Another outlaw...

This story is about William Graham, a gunfighter who created havoc for a short time, and then disappered under much controversy.  You’ve never heard of William Graham?  It could be because he went under a different name.

When William Graham was in a New Mexico cantina, the local female singer gave him a nickname he used for the rest of his life. It was “Curly Bill Brocius.” Curly Bill was a mean drunk. And, since he was drunk much of the time, he was mean much of the time.     

In 1880, he killed Tombstone’s Marshal Fred White. Fortunately, Marshal White’s dying words indicated it was an accident. As a member of Tombstone’s Clanton gang, he enjoyed taking over saloons, and making everyone undress and dance a jig.    

In 1881 Curly Bill was drinking heavily when he had an encounter with Deputy Sheriff Billy Breakenridge… the climax of which Billy shot Curly Bill in the neck. Now, here is where the Curly Bill Brocius legend goes in many directions. 

One says he left Arizona after being shot. But, according to Wyatt Earp, on March 21, 1882, after the O. K. Corral shootout, the shooting of Virgil Earp, and four days after Morgan Earp was killed… a posse led by Wyatt encountered Curly Bill and some of his co-harts and Wyatt said he killed Curly Bill with two blasts from his shotgun.  

Again, legend says that Curly Bill went west, and years later learned of his death at the hands of Wyatt when he passed through Tombstone on the way to Texas. Another says Doc Holliday killed him. Yet another says he went to Mexico, got married, and became a rancher.   

No matter what happened to Curly Bill Brocius, it is for sure that after March of 1882 no one in Arizona had to strip and dance at the point of his gun.  


This story is from Dakota Livesly, however as I always love his stories, I always check a little farther….

From True West Magazine:

His true name remains a mystery. Some accounts say it was William Brocius Graham while others claim it was William Bresnaham or William Graham but in outlaw lore, he was known as Curly Bill Brocius. Little of his past can be substantiated.  He left no letters or provided any information on his life before coming to Arizona, where he drifted after working as a cowhand in Texas and then in New Mexico. Supposedly he acquired his colorful nickname from a Mexican cantina girl who was enthralled with his dark, curly hair but even that’s been disputed.

Cochise County deputy sheriff Billy Breakenridge described him as being “fully six feet tall, with black curly hair, freckled face and well built.” No documented photos have been found and there are no details regarding his mother and father. In short, he was a mysterious man from nowhere; even his true name is unknown.

Before he gained fame as a leader with the Cow-Boy gang in Cochise County, Curly Bill was riding with a notorious outlaw at the time, Bob Martin. At the time Curly Bill was using the name Bresnaham and just starting to get a reputation.

In May of 1878 Curly was living in El Paso and El Paso del Norte (today’s Juarez,) hanging out with a mob of rowdies and causing mischief in both towns.

On the afternoon of May 21st a government wagon, escorted by members of the 9th Cavalry left El Paso heading for Mesilla. They had traveled just a few miles when Martin and Curly Bill passed them on the road. A few minutes two masked men emerged from the bushes, ordered the driver to “Halt” then opened fire, mortally wounding one of the soldiers and seriously wounding another.

Lieutenant Ben Butler grabbed a rifle from one of the wounded soldiers and returned fire. After a brief firefight, Martin and Curly Bill hightailed it across the river into Mexico. A few minutes later four Texas Rangers arrived and picked up their trail. There had been two other stage robberies recently and the citizens were up in arms.

Martin and Curly Bill thought they were safe in El Paso del Norte however the next day they were arrested by Mexican police and held for extradition. The following day they were identified as members of the Kinney Gang, charged with robbery, murder and attempted murder.

The two were held temporarily in the military prison at Franklin, however the El Paso county sheriff took custody and rather than lock them up El Paso, took them to Isleta, which didn’t have a jail and confined them at the ranger headquarters.

Martin and Curly were tried for robbery and attempted murder and sentenced to five years. Bill, at the time was using the name Bresnaham. Two and a half years later in Tombstone he was using the name Brocius. His real name remains a mystery.

On the evening of November 2nd, 1878 they hacked and sawed their way free of their shackles, dug a hole under the walls of the jail and escaped across the border into Mexico.

Curly Bill and Martin managed to evade capture as they roamed from Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona. By 1880 both were living in the San Simon Valley along the Arizona-New Mexico border, an area heavily infested with desperadoes.


Then on

Controversial Claims


Did Wyatt Earp Kill Curly Bill Brocius?

 On March 24, 1882, a gun battle erupted at a spring about fifteen miles west of Contention City between a group that included Wyatt Earp and four men who were camped at the spring. On March 25, 1882, the Tombstone Epitaph published an article that claimed that Curly Bill had been killed in the violent encounter which it claimed occurred at "Burleigh Springs." The next day, on March 26, 1882, the Tombstone Nugget reported the following:

Our informant had an appointment to meet the Earp party at a certain spring [probably Mescal Springs but Wyatt later claimed it was Iron Springs) in the Whetstone Mountains, about fifteen miles from Contention, at noon on Friday [March 24]. He rode up to the spring, which is situated in a canyon, at the appointed time, and was confronted by three cowboys with drawn weapons, who ordered him to dismount, and demanded the cause of his presence there. He told them he was in search of a stray horse, and had come to the spring, thinking that a likely place to find the animal.

The cowboys, evidently believing his story, abandoned THEIR HOSTILE ATTITUDE and invited the stranger to camp there, and prepare his dinner, which invitation was accepted. While thus engaged the cowboys rode off, and soon our informant also departed in search of the Earp party. He proceeded but a short distance when he came upon Wyatt Earp. Wyatt informed him that some hours previous they (the Earp party) had come to the spring in pursuance of the appointment.

They had approached within thirty yards, when they discovered four cowboys camped there. The latter recognized the intruders, and firing from both parties began at about the same time. One shot from the cowboys passed through the clothing of McMasters, just grazing his side, another killed Texas Jack's horse, a third knocked the pommel off Wyatt Earp's saddle; while another cut the straps of the field-glasses carried by McMasters. The volley fired by the Earp party apparently did not take effect.

As they turned to run, one of the cowboys, who Wyatt Earp believes to have been THE NOTORIOUS CURLY BILL, in a spirit of bravado, jumped out from behind a rock, when Wyatt turned in the saddle and fired, and the reckless cowboy fell to the ground. The Earp party retired behind an adjacent hill and halted. They were in a position commanding a view of the spring, and shortly after the fight saw a wagon come to the place and, as Wyatt believes, carry away the dead body of Curly Bill. . . .

Rumors crediting Wyatt Earp's claim began to circulate just as quickly as rumors that discredited the claim that Curly Bill had been killed. On April 1, 1882, the Tombstone Nugget noted that it had stated that "'Curly William' is alive. If any one will produce any evidence, affidavits or otherwise, that he is not, we will produce $1000 in fifteen minutes and present the same to them." Neither reward was claimed.

Also floating about was a rumor that prominent rancher Henry Hooker and the local cattleman's association had place an under-the-table $1000 reward on Curly Bill's head. If true, this could account for Wyatt Earp cooking up a false claim that he killed Curly Bill in order to obtain a $1000 reward for the deed, which was money badly needed to finance his escape from Arizona.

Whatever his motive, immediately after the Whetstone Mountain fracas Wyatt Earp and his companions heeded toward Hooker's Seirra Bonita Ranch, located about sixty miles north of Tombstone. The arrived at the Sierra Bonita on March 27, where they were greeted warmly by its proprietor.

Over the years the "I Killed Curly Bill" narrative became a staple item in Wyatt Earp's repertoire of stories. In an article by the former lawman published in the August 2, 1896, San Francisco Examiner, Wyatt gave this rendition of the adventure:

"We had ridden twenty-five miles over the mountains with the intention of camping at a certain spring. As we got near the place I had a presentment that something was wrong, and unlimbered my shotgun. Sure enough, nine cowboys sprang up from the bank where the spring was and began to firing at us. I jumped off my horse to return fire, thinking my men would do the same, but they retreated. One of the cowboys who was trying to pump some lead into me with a Winchester, was a fellow named Curly Bill, a stage-robber whom I had been after for eight months, and for who I had a warrant in my pocket. I fired both barrels of my gun into him blowing him all to pieces. . . ."


In the next installment of his three part series of Wild West yarns, this one published on August 6, 1896, Wyatt inserted an amendment to his Curly Bill account:

"Toward the end of my story last Sunday I described the killing of Curly Bill. By inadvertency I said that he opened fire on me with a Winchester, I should have said a Wells-Fargo shotgun. Later I will tell you where Curly got that gun. . . . "

And now for the story of how Curly Bill became the proud proprietor of a Wells-Fargo shotgun. Charlie Barthomew was a messenger who used to run on the coach from Tombstone to Bisbee. Once every month he was the custodian of a very tidy sum of money sent to pay off the miners. Naturally enough such a prize as that did not escape the attention of such audacious artists in crime as Frank Stilwell, Pete Spence, Pony Deal, and Curly Bill. . . .

The robbers came up and made them all throw up their hands. They took everything there was to be taken, which amounted to $10,000 and sundries. Among the sundries was Charlie Bartholomew's shotgun, with which Curly Bill afterwards tried to fill me full of buckshot, with results fatal to himself. . . 

In actuality, neither Curly Bill nor Pony Deal was implicated in the September 8, 1881 stage robbery. Instead, Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence were arrested for the crime. Wyatt did not look for Curly Bill for eight months with an arrest warrant. Proof of this is the friendly meeting at the McLaury's ranch, on October 6, 1881, a month after the stage holdup described by Wyatt Earp took place. In fact, there is no known evidence that Curly Bill was ever charged with robbing a stage in Arizona. Although he was later accused of stealing 19 head of cattle and indicted by the Cochise County Grand Jury for theft in December 1881.

The Bisbee stage stickup where Charlies Bartholmew lost his double-barreled Wells-Fargo shotgun took place on January 6, 1882. Bartholomew named Pony Deal, Al Tiebot, and Charlie Haws as the perpetrators of the robbery, which netted them $6500. There was no evidence that Curly Bill was involved in the crime (he most likely left Arizona before the incident occurred). But here is the amusing part-the scattergun that Wyatt claimed Curly Bill was brandishing on March 24, 1882, was found before his supposed clash with Curly took place. The March 14, Nugget carried the story:

That Missing Shotgun

At the time of the Bisbee stage was robbed, the messenger, Charles Bartholomew, was armed with a short double-barreled shogun, a Winchester rifle, and possibly a revolver or two. After the fight was over and the treasure gone, the shotgun was also missing, and the messenger entertained an opinion that it had been taken by the highwaymen, but subsequent events prove that it was in all probability dropped during the melee. Last Saturday Deputy Sheriff Frank Hereford, while on his way to Charleston, met a Mexican carrying a gun, which he immediately recognized as property of Wells, Fargo & Co.

The man was arrested, and explained that he had traded a pistol to a cousin for the gun, which was found near the place where the coach had been robbed, and singular as it may seem, both barrels were loaded when it was picked up. One side of the barrels being rusty served to confirm the Mexican's statement that it had lain for some time on the ground exposed to the elements. Should it again escape, it will be arrested and punished under the provisions of the vagrant act.

Well, Did Wyatt Earp kill Curly Bill? This writer believes he did not. In simple terms, the evidence that Curly Bill had left Arizona before March 1882 is stronger than the evidence that he was killed by Wyatt Earp. During the melee at the spring Wyatt was firing and fleeing at the same time, making it almost impossible for him to know the results of his shots-he didn't walk up to a dead victim, roll the body over, and confirm the man was Curly Bill. Identifying adversaries in the heat of battle at a distance of thirty yards would have been an uncertain enterprise. Wyatt may have believed he killed Curly Bill but he couldn't have known for sure.

Many people believe that Curly Bill must have been killed because he was never seen in the territory again following the gun battle at the spring. Yet, Curly Bill was believed to have left Arizona around December 1881 (when he was indicted for theft) and, in fact, county records show that Cochise County Sheriff John Behan filed for expenses paid in February 1882 for his deputies going to El Paso, Texas, (before the battle at the spring on March 24, 1882) in search of Curly Bill after reports circulated that he had been seen there.

If Curly Bill had left the territory in December 1881 then it would explain why he was not seen in the territory again and why he did not simply ride into Tombstone to show that he was still alive (although he then would have almost certainly been arrested on his December 1881 indictment for theft).

Is there evidence that Curly Bill was alive after March 1882? Yes-not rock-solid evidence by any means, but a few interesting accounts placing Curly Bill in Chihuahua, Mexico, have been found. Of course, tracking a drifter such as Curly Bill, a man of many aliases whose true origins continue to elude researchers, isn't easy. The Weekly Arizona Citizen (Tucson) carried this item on July 14, 1883, which was picked up by the Clifton Clarion:

Arizona News

Curley Bill, a cowboy, who obtained an unenviable notoriety in Tombstone a couple of years ago, and [who] has been reported killed several times since, is said to have discovered in conjunction with another party, some very rich silver mines in Chihuahua.

In at least one account, Curly Bill reportedly married the sister of Eduardo Moreno while in Mexico. James C. Hancock and other old-timers also wrote of Curly Bill living out his life in Mexico, but none of these accounts is definitive. However, this author feels there are to many reports pointing to Chihuahua as Curly Bill's place of residence after leaving Arizona to dismiss out of hand the possibility that he lived for many years in the Mexican state.

As for Wyatt Earp's claims over the years of having killed Curly Bill - if three-fourth of a man's story is patently false, how can one accept the rest without contemporary, independent confirmation? And there is no such confirmation for Wyatt Earp's claim to have killed Curly Bill Brocius.


What I find both interesting and amusing is our total fascination with what would actually be – just some early thug of the 1800’s.  But the old west is one of our biggest fantasies where we focus our passion, OUR CLOTHES, our total rapt delight.  Then add somebody like….

The Yummy Mr. Powers Booth…  and we have taken the bit in our teeth and run with it, not ever really caring all that much about the total truth of it.  Our fantasies of the old west simply take on such a life of their own, that they become the truth.  Take the OK Corral.  so on that note:

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