Community Policing in modern day Phoenix and elsewhere is a partnership of the police and the community working together to prevent crime and maintain order. Early day Phoenix had its own version of Community Policing or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Well meaning citizens would organize with a particular end or purpose in mind. We will refer euphemistically to these lynch mobs as Community Improvement Ad Hoc Committees.
The Phoenix townsite was chosen at a mass meeting of settlers held on October 20, 1870. The townsite’s boundaries were Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street on the west and east sides, Van Buren to the north and approximately Jackson or Buchanan Street on the south end.
One of the first community improvement projects of the subject of this article occurred not long thereafter in May, 1872. Sheriff T.C. Warden assisted by Joseph Phy, captured Ramon Cordova, suspected of being involved in the stage holdup and murder of the stage passengers known as the Wickenburg stage massacre. Cordova was safely lodged in jail in Phoenix on a Monday afternoon. But on Wednesday evening a Community Improvement Ad Hoc Committee organized and proceeded to break into the jail, cut the shackles which fastened Cordova to his cell and hanged him in the jail. The coroner’s jury later stated in its inquest hearing, “This is a harsh medicine, but a sure cure.” The committee smiled smugly and was proud of having done its civic duty. But wait! There’s more! It was eventually proved that the massacre of the stagecoach passengers was the work of Hualapai Indians from the Date Creek Reservation near Prescott and that Cordova had nothing to do with the crime nor was he near the area when it occurred. Well, such is life. . . . and death in this case.
The next lynching occurred on July 3, 1873. A cow was stolen from a farm three miles outside of Phoenix. The tracks led from the farm to a downtown butcher shop. The cow’s three H’s (head, horns, and hide) were found at the shop and the butcher provided the supplier’s name. Mariano Tisnado was arrested the same day and incarcerated. During the remainder of the day and until late in the evening, the streets of Phoenix were unusually crowded with men, calm and quiet, yet looking purposeful and determined. Sheriff Tom Hayes, fearing that an effort would be made to lynch the prisoner, slept in the jail all night. The following morning downtown Phoenix was uncommonly quiet. The only noticeable difference was the large number of farmers from down the valley, up the valley, and across the Salt River that had added to the town’s population of 400 residents. At about 9 a.m., this Community Improvement Ad Hoc Committee moved in suddenly and took the prisoner from Sheriff Hayes. They took Tisnado to Jack Starar’s corral at First Avenue and Washington Street. The committee threw a rope over a high gatepost at the Washington Street entrance to the corral and yanked Tisnado upward in broad daylight. He still had shackles on his feet as he swung into oblivion.
On New Year’s Eve in 1875 a dance was held in an old stage building in Phoenix that was attended by merrymakers mostly and at least one non-merrymaker. George Young entered the dance in a semi-drunken state and was tolerated for a half hour until he became offensive because he had been denied an introduction to one of the belles of the ball. He was ejected by Lewis Bailey. Young left and returned with an attitude and a shotgun. He fired through a window and struck Bailey on the forehead. Bailey went down instantly and when he got up his entire forehead seemed to have been shot away (Bailey survived). The ladies at the dance were aghast at this sight and screamed in terror. The gentlemen at the dance quickly amassed enough members to create another Community Improvement Ad Hoc Committee. The committee gave chase and captured Young a short distance away. A rope was looped around his neck and he was led down Center Street (Central Avenue) to Adams Street, then down that street to the edge of town. By the next morning, the committee had disbanded and the committee’s “project” was hanging from the limb of a cottonwood tree. You will read later that Phoenix’s cottonwood trees continued to provide other useful purposes than mere shade.
The next lynching was an exciting double feature that drew a standing-room only crowd of 500 people to the cottonwoods of the town plaza. This was a box office record for a town that had a population of only 1500 at the time. The plaza was located in the block between Washington, Jefferson, Montezuma (present-day First Street) and Maricopa (Second Street). John Keller had a grudge against Luke Monihon, a farmer who lived three miles southwest of Phoenix. On the evening of August 19, 1879, Monihon was leaving town returning to his home in a wagon after selling a load of wood in Phoenix. Keller was hiding near some vegetation by the roadside and when the farmer passed by, Keller rose up and emptied a load of buckshot into Monihon. Keller was tracked to his farm that night, captured and incarcerated in the County jail located on the south side of Washington Street between Center and Montezuma Streets.
On August 22, 1879, a Community Improvement Ad Hoc Committee of 200 men was organized. This committee was perhaps more sophisticated and organized than the previous lynch mobs because they actually had a name for their group. They called themselves the Law and Order Committee. This group was made up of the best citizens, movers and shakers of the community. They intended to march to the County jail, take custody of Keller and hang him from the limb of a cottonwood tree in the plaza.
The previous night, John LeBar closed the doors of his Palace Bar on Washington Street and entered another bar for a drink. He bought a round for some friends but did not extend the same hospitality to William McCloskey. The highly offended McCloskey left the bar and returned with an, “I’ll show you” attitude and a butcher knife. He plunged the knife into LeBar’s abdomen. McCloskey was dragged off to jail and LeBar was carried to his residence where he died the next morning.
Thus, on the morning of August 22, the Law and Order Committee decided to add not one, but two blossoms to the cottonwood trees in the plaza. At 10 a.m., the committee walked in a quiet and orderly fashion to the jail and with guns drawn they demanded that the jailer, H.C. “Hi” McDonald, give up the keys. (For additional information on the life and times of “Hi” McDonald read the article by retired Officer Jeannette Reed in the January 2003 issue of the Phoenix Police Museum Newsletter.) Quietly and without much fanfare the two men were brought out and told that their time to die had come. Both men were given an opportunity to make last statements. Keller said only that he killed Monihon because of a prior grudge he had with him. McCloskey blamed his crime on alcohol. Ropes were tied around their necks and they were led to the town plaza where they went out on a high note—swinging from the same tree branch.
Oh, you may ask, where were Sheriff Rube Thomas and his deputies during this highly public event? Well, they discreetly and conveniently left town just before midnight on August 21 presumably in anticipation of the Law and Order Committee’s plans. Sheriff Thomas left only the jailer to deal with the committee. The Sheriff and his deputies returned on the afternoon of the day of the hangings with an, “Oh, my! What happened here!” look on their faces.
A coroner’s inquest on August 23 found that the two men died at the hands of a crowd of men whose identities were unknown to the jury. I suspect that many of the corner’s jury members were also Law and Order Committee members. But that’s only a hunch on my part.
Everyone was impressed with the Law and Order Committee’s civic duty work. The Expositor newspaper quoted a witness as saying, “The whole event was done so quietly and without any apparent excitement that no attempt was made to prevent this; for the few who would have been glad to stem the torrent were so hopelessly in the minority and so devoid of local influence, and the quiet determination of the crowd was so apparent, that any effort to prevent the consummation of their wishes was plainly not only useless, but dangerous in the last degree.”
It was not until the following year, 1880, that Phoenix had its first legal hanging. This one was a boxed package with all the bells and whistles, including due process, a taxpayer paid scaffolding, and a Sheriff, Rube Thomas, actually present and earning his pay by springing the trap door. The hangee was an outlaw who committed a homicide during a stage coach robbery outside of Gillette, a mining town in the Bradshaw Mountains north of Phoenix. Despite having more bells and whistles than any prior Community Improvement Committee project, the County still attempted to make the event a low budget, no frills ceremony by conducting the hanging just outside the city cemetery near the present day intersection of 15th Avenue and the railroad tracks. This location assured that the undertaker’s mileage fee would be minimal.
The territory outlawed capital punishment not long thereafter in its quest to become a state. Arizona did, indeed, become a state in 1912.
In 1917 a man and his wife were camping beside the road between Mesa and Florence. A stranger rode up to them and asked for food. After eating, he shot and killed the man and sexually assaulted his wife. He was jailed in Phoenix and bragged that he would not hang (Oh, really!) because the state had outlawed capital punishment.
Sheriff William Henry Wilky was advised that a Community Improvement Ad Hoc Committee was forming. He went from his home on Van Buren Street across from Phoenix Union High School directly to the jail. He ordered the jailer and the deputy to drive the prisoner to Florence. The Committee, made up of 50 prominent citizens and pillars of the community, descended on the jail demanding the prisoner. Sheriff Wilky stated he did not know the whereabouts of the prisoner. Somehow, word leaked out and a caravan of cars hit the trail to Florence.
They caught up with the Sheriff’s car and took the prisoner. They transported him back to the actual scene of the crime and did not have to look for a cottonwood tree or any other kind of tree, for that matter, as they had in the earlier days. A now more civilized Maricopa County had been making progress by leaps and bounds and had, among other newfangled items, telephone poles which could serve more than one useful purpose. The useful purpose in this particular situation was to string up ne’er-do-wells from the telephone pole’s cross arms.
Given the opportunity to make a last statement, the suspect said he, “guessed he was getting what he deserved,” and requested that his body not be riddled with bullets. The committee granted his last request by only hanging him and not shooting the dead body.
In an effort to prevent any more ad hoc committees of this nature, the people of Arizona reinstated capital punishment in the next election.