Pete Spence, also known as Peter Spencer and Elliot Larkin Ferguson, was a stage robber, suspected murderer, and Clanton “cowboy,” as well as having the dubious distinction of having been thought to have been one of the killers of Morgan Earp. Like many other gunfighters of the Old West, he also sometimes served as a lawman.
He was born in either Louisiana or Texas as Elliot Larkin Ferguson around 1852, but the first mention of him as an adult is in Texas, where he joined the Frontier Company of Texas Rangers on June 29, 1874. In this capacity, he gained the rank of a second lieutenant.
It is unknown when Ferguson left the Texas Rangers, but by 1878, he was a wanted criminal, having committed a robbery in Goliad, Texas. Afterward, he fled the Lone Star State, showing up in southern Arizona and using the name Peter M. Spencer, aka Pete Spence.
He soon became friends with the Clanton family, and like the rest of the notorious “cowboys,” he continued to ride on the other side of the law. Settling in Tombstone, Spence ironically lived directly across the street from the Earps in a house which still stands in Tombstone.
In addition to his rowdy activities with the cowboys, Spence partnered with Frank Stillwell in the Franklin Mine and other mining ventures and ran Vogan’s Saloon for a time. He eventually also owned a ranch and woodcutting camp at South Pass in the Dragoon Mountains.
In October 1880, Spence was charged with grand larceny on a charge of possessing stolen Mexican mules but was not convicted. However, this certainly placed him in the “eyes” of the law as a potential suspect for other crimes that would occur.
On September 8, 1881, the “Sandy Bob Line” of Bisbee was robbed, and both Pete Spence and Frank Stillwell became suspects. The pair were “recognized” for their distinctive voices and Stillwell’s boot prints. Made by a Bisbee cobbler, Stillwell’s boots were extraordinary, and the cobbler identified that he had made them for a recent customer – one Stillwell. The pair were arrested in Bisbee by a sheriff’s posse, including Wyatt Earp. However, lacking sufficient evidence, the pair were soon let go.
Spence and Stillwell’s friends in the Cowboy Faction were incensed at their arrest and blamed the Earps, which was just one more event leading to the increasing tensions between the two groups.
When another stage robbery near Contention City occurred on October 8, 1881, the newspapers reported that Spence and Stillwell had been arrested as suspects. In reality, the pair were brought in by authorities in conjunction with a federal charge of interfering with a mail shipment related to the earlier Bisbee robbery.
The Cowboy Faction was again angered by the arrest, especially the McLaurys, who made no bones about expressing their views. Neither Spence nor Stillwell would be convicted of the federal charges and both were released.
After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, revenge was sought by the Clanton Gang. When Morgan Earp was killed on March 18, 1882, both Spence and Stillwell were formally named as suspects in the murder. The two were implicated by Spence’s unhappy wife, Marietta Duarte, at the coroner’s inquest. Though she testified to the suspicious activities of Spence and his friends on the night of Morgan’s murder, the attempted indictment of Spence was eventually dropped, probably on the basis of the fact that spouses could not testify against each other. But, this obviously didn’t satisfy the Earps, as they killed Frank Stillwell on March 20, 1882.
Wyatt then went on what became known as the Earp Vendetta Ride, along with brother Warren, Doc Holliday, and several other friends. Hearing of the revenge objective of the Earps, Spence soon turned himself in so that he could be protected. However, the Earp faction was unaware of this. On March 22nd, the Earps rode to Pete Spence’s ranch, looking for him. However, with Spence behind bars, they found instead Florentino “Indian Charlie” Cruz, who, according to a later account by Wyatt, confessed to acting as a lookout while the others killed Morgan. Wyatt shot him.
The Earps continued their Vendetta Ride, allegedly killing Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, and Johnny Barnes, as well as driving Ike Clanton, Pony Deal, Hank Swilling, and others out of the way before the Earp “posse” finally left the territory.
Pete Spence moved on and by June 1893 was working as a deputy sheriff and constable of Georgetown, New Mexico. While in office, he pistol-whipped to death a man named Rodney O’Hara and was charged with manslaughter. He was sentenced to a five-year term in the Yuma, Arizona Territorial Penitentiary and began his prison term on June 10, 1893. Some 18 months later, however, he was granted a pardon by the territorial governor.
Later, Spence settled in Globe, Arizona, where he ran a goat ranch with his old friend, Phin Clanton, south of town in the Galiuro Mountains. He also supervised burro trains that were used to bring supplies into the Globe area. Phin Clanton died in 1906, but Spence remained friends with his wife. On April 2, 1910, using his real name of Elliot Larkin Ferguson, Pete married Phin’s widow.
Pete Spence died in 1914 and is buried in the Globe, Arizona cemetery, in the plot next to Phin Clanton.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.
Complete List of Old West Gunfighters
Tombstone – The Town Too Tough to Die