Escape of a Highwayman: The Riddle of Sherman McMaster - by Paul Cool

ESCAPE OF A HIGHWAYMAN
The Riddle of Sherman McMaster

Copyright Paul Cool 2000, 2002(1)

“They got McMasters!”: A line of dialogue in the movie TOMBSTONE spoken when a corpse is dragged across the desert brush and dropped for Wyatt Earp to see.

“Who’s McMasters?”: A question spoken by a patron sitting behind me in the darkened theater. In fact, I heard the remark during two separate screenings of the film. Audience confusion caused by the choppy editing of TOMBSTONE reflects the mystery surrounding the real Sherman McMaster.(2)

Only recently, Sherman was little more than a frequently mentioned player in the long and eventually bloody contest between the Earps and Cowboys. Now we know that he was the son of Illinois entrepreneur, Republican party activist, educator, and vigilante S(ylvester) W(ashington) McMaster. (It appears that the extra “s” simply attached itself to Sherm’s surname during this one phase of his life. Though his Tombstone contemporaries universally called him “McMasters,” Sherm himself consistently signed his name “McMaster.”).(3)

Thanks to the discoveries by researcher Peter Brand, we also now know that Sherm was a Texas Ranger before his arrival in Arizona Territory and that he certainly knew Curly Bill Brocius.(4) During the years preceding his open adherence to Earp, McMaster was charged by authorities with rustling and highway robbery. Was he falsely accused, a genuine criminal, or an undercover agent? How and why did this onetime lawman become associated with the bandit element in southeast Arizona before emerging as one of a small band trusted by Wyatt at a time when such loyalty could get a man killed? Much remains a mystery, but perhaps not for long.

McMaster generally played his role at the edges of the Tombstone drama. On one occasion, however, he stood at the center of one well-covered yet perplexing news story. The episode is a riddle-like most events involving Sherman-but a marshalling of the facts may shed some light on McMaster and on the operation of the “law and order” faction in southern Arizona. It certainly provides further evidence of the unreliability of Billy Breakenridge as a witness to the events around him.

* * *

A good point to attempt unraveling McMaster’s strange tale is September 10, 1881. In that day’s Tombstone Daily Nugget, the same edition that first reported the holdup of the Bisbee stage, there appeared the headline, ESCAPE OF A HIGHWAYMAN. The story began:

At about 9 o’clock last evening the sharp report of a pistol was heard on Allen, just below Fourth Street. In a few minutes a large crowd had gathered, but no reliable information could be ascertained as to the cause. Hardly fifteen minutes had passed when five more shots were heard in the northern portion of the city, near the foot of Fifth street, and upon investigation it was ascertained that the Marshal [Virgil Earp] had endeavored to arrest a highwayman by the name of McMasters, who, to prevent being taken, had started to run, and had been fired at by the officer.(5)

The Tombstone Daily Epitaph captioned its same-day article, ATTEMPTED ARREST OF McMasters. With some differences, the two papers told essentially the same tale.

The evening’s fireworks were set in motion on the night of Thursday, February 24, 1881, when two men robbed a stage traveling from Globe to Florence. The Wells, Fargo & Co. express box was empty on that occasion, but the bandits succeeded in making off with the U.S. mail. The men suspected of the holdup were Pony Deal (or “Diehl”, aka Charles Ray) and Sherman McMaster. Though Tombstone City Marshal Earp was aware that McMaster was wanted for the robbery, according to the Epitaph Virgil had previously received instructions from Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul not to arrest McMaster until Deal was in custody.

Some time before 6 p.m. on the evening of September 9, Cochise County Sheriff John Behan returned to Tombstone on the stagecoach from Tucson. Behan informed Virgil that Paul had arrested Pony Deal. Knowing that McMaster was in Tombstone, Earp went at once to the Western Union Telegraph office and at around 6 o’clock instructed Frank Kingsbury, the manager(6), to send Paul the following message: “Do you want McMasters? Answer tonight.” Expecting a momentary reply, Earp waited at the telegraph office. When none, came, he departed.

While waiting for Sheriff Paul to reply, said the Nugget account, Earp “engaged his man [i.e., McMasters] in conversation….” The marshal was back in front of the telegraph office shortly after 9 p.m., when, according to the Epitaph, some one informed him that

Ringold [i.e., John Ringo], the man who robbed a poker game with a Winchester rifle at Galeyville, about a month ago, had just rode to town with his horse all in a lather. The Marshal said, “Where is he?” His informant replied, “With McMasters.” The Marshal knew at once something was up, but he had received no answer from Sheriff Paul and did not know what to do.

Something was indeed up, for the Nugget reported that a “pal” of McMaster had slipped into town and informed him that Deal had been arrested.” Meanwhile, the telegraph that Earp had been waiting for finally arrived. Unfortunately, Sheriff Paul unaccountably addressed it to Marshall Williams, the Tombstone agent for Wells, Fargo. The telegram read, “Tell V.W. Earp, to-night, that I want McMasters.” By this time, the Western Union manager was no longer on duty. Unaware of the significance of Paul’s reply, Mr. Kingsbury’s assistant walked right past the waiting marshal and delivered the message straight to the Wells, Fargo office. The express company employee on hand, Samuel A. Clayton, went in search of Virgil. Finding him on the street, Clayton brought Virgil back to the Wells, Fargo office, where at last Earp read the telegram.

“I just passed him,” said Virgil. “Have you got a pistol?” Soon armed, Virgil first enlisted his brother James in the arrest effort. The two Earps searched for McMaster in various saloons. Not finding him, Virgil thought to check the O.K. Corral, where he had determined McMaster’s horse was stabled. Before they reached the corral, a man (possibly Ringo) came loping out on McMaster’s horse. When the man ignored the marshal’s order to halt, Virgil fired a shot. This brought man and horse to a stop.

“Do you want me?” asked the man.

“No, I made a mistake,” replied Virgil, who soon had second thoughts.

The man rode west on Allen Street to First, then north to Safford. Virgil, meanwhile, went the other way on Allen, then turned up Third, “running as fast as he could” for Safford, where the stranger had switched directions and passed the marshal heading east to Fifth. The marshal again halted the man, threatening to shoot him out of the saddle unless he climbed down. No sooner had Virgil mounted the horse than he saw McMaster jump out of the bushes some 75 to 100 feet away and run for a fence. Virgil shouted for McMaster to halt. Instead, Sherman hopped over the fence and kept running as Virgil emptied his six-shooter in the cowboy’s direction. While Virgil took time to ride around the fence, McMaster disappeared into the “big arroyo that puts into the great wash north of town.” Hearing the shots, Behan joined Earp, but neither man could find the fugitive in the darkness.

* * *

The date and circumstances of Sherman’s arrival in Arizona have not yet come to light, but clues are emerging. One story has McMaster arriving in Arizona Territory in 1878 on a cattle drive with Curly Bill Brocius, Pony Deal and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson.(7) The date is seems unlikely, but there is something to the idea that Sherm knew these men before arriving in Arizona. Peter Brand has uncovered Sherm’s service with the Texas Rangers in El Paso County from September 1, 1878 until April 12, 1879. As Brand points out, McMaster gained considerable experience tracking rustlers and the stock they stole. In fact, he had to have met Curly Bill Brocius, a prisoner in the custody of Sherm’s Ranger detachment until the bandit’s escape in November 1878. If indeed Pony Deal rode into Texas with John Kinney during the El Paso Salt War, as Brand theorizes, then Sherm may have made that hard case’s acquaintance at this time.

McMaster and Deal were linked as suspects not just in the Globe stagecoach robbery, but in one other bit of banditry. Pony Deal (or Diehl), was the alias of Charles Ray. Deal has not achieved the notoriety of the Clantons or McLaurys, of Curly Bill or Johnny Ringo, but he definitely stands alongside Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence as one of their most frequently mentioned confederates. Casey Tefertiller calls Ray/Deal “an escaped Texas outlaw,”(8) while Phil Rasch, an expert on New Mexican lawmen and outlaws, recorded that Deal “first obtained a measure of fame as a badman in the troubles in Lincoln County, New Mexico”(9) before transferring his operations to Arizona. Of some interest is the fact that Deal, like McMaster, hailed from Rock Island, Illinois. It is possible that their relationship began in Illinois, but unlikely. When 13-year-old Sherm moved to Rock Island with his family in 1866, Charles Ray was already a young man of 19 or 20. The question arises: did McMaster arrive from Texas or New Mexico in the company of badman Ray/Deal, or did the two men meet in Arizona and only there discover their common origin?

The earliest known Arizona episode involving McMaster is the one that first brought the Earps into conflict with the McLaurys. This was the theft in July 1880 of the Army mules that Lieutenant Hurst, accompanied by U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp and brother Wyatt, traced to the McLaury ranch. Following his unsuccessful effort to retrieve the stolen mules, Hurst placed a notice in the Epitaph offering rewards for the animals and for the arrest, trial and conviction of the thieves. He identified these as “Pony Diehl, A.T. Hansbrough, and Mac DeMasters.” It has been assumed that this last named thief is Sherman McMaster. The link to Pony Deal reinforces the assumption, as does Frank McLaury’s letter of reply, in which he refers to “Mac Masters.”(10)

On February 24, 1881 the Globe stagecoach was robbed. According to Ed Bartholomew, the Arizona Sentinel reported that the robbers got away with a “Wells Fargo & Company treasure box and U.S. Mail….”(11) The Arizona Gazette of February 19, however, reported that, according to a Mr. Jilson, Wells, Fargo & Co.’s representative in Phoenix,

the stage from Globe was stopped, Thursday evening, when half way between that place and Florence, by two men who called for the mail bag and express box. Their request was immediately accepted by the driver. What the plunder amounted to is not known, as it only consisted of what was taken from the mail, the express box being empty. There were no passengers on the stage.

McMaster and Pony Deal, two of the men charged by the army with having stolen those mules in 1880 were eventually suspected of having carried out this new crime. McMaster, at least, was apparently not actively sought for several months. As Brand discovered in the July 24th edition of the Nugget, Sherm openly checked into Tombstone’s Grand Hotel. Matters came to a head only when Deal, as we have seen, was arrested for the Globe stage robbery.

In the meantime, Sherman was presumably going about his ordinary business. But what was his business? When joining the Texas Rangers, this educated young man stated his occupation as “laborer.” Scott Nelson, the leading authority on Tombstone’s satellite town of Charleston, has told this author that McMaster hired himself out as an all around tradesman, carpenter, wrangler, etc.(12) In February, 1882, in signing the petition urging the parole of Allen Blount, he listed himself as a “trader.”(13) Sherm’s father had first prospered as a Galena merchant who sold a wide range of goods on consignment. He may indeed have passed some of those entrepreneurial talents on to his son, though no clue as to what the young McMaster might have traded has surfaced.

Whether he sold goods or services, McMaster evidently possessed a trade-and this former Texas Ranger certainly possessed the skills-that that allowed him to move about the difficult countryside. When he identified Rock Island, Illinois as his home in the coroner’s inquest into the death of Morgan Earp, Sherm merely acknowledged that no one spot had taken its place. He moved back and forth between Arizona and New Mexico and between Tombstone and Charleston, apparently able to appear anywhere or disappear at any time with little cause for comment. He was apparently able to associate or just converse with just about anyone. The Flood MS says that Sherman, who was “in a manner friendly with the bandit element,” was “employed by [Wyatt] Earp to ascertain the whereabouts of Curly Bill and Poney [sic] Deal [following the January 1882] robbery of the Bisbee Stage.” Whether Sherm tracked through southeast Arizona for the wanted men, or whether he just hung around the saloons asking a lot of questions, this statement by Flood is consistent with what we know about Sherm’s ability to show up anywhere and fit in.

We have to ask whether McMaster’s usual “day job” served as a cover for employment as an informer for Wyatt or Wells Fargo. His eight-month stint as a Texas Ranger, his eventual alliance and usefulness to Wyatt Earp, and his opportunities to move around all point in the direction of undercover work. But other facts admit the possibility that Sherm was in fact a Cochise County criminal who only eventually sided with Wyatt. Certainly, the Texas Ranger detachment of which McMaster was a member was plagued for years with “inside men” who alerted local cattle thieves to Ranger plans. Based on Sherm’s alleged association with the Cowboy element in Arizona, we must consider whether Sherm worked against the law in Texas, whether he helped Curly Bill to escape, and whether his association with rustlers in Texas prompted his association with such men in Arizona. But the presence of spies in the Ranger ranks opens another possibility. Sherman may have been one of the “good” Rangers-which most were-bedeviled by treachery in the ranks. He may have learned the ways of an “inside man” by observation and then used that knowledge to turn the tables on the rustlers, highwaymen and killers who plagued southeast Arizona.

Is Sherman’s escape from Virgil Earp consistent with outlawry or undercover work? I believe the latter is the case.

* * *

On September 17th, 1881, the Epitaph chortled,

In escaping from the officers the other night, [he] left behind him a splendid mare and one of the finest saddles ever seen in this part of the country. He will miss his outfit very much, but does not want it bad enough to come back after it.(14)

A week before, the Epitaph saw little humor in the story: “Had Sheriff Paul telegraphed direct to the Marshal, McMasters would now have been in custody and safely reposing in the County Jail.” The Nugget used a wider net to cast its criticism. “The worst mistake,” it said, “was in Paul not telegraphing immediately to Earp, or the Sheriff, and the error was in the officers not arresting him when they first saw him on the street.”

Virgil Earp has the cleanest reputation of any of the “Fighting Earps” of Tombstone. It would be a serious chink in Virgil’s armor if he in fact warned a wanted highwayman to escape. Almost fifty years after the event, Billy Breakenridge insinuated in his autobiography, Helldorado, that Earp’s role in McMaster’s escape was something sinister. According to Behan’s deputy,

Pony Deal and Sherman McMasters were accused of holding up a stage near Globe, Arizona. They had separated, and Deal was arrested by Bob Paul, who had been appointed United States Marshal.McMasters came to Tombstone, Virgil Earp recognized him, and wired Paul asking if McMaster was wanted. But before he got an answer, McMasters left town, and it was reported that it was he who stole a valuable saddle horse from the Contention Mine. The horse belonged to E.B. Gage, general manager of the mine, and he was anxious to get it back. It was rumored that Earp told McMasters to leave, and, as he joined the Earp party later, it looked as if it might be so. The sheriff sent out several parties to search for the horse. I went with one party to the San Simon Valley, but could not learn anything about either the horse or McMasters, except that McMasters had stolen the horse and traded it to Milt Hicks.(15)

Breakenridge then tells how he rode alone into a nest of rustlers at the McLaury ranch, spent the night sleeping on their cabin floor, and then, outwitting them, raced the recovered “Contention horse” to safety. “Breck” does not mention the shots Virgil fired at McMaster, and he gives no date for the incident, other than to place it between the Bisbee stage robbery and the gunfight near the O.K. Corral. Clearly, though, this is the same episode as described in the newspapers of September 10th.

Breakenridge’s version, told nearly a half-century after the event, provides “Tombstone’s Deputy” with the chance to repeat gossip about Virgil’s role before going to the story’s main point, his own heroic retrieval of the stolen horse. The only thing is, Breck forgot whose horse he so daringly retrieved. In identifying the stolen horse as belonging to E.B. Gage, Breakenridge in effect made Virgil a virtual accomplice in the theft of prized property from of “one of the industrial kings of Tombstone,”(16) a man who was then and would always remain Virgil’s firm friend.

Gage was part owner of the Tombstone-based Grand Central Mining Company and superintendent of the Grand Central Mine. He was also a prominent Republican and a member of the Citizens Safety Committee which backed the Earps in their efforts to contain what mine operators such as Gage viewed as the cowboy threat to law, order and capitalist enterprise. On November 23, 1881, when Judge Spicer set bail for Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at $50,000 apiece, Gage was one of two mining magnates who posted the required amount. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, Gage remained in Tombstone for many years, operating mines there as late as the early 1900s. In 1900 he supported Virgil’s run for Sheriff of Yavapai County, Arizona, claiming, “I know personally that whatever Virgil Earp did in Tombstone was at the request of the best men in Cochise County….”(17)

Did Virgil’s poor aim, or his malfeasance, cause the theft of Gage’s “valuable saddle horse” by McMaster? If so, why less than eleven weeks later did Gage stand as surety in the amount of $50,000 for Wyatt and Doc? Did Virgil advise or permit McMaster to escape arrest in the interests of “the best men in Cochise County,” Gage included? If so, what did Gage and the other “best men” have to gain? Was it even Gage’s horse that McMaster stole?

Breakenridge identified E.B. Gage as the general manager of the Contention Mine. The Contention Mine was actually operated by the Tombstone Mill and Mining Company and superintended by J. H. White. “Breck” either got his mining moguls mixed up or intentionally used the more prominent Gage’s name to embellish the tale of his own daring adventure. Evidence that it was the Contention horses of J.H. White that McMaster took exists in the Epitaph and Nugget stories that ran in the days after the articles first detailing McMaster’ escape from Tombstone. On September 11th, the Epitaph reported,

Two valuable horses were stolen from the Contention stable at the mine between one and two o’clock, it is supposed. They were undoubtedly taken by McMaster and the fellow whom the Marshal dismounted and dispossessed of McMaster’ horse. The question is being asked by almost every one. When will this thing stop? The answer comes - when the people will it, and not before.

The same day’s Nugget confirmed the owner’s identity:

As soon as Sheriff Behan was informed that two horses had been stolen from Superintendent White of the Contention Mine, he went out in search of them….

Two days later, the Nugget reported this detail about the stolen horses,

There is good reason for believing that [Jim],(18) the hostler at the Contention Mine, had something to do with the stealing of the horses belonging to Mr. White, or was in conspiracy with McMasters for that purpose. The former was on one of the horses the night of the theft and called at the telegraph office at about 9 o’clock and asked for telegrams. A few minutes later he spoke to “Sandy Bob,” saying he wanted to go down to Benson on his stage. Upon being told that Bob’s stage did not run at night, he replied that he would go on the other. He did not leave on the stage and has not been seen or heard of since. This, in connection with the fact that the theft was certainly committed by some one familiar with the premises makes the case circumstantially very strong against him.

According to the Nugget of September 15, McMaster had been seen mounted on one of the stolen horses, a sorrel, on Tuesday the 13th. The tale then took this strange turn in the pages of the Epitaph on September 16th:

Yesterday, rumors were rife on the street that Colonel I. E. James had been kidnapped by cowboys, who held him for a hostage of $50,000. It seems that on Thursday night [Jim], who is supposed to know considerable about the disappearance of the horses from the Contention mine, came to him and told him that if [Colonel James] would go with him to Tucson they could get the horses. They immediately procured horses and set out about one o’clock in the night. Nothing was heard from them until last night, when a dispatch was received from Col. James announcing his safe arrival in Tucson.

Two days later, an indignant Epitaph reported,

The sorrel horse stolen from the Contention mine a few days since was returned yesterday to Mr. Corbett, who, we understand, paid a liberal reward for its return, and no questions asked. That such a condition of affairs can exist in this community is no compliment to our officers, whose duty it is to arrest outlaws and suppress wrong.

The Epitaph finally clarified both the supposed ransoming of the horse(s) and the matter of Jim’s alleged “conspiracy with McMaster” with this item on the 20th:

The CONTENTION has recovered both the horses that were stolen. That the county or city officers were in anywise responsible for the payment of ransom is authoritatively denied by the parties most deeply interested in the loss and recovery of the stock. Nor is James Young, the hostler, in any way implicated in the affair. He had been granted two days’ leave of absence, and his overstaying of that time has been fully and satisfactorily accounted for, therefore his employers now, as they always did, place full confidence in his honesty and integrity.

The newspaper coverage raises questions regarding the accuracy of Breakenridge’s Helldorado account. McMaster either stole the horses of two mine superintendents (Gage and White) within days-an unlikely possibility-or the newspapers and Breakenridge wrote about the same act. The second alternative makes more sense. The newspapers are contemporary; Helldorado was written nearly fifty years after the event. Either Billy is confused or he is using Gage’’ prominent status to explain why it was so important for him to recover this horse, whatever the danger. But how did he manage to trace “the Contention horse” stolen by McMaster to the McLaury ranch 25 miles east of Tombstone, when the animals, according to contemporary accounts, were recovered either by Mr. Corbett on payment of a ransom or by Colonel I.E. James and James Young 100 miles away from the ranch in Tucson? Perhaps it was some other “Contention horse” that Breakenridge risked his neck to spirit away from Curly Bill, Ringo and the McLaurys. If so, it was not the horse taken by McMaster, and the story sinks on that account. With so many holes, the daring-do of Breakenridge’s tale becomes suspect.

There is certainly much that is odd about the circumstances of the horses’ disappearance and recovery. If McMaster’s stolen mount was recovered by Colonel James in Tucson, this might mean that Sherman rode within reach of the very Pima County Sheriff who wanted him arrested. This action would not make any sense, unless McMaster did not truly fear arrest by Paul. Subsequent events clearly demonstrate that the Globe stagecoach robbery charge against McMaster was only a “misunderstanding” of some type. First, he was allowed to walk openly in Tombstone subsequent to his flight. Second, he was deputized as a federal posse man. Third, when eventually arrested by Dave Neagle only for horse theft, he was not also charged and held for the Globe stagecoach charge. But McMaster had only stolen the horse in order to escape arrest for the Globe robbery. What ever happened to this serious charge? As Casey Tefertiller proved in his Wyatt Earp biography, Wells, Fargo gave unqualified public support to Wyatt in the midst of his vendetta, thus putting to the lie any suggestion that Earp was suspected by them of complicity in the Benson or any other stagecoach robberies. We can also assume that Wells, Fargo was comfortable that Wyatt did not employ highwaymen as his deputies when he went hunting for such bandits in early 1882. It is likely that McMaster was either no longer wanted for the Globe coach robbery, or he was never seriously wanted by the authorities.

The newspaper coverage also indicates that there was more to the actions of hostler Jim Young than a simple overstay of leave, as explained in the Epitaph’s clarifying story of September 20th. To believe that the hostler suspected of complicity in the theft of the horses left Tombstone for reasons of his own on the night of McMaster’ escape, in the same 9 o’clock hour that McMaster was dodging Virgil’s bullets, is to accept coincidence. Fine, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to accept the implications of the Epitaph’s story on the 16th, that Young coincidentally left town on his own business and five days after the theft somehow innocently knew where and from whom to recover the animals. What is most credible in all this is the report that Young’s actions were fully accounted for and that “his employers now, as they always did, place full confidence in his honesty and integrity.” Given the available facts, we don’t know for certain that Young assisted McMaster. He appears to have done so, and it appears that it was this conduct that was “fully and satisfactorily accounted for” as far as the gentlemen of the Contention Mine (White, James, and Corbett) and the Earps, and possibly Bob Paul, were concerned. John Clum, it seems from the Epitaph’s stories, was out of the loop until someone set him straight by Tuesday the 20th.

In his Earp biography, Casey Tefertiller says that it is possible that hostler Jim Young (whom he identifies as Smith) “was also part of Earp’s chain of informants. [Smith], a tough Civil War veteran, became a noted Tombstone character in his own right for backing down Frank Leslie with a shotgun. Smith could have been an important operative since he would have drawn little notice from the rustler crowd.”(19) It is unlikely that the African-American Young served with Sherman’s older brother, William B. McMaster, in the 11th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment-over 150 black regiments were formed. But whether or not Young was a member of Wyatt’s network, it is possible that McMaster and Young had already discussed the wartime experiences shared by Jim and William. Any respect for blacks inculcated in Sherm by S. W. and William McMaster might have already been transmitted to Young and created the level of trust that speeded Sherman’s way out of town.

A third aspect of the story that raises questions is the Epitaph’s early report of a “liberal reward” paid for the return of the horses, “no questions asked.” The follow-up story of the 20th is ambiguous. From this, it is not clear if the original tale of a ransom turned out to be rumor, or whether Behan and Virgil Earp were simply not mixed up in any ransom paid. At this distance, it is impossible to tell whether the ransom was a cover story to account for McMaster’s voluntary return of one or both mounts.

* * *

What of the actions of two lawmen with the cleanest reputations? Did Virgil permit a man wanted for stagecoach robbery to escape? If so, why? Did Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul conspire in his escape by delaying a reply and by sending it through Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams?

Those who see the Earps as the upholders of law and order, point to Wyatt’s success in turning criminals like McMaster and Jack Johnson into informants as simply good police work. This episode in the Tombstone drama also provides support to those who think the Earps were in cahoots with the outlaw element in Cochise County. Ed Bartholomew in particular describes Sherman “Little Bill” McMaster as both a member of “the New Mexico gang” of “Billy the Kid” Leonard, Harry Head, Pony Deal, Texas Jack Vermillion, and John Ringo, and as a close associate of Wyatt Earp who “had more to do with the various stage robberies than was generally known.”(20) In fact, Bartholomew supposes that Deal and McMaster might have held up the Bisbee stage on the day before. Deal was taken prisoner by J.W. Evarts (this may be J.W. Evans), one of Paul’s deputies, at Harshaw, a town some 50 miles west of the holdup site. McMaster, meanwhile, had gone north and, with word that Stilwell and Spence were marked as the robbers, felt it safe to enter Tombstone. Bartholomew examines the same “misjudgments” of Earp and Paul that baffled the Epitaph and Nugget editors and finds within evidence of the Earps’ sinister entanglement with criminals. He suggests that Wyatt was busy bringing food to McMaster (“now wanted by the sheriffs of three Arizona counties”), when the two met on the road to Charleston and Sherm pointed the way to Wyatt’s stolen horse. But that roadside meeting happened some two months before the Globe stagecoach robbery and nine months before the Bisbee holdup.(21) Bartholomew’s inability to keep his chronology straight thoroughly undercuts his particular theory on an Earp-McMaster conspiracy built on highway robbery.

Sheriff Bob Paul’s actions in this episode merit some comment. He is criticized for delaying his reply to Virgil Earp, but his reply indicates he only received Earp’s telegram at 8:30 p.m. It is possible that he had simply been away from his office and replied as soon as he was apprised of the situation. More interesting is the fact that he replied through Wells Fargo’s Tombstone agent, Marshall Williams, rather than directly. Did Paul conspire with Williams and Earp to engineer McMaster’ escape? The question is worth asking, since “Williams… was a crook and was robbing the company,” according to Wells Fargo under cover agent Fred Dodge.(22) However, Virgil Earp and Bob Paul were men of a different stripe. Virgil’s service as a lawman certainly won the respect of Wells Fargo & Company. Paul’s long and distinguished career as a Wells Fargo shotgun messenger, sheriff of two counties and Southern Pacific Railroad detective mark him as a man who was not in cahoots with stagecoach robbers. What seems more likely is that Paul, while ignorant of Williams’ corruption, may have suspected or known that McMaster was actually a Wells Fargo or at least Wyatt’s informant, causing Paul to wire his arrest order-possibly in code–through Williams, who could alert Earp without raising suspicion. It is possible that Paul and Earp agreed not to arrest McMaster unless their hand was forced by the prior arrest of Deal. Pure speculation, of course, but it is consistent with McMaster’s status. He was Wyatt’s informant, and Wyatt was certainly Wells, Fargo’s man.(23)

Virgil’s actions on the night of Sherm’s escape remain the subject of controversy. The facts related by both the Epitaph and Nugget provide circumstantial evidence pointing to Virgil’s culpability. Certainly the episode raises serious questions. Peter Brand doubts that Virgil would have deliberately allowed Sherm to escape, thus making the City Marshal look inept. But the entire episode makes Virgil look inept. Knowing that he might have to effect an arrest at a moment’s notice, Earp remained unarmed until Paul’s reply reached him. Virgil’s delay might well have led to his embarrassment, injury or death should arrest be desired. Earp then sought help, neither from his deputies nor from Sheriff Behan, who was in town and apprised of the situation. Instead, Virgil called upon brother James. This is not as extraordinary as it sounds. James, though not known today as “a fighting Earp,” was no stranger to guns. Whenever trouble brewed, the brothers relied upon one another first. Wyatt was out of town and Morgan presumably unavailable. Perhaps James was merely handier than Behan or any other lawman. Given the circumstances, it is conceivable that Virgil needed a “deputy” whose discretion, rather than peacekeeping skills, could be trusted should McMaster be located. We don’t know. We know that Virgil and McMaster had a chance to talk after Earp sent his telegram to Bob Paul, but we don’t know what they talked about. And did Virgil aim to hit or to miss? His failure to hit McMaster with any of five shots might have been caused by the darkness, by the relative inaccuracy of an 1880s six-shooter at the distance of 75 to 100 feet, or by some other reason. Again, we don’t know.

Much is made of the loyalty that Wyatt Earp inspired in some. As far as the Earps were concerned, loyalty ran in two directions. In his deposition in the matter of the Lotta Crabtree estate, Wyatt explained how another man came to place himself in the precarious and lonely position of spy and traitor:

Well, I had this Johnson with me and the thing was getting pretty warm between me and the rustlers and Johnson had joined my party, and he had been identified with the other party for a while and they got on to him. I was using Johnson at that time the same as Chief Heath would use a stool pigeon, but we didn’t call them stool pigeons in those days. I was letting him get information for me. They had got on to him and of course it was a little dangerous for a man like that to get out alone and I went with him [to a rooming house on Fremont Street, to meet a woman who may have been both Johnson’s sister and Jack Crabtree’s wife].(24)

Later in the deposition, Wyatt added,

But this fellow Johnson appeared there in Tombstone and I got acquainted with him and he got down amongst the rustlers, going into Mexico and picking up a herd of cattle, and he got tired of that and he wanted to quit and I knew that he could give me a lot of information and get a lot of information from the other side so I took him in with my posse.(25)

In this deposition, Wyatt explains that he acted to ensure the safety of a man who had provided information about rustler activities and been “got on to” by the Cowboys. Wyatt also helped Johnson (whose real name was apparently Blunt) get up the petitions, which led the governor to pardon a brother convicted of manslaughter.(26)

It is not a great stretch to believe that Virgil Earp was loyal enough to Earp informant McMaster to make an “escape” look convincing. In fact, Virgil’s actions, notably his conversation that evening with Sherm, his delay in procuring a six-shooter, and his reliance on non-lawman James in an arrest situation, are all consistent with an interpretation that Virgil gave McMaster every chance to escape. Virgil’s “arrest” of Sherm’s original horse and the five shots he fired at McMaster are indications that Virgil was indeed performing his duty that night. However, Virgil’s hand may have been forced by that time. Even the remarkable emptying of his pistol (not a common occurrence in Tombstone before the street fight and future Helldorado celebrations) can be viewed as Virgil “protesting too much” in order to keep Ringo and friends from “getting on to” McMaster. We don’t know what Virgil was up to that night. And Virgil certainly didn’t know people would be arguing over 100 years later about his actions and intentions.

* * *

As for Pony Deal, he was later charged with participating in the shooting of Virgil but then released for lack of evidence. Before long, Wyatt was hunting him, unsuccessfully, on a charge of having robbed the Bisbee stage on January 6, 1882. Deal came out of hiding in time to join Sheriff Behan’s posse in hunting, or rather shadowing, Wyatt Earp after Stilwell’s death. Fred Dodge says Deal “was a bosom friend of John Ringo’s.”(27) Dodge adds, “Pony Deal worked mostly in his class with Johnny Barnes, and they were stage robbers and were implicated in most of the stage holdups in that vicinity in those times, but we could never get sufficient evidence to convict them. Pony Deal was killed in a little Mexican town near Fronteras in Sonora, Mexico.”(28) (Deal actually returned to New Mexico, where he was eventually incarcerated until 1887.) It is interesting that Dodge omits mention of McMaster as a regular partner of Deal

As mentioned earlier, Sherm McMaster played what was apparently an undercover role for Wyatt in the month following the attempted assassination of Virgil. He then openly rode with Wyatt, first in search of highwaymen, including Deal, and then as part of the vendetta ride. He left Arizona with Wyatt and then disappeared from history. His ultimate death has been the matter of much speculation. Will McLaury thought he had died by 1884. Wyatt later thought he died in the Philippines in 1898. The best evidence is the 1906 probate record filed by his siblings, indicating a death in Colorado in 1892.(29)

Sherm is something of a ubiquitous character in the Tombstone saga of Wyatt Earp. Here he is rustling mules, here he is pointing the way to a stolen horse, and there he is back to stealing horses. One moment, according to Dodge, he is standing shoulder to shoulder with Wyatt and Virgil Earp against a mob; eight months later he is running full speed ahead of the whistling bullets of that same Virgil.

In the absence of more evidence, much of what we have regarding Sherman McMaster remains supposition. I believe the available evidence points to independently supportive actions by-if not a conspiracy among-Virgil Earp, Bob Paul and the operators and hostler of the Contention Mine to keep Sherman, an Earp and possibly Wells, Fargo informant, out of jail in September 1881. That Sherman was nearly arrested and might have been shot trying to escape was the result of an incomplete understanding between the Pima County Sheriff and the Tombstone City Marshal of what they wanted to do with the undercover agent with the outstanding warrant on his head. Whatever the truth, McMaster’ fluid career and the mystery of his motives and personality make him one of the most intriguing figures of the Cochise County War and a figure ripe for further research and study.


~Footnotes~

# 1 Article originally published in the WOLA Journal, Vol. IX, No. 2, Summer 2000. The author encourages readers to check out membership in the Western Outlaw-Lawman History Association (WOLA), and the National Association of Outlaw-Lawman History. Both organizations have websites.

# 2 The recently issued Vista Series “Director’s Cut” DVD of Tombstone has restored the scene that explains how the McMasters character came to meet his death.

# 3 See the author’s “The World of Sherman McMaster(s),” published in the WOLA Journal, Vol. VII, No. 1, Autumn 1998, for a detailed description of Sherman’s family.

# 4 Information shared with author by Peter Brand in November 1999, can now be found in Brand’s “Sherman W. McMaster(s): The El Paso Salt War, Texas Rangers, & Tombstone,” published in the WOLA Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Winter 1999, and “The Escape of Curly Bill Brocius,” published in the WOLA Journal, Vol. IX, No. 2, Summer 2000.

# 5 Unless otherwise noted, cited newspapers are from the files of the Arizona Historical Society Library in Tucson.

# 6 Mr. Kingsbury’s first name and other information is found in Roy B. Young, Cochise County Cowboy War: A Cast of Characters, Young & Sons Enterprises, (1999), p. 75. The Epitaph formally apologized in the September 11, 1881 edition to Mr. Kingsbury “and his assistants” for implying that the Western Union employees were in any way to blame for the delayed delivery of the message from Paul to Earp.

# 7 See Dave Cruickshank to Phil Rasch, 24 June 1981, Philip J. Rasch Collection, MS 0677, Box 3, Folder 16, Arizona Historical Society (AHS), for a reference to this story.

# 8 Casey Tefertiller, The Life Behind the Legend, Wiley (1997), p. 75.

# 9 Philip J. Rasch, Desperadoes of Arizona Territory, NOLA & Western Publications (1999), p. 27. The book includes two articles dealing with Deal: “The Resurrection of Pony Deal” (1957), and “Ray, Alias Deal” (1969).

# 10 Tombstone Epitaph, July 30 and August 5, 1880. One note of caution: Census records indicate that the West was teeming with people named McMaster or McMaster. The 1880 Census for Pima County is incompletely legible, so it is impossible to determine from that source whether Sherman is our alleged mule thief. That the alleged thief was named DeMasters is not persuasive one way or the other. We know that Sherman was widely known by at least one altered version of his true surname, and the 1906 Rock Island County probate record for Sherman was misfiled under the name of “Master” in 1996.

# 11 Ed Bartholomew, Wyatt Earp: The Man & The Myth, Frontier Book Co. (1964), p. 116

# 12 Conversations with Scott Nelson, July 22 and October 11, 1999.

# 13 Allen “Budd” Blount pardon petitions on file with Arizona Department of Library, Archives & Public Records, Archives Division, RG R66, Box 41.

# 14 When Sherman joined the Texas Rangers in September, 1878, he brought with him either an excellent horse, valued at $90, or a rather mediocre mount pegged at $40. (One of two available Ranger records transposes the amounts.) Either only one horse in the Ranger detachment—the commander’s—was worth more than McMaster’s horse, or only one was worth less. In any case, Sherman knew enough about horses to miss the “splendid mare” he left behind in Tombstone.

# 15 William M. Breakenridge, Helldorado: Bringing the Law to the Mesquite, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928, pp. 141-42. As “Breck” well knew, Bob Paul was the Sheriff of Pima County, not a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Perhaps the error belongs to William McLeod Raines, who may have been the ghostwriter of Helldorado.

# 16 Richard Maxwell Brown, No Duty to Retreat, Univ. of Oklahoma Press (1994), p. 76.

# 17 Alford E. Turner, The Earps Talk, Creative Publishing Co. (1980), p. 81, n. 1.

# 18 The Nugget and Epitaph both used a racial epithet to identify Jim as an African-American.

# 19 Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), p. 102.

# 20 Bartholomew, p. 116.

# 21 Ibid., p. 208.

# 22 Fred Dodge, Under Cover for Wells, Fargo, Houghton Mifflin (1960)

# 23 Allen Barra is one Earp authority who posits that McMaster was a “possible Wells, Fargo informant.” See Inventing Wyatt Earp, Carroll & Graf (1998), p. 232, as well as pp. 126 and 156.

# 24 Deposition of Wyatt S. Earp in matter of the Estate of Lotta Crabtree, p. 308. The copy on file with the Arizona Historical Society did not include the date of deposition.

# 25 Ibid., pp. 311-312.

# 26 The documents relating to the conviction and pardon of Allen “Budd” Blount are on file with the Arizona Department of Library, Archives & Public Records.

# 27 Letter from Fred Dodge to Stuart Lake, September 30, 1929, in Dodge, p. 240.

# 28 Ed Bartholomew, Wyatt Earp: The Man & The Myth, Frontier Book Co. (1964), p. 242.

# 29 For the 1892 date, see the probate records in Rock Island County, Illinois. Sherman’s case is misfiled under the name, “Sherman M. Master.”