1st SHERIFF OF COCHISE COUNTY
TOMBSTONE, ARIZONA TERRITORY
The following is a profile of Sheriff
John H. Behan and a summary of events in and around Tombstone, Arizona
in the late 1870's and early 1880's. The town of Tombstone came into
existence when a miner by the name of Ed Shieffelin discovered gold
and silver at the Lucky Cuss Mine nearby. With news of his strike, the
whole region began to grow quickly. At the time the first ore was taken
from the mine in 1878, there were no permanent residents. By 1880 there
were 2,385 town lots and pressure on the city council to create more.
With the new boom came the promise of
quick fortune and this drew many opportunists to the area. Miners,
shopkeepers, rustlers, prostitutes and gamblers soon filled the streets
and saloons of Tombstone to create one of the most notorious towns and
infamous periods in American Frontier history.
Johnny Behan and Wyatt Earp were both
drawn to the opportunities available in Tombstone at this time. Wyatt
came with his brothers Virgil, Morgan, Baxter and James. Both Behan
and Wyatt had backgrounds in law enforcement and politics. Behan had
served with the California Column during the Civil War. He had been
Sheriff of Yavapai County in northern Arizona as well as the State Legislator
from that area. Earp had also been a lawman in Wichita and Dodge City,
Kansas. He had become known across the West for subduing the rowdy cattle
drovers in those towns. He was also known to have skirted the law in
Kansas and Texas and to be ruthless and fearless, both qualities that
would again become apparent during his stay in Tombstone.
These two now legendary men came to
Tombstone destined to confront each other at every turn. Their personal
and political ambitions were much the same. Their battle of wills was
at the core of all the trouble that was to follow. Wyatt Earp and John
Behan were to become mortal enemies.
Cochise County was created from part
of Pima County in January of 1881. Territorial Governor John Fremont
initiated the first regular elections soon thereafter. Both Behan and
Earp ran for election to become the first Sheriff ever of the newly
formed Cochise County. Both hoped to further their political and personal
aspirations through their role as Sheriff. Earp is said to have wanted
the position badly. But Behan had political allies in the area having
already been in the legislature. His affiliation with the Democratic
Party in Arizona turned the tables on Earp. As much of Tombstone was
Democratic, Fremont appointed Behan as County Sheriff basically bypassing
the election process.
Behan proceeded to encourage the
lawlessness that had overtaken the town while keeping up a clever facade
of fulfilling his obligations as sheriff. The residents quickly recognized
the problem and began to split into two camps, one supporting Behan,
the other, in the hopes of bringing some law and order to the region,
supporting the Earp Brothers. The Tombstone newspaper Epitaph, Republican
in its affiliations, charged in 1881 that "There is all together too
much good feeling between the Sheriff's Office and the outlaws infesting
The corruption of Sheriff Behan helped
to encourage the local criminal elements. Rustlers, thieves and shootists
were commonly referred to here as “cowboys.” The most famous of these
were the Clanton and the McLaury families assisted by the deadly Johnny
Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius. These gangs were active rustlers bringing
hundreds of cattle across the border with Mexico. They also robbed trains,
stages and frequently disrupted shipments from the nearby mine. Most
of the locals were law abiding and saw in the Earps the possibility
of bringing this lawlessness to an end.
These issues of law and its enforcement
caused an undeniable friction between the Earps and Behan. But maybe
most important was the bitterness they felt concerning pretty young
Josephine Sarah Marcus. Josephine had emigrated to Tombstone from San
Francisco with Behan and set up living arrangements with him. She used
his last name although they were never married. Dissatisfied with Behan
and his philandering, Josie fell in love with Wyatt Earp and they lived
together sporadically in the cottage Behan had rented for Josie. They
were destined to spend the rest of their lives together.
Behan is an important and pivotal
historical figure in this saga. He, like many law officers of the time,
walked a fine line between enforcing the law and overlooking it. Behan
is known to have had a direct role in the battle between the Earps and
the cowboys which culminated in the OK Corral shootout. Many historians
feel that Behan orchestrated the gunfight though he was never charged
with any wrongdoing. Shortly before the gunbattle Behan was seen talking
at length to the McLaury brothers and the Clantons. As the Earps approached
the OK Corral, Behan told Virgil, “I am going down to arrest and disarm
the cowboys.” Behan did neither. He had no intention of doing anything
to prevent the oncoming battle and hoped to benefit substantially from
Even if Behan had attempted to intervene
it is doubtful that he could have stopped the gunfight. As the Earps
walked down the main street of Tombstone, Cochise County Sheriff John
Behan knew that the fight was inevitable and hoped that the Earps would
be bested and out of his life forever. Behan was present at the OK gunfight.
He even stood momentarily between the two warring parties as they lined
up against each other. But, after that moment, he moved to the safety
of C. S. Fly's Rooming House nearby to watch the action.
After all 3 Earp brothers and Doc
Holliday survived the OK shootout, Behan continued his efforts to end
their influence in Tombstone. Behan received a warrant to arrest Wyatt
and the others and did assemble a posse. He soon returned to Tombstone
though fearing opposition from Earp supporters. In the mid-winter of
1882 Morgan Earp had a fistfight with Sheriff Behan on the porch of
Josephine's cottage. Evidently Behan had tried to remove her from the
house and Morgan had been conveniently nearby to intervene. Behan left
battered but not beaten. Soon after, Morgan Earp lay dead on the floor
of Cambell and Hatch's Saloon, shot in the back. Holliday publicly charged
Behan with planning the murder of Morgan Earp.
Frank Stillwell, a local member of the
cowboy's gang, was assumed to have executed Morgan. Wyatt promptly ended
Stillwell's life in Tucson. Behan was never solidly implicated in the
plot. In the end, Morgan's murder was not the only revenge Behan was
able to exact. Virgil Earp had lost much of the use of his left arm
from wounds received in an ambush Dec. 28, 1881 . As a result of this and
other pressures, Virgil lost his position as City Marshal of Tombstone.
Wyatt and Holliday were forced to leave Arizona as warrants for their
arrests were outstanding there. They both eventually went to Colorado
where Governor Frederick Pitkin refused to extradite them back to Arizona
citing legal inaccuracies in the paperwork.
Behan worked aggressively to bring the
Earps and Holliday back to Tombstone to stand trial but was unsuccessful.
He was defeated in his attempt at re-election for Sheriff in 1882. General
dissatisfaction with his handling of the cowboy and the Earps conflict
as well as charges of misuse of public funds put an end to Behan's Tombstone
career but not an end to his public role. He continued in public positions
becoming Superintendent of the Arizona Territorial Penitentary in Yuma.
After this position he became Inspector for US Customs and served in
the Spanish American War. He served in the American Brigade during China's
Boxer Rebellion and finally returned to work as a code clerk for the
Arizona Legislature. Former Cochise County Sheriff John H. Behan died
of Bright's disease and acute hardening of the arteries in 1912 at the
age of 66.
The true legacy of John Behan is not
easy to understand. He was both criminal and lawman. He manipulated
the politics and the individuals of Tombstone in the 1880s to suit his
own ends. He was motivated by greed, spite, jealously and in no small
part by a hunger for power. Like many frontier lawmen, he walked a fine
line between law and lawlessness. The untamed conditions in the West
allowed men like Behan and Earp to define what the country was to become.
Both types of men were essential to this process. The morality of the
period was played out by the characters within it. The complex issues
concerning these men are still being debated today, 106 years later.
More movies and books have been written about the Tombstone conflicts
in 1880-81 than any other frontier event. The story of John H. Behan
is one of the most intriguing stories of all.