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. They included members of the John Kinney-Jesse Evans gang. Both Martin and Curly Bill were suspected of committed some crimes with the Kinney-Evans gang in New Mexico.
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. 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.
Both Martin and Curly Bill were convicted and sentenced to five years. In the meantime Kinney and Jesse Evans had gone north to take part in the Lincoln County War so the two inept hold-up men weren’t with Kinney and Evans in the Lincoln County War.
They made one attempt to escape and were quickly apprehended. 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.
Like many notorious Wild West figures, Curly Bill had an inflated reputation as a gunslinger. However, the outlaws of Cochise County were a tough breed and the fact that Curly Bill was a leader says something about respect. He hung out in Galeyville, a small community occupied mostly by desperadoes, on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains, where he was known as the “Outlaw King of Galeyville.”
For further reading I recommend Curly Bill by Steve Gatto.