UA Library

Miriam E. Tefft's recollections as a 15-year-old girl in Bisbee. Dated 2 February, 1982.

Arizona Historical Society Library, Tefft Bio File


Miriam E. Tefft

Last of the Vigilantes

I was 15. I was there when the tragic hysteria which was World War I broke out in the copper mining camp of Bisbee, Arizona where I lived, and the citizens took over the law.

Hazel Gilman and I, when we first heard of "Wobblies", wanted to know what it was all about. They were fomenting strikes in the mines, causing fear and confusion in our town. A meeting of strikers was scheduled for Finn Hall in Lowell. Though it sounded scary, that evening we took a streetcar and slipped into the back where we hoped we would be inconspicuous. We were familiar with Finn Hall; it was a church built by the Finns with volunteer help from men like our fathers.

For the first time we heard the ideology of radicals. We gathered from what speakers said that the aim was to create a revolutionary industrial union to overthrow capitalism. They maintained that once all workers combined in one big strike they could launch a national strike that would displace capitalists from power and place workers in possession. The mines would belong to the people. Men yelled and cheered the speakers, women shrieked, songs were sung. We were introduced to Joe Hill and his songs for the people. The climax of the meeting, for us, was when there was an incitement to action which reduced us to giggling fits. A skinny, rough-haired old woman whom we knew as Sally Hapgood, raced up and down the aisle yelling, "Hallelujah. Hallelujah." And denouncing capitalists at the top of her lungs.

We were a bit vague as to whom she meant. John Greenway? Dr. Bledsoe? We adored both. Walter Douglas? He was only a shadowy figure to us. Dr. Bledsoe came when we needed him, always kindly, always putting his patient first, always bringing and atmosphere of hope and calm into the sick room. Surely not he? Mr. Greenway gave us our ball park, our Vista Park with its bandstand, its trees, grass, and benches. He gave us our C and A library, and , best of all , our Greenway Junior High School. He was always courteous and pleasant. When he rode his horse he was a slender, handsome figure, and we remembered he had been one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. He lived I the middle house of the three houses on a small rise overlooking Warren. He took interest in Children. Sometimes he would walk to the 4 room red elementary school, or to the Greenway School. If it were recess time he would watch us or ask us questions about who we were, what we were studying, or what we wanted to be when we were grown. He liked to visit classes, too. We always worked harder for a while after on of his visits. Surely not he? I never saw Mr. Douglas, although I sometimes was lights in his pink granite house next to Mr. Greenway’s and the other side of Dr. Bledsoe’s. Sometimes we saw his private pullam car on the rail road siding in Bisbee.

Finn Hall was getting noisy, and Hazel and I getting scary, so we sneaked out. We couldn’t control our giggles. We giggled all the way to the street car stop and giggled on the street car all the way to Warren. When we got off at our stop we started singing, leaning on each other’s shoulders:

Hallelujah, I’m a bum

Hallelujah, bum again

Hallelujah, give us a handout

To revive us again

There began to be violence in the mines. Old Mag was bombed. Miners on strike were harassed. Groups on men gathered on the streets and near mine entranced-Finns, Serbs, Welshmen, "Cousin Jacks," and Mexes, cursing, making violent gestures, shouting, having fist fights. We could see what a strike meant. We knew it was contended to be in protest over bad working conditions. Solid citizens of Bisbee saw it as unpatriotic and led by the IWW’s (we called them "I Won’t Work"). The IWW’s had infiltrated the district. They were easy to spot; we knew the regular miners. These strangers were menacing. We’d never been afraid before. Our doors were never locked. The code we lived by was the open door and the pot of frijoles on the back of the stove.

Betty Clearly’s father was the lawyer for these people, so we were not allowed to speak to her. "Whitely" was a suspect name. Milmay’s father became very important. When the street car stopped at Johnson Addition Florence McKenzie wasn’t there to go to school; her Mother had been assaulted by strikers because her husband remained loyal. Sadie Thomas gave us all a look that said "no compromise," her mouth was set in a straight line, and her hair was pulled back tighter than ever. Her father was an agitator.

There had been meetings in the Bisbee City Park and the Pythian Castle as well as in Finn Hall. Picnics were held in Tombstone Canyon, and planned acts of violence took place, like the fights which broke up the Fourth of July parade. That parade was the big event of the year, months of the organization-floats, bands, contests, miners drill teams. More than any single act, breaking up our parade brought the deepest anger to the people of Bisbee. This parade was particularly patriotic. Buildings were draped with flags, children carried small American flags. Every spectator sported some symbol to show patriotism.

Our beautiful country club with its wide verandas and green lawns, our touch of richness and refinement in the drab sand and stones of the surrounding countryside, was mysteriously burned one night. No more elegant dances, no more summer parties for the children, no more hiking around the greens to look for lost golf balls. Only a charred rubble remained. There were rumors and counter-rumors, all of them ugly.

You could almost smell fear. Men didn’t look at each other in the face. Everyone was under suspicion. Loyalties were divided. One could sense an undercurrent of outrage seething. Our fathers were often from home. They were closed mouthed when asked questions, so one did not ask too many questions. Something was brewing in this atmosphere of wild emotions.

Posse is the legal term for vigilantes. Vigilantes left an undying mark on the forming of Arizona. I remember the men who met weekly, practiced shooting and riding. In those early days when Arizona was a territory, vigilante justice was the major force bringing law and order. The general public did not know who these men were, but these were the men who made history: bookkeepers, auditors, clerks, paymasters, teachers-mostly friendly men, hard working and just. During the Mexican Revolution these men protected the town before the U.S. troops were sent in by the government. Soft-spoken and gentle, for the main part, when called on to fight for justice they were single minded, fearless, accurate shots. "One of the most flagrant acts of vigilantism in the history of the West" was the dramatic moment in Arizona history which took place on July 12, 1917.

The street lights flickered and went out one by one. A few cars went by. The sounds of horses were muted. Voices were low, words indistinguishable. Dad got up from his bed when a low tap on the front door tattooed a signal. He hushed our questions: "Stay indoors. Keep quiet. Don’t build a fire." We could hear him dressing, and speaking to his hunting dog, "No, Rex. Stay here." He took his rifle down from the wall, the door opened, and he was gone. We heard Uncle Arthur’s car and Mr. Bankherd’s car. It seemed strange to be awake at this hour, to lie in the darkness and keep quiet.

It was so hot. The air vibrated with the shrill cicadas. We knew that Dad and the other men had been going to "meetings" every night that week, but the meetings were unexplained. We were eating a cold breakfast when the first signs of dawn appeared. We didn’t leave the house. Mr. Hill and some of the miners from Black Knob View, who were not on strike, went past the house to the street car stop on the way to Lowell. Half and hour later we saw then return. This was ominous. Hortense and Carolyn White, I found out later, spent the night in their home in Jiggerville, crouching behind the piano which had been dragged across a corner of the room to form a triangle. Their father was out, they didn’t know where. Jiggerville was a quiet, respectable settlement of home, not a place which would harbor a nest of troublemakers, but the sound of shooting at a near neighbor’s house made them realize that they, too, were in danger. (It was learned next day that two men had been killed, an IWW agitator and one of Sheriff Wheeler’s men.)

The Bisbee Review was delivered about 10:00 on this morning of July 12. Headline: ALL WOMEN AND CHILDREN STAY OFF THE STREETS. We were putting out the flag as Dad had told us to, when we suddenly noticed a long double line extending from the direction of Bisbee toward the ball park in Warren.

Our house was a good vantage point, only a few blocks from the park, 8 steps up to the porch on two sides. Mother brought out her favorite rocker and her crocheting. Other people began sitting on their porches and doing handwork like Mother. Children were sitting on fence railings and steps, but they didn’t leave the yard.

We began to see that deputies and armed citizens were keeping the strikers in line as they were herded into the ball park behind the high board fence. The men had evidently been taken completely by surprise; some were still in their nightshirts, many in long underwear, some apparently hadn’t been given time to put on their shoes. We could see snipers on the opposite hill overlooking the park. We recognized Mr. Greenway on his white horse, Dr. Bledsoe on his black, and saw that Captain Wheeler was directing maneuvers. A rather small man, he was an imposing figure on horseback.

This was too tame for me. I had to go where the action was. I slipped out the back door and joined Hazel and her brother Hoogie, and Claude and Bertha Berquist and the C and A office. They didn’t know exactly where their fathers were any more than I did. We sat on the top steps where we could see what was going on. Ray Foster, whose father was detective for the Arizona Banker’s Assoc., was sitting on some railroad ties near the tracks of the Southern Pacific Don Luis spur line where 25 box cars and cattle cars were standing.

A machine gun burst. Capt. Wheeler rode into the park. Through a megaphone he announced: the strikers were guilty of treason. If they wanted to go back to work there was a job for them, if not, out they would go. We could hear shouting, "Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go." About half the men broke line and went out the gate. Some 1200 strikers stayed in the park. These men were driven into the cars on the siding. No guns were fired. There were oaths, some lack of cooperation, but guns are a good persuader. 25 deputies, all crack shots, mounted the tops of the cars. Every tactical movement was carried out with precision. The engine whistled, the train gathered speed. Last echoes from the train faded. Then a cheer went up from the hundreds who had been watching through this hot violent day. Justice had been done, they felt, the swift way it was always done in Arizona-no quibbling, but with authority and efficiency. Gun-toting citizens straggled home. No one remembered the machine guns.

"Where are they taking them?" we wanted to know. "That you will find out in a few days," was the only answer Dad would give us. "The IWW had plans to round up our men and get rid of them. We just beat them to it." Overnight, sheriff’s deputies and armed citizens had made a sweep of Bisbee, from Chihuahua Hill to Bucky O’Neill, Brewery Gulch to School Hill, taking in Tintown, Jiggerville, Bakerville, Lowell, rounding up strikers and dissidents.

The next morning, and for a few days, everything moved in slow motion. Everyone acted completely depleted. Men shuffled, women burned dinners, children drooped around. No hopscotch, no kick the can, no baseball. But it was calm. The mines were working again. The threat we had lived under was gone. We breathed quietly.

Four days later we heard the cattle cars at the train stop on the Warren siding. The weary deputies had returned. The cars were empty. The loads of strikers had been shipped to New Mexico where they were turned out into the desert near Columbus.

Greenway, Douglas, and a man named McDowell, whom we didn’t know, were indicted. It was an anti-climax when President Wilson, breathing fire and brimstone, sent commission to investigate. The commission was headed by Felix Frankfurter. They found the government was helpless to punish anyone. No law could be found against kidnapping people en masse and dumping them into another state.