Haunted Tombstone: The Missing Grave of "Curly Bill" Brocius

During the late 1870's Curly Bill was the most notorious outlaw in Arizona. Portrayed to bandit perfection by Emmy award winning actor Powers Boothe in the classic film Tombstone, Curly's outlaw legacy was legit, he raised hell with the sharp-shooting Johnny Ringo and survived the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He then pissed off Wyatt Earp to the max by killing his brother Morgan while he was shooting pool at Campbell and Hatch's. By the time Curly Bill met the reaper it would be on the end of Wyatt Earp's shotgun: As Wyatt's possee were riding alongside of a wash near Iron Springs, Wyatt was somewhat in the lead when nine men rose up from the wash guns spitting lead. “Curly Bill!” someone shouted! Brandishing a shotgun. Curly Bill was the front man. With the exception of Vermillion, whose horse was down Wyatt’s posse fell back before the onslaught. Wyatt slid from his horse, unlimbering his shotgun. Scarcely had his feet touched the ground when he let loose both barrels point blank at Curly Bill. The twin charges of buckshot struck him in the chest, literally blowing him apart and hurling him against the opposite bank of the wash.

Casting the empty shotgun aside, Wyatt drew his rifle from his saddle, and using his plunging horse as a shield, continued the fight with the now leaderless outlaws. They had retreated, taking cover in the brush above the wash. Wyatt sprayed their brush cover with rifle fire. (Johnny Barnes was wounded in this gunfire). Since all the gunfire was directed at him, Wyatt tried to retreat. While riding toward Iron Springs he had loosened his gun belt several notches for comfort. When he slid from his horse it had slipped down, holding his legs together in such a manner that he was unable to mount his horse. Once he did manage to mount his horse he began a careful withdrawal before that murderous fire.

Wyatt retreated out of gun range and rejoined his companions. Vermillion exposed himself needlessly, trying to retrieve his saddle from his dead horse. None of the Earp party had been hit, but Vermillion’s horse had been killed in the first fire. Doc Holliday had gone back to pick him up. Wyatt had several bullet holes thru his hat, coat, trousers legs, saddlehorn, and his bootheel, but suffered not a scratch on his person.

He was extremely angry at his friends because he felt that they had deserted him, leaving him in the face of the enemy alone. He never forgave them. The group of ambushers had consisted of Curly Bill, Pony Diehl, Johnny Barnes, Hank Swilling, John Ringo, Milt Hicks, Rattlesnake Bill Johnson, Zwing Hunt, Billy Grounds, and Jim Hughes. The entire population was divided on the question of whether or not Wyatt killed Curly Bill. Wyatt and the members of his posse maintained that he had blown Brocius apart. The Cowboys insisted that the outlaw was alive and well. The body disappeared, and the story leaked out that the Cowboys had buried it on Frank Patterson’s ranch and concealed the grave.

The Tombstone Epitaph, run by John Clum, was a staunch supporter of the Earps and as to be expected, accepted the Earp posse’s version of the killing of Brocius. On the other side, the Tombstone Nugget, run by Behan’s under-sheriff Harry Woods, naturally accepted the Cowboy version that Curly Bill was not dead. The Nugget offered a $1,000 reward to anyone that could produce Curly's dead body. The Epitaph countered that by offering a $2,000 reward to any acceptable charity in the name of anyone who could produce the outlaw alive.

Many legendary tales abound concerning the sudden disappearance of Curly Bill Brocius, that he rode down into Mexico, married a Mexican woman and raised a hacienda full of kids; that he rode up to Wyoming to start over again; that he went to Texas and lived a peaceful life; and numerous other versions. It is not logical that Curly Bill would vacate Arizona, just when everything was going his way. The Earps and Holliday were riding out, leaving him in complete control of southeast Arizona with no enemies to hinder him. There is no way he would not take one last swipe at Earp and the Epitaph by making them pay the $2,000 reward by showing up alive and well - if he were!

The two couriers, who replaced Smith and Tipton when Sheriff Behan arrested them, Dick Wright and Tony Cracker, arrived at Iron Springs after the fight was over, but the Cowboys were still there. The two couriers said they had two men wounded and one dead. They identified the dead man as Curly Bill Brocius, but did not know the wounded men.

Probably the most accurate telling of Curly Bill’s fate can be obtained from letters written in the late 1920s by Fred J. Dodge, undercover man for Well’s Fargo. Excerpts taken read: “You will recollect that J.B. Ayers kept the saloon in Charlston that was the headquarters for all the outlaw and rustler element. This man, Ayers, for personal reasons that would take too long to tell supplied me with reliable information. Thru him I got in touch with several others. Johnny Barnes, who you will recollect was in the fight at Iron Springs, gave me much information, not only of that, but of many other things before he was killed. Afterwards, all that they said with reference to Curly Bill was corroborated by Ike Clanton himself! It was my report to Mr. Valentine (head of Well’s Fargo) with reference to Curley (sic) Bill that brought John Thacker out there.”
“Referring to your letter of Sept. 14, you ask for information about the death of Curley Bill. By reason of my connection with Well’s Fargo and Co. and also because of my association with Wyatt Earp and others of his party, had full information concerning the fight at Iron Springs in which Wyatt Earp and party were ambushed by Curley Bill and party.”

“Immediately after this fight I interested myself in ascertaining the true facts about the death of Curley Bill. J.B. Ayers, a saloonkeeper of Charleston, where the outlaws and rustlers headquartered, told me that the men who were in the fight told him that Wyatt Earp killed Curley Bill and that they took the body away that night and that they buried him on Patterson’s ranch on the Babocomari. Johnny Barnes, who was in the .fight and was badly wounded, and was one of the Curley Bill party, told me that they opened up on the Earp party just as Wyatt Earp swung off his horse to the ground and they thought they had hit Wyatt, but it was the horn of the saddle that was struck. That Wyatt Earp throwed (sic) down on Curley Bill right across his horse and killed him. That the Earp party made it so fast and hot that all of the Curley Bill party that could, got away. I made this report direct to John J. Valentine, President of Well’s Fargo and Co. and in substance it was the same as the above. Mr. Valentine sent Thacker out there, and he, as you know, made a full investigation. Some time after this, Ike Clanton, himself, told me that Wyatt Earp killed Curley Bill.”

“When John Thacker got to Tombstone, 1 got in his way so that he would come to me, and I personally gave him the names of the men to go to. They all talked to him, but Ike Clanton would have nothing to do with him, but he got all the information that he required and was thougherly (sic) and completely satisfyed (sic) beyond a doubt that Wyatt Earp had killed Curley Bill and that Bill was buried on the Patterson ranch.”

“The night that Virgil was shot in Tombstone, Johnny Barnes was the man who fired the shot that tore up Virg’s arm I don’t know who Wyatt attributed that shot to, but Johnny Barnes was the man. As I said, Johnny never recovered from his wounds, and finally died of them in Charleston where he was being cared for by Ayers.”

Barnes said that on the night that Curly Bill was killed, that day he was put into a wagon, already containing the outlaw’s body, and transported to Frank Patterson’s ranch where the Cowboys gave him what medical attention they could. At the same time they buried Curly Bill somewhere near the barn and hid the grave. A few days later Barnes developed blood poisoning and had to be taken to J.B. Ayers’ Saloon so that someone could care for him. As he lay dying in Ayers’ back room he told Ayers a great deal of information. Ayers sent for Fred Dodge so that Barnes could tell him first hand.

Thus, Barnes told Dodge about burying Brocius at Patterson’s ranch and knowing that his days were numbered he said, “Wyatt Earp killed Curly Bill and he has killed me, too.” And he was right. But, regardless of any information, facts, or otherwise, after the gunbattle at Iron Springs, Curly Bill went on no more cattle raids, hijacked no more smugglers, and was seen in his favorite hang outs no more. He vanished completely and was never seen again!

It was just like Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and Johnny Barnes told: Wyatt snuffed out Curly Bill’s life with a twin blast from a double barrel shotgun. It is belived that his body was taken by wagon to the old Patterson Ranch near the confluence of the San Pedro River and the Babocomari River, which is about 13 miles east of Iron Springs. Some say he fled to Mexico. Curly Bill Brocius was never seen in Tombstone again. 

Some accounts dispute whether Wyatt shot Curly Bill. Steve Gatto in The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography cites evidence that Brocius may have been out of the territory at the time of the supposed death. Fred J. Dodge, an undercover operative for Wells Fargo in Tombstone, asked Curley Bill's associates about his death. He wrote that he talked to "J. B. Ayers, a saloonkeeper of Charleston where the outlaws and rustlers headquartered, told me that the men who were in the fight told him that Wyatt Earp killed Curley Bill and that they took the body away that night and that they buried him on Patterson’s ranch on the Babocomari. "
The Tombstone Nugget first put up a $1,000 reward for proof Curly Bill lived, and The Tombstone Epitaph countered with a $2,000 reward. Neither was ever collected. Brocius was not wanted by the law in Arizona and if he was not dead had no reason to disappear. He also was unlikely to return to Texas where, according to Wyatt Earp's recollection, he was probably still wanted for murder. Earp biographer John Flood wrote that Curly Bill's friends buried his body on the nearby ranch of Frank Patterson near the Babocomari River. This is close to the original McLaury ranch site about 5 miles (8.0 km) west of Fairbank (before the McLaurys moved to the Sulphur Springs Valley in late 1880) and is believed to have originally belonged to Frank Stilwell. Brocius's grave site has never been identified.


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