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THE BENSON STAGE DEBACLE
by Joyce Aros
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   The story has been told and retold. In fact, one could not relate the build-up to the gunfight on Fremont Street without including the account about the Benson stage robbery attempt and the shooting of Bud Philpot. It is one of the major peripheral factors in the events of October 26, 1881.

   As it turns out, it may be even more important than that! It has been one of the enduring mysteries of old Tombstone... did Doc Holliday really have anything to do with that attempted robbery and did he actually shoot Bud Philpot?

   For me the story was a paradox. On the one hand, though I believed Doc Holliday to be capable of almost anything to do with money, I really had a hard time seeing him as a highwayman. After all, wasn't he a smartly dressed urban man who loved the atmosphere of saloons, cigar smoke and playing cards? Yes, indeed, so what would entice him to be out on a dusty desert road with a bunch of rough cowboy types holding up a stage? It just didn't fit my image.

   But then there was the other side of the coin. Kate Elder, his common-law wife. Now, Kate and Doc had a very volatile relationship as was well known at the time. There is some indication that it occasionally came to blows. And these kinds of fights often result in a temporary loss of loyalty by one party or the other. Perhaps this happened in Kate's case, for she did indeed turn on Doc in a way she had not done before. She accused him of murder!

   But let me give you the background knowledge you need to understand this whole story. On March 15th, 1881, the Sandy Bob stage out from Tombstone and on its way to Benson was robbed. Actually, it was an attempted robbery. The driver, Bud Philpot, was in reality to be the shotgun messenger at the time, and Bob Paul was to have been the driver. But at some point and for some reason, they changed positions, perhaps to give the driver a chance to warm his hands, as March can be chilly in this desert. As the stage slowed for a small incline in the road, a masked bandit appeared in the path of the coach and demanded that the driver pull up. Bob Paul immediately raised his shotgun to resist the attempt, but the gunman fired first, killing Philpot. The startled horses bolted and the highwaymen took off, losing out on the desired Wells Fargo booty of twenty-six thousand dollars in pure silver. I cannot tell you how much that would be in today's money, but the general consensus seems to be to multiply by ten.

   The driver was able to get the team under control and drove it into Benson where he quickly sent a telegram to Tombstone with the necessary information regarding the attempted hold-up and the subsequent murders of Philpot and Peter Roerig, the hapless passenger who had been shot at as the horses sped away. A large posse was gathered and took off after the robbers in a cloud of dust and excitement. This would seem to be some time after ten o'clock at night when the news arrived and was probably closer to midnight by the time men and horses were choking the road with heel dust. There were two posses, one led by Virgil Earp. With him were Wyatt, Morgan, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and Marshall Williams. A formidable bunch to be sure. The other group was led by Johnny Behan and did not include such notable names.

   Jim Crane, Harry Head, and Billy Leonard were accused of the crime but were never located. One man who was with them, Luther King, was found and brought back to the sheriff's jail, but miraculously escaped shortly thereafter and was never heard from again.

   I am not going to ramble on with the continuing details of posse accounts and resulting disappointments for all. The case was never really solved. The outlaws that were believed to be involved met various violent ends in a short time. All except one. It seems there was another man with Leonard, Head and Crane. We are not talking about the in and out escapee. He just held the horses and seemed to have little stomach for the rough stuff; but there was someone else who disappeared into the night right after the attempted hold-up.

   At this point I am going to quote an item from a Tucson newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star, dated March 26th, 1882. The article is titled "The Vendetti," and was written after the so-called vendetta ride of the Earp gang after the brothers were attacked. The news piece attempts to review the events leading up to and after the Fremont Street murders.

"...The trouble between the Earps and the Clanton and McLowry boys grew out of the robbery of the Benson stage. On March 15th1881, the stage with Wells, Fargo & Co.'s express left Tombstone for Benson with a large treasure, 'Bud' Philpot driving and Bob Paul as Wells, Fargo & Co.'s messenger. The coach left at 6:00pm and at 7:30pm, while only 200 yards out from the first station, the order to halt was given. Simultaneously with it two shots were fired, one of which killed the driver and the other perforated the cushion upon which Paul was setting. The driver fell off, carrying the lines with him, and the horses ran away. Paul emptied his gun, returning shot for shot, but without effect. The horses kept running, and the robbers kept shooting, and in all fired some twenty shots at the retreating stage with its load of ten passengers. They succeeded in killing one man who was on top. Paul managed to stop the team, gathered up the lines and drove rapidly to Benson, where he telegraphed the news to Tombstone. Immediately all was excitement. Agent Williams of Wells, Fargo & Co. and the Earp brothers were rushing around, preparing to hunt the robbers. At 8:30 that same evening Doc Holliday rode up to a saloon in Charleston, ten miles from the scene of the attempted robbery and inquired of Billy Clanton. On being told that he was not there, started in the direction of Tombstone, which was nine miles distant, and about 10:00 o'clock rode up to a saloon on a back street in Tombstone and called for a big drink of whiskey, which he drank at a gulp, without dismounting. His horse at the time was covered with foam. This all happened before the news of the murder reached Tombstone. At midnight the agent and the Earp brothers, with Holliday, left town to meet Paul. It was too dark to follow a trail when they arrived on the ground, so they camped until morning. They found three masks made of hay rope and about twenty large-size rifle cartridges. They then took the trail and followed it for about three weeks without catching any one but a supposed accomplice, and he was assisted by some unknown person to escape from the custody of the sheriff while consulting with his lawyer...."

   So now you have been over the account twice and it sounds like a pretty routine stick-'em-up for the time period. But wait... it gets better.

   Let's take the notorious Ike Clanton and try to flesh him out a bit. He is always spoken of as that miserable loud-mouthed coward that got his kid brother killed and then ran away, groveling somewhere under somebody's back stoop. The movies show him off even worse, almost licking Wyatt Earp's boots as he begs for his life. Wow! If that were really so, I don't think Ike Clanton could have spent another 24 hour period in the whole of Cochise county. Cowards were not suffered gracefully by the cowboy crowd and Ike's existence would have been too miserable to bear. Actually, reminiscing old timers around Charleston recall that it was Billy Claiborne and Johnny Behan that were censured by the folks around for not helping the McLaurys and Billy Clanton. There was no bad feeling about Ike Clanton. There has got to be more to the story.

    To quote the succeeding paragraph... "The news of Holliday's ride becoming known, coupled with the facts that he was seen mounted and armed in the early part of the afternoon, ostensibly to go to Mexico, caused many surmises, and not a few made the remark that the 'robbers were hunting themselves.' Before the return of the agent's posse it became known that Billy Leonard, Jim Crane and Harry Head were interested in the murder, and it was their trail that Paul was following. Wells, Fargo & Co. offered a large reward for them, but it was of no use...."

   Our interest in these lengthy quotes is in regard to John Henry Holliday and his late night ride to... Mexico?... then Charleston... then to a back street saloon in Tombstone... and then to join the midnight ride of the posses. If we go back to the middle of the account, we see that about 8:30 pm, an hour after the attempted hold-up and only nine miles away, Doc Holliday turns up in a saloon in Charleston, of all places, when he has been reported to be on his way to Mexico for an extended period of time. In Charleston he is asking for Billy Clanton! He has never met the nineteen year old cowboy and logically, should have no interest in him whatsoever, yet here he is well off his supposed path to Mexico to seek this very person. Why? What reason could he have to make such an effort?

   Possibly the answer might be found in the correspondence of Will McLaury, the older brother of Frank and Tom McLaury. Will had come to Tombstone just a few days after he received word of the deaths of his two brothers. The older McLaury was a lawyer and joined the prosecution team at the Hearing proceedings against the Earps and Doc Holliday regarding the gunfight known as the O.K. Corral showdown. He wrote to his brother-in-law, D.D. Applegate in Toledo, Ohio, a letter wherein he describes what he understands to be the cause of the gunfight. I'll quote the pertinent portion ... "The cause of it was this; some time ago, Holliday, one of the murderers, attempted to rob the express of Wells-Fargo & Co. and in so doing killed a stage driver and a passenger and the other parties involved with him the Earp brothers were interested in the attempted express robbery and young Clanton, who was killed, a boy 18 years old, knew the facts about the attempted robbery and had told his brother, J.I. Clanton, Thos. and Robt. And they had got up facts intending to prosecute him Holliday and the Earp brothers and Holliday had information of it. It is now known that the other two men who knew of the murder in the attempted robbery have since then been killed in Mexico, the report was by 'greasers' but at the time they were killed, Holliday was out of town 'said to be visiting relatives in Georgia.'"

CONTINUED>

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