be apprehended, and in the course of their capture, likely be shot for resisting arrest. That way they would never spill the beans about Doc's (or the Earps) complicity in the botched hold-up. 

Why would I think that? Well, I am going to rely on the newspaper account in the Star again. The 'Vendetti' article explains it.

"...So matters rested for some time, until, as Ike Clanton swears, Wyatt Earp called him aside and told him that he would guarantee him (Ike) all of the Wells, Fargo & Co.'s reward and one thousand dollars more on top of it, if he would induce Leonard and Head to come to some ranch in the neighborhood of Tombstone so that he (Wyatt) could surprise and kill them. 

He gave as his reasons that they had failed to realize anything from the attempted robbery and they might squeal sometime. Crane had been killed by the Mexicans with 'Old Man Clanton,' so there was nothing to fear from him. To satisfy Clanton that he meant business, Earp had Wells Fargo's agent telegraph to San Francisco asking whether the reward would be paid dead. The answer came back yes. But while negotiations were pending Leonard and Crane were both killed in New Mexico for cattle stealing..."

This is really interesting and falls right in line with Earp's ambitions. He'll deal with anyone to attain his ends. At the time, it would seem he was on some sort of friendly terms with Ike Clanton or he wouldn't have approached him. Ike was the man in the valleys who had his finger on the pulse. He was well connected and well informed about everything going on in the surrounding environment of the outlaws. If anyone could help with the capture certainly Ike could... but would he?

There is not one writer I have read that didn't think Ike greedily jumped at the chance and even dragged in his equally greedy companions, the McLaurys. I just don't buy it. It doesn't fit. Ike was a wheeler-dealer of sorts, a businessman more than anything else, though a rough-edged cowboy for sure. But it seems he was a broker for the ranchers and butchers and even the army in dealing with the stolen cattle market. He had a strong business relationship with the rustlers who supplied a very demanding meat market. Ike was the go-between, the buffer. 

Would he jeopardize that for a deal that would benefit no one but Wyatt Earp? I don't think so. Ike was not short of cash. He handled huge amounts for the people he did business with and made a fat profit or he wouldn't be doing it. $6000 split three ways (Earp says the McLaurys were in on it) was not enough for any of them to take the risk of being found out. There's no doubt they would be killed. 

It has become apparent in different accounts that Frank McLaury was very cautious in crossing some of those men as he helped out Billy Breakenridge with one or two problems. Such a treacherous act as setting up some 'friends' of his would definitely be disastrous for any of them as it would be sure to leak out eventually. No, I don't believe Ike went for it at all.

But many people do because that's the way Wyatt Earp tells it. It seems that Ike told of the proposition that Earp made him, and when Earp heard about it, it made bad blood between them. Couple that with Doc's finding out that the Clantons and McLaurys knew of his involvement in the Benson stage hold-up and you can see where this is going. Those cowboys were ruining everything for the Earps and their plans to become rich and powerful in Tombstone. Something had to be done!

It was. The chips all fell into place for the Earps when all the parties came together on October 26th, 1881 in the vacant lot off Fremont Street. But it was no real benefit to the Earps after all. As usual, they made the wrong play and shortsightedly botched their long term plans to be big players in the territory.

--- The above article is by Joyce Aros 

I'm always a little fascinated by articles like this. The writer took a look at an event and gives her analysis of what took place -- as well as her take on some of the characters involved. And just so you know, I've read where some people who claim to be Earp Experts don't like what she wrote in her books. And as you've heard me say over the years, I have very little respect for many of those so-called "Experts." When it comes to the Earps, I've found them to be more like infatuated adolescent fans rather than objective researchers. 

So what do you think? For me, this is one of those article that I have to read and re-read a few times to see what might go against what I already know about what took place during that stage robbery and killing. I do have to say that I respect her analysis and I'll really give it some thought. 

So why do I like articles like this, especially since I know it goes against the "accepted story" of what took place? Well, while her view of things is in contrast to what the "accepted story" of what took place, she really makes a lot of litgitimate points. 

That's not a bad thing at all. In fact, since I've come to the conclusion that the Earp family as a whole were no where near being honorable people, certainly not choir boys, I really believe that sometimes the "accepted story" is just not true. 

Maybe after some digging, I'll be able to report back to you to say whether she was right or not. After all, she might be. 

Tom Correa

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