The curse of Prescott’s Keystone Saloon

Courtesy of Brad Courtney


(I’m especially fond of this story since I played Ellen Dunn at the Ghost Walk – M)






If any early Prescott saloon was cursed, it was Cortez Street’s Keystone Saloon. It was possibly sited where Lyzzard’s Lounge is today.

Ellen Dunn’s two husbands, Gotlieb Urfer and John McCarron, both of whom died by their own hands, are buried side by side in the Citizen’s Cemetery, shown at right.

Its first proprietor, Gotlieb Urfer, came to America from Switzerland sometime before the Civil War. He arrived in Prescott in 1874, opened a lodging house on Cortez in 1877, and eventually added a saloon, naming it the Keystone Saloon and Lodging House. He married Ellen Dunn of Ireland in 1878.

On Wednesday, Dec. 16, 1885—one day before his 50th birthday—Urfer was found lying senseless on the floor behind the Keystone bar, bleeding profusely from a bullet wound to his head. A lodger had sprinted into the saloon after hearing a gunshot and saw Urfer with “a great ghastly hole in the right side of his head, from which his brains and blood were oozing.” Several others who’d been nearby also ran in. They saw the bleeding Urfer and “near his right hand, lay a pistol of the bull-dog pattern.” All concluded this was suicide.

Urfer’s death was a mysterious, scratch-your-head-and-wonder incident. Why would he kill himself? Urfer had been enthusiastically preparing for a grand celebration to be held in the Keystone. A few days before his death a newspaper announcement appeared: “Gotlieb Urfer, the genial host of a saloon, will celebrate his fiftieth birthday on Thursday, December 17th, and feels so jolly that he wants all his friends to call and partake of a lunch which he will spread.”

On Dec. 16, moments before the fatal shot was heard, he’d been preparing for the next day’s feast. Mrs. Urfer had stepped out a short time ago. With him was George Hook, who Urfer asked to run out to buy some eggs. Less than five minutes later, Urfer was lying on the floor of the Keystone in a pool of his own blood.

Not long after Urfer’s suicide, an unidentified lodger made the same choice but used a different method: suicide by swallowing poison.


John McCarron handled Urfer’s estate and took over the Keystone. That’s not all he took. Less than a year later, on Nov. 14, 1886, McCarron married Urfer’s widow.


Eight months later, another ineffable episode occurred with way too much déjà vu. On Saturday, July 9, 1887, around 2 p.m., the crack of a gun was again heard from the Keystone. Seconds later another shot. Passersby on Cortez ran in to see Ellen Dunn’s second husband on the floor “with a ghastly hole in his right temple, from which his brains and life’s blood lay fast oozing,” less than ten feet from where Urfer had shot himself a year-and-a-half before.


Oscar Vanderbilt was the first on the scene. He rushed to get medical help. Five minutes after he’d sent a bullet into his brain, McCarron took his last breath.


The note McCarron left behind was shocking, and telling, and undoubtedly explained why Urfer had killed himself. It read, “I, John McCarron, am going to commit suicide; kill my wife and then kill myself. All caused by woman’s abuse.” Apparently, McCarron intended to fulfill both promises.


A friend named McIntyre had lately been visiting McCarron, and reported that he’d recently been drinking heavily. During one conversation, a drunken McCarron spoke of his wife affectionately but followed it by pulling a pistol from his pocket and saying “it will be my doom.”


On Saturday, July 9, McIntyre overheard McCarron asking the former Mrs. Urfer if she’d like to accompany him on a buggy ride. She declined. But it was now or never for McCarron.


Shortly after McIntyre left, McCarron walked into his saloon with his revolver. The path of his first shot missed widely, passing high up on a saloon wall and then through the ceiling. The second shot blasted through McCarron’s skull.


McCarron’s death, like Urfer’s, was ruled a suicide. The oddities continued when McCarron’s body was buried next to Urfer’s in Prescott’s Citizen Cemetery. The Miner, with no attempt to camouflage sarcasm, stated that the twice widowed by suicide, the now infamous Ellen Dunn, presently had “two little mounds to keep green and to strew flowers over.”


But that wasn’t the last murder !

One would think that the Keystone Saloon on Cortez Street had accommodated enough death. Although three suicides had taken place there between 1885-87, it hadn’t yet hosted a homicide. That would change eight years later over a dispute of 75 cents.

The murdered John Miller of the Keystone Saloon is buried in Citizens’ Cemetery.

Charles Hobart had previously lived and worked at Prescott’s Scopel Hotel. He’d been arrested for robbery in February 1895 but was given leniency; all Hobart was required to do was leave town. This he did, but he returned to Prescott on Oct. 23. He found a vacant room in the lodging quarters of the Keystone and paid in advance to John Miller, its new proprietor, a total of $1, reserving four nights at 25 cents each.


During the night, the behavior of the unaccompanied Hobart turned too repugnant to describe in this column. Of course, this displeased Miller, especially after Hobart reneged the next morning on his four-night reservation and demanded a reimbursement for his unused nights. The disgusted Miller refused.


Hobart then pulled out his abbreviated Winchester rifle, pointed it at Miller, and demanded a refund. Somehow Miller escaped. He went straight to Chief of Police Steve Prince.


Prince found Hobart and immediately arrested him. That same afternoon he stood trial. Hobart was convicted for drunk-and-disorderly conduct and fined $5. He wasn’t so short of money, however, as to be in need of an extra 75 cents. He paid his fine and was released. Peculiarly, his gun was returned to him.


Hobart immediately took to the streets. Toting his Winchester, he attracted ample attention. His first stop was the Palace Saloon, where he started drinking. At some point he glanced at a clock and announced to Palace patrons it was time for the “shooting match” to take place. When asked what he meant, he bluntly stated he was going to kill John Miller before eight o’clock. Those at the Palace didn’t take him seriously.


Hobart, however, wasn’t done drinking. He headed to the Sazerac Saloon on Gurley Street. There he continued the same threats. The Sazerac’s chef, John Ross, believed they weren’t products of hot air. Ross hastened a messenger to Prince.


Hobart, however, beat the Chief of Police there. Miller walked into the Keystone with his Winchester. Miller was standing in the middle of the room between the bar and stove.


Hobart shouted, “Now Miller, you s—of—a—b I want your money or I’ll kill you,” but gave him no chance to respond. Hobart fired. The bullet struck Miller directly in the lower throat. The saloon owner collapsed to the floor, took a few desperate gasps and expired.


The gunman backed his way out and, in spite of his pronounced intoxication, skillfully mounted his horse and galloped northward on Cortez. He swung left onto Willis Street before heading south along Granite Creek and out of town.

Within 10 minutes, Sheriff George Ruffner and his posse began pursuit. They combed the countryside until midnight.


At daylight, the posse soon determined that Hobart was now on foot and heading south toward Phoenix. By Saturday, he’d turned back toward the Bradshaw Mountains, thinking he was still on the road to Phoenix.


On Sunday the trail led to a deserted house where Hobart had holed up. Ruffner asked a man he’d encountered if he’d try to goad Hobart from the house and into the open. He instantly acceded.


The man approached the house but stopped at the well in front of it. That’s all it took to get the disoriented Hobart outside.


With the Winchester he’d used to kill Miller in hand, Hobart appeared and questioned the man about where the nearby roads led. The conversation ended and the man sauntered off. Ruffner emerged from hiding and ordered Hobart to surrender. Instead, the murderer raised his rifle. Seeing this, Under Sheriff Joseph Dillon shouted from the other direction. Hobart wheeled, but Dillon beat him to the trigger. Dillon’s buckshot knocked the rifle from Hobart’s grasp and injured his right arm. The Keystone Saloon murderer surrendered. He wept when given the sentence of life in prison.


The Keystone Saloon survived another two years before closing after an attempt to transform it into, of all things, a shooting gallery.


                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012