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                           Sheriff John Behan Bio




                                                                Johnny Behan

John Behan

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 this county."

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 it.

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.

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