Cochise County, Arizona
The Bisbee Massacre
On a winter night
late in 1883 five men rode into Bisbee and robbed the Goldwater and
Castaneda store, the largest in town, to which the payroll for the
Copper Queen Mine invariably was consigned. After Joseph Goldwater
handed over the little money in the drawer and opened the safe, the
robbers forced his partner, Jose Maria Castaneda, from a sickbed and
found a sack of money and a watch under his pillow. As two robbers left
the store, their three companions outside indiscriminately and
excitedly began firing at everybody on the street.
Three men and a woman were wantonly killed. The
robbers rode into the night. Posses were organized to hunt them down.
In the process a local saloonkeeper, John Heath, was revealed as an
accomplice as he tried to lead the posse on a false trail. He had
helped the killer plan the holdup. The five men were rounded up: two in
Mexico, one in a Deming, New Mexico, barber shop, and two more at
Clifton, where one had given the watch taken in the holdup to a
Brought to trial, the five who actively participated in the crime were
sentenced to death. Their associate, who had cowered behind the bar in
his own saloon during the shooting, was given a long prison term. The
county seat and jail were at Tombstone, across the mountains from
Bisbee. The following morning a crowd converged at the jail, took Heath
from his jailers and hanged him to a telephone pole. Dr. George E.
Goodfellow gave as his legal medical opinion that Heath had died of
emphysema of the lungs (lack of oxygen) "self induced or otherwise."
Source: Arizona Pageant - A Short History of the 48th State, by
Madeline Ferrin Pare with the Collaboration of Bert M. Fireman. Arizona
Historical Foundation Tempe, 1875, pages 231-231
John Wesley Heath was born on December 15, 1844 in Ohio but moved to
Terrell, Texas with his family at a young age. There, he
got involved in rustling and robbery. He also married twice, first to
Mary Ann Redman in October, 1867. What became of her is unknown. He
married again in March, 1869 and was known to have had three children –
Myrtle, Kittie and John.
However, by the early 1880’s he was living in
Arizona, where he served as a deputy sheriff in Cochise County for a
brief time. However, he soon found that the pay was not nearly as good
as thievery, resigned and went back to his outlaw ways. Living in
Bisbee, Arizona, Heath opened a saloon and dancehall. In no time, it
quickly became known as a hangout for area outlaws and other shiftless
On December 8, 1883, five men held up the Goldwater
and Castenada Store in Bisbee, leaving behind four people dead,
including a pregnant woman. The vicious robbers included Daniel "Big
Dan” Dowd, Comer W. "Red” Sample, Daniel "York” Kelly, William "Billy”
Delaney and James "Tex” Howard.
Having heard that a $7,000 payroll for the Copper
Queen Mine was held for safekeeping in the store, two of the men
charged inside demanding the money, while the other three waited
outside. However, to their disappointment, they discovered that the
payroll had not yet arrived. Angered, they then took what money was in
the safe (reports vary from $900 to $3,000) and robbed the staff and
customers of any valuables.
In the meantime, the three outlaws waiting outside
began a shooting spree, first aiming through the window and killing a
customer named J.C. Tappenier. Hearing the shot, Deputy Sheriff Tom
Smith cam running, and was immediately shot down by the bandits. A
bullet gone wild entered a boarding house, killing a pregnant Annie
Roberts. Another shot hit a man named J.A. Nolly as he stood outside
his office. Yet another unknown man took a bullet in the leg as he was
trying to run away from the shooting spree.
The whole affair lasted less than five minutes and
with cash in hand and seemingly unperturbed, the outlaws left the town
at a leisurely pace, evidently unworried about capture.
The town leaders wasted no time notifying Sheriff J.L. Ward in
Tombstone by telegraph. Ward soon formed two posses, with himself
leading one, and Deputy Sheriff William Daniels, leading another. When
Daniels arrived in Bisbee he began to question its citizens, including
John Heath, whose saloon was just down the street from the
Goldwater-Castaneda Mercantile. Heath told Daniels that he knew the men
involved and could probably help to lead then to outlaws. Though
Daniels was apprehensive of Heath, due to his already having a
reputation as an unsavory character, he also hoped to quickly apprehend
the outlaws. With Heath at the lead, the posse found nothing and soon
accused Heath of leading them on a false trail.
Heath returned to his saloon and the posse continued to search for the
outlaws. Though it took several weeks, all five were found, two in
Mexico, one in New Mexico, and the other two in Clifton, Arizona.
When questioned, some of the outlaws began to indicate that John Heath
knew more about the crime than he should have. Soon, the authorities
brought Heath in and began to question him. Under pressure, Heath
"fessed” up to having prior knowledge of the crime and many believed
that he probably master-minded the whole affair.
All were scheduled to be tried, but Heath requested
a separate trial and was given it. Furious Bisbee citizens awaited the
outcome of the outlaws involved in what had become known as the "Bisbee
Massacre.” On Feburary 17th, the trial began for the five killers and
two days later they were all sentenced to be hanged on March 8, 1884.
Heath’s trial began on February 20th, where he
admitted to being the mastermind of the robbery, indicating that the
others lacked the intelligence. However, he adamantly insisted that the
killings were never a part of the plan and that he was in no way
responsible for the actions of the other five men. A coward at heart,
he even admitted that when he heard the shots being fired, he hid
behind the bar of his own saloon. The next day, Heath was convicted of
second degree murder and conspiracy to commit robbery, and sentenced to
life in the Yuma prison.
Though Heath was obviously relieved, the citizens of
Bisbee were furious and determined to do something about it. Early on
the morning of February 22nd, a mob of some 50 men, led by Mike
Shaughnessy, descended upon the Tombstone jail and dragged Heath from
his cell into the dusty street.
At the corner of First and Toughnut Streets, they
looped a rope over the crossbeam of a telegraph pole, as Heath
continually claimed his innocence. The vigilantes were not listening.
In his last moments, he said: "I have faced death too many times
to be disturbed when it actually comes." As the rope began to pull him
skyward, he cried out one last request, "Don't mutilate my body or
shoot me full of holes!" Public approval of the hanging was
reflected in the verdict of the coroner's jury: "We the undersigned, a
jury of inquest, find that John Heath came to his death from emphysema
of the lungs--a disease common in high altitudes--which might have been
caused by strangulation, self-inflicted or otherwise."
Though there is a marked grave today in Tombstone's Boot Hill for
John Heath, records actually indicate that he was returned to Terrell,
Texas and buried in the Oakland Cemetery by his family in an unmarked
The other five killers' scheduled hanging for March 8th remained
unchanged, soon taking on a carnival like atmosphere. Free tickets were
issued for the event, but when Sheriff Ward ran out of them, an
enterprising business man built bleachers around the gallows and began
selling yet more tickets.
However, famous business woman, gold prospector, and
spiritual caretaker, Nellie Cashman, objected adamantly to the circus
that was surrounding the event. Outraged at the citizens’ behavior and
feeling that no death should be "celebrated,” she soon befriended the
five convicts, visiting them often and providing them with spiritual
guidance. She pleaded with Sheriff Ward to place a curfew on the town
during the time that the hangings were to take place. Ward conceded and
the vast majority of interested onlookers were not allowed to watch the
"event.” In the meantime, she and some friends had destroyed the
bleachers that had been built. When the five men were standing on the
gallows, reportedly Dan Dowd remarked that the multi-gallows were a
"regular choking machine.” Unfortunately, he was right, because of the
five men, only one died of a broken neck, the other four dying slowly
After they were executed, the men were buried in Tombstone's Boot Hill
cemetery. Cashman also found out that there was a plan to rob the
bodies from their graves for a medical school study. This, too,
outraged the woman and she hired two prospectors to guard the graves
for ten days, which were left undisturbed and remain at Boot Hill today.