Behind the Eight Ball Morgan Earp vs Frank Stilwell, Pete Spence & Others

midnight-rideMarch 18, 1882

It’s Saturday night and Morgan Earp wants to go out.

A one-night showing of the play Stolen Kisses is being staged at the Turnverein Hall, north of Schieffelin Hall. It has been two-and-a-half months since Virgil Earp was shot, and, after a flurry of posses, raids, charges and counter-charges over the cow-boy killings, things are once again quiet in Tombstone, Arizona.

Wyatt agrees to go out with his brother, even though the previous night, a local, Briggs Goodrich (whose lawyer brother Ben represents many cow-boys), warned Wyatt that there are “some strangers here that I think are after you.” Goodrich also had a message from one cow-boy in particular: “By the way, John Ringo wanted me to say to you, that if any fight came up between you all that he wanted you to understand that he would have nothing to do with it; that he was going to take care of himself, and everybody else could do the same.”

After the play, Morgan insists on a game of pool. Wyatt joins his younger brother as the two, along with Dan Tipton and Sherm McMasters, drop in at Campbell and Hatch’s saloon for a game.

Ten minutes before 11 p.m., Morgan walks around the pool table to line up a shot. As he leans over, a pane of glass in the back door explodes as a bullet catches Morgan in the middle of the back, goes through his body and lodges in the leg of a bystander. As Morgan falls against the table, a second shot is fired through the gaping hole. The bullet thuds against the far wall, near the ceiling, just above Wyatt’s head. As patrons dive for cover, Morgan slides off the table and collapses in a pool of blood.

Perhaps fearing another attack, Wyatt, McMasters and Tipton lift Morgan and move him about 10 feet away from the rear door, and near a door to the card room. Three doctors are summoned (Mathews, Goodfellow and Millar). After a brief consultation, they pronounce the wound mortal.

Morgan’s brother and friends then move him into the card room and place him on a lounge, as Morgan’s other brothers Virgil, James and Warren are summoned, along with Virgil’s wife Allie and James’ wife Bessie.

The Tombstone Epitaph reports, “Notwithstanding the intensity of his mortal agony, not a word of complaint escaped his lips, and all that was heard, except those whispered into the ears of his brother and known only to him were, “Don’t, I can’t stand it. This is the last game of pool I’ll every play.”

With his relatives and his most intimate friends gathered around, Morgan lives “about an hour.”

What were Morgan’s  Last Words to Wyatt?

The Tombstone Epitaph noted in the March 20, 1882, edition that before he died, Morgan whispered something into his brother Wyatt’s ear.

Several versions of what he may have said gained popularity over the years. In one, Morgan asks, “Do you know who did it?” and Wyatt responds, “Yes, and I’ll get them.” “That’s all I ask,” Morgan whispers. “But Wyatt, be careful.”

Two months after the events in Tombstone, Wyatt would say: “When they shot him he said the only thing he regretted was that he wouldn’t have a chance to get even. I told him I’d attend to it for him.”

In the last years of his life, Wyatt allegedly told this version to author Stuart Lake, “I’ve never told anyone what Morgan said to me then, not even Virgil . . . Morgan had a boyish curiosity which I never knew to be satisfied.

“Morg got me to read one of his books [reporting experiences of persons who had visions of heaven when close to death]. I told him I thought the yarns were overdrawn, but at his suggestion we promised each other that, when the time came for one of us to go, that one would try to leave for the other some actual line on the truth of the book . . . He was sensitive to the fun others might poke at such notions, so, in the last few seconds of his life, when he knew he was going, he asked me to bend close.

“I guess you were right, Wyatt,” he whispered. “I can’t see a damn thing.”

Most historians today think Lake made up the story.

Mrs. Marietta Spence Drops a Bombshell

At the murder inquest on the killing of Morgan Earp, Marietta Spence gave damning testimony against her husband of eight months: “Reside in Tombstone, and am the wife of Peter Spence; on last Saturday night, the 18th of March, was in my house on Fremont Street; for two days my husband was not home, but in Charleston, but came home about [noon on] Saturday. He came with two parties, one named Fries, a German [Frederick Bode]; I don’t know the other’s name [believed to be Florentino Cruz]. Each had a rifle…. They then entered the front room and began to converse with Frank Stilwell … there was an Indian with Stilwell called Charley [Hank Swilling]. He was armed with a pistol and carbine …. Both Charley and Stilwell were armed with pistols and carbines when they returned to the house Saturday night. The conversation between Spence and Stilwell and the others was carried on in a low tone. They appeared to be talking some secret. When they came in I got out of bed to receive them, and noticed they were excited. Why, I don’t know. Stilwell came in the house about an hour before Spence, and the other two.

On Sunday morning Spence told me to get breakfast about 6 o’clock, which I did—after we had a quarrel, during which he struck me and my mother, and during which he threatened to shoot me, when my mother told him he would have to shoot her too. His expression was, that if I said a word about something I knew about he would kill me; that he was going to Sonora and would leave my dead body behind him. Spence didn’t tell me so, but I know he killed Morgan Earp; I think he did it, because he arrived at the house all of a tremble, and both the others who came with him … Myself and mother heard the shots, and it was a little after when Stilwell and the Indian, Charley, came in … I judged they had been doing wrong from the condition, white and trembling, in which they arrived.“

Marietta also testified that four days prior to the murder, her husband had been talking to an “Indian” as Morgan Earp walked by (see map, opposite page). “Spence nudged the Indian
and said, ‘That’s him, that’s him.’ The Indian then started down the street, so as to get a good look at him.”

However, when the case against Spence and the others came up for trial on April 2, the defense successfully  blocked Marietta’s testimony, probably on grounds that wives cannot testify against their husbands. The prosecution  quietly dropped
the case.

A Midnight Ride

According to Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, Frank Stilwell was spotted in Tucson early on Sunday morning, six or seven hours after the Morgan shooting. This gave him a pretty solid alibi. Some argue that a 70-mile run on horseback is not out of the question.

A Surprising Admission

In spite of the damning accusations by Marietta Spence, Wyatt Earp never believed her husband was involved in Morgan’s murder. Late in life, he wrote to author Walter Noble Burns, “I am satisfied that Spence had nothing to do with the assassination of Morgan, although he was against us.” Wyatt believed Swilling, Stilwell and Cruz were joined by John Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius.

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

According to the Tombstone Epitaph, Morgan was shot at 10:50 on Saturday night and his body was placed in a casket and sent to Colton, California (the Earps’  home base). It was guarded “to Contention by his brothers and two or three of his most intimate friends. The funeral cortege started away from the Cosmopolitan hotel about 12:30 yesterday [Sunday, March 19].” Many writers have mistakenly assumed that Virgil and his wife accompanied Morgan’s body, but they left Tombstone the following day.

Following the killing of his favorite brother, Wyatt Earp stepped outside the law when he fatally shot Frank Stilwell at the Tucson train station, where he had left Virgil and Allie to continue their ride home to Colton. Thus began his fabled Vendetta Ride.

Pete Spence turned himself in to Sheriff Behan and was allowed to keep a pistol in his cell as protection against a possible attack by the Earps, which never came. Although acquitted in the Morgan Earp murder, Spence later served time in Yuma Territorial Prison for assault. Pardoned after serving a year, Spence, now going by the name E.L. Ferguson, married the widow of Phin Clanton.

 

Recommended: Classic Gunfights Volume II: Blaze Away! The 25 Gunfights Behind the O.K. Corral. The forthcoming book will premiere on September 30 at the Cowboy Legacy Gallery in Carefree, Arizona.

What do you think?

Bob Boze Bell

In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.