From Cobh to Boot Hill – the Bisbee Massacre’s Irish Bandit

As Dan ‘Yorkie’ Kelly stood on the scaffold in the Wild West town of Tombstone in March of 1884, his thoughts must have strayed back to Queenstown (now Cobh), in Cork, from where he had set sail just three years earlier to make his fortune in America.

But the closest 24-year-old Dan had come to achieving the wealth he’d dreamed of was at the point of a gun, and that hadn’t worked out too well given that he now stood with the hangman’s noose around his neck for jewellery.

‘Let her loose,’ he told his executioner before the trap door lever was pulled and Dan Kelly took the long drop to eternity.

The Tombstone Epitaph’s headline of March 29, 1884, ran: Five Murderers Suspended from One Beam at Tombstone Arizona

The five were Kelly, O.W. Sample, Dan Dowd, James Delany and James Howard. As the Epitaph’s reporter records: ‘The five bandits marched up the steps of the scaffold without flinching, and all declared their innocence… They bade their friends goodbye. They expressed faith in the Christian religion, and requested that their bodies be delivered to Father Gallagher… The murderers were all dropped off together, and, with the exception of Dowd, died without a struggle.’

More than a thousand people turned up to witness the executions, and viewing spots were at a premium when Kelly and his partners in crime were hanged at a quarter-past-one in the afternoon.

As the Epitaph states: A large balcony had been erected outside of and overlooking the jail yard, the builder intending to charge a dollar and a half admission. The mob became indignant and tore the balcony down. In the row which followed seven persons were injured. One man had his leg broken and another his arm. The balcony would have seated five hundred persons. With this exception, everything passed off quietly.

Not even in death were Kelly and his fellow bandits afforded any dignity as the town rioted around their dangling corpses.

But lest some smidgen of sympathy grow in any hearts it’s worth noting what it was that had resulted in Kelly being up there in the first place.

To know that one has to go back a few months, to December 8, 1883, when he and four accomplices managed to turn the nearby town of Bisbee into a shooting gallery that left five dead and eight wounded.

The Letson Loft Hotel (Letson Loft Block) was built in 1883 and is located on 26 Main Street, Bisbee, Az. It was originally known as the Goldwater-Castaneda Mercantile Store. Credit:

Nestled in the Mule Mountains, in Arizona, the town of Bisbee had its origins just three years earlier when, one summer day in 1877, Army Scout Jack Dunn was filling the canteens of his fellow soldiers at two huge pieces of granite, known as Castle Rock, when he discovered copper ore and recorded the first mining claim.

Prospectors explored the area and soon more claims were filed as numerous lodes of ore were found, turning Bisbee into the ‘Queen of the Copper Camps’. There was some gold and silver discovered too, so it’s easy to see why Kelly and his cronies were drawn to the town.

Bisbee had no bank, but it did have Goldwater and Castaneda Mercantile, a general store that held a safe into which the payroll for the local Copper Queen Mine was regularly deposited.And so, on December 8, with most peoples’ minds preoccupied with the lead up to Christmas, five men rode into town and dismounted at a quiet area, and headed to the general store.

Three went inside, while the other two, armed with Winchester rifles, guarded the entrance. While the robbers ordered the bookkeeper to open the safe the two outside warned onlookers to keep back or they would be killed.

Inside, the raiders were shocked to discover only $800 in the safe, not the $7,000 (the equivalent of $187,000 today) they had expected – the fact was they had arrived too early; the miners payroll had yet to arrive at the store.

It was around about this point that things really started to unravel. Outside, one town citizen, JC Tappenier attempted to confront the two robbers and was summarily gunned down. Across the street, in a local restaurant, Sheriff Tom Smith heard the gunfire and ran out to investigate, only to be shot.

Then an eight-month-pregnant Anne Roberts, who ran the restaurant, went to the door to see what was happening and was also hit by a bullet. Neither she nor her unborn child survived.

Next to fall was John Nolly, who unwittingly drove his wagon in the maelstrom of lead. As he tried to hide beneath his wagon, he too was fatally shot.

Others were wounded by the indiscriminate gunfire from the fleeing robbers as they raced from the bank and mounted their horses.

How Dan Kelly managed to get himself involved with this blood-thirsty band in what became known as the Bisbee Massacre is not entirely known. What is known is that after arriving in New York, he decided to head west in search of adventure, which he found in spades after falling in with some cowboy outlaws while he was living in Clifton, Arizona.

David Grasseé’s book on The Bisbee Massacre

Historian David Grassé recounts this whole bloody episode of the Wild West in The Bisbee Massacre: Robbery, Murder and Retribution in the Arizona Territory, 1883–1884.

He notes that Kelly was one of the three robbers who entered the store. Unfortunately for him, while in the process of holding up the place, his mask slipped and his identity was revealed.

The Tombstone Epitaph records the subsequent capture of the gang:  A number of people were soon in pursuit of the desperadoes… The highwaymen made their escape, carrying with them about $1200.00. A reward of $2000.00 was offered for the arrest and conviction of the persons implicated in the crimes. As the desperadoes, with one exception, all wore masks, it was at first difficult to trace them. Clues soon developed that led to the arrest of six men. These were Daniel Dowd, James “alias “Tex” Delaney, Oscar W. Sample alias “Red”, Daniel Kelly, James Howard, and John Heith (stet).

That last-named man proved to be the mastermind behind the heist. In fact, John Heath, a local brothel keeper, was even brazen enough to join in the posse and attempt to lead them in the wrong direction as they pursued the gang.

Howard was the first to be captured, mainly because he was the only one who hadn’t bothered to wear a mask (even back then they had anti-maskers). Next up was Heath whose behaviour with the posse attracted suspicion, and also because he was spotted associating with the gang the night before the robbery.

The grave marker for Dan Kelly and his cronies in Boot Hill Cemetery, Tombstone

Kelly was caught posing as a hobo on a train in New Mexico. Two of the others were caught in saloons, while Dowd was tracked to Mexico itself and was secretly spirited back across the border to stand trial in the US, much to the subsequent chagrin of the Mexican government. All were hauled back to Tombstone in chains to stand trial.

All were sentenced to hang, apart from Heath, who got life. But life for John Heath didn’t last very long because a mob, clearly unhappy with the verdict, decided to settle things themselves by dragging him from his cell and lynching him on a telegraph pole located, appropriately enough, at the corner of First and Toughnut Streets.

Grassé recounts how the Tucson Weekly Citizen described the execution of the perpetrators as a ‘hanging bee” that would “prove to the world that there are law-abiding people here [and one that would] “convince people in the East that life and property are safe in the Territory’.

The Bisbee Massacre was big news. In the days ahead of his execution, Dan Kelly was interviewed by a reporter, and told him confidently: ‘I will walk upright to the gallows’.

Fine words. It’s just a pity he couldn’t have been so upright with the rest of his life.

On this date 138 years ago, Daniel Kelly and his gang of desperadoes perpetrated one of the most notorious robberies in Wild West history.

For this, they paid the ultimate price, but so, too, did five innocent victims – one of whom had their life snuffed out before even being born.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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