Like many of you I am a fan of the western movie. I have often been caught up in the onscreen depiction of an individual and wondered if the writer/director has done this individual justice or was merely weaving a story, regardless of the facts of the matter. So, this month I give you a character that was depicted in the movie Tombstone (1993) as an elderly, likeable yet somewhat incompetent lawman; Marshal Fred White.
Very little is known of the early years of Fred White. It is generally believed that White was born in 1849 in New York and most accounts agree that he was a lawman of good regard for some five years before being sworn in as the first town Marshal of Tombstone, Arizona on January 6, 1880. Please note, that puts his age at only 31, not the grey haired character Hollywood has him portrayed as in the movie. At the time of his appointment as the top police officer in town, Tombstone was a lawless mining town full of roughnecks, gamblers, drifters and ladies of the evening. Although booming due to the discovery of silver, Tombstone would not surpass 1000 residents (required to claim city status) until late 1881.
Fred White was regarded by those on both sides of the law as an even-handed well respected man. He befriended the Earp family and had a particularly good relationship with Wyatt who became a Pima County Deputy Sheriff in July of 1880, roughly six months after arriving in Tombstone. Wyatt's brother Virgil had already been appointed as a U.S. Deputy Marshal. Another discrepancy regarding the film was the arrival of Doc Holliday in Tombstone. It is generally reported that Holliday showed up sometime in September of 1880. Virgil had already had a run-in with the gang referred to as the cow-boys, mostly ex-confederate soldiers from Texas, when they were accused of stealing U.S. Army mules (a federal offense).
During the night of October 27th at approximately 12:30 AM, Marshal White responded to the sound of gunfire and was followed by Wyatt shortly thereafter. They found several of the cowboy gang, including William Curly Bill Brocious, firing shots in a vacant lot on Allen Street (now occupied by the Bird Cage Theatre). Marshal White ordered the men to surrender their guns and all but Curly Bill complied without incident. Curly then presented his pistol to White barrel first and when White grasped the weapon it fired, striking him in the groin area. Marshal White fell to the ground in agony and Wyatt, understandably upset, began to pistol whip Brocious to the ground. Morgan Earp assisted in securing the other offenders and charged them with violating city ordinances. Wyatt deposited Brocious in a cell and swore out his account charging him with assault with intent to murder.
Marshal Fred White was taken to his bed and made as comfortable as possible. The following day the men charged were fined and released but Brocious requested a postponement in order to secure a lawyer. He would later secure Judge Haynes of Tucson as his counsel. After testimony from Brocious, Wyatt and Marshal White came to light, the charges against Curly Bill Brocious were dropped and it was widely understood that the incident was accidental. Brocious himself would claim that he felt terrible regret over the shooting as he held White in great regard.
Marshal White would finally succumb to his wound on October 30, 1880 and is buried at Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone. Curly Bill Brocious would never forgive Wyatt for the pistol whipping he received and that anger would fuel the rift between the Clanton gang and the Earps leading to the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral where members of the Clanton gang were shot. Brocious would eventually assassinate Morgan Earp and Wyatt claimed to have found revenge after shooting Brocious in the chest with a shotgun.
The ghost of Marshal Fred White, as well as those of Virgil Earp and many others, is said to inhabit the Bird Cage Theatre to this day. Tombstone and Boot Hill Cemetery have been restored to celebrate the history of the men who paved the way in the old west.