"Curly Bill" Brosius

Possible photo of  "Curly Bill Brosius"
Contributed by Shirley Blaylock

If ever there was an outlaw to be feared, that man was William B. Brosius. Known as "Curly Bill," he had a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type personality. No one ever knew exactly which face he would be showing, so everyone always approached him with caution. During his days around Tombstone, he probably killed more men on the slightest provocation than any other gunslinger alive. Legend claims that he’d sooner cut a man in half for a dollar than accept any form of honest labor. Without a doubt, he was one of the worst outlaws in Arizona history.

Tombstone, Arizona, was positively the "toughest town on earth." Sometime around 1870, a 22-year-old prospector named Ed Schieffelin wandered down from Oregon to the rugged Huachuca Mountains. He stayed in the vicinity of a camp of soldiers. When one of them asked what he was seeking, he answered, "Oh, just stones." "The only stone you’ll ever get in this country will be a tombstone," the soldier replied. Schieffelin promptly named his first claim "Tombstone," and from it, in 1877, the town took its name. This claim did not prove to be very rich, nor did the next one which he named The Graveyard, but the Tough Nut made him rich in silver and gold. It drew miners and prospectors by the hordes, and along with them came the gamblers and outlaws with all sorts of unlawful get-rich-quick schemes.

One of the first to capitalize on the new Tombstone territory was Nathan Haynes "Old Man" Clanton. He had just tried his hand in the California gold rush without much success, and with fresh prospects now lying in Tombstone, he moved his family to a ranch at Lewis Springs up the San Pedro Creek at Charleston. He became so popular riding into town with his four wild sons and ruffian friends that The Tombstone Nugget referred to them as the "cowboy party" of Republicans. One of his "best" men was gunslinger Curly Bill Brosius.

No one knows exactly when or where Curly Bill was born. Most accounts claim he came from Texas, and the best estimate of his birth is "about 1840." He was a well-muscled, dashing figure of a man, standing just over six feet tall, with curly black hair and piercing blue eyes, but it was the cruel twist of his mouth and his self-confident swagger which belied any suggestion of hospitality. One of his favorite pastimes was to get drunk and shoot up Tombstone. Since he was an incredibly fast draw and wore two separate gun belts, one backwards on the left hip and one normal on the right, with both holsters tied down, no one ever challenged him…and lived to tell about it, that is.

It is known only that Curly Bill rode into Tombstone from Texas. At one of the many saloons and gambling halls on Allen Street, he met one of the Clanton boys. Speculation claims that it was William "Billy" Clanton, who, as the youngest and wildest of the four Clanton sons, was a hell-raiser and quick shot (the other three were Isaac, Joseph "Ike," and Phin). Billy Clanton was fearless and foolish, just the sort of person Curly Bill liked. When the two men rode out to the ranch, Old Man Clanton made Brosius a member of the clan on the spot. Most of Curly Bill’s "business" involved robbing and plundering, murder and cattle theft, and with the McLowery ranch right next door, he could muster enough hands to do just about anything else he wanted. He was a born leader and killer, and Old Man Clanton respected that. Before long, Clanton was telling everyone that Curly Bill would someday take over the leadership from him.

The Clanton faction had Tombstone by the throat. Their terror was so complete that Fred White, the first town marshal, hired Virgil Earp as his deputy to help clean up the town. Virgil, in turn, called for his brothers Morgan and Wyatt. When the Earp Brothers rode into town in late 1879, followed by Wyatt’s close friend, gunslinger John "Doc" Holliday, the lawlessness of the area came to a screeching halt.

At first, Wyatt and Ike Clanton were friendly toward each other, but they soon fell out when Clanton refused to help Wyatt locate bandits who had been robbing the local stage line. Ike Clanton couldn’t do this, of course, since he was part of Curly Bill’s band of murderers who were doing the robbing and killing. And Wyatt and Curly Bill never really got along.

It came to a head one evening in October 1880, when Brosius, Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLowery, and Pony Deal rode up and down Allen Street firing their weapons and harassing anyone foolish enough to stroll the boardwalk. Fred White and Virgil Earp managed to stop the outlaws at Sixth and Allen streets. When White demanded Curly Bill’s pistol, Brosius passed it across butt first, his finger still on the hair-trigger. As White reached for the weapon, Curly Bill coolly spun the butt into his own hand and cocked the trigger. He claimed the gun went off accidentally when Wyatt seized him from behind. Wyatt’s version is that Fred White fell mortally wounded, shot in the belly, and that he then raced up to Curly Bill and cracked him over the skull with such force from his own foot-long Special that Curly Bill fell unconscious in the dust.

While White was rushed to the doctor’s office, Wyatt confronted the remaining gunmen, promising to kill any one of them who reached for a weapon. He ordered them all out of town, and they meekly complied. Wyatt promptly hauled the unconscious Brosius to jail, expecting him to be found guilty of murder, but Curly Bill was set free when White gave the doctor his dying statement in front of witnesses that the shooting was an accident. Curly Bill never forgave Wyatt for hitting him so hard.

Brosius was the uncontested leader of more than 400 outlaws working both sides of the border under orders from Old Man Clanton. It was the largest rustling empire America has ever had. They stole cattle from all over southern Arizona, horses from army posts, and longhorns from Mexico. Their depredations became so bad that President Garfield demanded they be stopped at all costs. Their most famous raid occurred in the Skeleton Canyon, where Curly Bill led his renegades in an ambush of a Mexican mule-train, netting the robbers more than $75,000 in loot. Hiding themselves in the high rocks, they shot the Mexicans from their saddles, and when the mules began to stampede, they shot them, too. With so much loot and no way to transport it, Brosius had Zwing Hunt and Billy Grounds hide it somewhere in the Canyon, while he and the rest of the gang returned to camp. The Skeleton Canyon slaughter left dead Mexicans and mules scattered up the canyon toward the San Simeon, and it was more than a day before the two outlaws had the job done. It was the worst massacre in Arizona history, and bleached bones can still be found along the Canyon’s floor. When Hunt and Grounds were killed before they could tell their cronies where they buried the loot, the Skeleton Canyon treasure became legend. It remains one of the most famous lost treasures to this day.

Curly Bill’s end was as ugly as his murdering life had been. After Virgil Earp was paralyzed by a sniper from the shadows on 28 November 1881, and after Morgan Earp was murdered in a poolroom on the night of 17 March 1882, Wyatt determined to put an end to the outlaw business in Tombstone once and for all. He and Doc Holliday quietly put Virgil and the body of Morgan on the train for California and rode as far as Tucson with another brother, James Earp, who had been permanently crippled in the Civil War. At Tucson, Wyatt and Doc got off the train. They were met by Warren Earp, who had rounded up Texas Jack Vermillion, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, and Sherman McMasters, three specially appointed lawmen. The posse then proceeded to track down each and every one of Clanton’s hired killers.

Wyatt cornered Curly Bill at the Iron Springs water hole. According to legend, Wyatt saw Curly Bill just about the same time that the outlaw was drawing down on him with a sawed-off shotgun. There was a great explosion, and Wyatt felt his coat tail jerk, as the shot from both barrels struck it. With an angry scream, Brosius then threw the shotgun at Wyatt. It was over in an instant. Curly Bill fell, cut almost in half, as Wyatt pumped shell after shell into him.

Curiously, there is still the claim by some that Curly Bill Brosius retired from his wicked ways after being shot in the mouth by lawman William Milton Breakenridge. Breakenridge was a tough lawman and a close friend of Sheriff John Behan, becoming the deputy sheriff of Tombstone under Behan. He entered a saloon in Galeyville, Arizona, on 25 May 1881, and was immediately confronted by two of the toughest outlaws in the area, Brosius and his pal Jim Wallace. Wallace, a hardcase gunman who had seen the likes of the Lincoln County war in New Mexico, immediately picked a fight, but Breakenridge ignored him. The lawman invited everyone to join him in a drink. This display of courage infatuated Brosius.

When the lawman was ready to leave, Curly Bill, by this time stinking drunk, decided he would pick a fight with the lawman. He rode out of town on the heels of Breakenridge, tossing insults at the lawman’s back. Breakenridge finally had enough of his antagonist. He turned and fired one shot which struck Curly Bill in the neck, the bullet emerging out his right cheek, knocking out a tooth. When Curly Bill finally recovered from his terrible wound, he is supposed to have hung up his guns and settled in Texas, living quietly for the remainder of his life under the name of William Graham. Wyatt Earp and his posse, of course, dispute this.

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