Climax Jim was the darling of the Arizona press during the late 1890s. He rose to fame thanks to the fertile imaginations of the old-timers who knew him and the newspaper reporters who embellished and enlivened the activities of this likable street-wise kid from the East Coast who had matured into a notorious escapologist, rustler and rascal. The outlaw’s suggestive sobriquet also made him something of a public curiosity.
His colorful confrontations with the law weren’t exactly the stuff of legends, but they kept readers thoroughly entertained.
His real name was Rufus Nephew, and, contrary to what some readers might be thinking, he picked up the nickname Climax Jim because his favorite chew was the popular Climax Chewing Tobacco.
His reputation for using a chaw resourcefully reached new heights after he was arrested for altering a check and trying to cash it. When his 1907 trial came up, the check was placed on a table in the courtroom as Exhibit A for the prosecution. During the trial, his lawyer got into a nose-to-nose argument with the prosecutor. Climax Jim, with a chaw of tobacco creating a round bulge in his cheek, ambled over to the table and stuffed the check into his mouth.
The judge finally restored order and directed the prosecutor to present Exhibit A. When the prosecutor reached for his primary evidence, it was nowhere to be found. A few feet away, Climax Jim sat in his chair, chewing his cud with an air of innocence that would have done a choir boy proud.
The case was dismissed for lack of evidence. As he was leaving, Climax Jim, with all the aplomb of a muleskinner, spit Exhibit A into the judge’s personal spittoon.
On an earlier occasion, Climax Jim was indicted for stealing cows in Graham County in 1899. When that trial came up, the outlaw produced witnesses who swore the crime had been committed in Apache County. He was acquitted and immediately arrested in Apache County for stealing the same cattle. He produced witnesses who swore the crime had been committed in Graham County, and he was acquitted again.
Cattle rustling was actually how he first attracted the attention of the law. Climax Jim had been only 17 when he was arrested for the first time, in 1894, after he sold a dozen stolen steers to a slaughterhouse in Winslow.
Lawmen learned their first lesson that capturing him was a lot easier than keeping him in jail. That night, using a pocketknife, Climax Jim tunneled his way out of the adobe building and said “adios” to Winslow.
A few months later, on July 4, he celebrated the holiday by stealing a horse in Gila County. County Sheriff John “Rim Rock” Thompson caught up with him in Pleasant Valley and headed for Globe with his prisoner. They camped along the way, and Thompson chained his prisoner to a post. During the night, Climax Jim busted a link and fled on foot. After a long chase, he was captured a few miles south of Globe and hauled into jail.
A couple of months passed, and then he escaped again. He had used a spoon to dig through the mortar and remove enough bricks so he could crawl through the hole, an act that inspired Globe residents to dub him the “Spoon Kid.”
Climax Jim then stole a horse in Globe and headed south. Near the 1870s mining town of Mammoth, his horse played out and he stole another before he was captured outside of Benson. This time, the nearly 18-year-old rustler was sent to the territorial prison in Yuma to serve a one-year sentence.
Years later, Climax Jim would boast he had escaped from every jail in the territory except Yuma’s notorious “Hell Hole.”
Arizona’s press backed up his claim. One newspaper reported, “Climax Jim is easily the most slippery jail bird in the Southwest.” Another proclaimed, “It is an old saying that the third time is the charm but Climax has been arrested and tried about forty-seven times and he has always succeeded in getting in the clear.”
Climax Jim had garnered quite a reputation as a lock picker. After being locked in a cell, he would tell the sheriff that he planned to bust out before morning; sure enough, he would be gone. One time, he picked the lock, sat in the sheriff’s chair and flashed a big grin at the lawman when he showed up for work the next morning.
The outlaw got a chance to demonstrate his skill as a safe cracker when a Clifton storekeeper ordered a burglar-proof safe. Climax Jim was at the depot when the safe arrived in January 1902. He started playing with the dial and, to the delight of a group of curious onlookers, in less than 30 minutes, ta-dum, he opened the door.
Upon leaving the territorial prison in Yuma, Climax Jim returned to the wild Black River outlaw sanctuary to resume his career as a rustler. Whether he rode with any other outlaw gangs that frequented that country is a matter of speculation. Even though the evidence suggests otherwise, Climax Jim always insisted his was a one-man operation.
In June 1898, he was allegedly captured again for rustling. Hash Knife Ranch superintendent Burt Mossman took the bandit to the Apache County seat in St. Johns. In 1901, Mossman would become the first captain of the Arizona Rangers, a group mainly organized to thwart the gangs of rustlers.
During the night, Climax Jim sprang the lock and escaped.
In 1902, he alluded to reporter George H. Smalley that he had been part of the Red Pipkin Gang in 1898, when the bandits had attempted to rob two trains and succeeded in another in New Mexico.
His forte, however, was stealing cows and getting caught. Climax Jim celebrated New Year’s Day in 1899 facing yet another indictment for brand burning, this time in Graham County. He celebrated Washington’s Birthday by escaping from the well-guarded jail with three others. After a few days of wandering afoot, the four men were captured along Eagle Creek and returned to jail.
On the morning of March 6, Graham County Sheriff Ben Clark fitted Climax Jim with a new pair of leg shackles riveted shut by the local blacksmith. Two days later, the jailer saw Climax Jim had broken the shackles. But before the blacksmith could arrive to make repairs, Climax Jim had scaled the adobe walls and was running for freedom, only to be caught a few minutes later. His fame as an escape artist was spreading far and wide.
Climax Jim’s trial date was set for the fall term. Some friends posted his bond, and he was temporarily freed.
The outlaw didn’t waste any time going back to his old ways. While out riding in May, he spied a small bunch of cattle belonging to the Chiricahua Cattle Company. With none of the cattle company’s cowhands in sight, Climax Jim felt he would be acting like a good neighbor if he drove the herd along a ways until he found the owner or a roundup to turn the cows over to their proper owners. When he did not come across anyone, he kept herding them to New Mexico. Thus, the Star-Bar-Circle Cattle Company was born. He was president, board of directors, superintendent, range boss, wrangler and roundup cook, all rolled into one.
Meanwhile, the range boss of the Chiricahua Cattle Company followed the trail of his missing band of cows. He notified the sheriff of Apache County to intercept the usual suspect, Climax Jim. Found in the vicinity of Springerville, Climax Jim was arrested and taken to the local jail.
What happened next has been reported in a couple of different accounts. One has it that, on the night of July 7, 1899, Climax Jim escaped from his leg shackles, removed his clothes and waited for the jailers to enter his cell and adjust the leg irons. Then he threw his clothes in the turnkey’s face and, after a brief struggle with the other, made his escape on foot.
My favorite version of his escape states that, while awaiting Climax Jim’s arraignment, officers decided he needed a bath. They armed him with a large brush and a bar of soap, and then pointed him toward a nearby horse trough. He was about to climb in when he spied a good-looking horse tied to a hitching post.
In a flash (no pun intended), the naked outlaw mounted up. In a scene reminiscent of Lady Godiva’s storied horseback ride through England’s Coventry, he galloped out of Springerville and Eagar, making his escape into the mountains.
When the legendary Lady Godiva had ridden through town nude, none dared look at her because of her beauty. Climax Jim outdid her by riding through two towns in his birthday suit; none dared look at him either, probably because he looked so doggone ugly.
Climax Jim died with his boots on, but not by the gun, as was the fate of so many of his ilk. He had given up his outlaw ways and taken an honest job digging wells in San Diego, California. He met his untimely end in 1921 after falling to his death when the scaffold he was on collapsed.
Rustling cows just might have been the safer occupation.
Marshall Trimble is the Official Arizona State Historian and the author of numerous Arizona history books. For further reading on Climax Jim, he recommends Climax Jim: The Tumultuous Tale of Arizona’s Rustling Cowboy, by Karen Holliday Tanner and John D. Tanner.