© By Brad Courtney

Prescott has its share of legendary lawmen.  Its first lawman of note was most likely William Jennings, a transplanted Englishman who was not a marshal, sheriff, or chief of police, but a night-watchman.  A case can indeed be made for Jennings’s induction into Prescott’s “legends club”.

In 1870, Prescott was undergoing a bit of introspection and self-evaluation: “There is no use disguising the fact that Prescott is fast becoming a disorderly town, and unless something be speedily done to check the desperados who occasionally visit us, we might as well cease talking about law. . . ,” read the Arizona Weekly Miner of October 22 of that year.

“Whiskey Row” had not yet fully earned its famous moniker in the late 1860s and early 1870s but, make no doubt about it, it was well on its way.  In a town becoming too fond of whiskey, most of the trouble, as might be imagined, occurred at night or early morning.  The crisis was recognized as far back as December 1869 when the local section of the Miner published a plea: “WATCHMAN NEEDED”, which was followed by:  “Our once quiet village is getting to be a regular Pandemonium . . . Drunken men quarrel, fight, and shoot . . . Let us have a night watchman or two, who will muzzle the men . . . .”

An effective night-watchman—not a position by appointment or election, but one paid for by a pool of Prescott businessmen—did not surface until 1872.  When William Jennings did enter the scene, however, it was not only with a flourish, but sustained dependability.  By September of that year, he had already established a rock-solid reputation.  After one shooting incident on Granite Street, it was reported that “Jennings was on hand, as usual, and put a stop to it.”

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In the early 1870s, the dirt streets of Prescott, seen here circa 1870, were becoming lawless until night-watchman William Jennings came along (Photo Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum Call Number: ST-181p).

Granite Street—the western section of Prescott’s infamous “Block 13” and a definite part of early Whiskey Row—was often the source of early trouble.  Another major incident occurred on that thoroughfare in March 1873.  Around 11 o’clock one evening, the ever vigilant Jennings, the one-man police force, heard a shot.  He immediately moved toward the sound, believing it had come from a house of ill repute on Granite Street.  Upon arriving, he found some soldiers trying to bust through the bordello windows.  The seemingly fearless Jennings ordered them to stop.  They did not.  So Jennings, a la Wyatt Earp, made an example of one of the soldiers by pistol-whipping him into submission, and gained control of the situation.  He then used a lit match like a flashlight, by means of which he learned that a soldier had been shot and was clearly in critical condition.  Jennings somehow obtained medical help, which was given in the gunman’s house.  The wounded soldier was conveyed by wagon to Fort Whipple for further help.  The gunman was a former cook at Fort Whipple who apparently had made several enemies there.  He was later found and arrested.  The friends of the soldier were going to attack the shooter the evening of the incident, and they surely would have had Jennings not stepped in.

Law by pistol-butt was employed again in the fall of 1873, after a man, again on Granite Street, had assaulted a woman with a hatchet.  Jennings first shot the man through the hand holding the hatchet, disarming him.  He then used the butt of his pistol to pacify the assailant with a swift blow to his nose.

Prescottonians felt safer with Jennings roaming the village streets at night.  The Miner expressed the town’s general feeling about him this way: “Prescott brags on her nightwatchman, Mr. Wm. Jennings, who knows so well how to preserve the peace and watch over the lives and property of his sleeping brothers and sisters.”

William Jennings was the hero of Prescott in the early and mid-1870s, but his heroics would be overshadowed in 1877 by a sudden change of behavior.  His life would take a drastic turn, as would the position of night-watchman.

Next week: The downfall and eventual transformation of William Jennings.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com.