By Paul T. Hietter

During the late summer of 1879, John Keller was accused of killing a Salt River Valley farmer named Luke Monihon.  The murder outraged Phoenix residents and a number of them planned to lynch Keller.  By coincidence, the night before the extra-legal hanging was to take place, William McCloskey was jailed for killing Phoenix resident John LeBarr during a barroom altercation.

The next morning nearly two hundred men marched on the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix, overawed the jailor, and demanded custody of the two alleged murderers.  Soon after, the two were led to the town plaza and hanged.  The Phoenix Herald later justified the lynchings by noting that, “Villainy and vice are rampant these days.  Murders and assassinations are to[o] frequent to be tolerated in a well-governed community.”  It then went on to criticize the courts for failing to secure convictions of accused murderers and robbers.

Murders, lynchings, ineffective justice—and this was in what should have been a relatively peaceful area of Arizona Territory, an area made up of farmers and families.  Imagine mining boomtowns and cattle ranching areas?  Folks around the world have heard of the chaos in Tombstone resulting in the OK Corral gunfight.  And most aficionados of Arizona’s Wild West reputation are familiar with the infamous Pleasant Valley War that spilled across Yavapai and Gila Counties.  There were certainly episodes of lawlessness in Arizona’s history, but this focus on notorious incidents as the sole means of describing crime and justice in Arizona distorts the picture.  Sensational incidents reflect important aspects of crime and justice, but only tell part of the story–and not even close to most of the story.

A systematic sampling of court cases and newspapers that covers multiple counties and time periods reveals that Arizona Territory possessed a functioning justice system.  When a crime occurred, most folks went through the proper channels for investigating and prosecuting it.  Moreover, violent crime was not a particular problem.  When comparing Arizona to other regions it was by no means peaceful, but it wasn’t particularly bad.  In fact, it fit somewhere in the middle.  Which isn’t surprising, considering that Arizona was both a region of tough mining towns and peaceful farming communities.  It was mostly rural, but with the growth of Phoenix and Tucson, it became more urbanized.  Migrants to the Territory simultaneously introduced New England concerns over property and commerce, Southern notions of honor and self-redress and Hispanic notions of Machismo.  All these sometimes conflicting characteristics influenced parts of Arizona.

Arizona’s lawless reputation stems partly from a focus on notorious incidents.  These are the easiest to find in the newspapers of the day.  And, frankly, they make good stories.  However, a focus on these incidents portrays crime and justice under the worst circumstances.  Newspaper rhetoric during the last two weeks of August 1879 suggests Phoenix was besieged with violent crime and burdened with lousy justice system.

But, just three months earlier, the Herald proclaimed, “Phoenix is the quietest and most orderly town in the territory, owing, of course, to its excellent officers.”  On August 9, two weeks before the murders and lynchings, the paper noted that one person was in the county jail, and it appeared satisfied that no wanted criminals were roaming loose.  When district court met during October and November of that year, the grand jury found only eight indictments–five for grand larceny, one for embezzlement, one for bigamy, and one for assault with a deadly weapon.

The assault charge and two of the larceny cases resulted in convictions.

When it comes to crime and justice, it depends on where and when you look.  So, one needs to look at as much as possible.  And when you do, it turns out that Arizona was not particularly violent, and the justice system operated pretty effectively.

Paul Hietter, history professor at Mesa Community College, will give a free talk about crime and justice in Arizona Territory at the Sharlot Hall Museum on April 11 at 2 p.m.  Paul completed his dissertation at ASU about the topic of crime and criminal justice in frontier Arizona and the West.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.