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“It’s Just a Flesh Wound”:

The Gunfights of Tombstone’s Black Knight

By Paul Cool - paulcoolbooks.com

 

I thank Chris Penn of England for providing me with the Graphic Illustrated article .

 

The best published sources for information on Curly Bill Brocius are: Steve Gatto, Curly Bill (2003) and Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend (1997)

 

I welcome comments. Contact me at paul@paulcoolbooks.com

 

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Tombstone diarist George Parsons once described him as “our most famous outlaw at present,” and with good reason. Curly (or Curley) Bill Brocius (if that was his true surname) earned a notorious reputation among his contemporaries for his riotous behavior north of the Arizona-Sonora line and his bloody cattle raids south of the border. But as the story of Tombstone and Cochise County was transformed into mythology by fiction, hagiographical biography, and Hollywood films orbiting around the central character of lawman Wyatt Earp, Curly Bill was for decades pushed aside, winding up as a relatively minor character overshadowed by Old Man Clanton and Ike Clanton, leaders of the misnamed “Clanton Gang.”

 

Between 1993 and 2003, Hollywood and historians shared in the reversal of Bill’s century-long fade-away. Kevin Jarre’s script for the film Tombstone elevated Brocius to leader of the “Cow-Boy gang” terrorizing Mexico and Tombstone alike. In his groundbreaking biography, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, Casey Tefertiller unearthed news reports of Bill’s sociopathic riots and at considerable length described his activities and character. In Curly Bill, the first (and still solo) biography of the rustler, Steve Gatto uncovered and pulled together all available evidence and considered the chief mysteries concerning his origins, actions, and end.

 

The chief reason for Bill’s long (if corrected) displacement as Wyatt Earp’s chief adversary and the chief villain of the Tombstone myth might well be his non-appearance at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the most explosive moment in the Earp-Tombstone saga and, after more than 125 years, the most argued-over gunfight in the Old West. Curly Bill’s absence is ironic, since it is possible that he engaged in more gunfights than any other actor in the Tombstone drama. More ironic still, the man known for the “homicide by misadventure” of Marshal Fred White reportedly suffered numerous misadventures of his own, surviving several bullet wounds to his face, neck, and backside, not counting the shotgun blast that apparently hit him square in the chest, ending his life at Iron Springs in March 1882.

 

Between 1879 and mid-1881, Curly Bill allegedly engaged in a number of gunfights with parties of Mexicans who drew his blood while seeking to reclaim cattle he was in the act of stealing. Unfortunately, problems with the evidence make it difficult to determine what really happened. Which, if any, of the contemporary and old timer accounts recounted real battles? Which ones were tales that merely built or played upon the rustler’s reputation? If each account is true and each describes a different gunfight, then Curly Bill might have been wounded by Mexicans as many as seven times. For several reasons, it is far likelier that the accounts overlap or play with the truth.

 

Perhaps the most reliable account appeared, oddly enough, in an English illustrated newspaper, the widely read Graphic, on November 26, 1881. Correspondent John Jee (whose name does not appear elsewhere in the literature on the Cochise County troubles), reported that during his stay in Galeyville he met quite a few Cowboys, “cultivating the acquaintance and good graces (necessarily) of these gentry.” These included Curly Bill, whom Jee considered “one of the most desperate of them.” Jee reported that,

 

on one occasion, [Curly Bill] and another named M’Allister went into Mexico, and actually drove out three hundred head of cattle. They were pursued by a body of Mexicans, and overtaken in Arizona about thirty miles from Galeyville, at a place where stood an old abandoned house. The pursuers having secured their cattle, ‘went for’ the cow-boys. Curly Bill and his companion had taken possession of the deserted house, and they held it against the Mexicans. The siege was maintained for three days, and the two men had neither food nor water all that time. Their plight was very desperate, when some of their comrades came by chance that way. The Mexicans then deemed it the better part of valour to retire, but they left twelve dead bodies behind them. During the hostilities Curly Bill was shot in the head in three places, but M’Allister’s damage consisted only of a flesh-wound in the neck. Curly Bill recovered, but after that it was noticed that when the worse of liquor he seemed a bit crazy, and people kept out of his way. When sober, however, he was considered all right. Some little time after his accident he was in Tombstone, a mining town, and got drunk. The ‘Marshal,’ anglicé policeman, thought then to arrest him, but Curly Bill shot him dead on the spot.

 

Curly Bill’s companion in this report, identified as “M’Allister,” was almost certainly Alfred McAllister, a Galeyville butcher who participated in at least one other raid for cattle, one that got him killed near Fronteras, Sonora, with George Turner and two others on May 13, 1881. That fact places the battle sometime between that date and Curly Bill’s escape from jail in El Paso in November, 1878. The fight may or may not be the one mentioned in a letter to the Governor of Chihuahua dated August 30, 1880, in which Juan Zualoga, the lawyer for the colony at Ascencion, referred to an “armed conflict… at San Simon with the people of Janos.” [1] It is likely that Brocius and McAllister were the leaders and not the sole perpetrators of this attempt to steal and drive 300 head of cattle perhaps one hundred or more miles.

 

Although the August 30, 1880 report provides no date for the “armed conflict” near the San Simon cienega, this is possibly the fight “at San Simon” described in an August 11, 1880 news report as “a regular battle between some 4 or 5 Americans and about 40 Mexicans, over some cattle that were claimed to have been stolen.” The Southwest, published in Silver City, New Mexico, reported on the previous day that Dr. Henry Woodville would attend to one of the wounded men, identified as “Rogers, or Curly Bill.” The nature of this Curly Bill’s injuries were not identified.[2]

 

J. C. Hancock, the author of some occasionally reliable old timer accounts, described what appears to be a different fight involving Curly Bill that occurred “at the ‘stockade’ the Rustlers had built in the Cloverdale country in the lower Animas Valley in New Mexico.” The “fort” was made from posts that enclosed the roomy shelter of an overhanging boulder. According to Hancock, Curly Bill, Bill Graham, and an old man named Scotty just happened to be there “when a band of Mexicans jumped them.” Curly Bill’s sure fire accounted for a number of adversaries. Fear of getting caught in a cross fire prompted the Mexicans to leave before any help reached the Cow-boys. Hancock says that, “Curley Bill received a nasty flesh wound in the head from a glancing bullet.”

 

Hancock elsewhere recalled that on yet another occasion, Curly Bill was shot in his hind quarters somewhere in Mexico and still managed to ride 200 miles to Lordsburg.[3]

 

Still another reported gun battle involving Curly Bill, this one against an outfit called “Major Zimpleman’s Guards,” took place somewhere between the American-owned Corralitos ranch and the border. In a letter dated November 20, 1880, to Texas Governor Oran Roberts, George W. Baylor, the officer commanding the Texas Rangers at El Paso, referred to a band of rustlers “who stole cattle from Corralitos & were followed by men sent out by Major Geo. B. Zimpleman & 4 or 5 of them killed.”

 

George B. Zimpleman (“Major” was apparently an honorific), a German immigrant to Texas in the 1840s, had been in turns a Confederate cavalryman (he served in “Terry’s Texas Rangers”), Travis County Sheriff (as a Democrat during and after Reconstruction), and Austin banker. Zimpelman’s purchase of the mineral rights to the Guadalupe Salt Lakes triggered the El Paso Salt War of 1877. At the same time, he took an interest in mining and ranching opportunities in Chihuahua. As early as 1879, he was the “American agent” of the Mexican owner of the immense “Corralitos estate,” and by the early 1880s he was a co-owner of the Corralitos ranch. He is mentioned prominently in various accounts of the early 1880s as involved in the capture or pursuit of cattle thieves inside Chihuahua, whether Indians, Americans, or Mexicans.[4]

 

The battle between “Zimpleman’s Guards” and rustlers allegedly led to Curly Bill’s capture. According to an obituary for recently slain policeman Tom Mode in the El Paso Daily Times (August 18, 1883), after leaving the Texas Rangers (in September, 1879), Mode

 

joined Major Zimpleman’s Guards, to break up the bands of cattle thieves and murderers infesting the pastoral regions of the State…. It was while in the latter hazardous business that he became one of the most conspicuous actors in the first capture of the notorious “Curly Bill,” who has since been killed in Arizona or New Mexico. In company with several of the guards he succeeded in corralling the desperate outlaw and some of his men in a cabin, where a fight to the death began. Mode in his reckless disregard of danger was marked as a target by the robber chief. But while in the act of leveling his gun, Curly Bill exposed the side of his face at the window, when the quick aim of Mode sent a ball crashing through, that cut the right ear off and laid the villain out instantly. This virtually ended the fight and broke up the gang.

 

If Curly Bill had been arrested, how had he been let go? The answer may be found in the Zualoga letter of August 30, 1880 previously mentioned.  Zualoga there stated that “the outlaw Martin” (Curly Bill’s companion during an attempted robbery in El Paso County and in an escape from the county jail in November, 1878) had been arrested but “unjustly acquitted” by a corrupt judge. If these references are all related, then the battle took place before September, 1880. If Curly Bill was captured on a different occasion, it would have been before Mode joined the El Paso police force around July, 1881. Release might have occurred before May 19, 1881, when pal Jim Wallace shot Bill in the neck.

 

Of all the bullet wounds reportedly suffered by Curly Bill during his criminal career, the one caused by Jim Wallace is the only universally accepted injury. The barroom incident, occurring in the mining town of Galeyville, Arizona on May 19, 1881, and reported just three days later in the Tucson Citizen, followed a bout of heavy drinking. Brocius was reportedly well along the road to recovery by late June. According to his biographer, no documentation places Curly Bill within Cochise County until October 1881, when Deputy Sheriff William Breakenridge met him while tracing stolen horses.[5] It is possible then that, during the summer, he engaged in some gun battle in Mexico, incurring a wound and possible temporary incarceration, but there is no uncovered evidence pointing directly to such a gunfight in the summer of 1881.

 

Curly Bill’s last known (or alleged) gunfight took place on March 24, 1882, at Iron Springs, where Wyatt Earp may or may not have cut the rustler to ribbons with a shotgun blast. (This author believes Earp spoke the truth on this occasion.)

 

Wyatt Earp and Jim Wallace aside, all of Curly Bill’s alleged assailants were out to protect or retrieve stolen cattle. Four possibilities exist for explaining the five accounts of gunfights mentioned above:

 

  • The five accounts represent five different incidents. If this is the case and the accounts are correct, Curly Bill took at least seven different wounds, including five to the head and neck (not counting the shot fired by Wallace).  They would likely have been flesh wounds, allowing him to recover quickly each time, with so little visible scarring as to cause no subsequent comment about his accumulating scar tissue or any lingering bodily damage.
  • The five accounts are in some measure duplicative. His battles with Mexicans resulted in fewer wounds, less surface scarring or deeper trauma, and less need for comment about them.
  • One or more of the alleged gun battles did not take place, and some number of the alleged wounds was never inflicted. These reports are merely stories that play upon any justly earned reputation for surviving shooting scrapes.
  • One or more accounts misidentify Curly Bill as a participant or wounded party. Battles fought or wounds suffered by some other rustler(s) are attributed to Curly Bill because of his existing reputation.
  • None of the alleged gunfights in Mexico or with Mexicans took place. All the accounts were fictional, told at different times for different reasons, but all building upon Bill’s reputation for combat and escape.

 

Reliable reports that do not name Curly Bill do describe the sort of gunfights that appear in the Curly Bill accounts. Mexicans and rustlers did do battle, sometimes within Mexico, and sometimes after a pursuit leading to New Mexico or Arizona. Casualties took place, and sometimes rustlers escaped. It is logical that Curly Bill, widely identified at the time as a known rustler of Mexican livestock, would be involved in such shooting scrapes. He could not have hung back in such combats and still acquired or maintained his acknowledged leadership. It is logical that, as a leader, he would have put himself in a position to sustain injury, perhaps once, perhaps more often.

 

It is hard to believe, on the other hand, that he sustained all the injuries he reportedly suffered. No published contemporary account describes him as multiply scarred. No contemporary, at that time or later calls him “the many-times-wounded Curly Bill,” the “oft-scarred Curly Bill,” or “lucky Curly Bill,” or, for that matter, “the unlucky Curly Bill.” He is nowhere described as suffering a train of injuries or indignities.

 

It seems more likely that the account of some battle was corrupted along the way, causing one fight to come out as two. This may have happened more than once. Such corruption is logical, if not necessary, as none of the accounts described above is first hand. All of the second-, third- or fourth-hand accounts hand the historian problems: the item in The Southwest, for example, lacks details; Hancock’s detailed stories were told a half century later; the obituary of Tom Mode used the story of Curly Bill’s wound and capture by Zimpleman’s Guards to eulogize the departed policeman. And so on.

 

From what is known of Curly Bill, he was the sort of bad man who made good newspaper copy. During his heyday, lengthy essays items about the misdeeds of cowboys for eager newspaper readers often included some mention of him as the archetype of the most desperate or pathological sort. While he was identified as the slayer of a lawman, perhaps more importantly to newspaper readers seeking to have their Victorian era sensibilities assaulted, he was often described as the cowboy who made the preacher dance and the ball dancers strip.

 

The Mexican gunfight accounts, taken together, may represent a previously unidentified genre of Curly Bill stories. They differ in most particulars but share one, the notorious rustler’s ability to eat lead and survive, escaping to take still more bullets and fight another day. The various sightings of Curly Bill after he was allegedly blasted by Wyatt Earp make sense when one considers that the sightings are of a man who cannot be killed. His many flesh wounds, unlike those of Monty Python’s Black Knight, don’t even maim.

 

Unintentionally, the accounts render Curly Bill into a sort of reverse image of Wyatt Earp. The hero, armed with Excalibur (or in this case, the Buntline Special), is never touched in battle. In his greatest conflict, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt remains firmly planted, the one man standing unscathed amidst the groans of wounded and dying men. The villain misses the drama in the vacant lot, preferring to roam far and wide through the sagebrush. Curly Bill is identified with no magic weapon, talisman, or other outward manifestation of power, possessing instead an innate ability to cheat death. Bullets find him, consistently, but they cannot kill. Even a wound of the most indignant character is transformed into victory. The will-o-the-wisp Curly Bill rides hard 200 miles through Chihuahuan Desert scrub and Madrean grasslands, his bullet-burned bottom bouncing upon the leather saddle strapped and cinched to his cattle-wise horse, the rustler laughing aloud as he again escapes his ever-frustrated adversaries.

 

[1] “At Carrizabillo, which is within the territory of the United States, one of these outlaws was found with two hundred head of cattle, and in consequence of the armed conflicts which occurred, first at Agua del Perro with the colonists of Ascencion, and afterwards at San Simon with the people of Janos, that individual drove his cattle to unknown localities, and at once resolved to put himself at the head of a band of outlaws, in order to carry on the business of cattle stealing. Such is the situation of those districts, and their only hope is that the Supreme Government will lend them its timely aid.” Juan M. Zuloaga to Governor of Chihuahua, August 30, 1880; copied and enclosed in Note from Navarro to Evarts, November 15, 1880 (NA Microfilm M54, Roll 18).

 

[2] The Southwest (Silver City), August 10 and 11, 1880, quoted in Steve Gatto, Curly Bill, page 30.

 

[3] See Gatto, p. 30.

 

[4] Repeated contemporary references to Zimpleman’s intervention inside the State of Chihuahua against livestock thieves make it likely that “Zimpleman’s Guards” operated primarily in Chihuahua and included Mexican nationals.

 

[5] William M. Breakenridge, Helldorado, p. 108.

 

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