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"Brazen Bill" Brazelton

Bill Brazelton
Slain by a posse, stagecoach robber Bill Brazelton
still wears his highyman's mask.

Stagecoach robberies were among the most thrilling events to fill the pages of newspapers in the old west. These encounters fascinated an entertainment starved public. Stagecoaches became the main target of road agents, before the railroads arrived, because they carried wealth from the mines and brought in payrolls to the miners. However, most importantly they could be halted in isolated locations, which gave the robbers a chance to flee. The familiar order to "throw down that box" echoed throughout the remote regions of the vast wilderness. Stagecoach robbery had been a thriving business since the mid-1860s.

On September 27, 1877, The California-bound stagecoach left Prescott on Thursday morning at 6 o'clock a.m. Twelve hours later it was stopped by a lone highwayman eight miles beyond Antelope Station, just where the road leaves the mesa going South and enters the wash.

The road agent first commanded the driver to stop, get down from the box and hold the leaders by the bits, all the while covering him with a shotgun. His next command was for passenger Dan Thorne to throw out the express box and break it open with an axe, which the robber provided, and hand him the contents. Passenger Gus Ellis was then ordered to throw out the mail bags. Ellis and Thorne were then required to cut them open and hand over the letters and packages. The stagecoach also had on board as passengers Hon. E. G. Peck with his wife, children, and his aged father and mother, but they were not molested.

The complete contents of the mail bags were unknown but there was six hundred dollars in the mail belonging to the Post Office Department. The express box had one package of gold dust and bars valued at thirteen hundred dollars, one package of small bars valued at four hundred seventy dollars, a letter valued at one hundred dollars, and other letters and papers valued at one hundred fifty dollars. Two bars of Peck bullion worth four thousand dollars were returned to the coach.

The robbing was done in broad daylight so the passengers saw that the robber was masked with black gauze in such a way as to entirely hide his features. He was described as stout built, about five feet ten inches, dressed in laborer's garb, and quite prompt in his manner.

As soon as the coach reached Wickenburg the stage agent contacted the authorities and Wells, Fargo and Company. The usual rewards were offered and pursuits begun, but without results. The Enterprise commented on the lone highwayman, ".. showing it, in one respect at least, to have been a remarkable job fcr one `agent' - as it is certain one did the `business' alone."

The same robber, "Brazen Bill" Brazelton, would take in stagecoaches near Tucson, Pima County on July 31st and August 14th, 1878. On July 31, The stagecoach left Tucson on Wednesday at the usual hour of 2 o'clock p.m. Arthur Hill was driving and Veterinary Surgeon Wheatly, John P. Clum, and one Chinaman were the only passengers. At 5 o'clock p.m. with a light rain falling, they reached the ranch at Point of Mountain, eighteen miles northwest from Tucson. About ten minutes later the coach entered the sand at Point of Mountain and the horses necessarily slowed to a walk.

Suddenly a man accosted the driver in rather harsh tones, the driver replied and stopped the coach. A tall form in a mask appeared at the left side of the coach and covered the driver and passengers with a Spencer carbine and a six-shooter while commanding everyone to remain still at the peril of their lives. Clum had a pistol, but it lay on the floor of the coach. Wheatly had one also, but it was on the seat under a blanket. The attack was in open daylight but so unexpected that both men were surprised, and once under cover of the robber's arms they were compelled to obey his commands.

He ordered the men out of the coach and carefully went through them, and after the collection had been taken the robber remarked that one of the passengers "looked like a sick man." After scanning the coach for other valuables, and finding none, he ordered the driver to proceed which order was obeyed. However, just as the coach started forward the road agent challenged everyone to come back and fight him as soon as anyone felt disposed to do so.

The road agent was about six feet tall and well built. He had his pants tucked in his boots and wore small brass spurs, such as were used by the army. His face was covered with a muslin mask with openings for his eyes and a red mouth sewn on. His weapons were a Spencer carbine and a Colt's army size six-shooter, and when making the attack he held the carbine to his shoulder all the time and his pistol leveled in the fingers of the left hand so close to the gun-barrel and parallel with it that it appeared to be fastened to the Carbine.

A stagecoach had been robbed east of Silver City, New Mexico three months previously, with Col. Willard and Lt. West aboard. While that robbery was committed at night, the passengers were able report that the robber "had a pistol strapped to his gun," which led to the conclusion that the two robberies were committed by the same road agent.

J. P. Clum, reporter for Tucson's Citizen, wrote, "This editor has frequently read of the daring deeds of fierce highwaymen and several times within the last six months it has been necessary for us to describe the bold operations of these desperadoes, but never until day before yesterday have we had the good fortune to witness the modus operandi by which these members of the shotgun gentry extract the valuables from a stagecoach and passengers by the simple but magical persuasive power of cold lead." Clum also observed, "... the express box was empty and there was nothing of great value in the mails hence, as he only obtained thirty-seven dollars from the passengers, his booty was small and he will no doubt feel it necessary to rob another coach soon." The robber was not captured, but Clum was correct as the robber appeared two weeks later.

)n August 14, The stagecoach left Tucson on Thursday with two passengers and Arthur Hill, who had been the driver on October 31st, was again driving. John Miller, one of the passengers, was sitting on the outside and as they neared Point of Mountain he asked Hill to show him just the place where the coach was robbed previously. The driver replied that it was only a short distance ahead and he would point out the spot. When they reached the place Hill said, "There. The robber was hid behind that bush," and then in the same breath shouted, "and there he is again," as the masked robber sprang from behind the same bush.

The road agent pranced before the horses shouting, "yes, here I am again. Throw up your hands!" On command the mail sacks and express box were thrown out. The inside passenger was ordered out and searched, but lost only eight dollars. Miller was more unfortunate, as he was obliged to give up his pocketbook which contained about two hundred twenty-six dollars. The robber ordered the driver to proceed and the stagecoach arrived at Desert Station just about dark. Parties immediately left for Tucson to notify the authorities.

The next morning the Sheriff's posse took the robber's track, but failed to find him. The strangest bit of evidence from these two robberies was that two horses appeared to leave Tucson toward the scene of the crime but none returned. Finally a tracker named Juan Elias was put on the track. It happened on this second occasion that the robber's horse threw a shoe, creating the odd impression of an animal with three hoofs traveling in one direction and the fourth unshod hoof in the opposite direction. Elias back-tracked the hoof prints to their source and found the robber's horse in the corral of David Nemitz. Elias examined the animal and found that the robber had developed a way to turn the horse's shoes around. The shoes had been made especially for this purpose, with four nail holes on each side of each shoe so accurately spaced that when the shoes were reversed nails could be pushed through the holes in the horse's hoof. All that remained was to turn the nails down and cut the clinchers.

Nemitz was arrested and bail was set at two thousand five hundred dollars, but Nemitz expressed an interest in telling all if he could be protected from the real stagecoach robber. Nemitz said that he had worked in James Carroll's corral but had recently left that employment and taken up residence south of James Lee's flouring mill several miles south of Tucson. He admitted that the road agent obtained his supplies of food and water and also kept his horse at Nemitz' home, but explained how he had become involved with stagecoach robber William Whitney Brazelton: "He called one day, asked a couple of questions and went away. He returned the next day and asked for a confidential conversation, which was granted. On the first visit I did not recognize the man, nor the second time until informed that he was a former fellow-laborer in the corral when Mr. Leatherwood owned it. I said, `You look like a hard game,' and he replied, `you bet I'm a hard game,' and then he told all about his robberies. I was then in the power of a man who placed little value on his own or anyone's life. I felt obliged to obey the robber's commands. Owing to the facts in connection with my own arrest and the search going on, I feared Brazelton would suspect me and kill me. If the Sheriff's posse failed to kill the robber my own death would soon follow, and I warned the Sheriff that the man would not be taken alive unless by artful strategy."

From all that Nemitz had told Pima County Sheriff Charles A. Shibell, the sheriff deemed it necessary to shoot Brazelton on sight, and so instructed his deputies. Shibell summoned Marshall Buttner, R. N. Leatherwood, Charles O. Brown, Charles T. Etchells, Jim Lee and Ika O. Brokaw as his posse. The plan was for the posse members to sneak out of town and assemble near the mesquite log where Brazelton was to meet Nemitz, who had agreed to provide the road agent with supplies for the evening's work.

Nemitz disclosed that Brazelton was preparing to commit another robbery that night and would be weighted-down with all his arms. When the robber arrived at the log he had upon his person two belts full of cartridges, two six-shooters and a Spencer rifle.

Brazelton approached the log cautiously and gave the signal, a cough, which was returned by a posse member. He then placed his hat on the log to signal Nemitz to come to him. Something alarmed Brazelton and he leaned over the log as if to look on the other side, where one of the posse members was concealed, and the silence was broken by the blast from a shotgun. A fusillade of pistol shots followed immediately and Brazelton exclaimed, "You S** of a B****," as he fell. He lay still in the darkness and the posse heard him gasp, "I die brave, my God! I'll pray till I die."

The posse remained silent, listening carefully in the dark for any sign that there was fight left in Brazelton. Firally they lighted matches and counted ten holes deposited in his chest between the robber's shoulders in the area of his heart and lungs. The ambush had been so sudden that Bill Brazelton had been captured and mortally wounded without the opportunity to fire a single shot.

The Sheriff searched the robber's body and discovered the hood, with red mouth sewn on as described in previous robberies, and in his pockets was some of the loot, including a pair of distinctive earrings and a gold watch. Ika Brokaw went to town and procured a wagon. "Brazen Bill" Brazelton's body was then taken into Tucson and tied upright in a chair and displayed at the courthouse until the inquest and burial the following afternoon.

Brazelton was described in the Prescott Enterprise as "the most successful `single-handed' highway robber of modern times." The article continued, "Who he was and whither from will soon become clear, we suppose." J. P Clum later reported, "Billy Brazelton was born in San Francisco. He was early left an orphan and made his home in an old boiler, the remains of a wreck o the Barbary coast. He attended the public schools of San Franciscc became a hoodlum and killed his first man in a row when he was bu 15 years old. He robbed nine coaches in Arizona and New Mexico single-handed. Once he was closely pursued by a posse near Silver City, New Mexico when he managed to separate them and killed then one by one as they came up. He was dextrous with firearms and had no streak of yellow in him." In 1902 Clum stated that he had recently visited the grave of Brazelton a short distance from Tucson.

That would seem to be the end of the Brazelton saga, but Bill was not yet finished. Twenty years after Brazelton's death W. C. Davis of Tucson spoke of the stagecoach robber at San Jose, California, a reported in San Jose's Evening News:

The Indians and Mexicans, particularly the old people of the latter race, will never go past a place after dark where any tragedy has ever been committed, or which has been given the reputation of being queer when it has been given out that any one has seen things. ... There is a place not far from Tucson where it is said they will not pass after dark, even if they have to make a journey of a mile to go around it. The incident which put a hoodoo on the spot occurred some twenty-five years ago. ... The spot where the highwayman met a tragic death was avoided after night fall by the Indians and Mexicans and even now some of the old timers, who remember the affair, will not go past the place in the dark, and will recite stories of how a phantom highwayman is seen standing in the road, just as Brazelton was halted on the night of his death.

R. Michael Wilson. Encyclopedia of Stagecoach Robbery in Arizona. RaMa Press: Las Vegas, Nevada. 2003.

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