John Wesley Heath was born on December 15, 1844, in Ohio but moved to Terrell, Texas with his family at a young age. There, he got involved in rustling and robbery. He also married twice, first to Mary Ann Redman in October 1867. What became of her is unknown. He married again in March 1869 and was known to have had three children – Myrtle, Kittie, and John.
However, by the early 1880’s he was living in Arizona, where he served as a deputy sheriff in Cochise County for a brief time. He soon found that the pay was not nearly as good as thievery, resigned and went back to his outlaw ways.
On December 8, 1883, five men held up the Goldwater and Castenada Store in Bisbee, leaving behind four people dead, including a pregnant woman. The vicious robbers included Daniel “Big Dan” Dowd, Comer W. “Red” Sample, Daniel “York” Kelly, William “Billy” Delaney and James “Tex” Howard.
Having heard that a $7,000 payroll for the Copper Queen Mine was held for safekeeping in the store, two of the men charged inside demanding the money, while the other three waited outside. However, to their disappointment, they discovered that the payroll had not yet arrived. Angered, they took what money was in the safe (reports vary from $900 to $3,000) and robbed the staff and customers of any valuables.
In the meantime, the three outlaws waiting outside began a shooting spree, first aiming through the window and killing a customer named J.C. Tappenier. Hearing the shot, Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith came running and was immediately shot down by the bandits. A bullet gone wild entered a boarding house, killing a pregnant Annie Roberts. Another shot hit a man named J.A. Nolly as he stood outside his office. Yet another unknown man took a bullet in the leg as he was trying to run away from the shooting spree.
The whole affair lasted less than five minutes and with cash in hand and seemingly unperturbed, the outlaws left the town at a leisurely pace, evidently unworried about capture.
The town leaders wasted no time notifying Sheriff J.L. Ward in Tombstone by telegraph. Ward formed two posses, with himself leading one, and Deputy Sheriff William Daniels, leading another. When Daniels arrived in Bisbee he began to question its citizens, including John Heath, whose saloon was just down the street from the Goldwater-Castaneda Mercantile. Heath told Daniels that he knew the men involved and could probably help lead them to the outlaws. Though Daniels was apprehensive of Heath, due to his already having a reputation as an unsavory character, he also hoped to quickly apprehend the murderers. With Heath at the lead, the posse found nothing and soon accused Heath of leading them on a false trail.
Heath returned to his saloon and the posse continued to search for the outlaws. Though it took several weeks, all five were found, two in Mexico, one in New Mexico, and the other two in Clifton, Arizona.
When questioned, some of the outlaws began to indicate that John Heath knew more about the crime than he should have. Authorities brought Heath in and began to question him. Under pressure, Heath “fessed” up to having prior knowledge of the crime and many believed that he probably masterminded the whole affair.
All were scheduled to be tried, but Heath requested a separate trial and was given it. Furious Bisbee citizens awaited the outcome of the outlaws involved in what had become known as the “Bisbee Massacre.” On February 17th, the trial began for the five killers and two days later they were all sentenced to be hanged on March 8, 1884.
Heath’s trial began on February 20th, where he admitted to being the mastermind of the robbery, indicating that the others lacked the intelligence. However, he adamantly insisted that the killings were never a part of the plan and that he was in no way responsible for the actions of the other five men. A coward at heart, he even admitted that when he heard the shots being fired, he hid behind the bar of his own saloon. The next day, Heath was convicted of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit robbery, and sentenced to life in the Yuma prison.
Though Heath was obviously relieved, the citizens of Bisbee were furious and determined to do something about it. Early on the morning of February 22nd, a mob of some 50 men, led by Mike Shaughnessy, descended upon the Tombstone jail and dragged Heath from his cell into the dusty street.
At the corner of First and Toughnut Streets, they looped a rope over the crossbeam of a telegraph pole, as Heath continually claimed his innocence. The vigilantes were not listening. In his last moments, he said: “I have faced death too many times to be disturbed when it actually comes.” As the rope began to pull him skyward, he cried out one last request, “Don’t mutilate my body or shoot me full of holes!” Public approval of the hanging was reflected in the verdict of the coroner’s jury: “We the undersigned, a jury of inquest, find that John Heath came to his death from emphysema of the lungs–a disease common in high altitudes–which might have been caused by strangulation, self-inflicted or otherwise.”
The other five killers’ scheduled hanging for March 8th remained unchanged, taking on a carnival-like atmosphere. Free tickets were issued for the event, but when Sheriff Ward ran out of them, an enterprising businessman built bleachers around the gallows and began selling yet more tickets.
However, famous businesswoman, gold prospector, and spiritual caretaker, Nellie Cashman, objected adamantly to the circus that was surrounding the event. Outraged at the citizens’ behavior and feeling that no death should be “celebrated,” she soon befriended the five convicts, visiting them often and providing them with spiritual guidance. She pleaded with Sheriff Ward to place a curfew on the town during the time that the hangings were to take place. Ward conceded and the vast majority of interested onlookers were not allowed to watch the “event.” In the meantime, she and some friends had destroyed the bleachers that had been built. When the five men were standing on the gallows, reportedly Dan Dowd remarked that the multi-gallows were a “regular choking machine.” Unfortunately, he was right, because of the five men, only one died of a broken neck, the other four dying slowly of strangulation.
After they were executed, the men were buried in Tombstone’s Boot Hill cemetery. Cashman also found out that there was a plan to rob the bodies from their graves for a medical school study. This too outraged the woman and she hired two prospectors to guard the graves for ten days, which were left undisturbed and remain at Boot Hill today.
Though there is a marked grave today in Tombstone’s Boot Hill for John Heath, records actually indicate that he was returned to Terrell, Texas and buried in the Oakland Cemetery by his family in an unmarked grave.
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