November 14 , 2017Look Ups
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Recorded by R.J. Kelley, Field Reporter

Business compelled me one day last week to lay over several hours in Benson. To spend the time and meet those of the old timers who might be around, I dropped into what Bishop Potter so aptly termed, the poor man’s club, the local saloon. A few minutes later, an expensive automobile drew up to the curb outside. Two young ladies got out, and, to my amazement, coolly entered the saloon, stepped up to the bar near me, placed a foot on the rail and ordered a drink which they drank as casually as if it were tea. Then they were on their way.

I gasped, took one good look at them and then pondered. I must be an old fogy or what the present generation called a mid-Victorian. Yes, they were ladies. Their clothing, of good quality, simple, modest and well fitted. Foot gear, neat and dainty. As they drank, they conversed. Their excellent grammar and well cultivated voices,  properly modulated, proclaimed fine educations in good schools. Undoubtedly they were of respectable families.

Then I remember the last time I had seen women in an Arizona saloon. It was an entirely different class of women. It was Thanksgiving week of 1906, thirty years ago, in this same Benson and only about four doors down the street from where I now stood. How would these young ladies had fitted in a picture of that night? How would they have reacted to the smell of gun powder smoke, the noise of Colt and Luger and the yells of customers when the lights were shot out and blood was shed? Would it have disturbed their icy composure; or would they have jumped for cover as the rest of us did?

The day before Thanksgiving 1906, I reached Benson on my way to Mazatlan, Sinaloa. It was one of the busiest places in Arizona at that time. Prettily situated on the San Pedro River it was in the midst of a rich cattle raising and mining country. Being the terminus of the Benson-Guaymas road, the only gateway into Old Mexico on the west coast, its trade with that country was enormous. Cowboys, miners, Mexicans and Chinamen filled the streets, each adding a touch of color and individuality to the general ensemble. Saloons abounded and gamblers were plentiful. There was usually something doing all the time. Therefore, it was to my secret delight I learned there was to be an indefinite break to my trip. All the railroad trains to Mexico were tied up. There was a strike on the line. A dead Mexican had been found near the track someplace down in Sonora. Following a quaint old Mexican custom, the authorities there had arrested the nearest train crew and put all of them in prison. The charge was murder.

All the other train crews up and down the line had stopped their trains the minute they received the news and gone on a strike until their fellow railroaders were released, hence not a wheel was turning. By the way, this entire stoppage of railroad operations from this cause, was a common event in those days. As the trainmen were mostly Americans, it was regarded as an American-Mexican battle of stubbornness. Every time anyone was found killed or even hurt, on or near the railroad right of way, the nearest train crew was arrested. A strike would follow and the men released after a few days of imprisonment. That would be all. One would think that after the first few such strikes, the Mexican Government would adopt a modus operandi to prevent such disruption to traffic, but it happened every so often from the start of the road in 1882 and maybe still going on for all I know to the contrary. Maybe it was the Mexican way to admonish the train crews to be more careful whether they were to blame or not. The average American railroader in Mexico those days were certainly a reckless bunch, to say the least.

As a result of this delay, Benson hotels filled up with bankers, drummers, mining men and Mexicans southward bound. Under Pres. Porfirio Diaz, Mexico welcomed and protected outside capital, with the result its mining and agricultural districts boomed. This, in turn, created a demand for more railroad facilities down the west coast of Mexico, which the S.P.R.R. was meeting by extending the Sonora railroad from Guaymas to Guadalajara. As there were no theaters, automobiles, movies or Y.M.C.A. building, these strangers, in accordance with the customs of the day, naturally gravitated to the saloons. One such place opposite the railroad station was the principal gathering point. Its bar was on the left of the big [missing word] as you entered. On the right was a roulette wheel, next a big cast iron stove (remember this stove), then a couple of card tables and at the far end, an old piano. An immense coal oil lamp suspended from the ceiling near the front was the main source of illumination. A small oil lamp on the piano relieved the darkness of the rear.

It was owned by a Jesse Fisher and the principal bartender, who also acted as croupier and card dealer in emergencies, was a character well known in Southern Arizona as, “Jack the Ripper”. His real name was unknown to most people. If you wished to attain a ripe old age, you did not ask people questions concerning their names. The etiquette of those days was very strict on this point of good breeding. Both were tin horn gamblers and at various times for some years before had owned saloons, tended bar or run gambling games in many of the new mining towns in Cochise County such as Pearce, Black Diamond and Tombstone.

Each new train left additions to this stranded crowd so Thanksgiving eve found a hilarious bunch recklessly playing the games and drinking. Several “hostesses”, a common saloon feature of the times, added to the liveliness. These girls were usually a tough husky class that could out drink most men. Their income was a percentage of the money spent by those customers who invited them to the bar. They had some peculiar ideas. They looked down with scorn on their sisters who walked the streets or resided in the secluded district. Thanksgiving Day came and still no Mexican train service, so the revelry continued unconfined and somewhat unrefined.

Jack the Ripper ran the roulette wheel that morning. The play was quite heavy, but about one in the afternoon most of the patrons left to enjoy their Thanksgiving turkey and the games closed temporarily. I remember Fisher and Jack the Ripper checking up the roulette wheel then. First, they put the money representing the bank, or, in other words, the money backing the table, in one canvas sack. The rest was the winnings, or profit of the morning. This counted up to $612.00 Fisher put this into another sack except for the $12.00 which he shoved over to Jack as a tip, or extra fee for his expert handling of the crowd and table. Jack was dissatisfied. “Hell, twelve dollars is dam little for making you six hundred dollars in only a few hours. You’re stingy”, he remarked to Fisher. He repeated this several times, but otherwise did not seem very sore for a few hours later, he and Fisher left together for their Thanksgiving dinner, leaving a bar tender in charge. They returned around six, both very friendly, although it was apparent they had taken some liquid refreshment with their meal.

More trains had passed through in the meantime. The crowd was larger, all the games were running, someone continually banged on the tiny piano and some of the hostesses tried to sing. It rapidly developed into a large night.

Spurred and armed cowboys, newly arrived from their ranches entered, and, in accordance with the Arizona law that required guns to be removed within thirty minutes on reaching town, gave their 45’s to the bar-tender until they were ready to leave, and then danced with their spurs on. Weary, Arizona-wise drummers drank just enough to get comfortably lit-up in a sociable way and then drank enough afterwards to stay in that mellowed condition. One immaculately dressed far Easterner held aloof from the rest of the crowd, drinking only a little wine occasionally. We thought him somewhat snobbish and speculated whether or not he was a preacher, until he suddenly came apart, slapped a couple of twenty dollar gold pieces on the bar, collected all the hostesses and invited the whole house up to have a drink. Gold and silver were the only medium of exchange  in those days. Anything smaller than a two-bit piece was absolutely unknown in these parts. I sat on a stool in back of the roulette wheel taking it all in. It was vastly different from anything I had ever seen or heard of in Boston. Occasionally I bought a cigar or put a few chips on the roulette game to somewhat repay the house for the space I was occupying. It was a bitterly cold night outside and the hotel rooms were bare and cheerless. Everyone was in a good natured mood. Several rich Mexican land owners from the interior of Mexico were present. They seemed to turn up their noses at our American whiskey. Not being able to get their native mescal, anything short of sulphuric sold was tasteless to them. Fisher, the owner, drank but little. He had to keep order. I remember his telling one of the girls she had better wear longer dresses when she appeared on the streets, lest she get the whole outfit in bad with the law. I looked. The naughty girl’s dress was actually a full five inches from the floor. I was disappointed. The only discordant element was Jack the Ripper. Every time he passed near Fisher, he would mutter, “stingy”. Whereupon the latter would be driven to drink.

The drinks flew faster. Soon, a rather large girl was sitting on the knees of a little bandy legged cowpuncher telling him all about her troubles. The Mexican Grandees started playing the wheel in a big way. They selected a few numbers and piled the limit on each. Had any of those numbers ever come up they would have been the new owners of the saloon, wheel and all.

At last I decided to retire. Everyone was getting woozy and the hour was late. As I started for the door, I was startled by seeing Jack the Ripper produce the house gun, a big forty-five, from behind the bar. Like a chump I stopped to see what he was going to do. A few others saw him at the same time. They were more experienced. Those that could threw themselves down in front of the bar out of his sight. “Bang” went the Colt. The bullet shot out the big coal oil lamp causing semi darkness. I made one grand dive for that big cast iron stove before mentioned. If that had been anything larger near, I would have selected it. As fast as I was, a big New York drummer was faster. He calmly tossed me back. One glance at the doorway showed me I was too late there. It was jammed to the top. About twenty men had tried to go out at once together. Result, all their heads and shoulders outside and the rest of their bodies inside, legs kicking wildly. They appeared piled there like cord wood. “Bang” went the Colt again and the chimney of the small lamp at the rear crashed. I made a second dive for that stove, but the big nosed drummer again repelled me. Again the Colt spoke, then a man yelled and another gun joined in. It spitted a fusillade and by the sing of its slugs, I knew it to be a Luger automatic, a new type of gun just appearing in Arizona. Burnt powder smoke filled my nostrils. This was plainly no time to fool around out in the open. Remembering my football training, I tackled low and hard and heaved that drummer into the beyond where he commenced to squawk like a stuck pig. Unless you have been in a similar situation, you will never appreciate the beauty and advantages of the old fashioned big coal oil burners over the little tin heaters of today.

The Colt spoke again and the Luger soon answered with a second volley. Evidently its owner had slipped in a second clip. Even then I noted that each “zing” of the Luger was accompanied by an ominous “zip”, sounding pretty much like when you shoot into a wild bull.

By the noise from the rear I knew the rear door was also jammed. There was no more shooting and the front door soon cleared of its human dam. Not knowing exactly what might happen next and fearing the guns were simply being reloaded, I leaped outside and then stopped, standing as close to the building as I could and right beside the doorway. I correctly guessed the nearby doorways were already filled with my late companions who would probably welcome much as the drummer had. I was willing to be in any other spot far away from there, but there was no thick side of a building or cast iron stove handy to convey me thither. Ever since, I have been strangely attracted by thick walled buildings.

From the time the Colt had first “blammed”, until the last Lugar slug “zinged”, I do not think more than twenty seconds elapsed. It must have been a full moon for, outside, everything was almost as light as daytime. There was no more shooting. Everything grew deathly quiet. I was the only one in sight on the main street. Shortly, a few cautious heads appeared above a stone wall across the road that separated the highway from the railroad grounds. The doorways around disgorged  their occupants. Townspeople  appeared and soon a great crowd collected. I turned my head before they arrived and cautiously looked inside. The interior was quite dim. The crazy little lamp on the piano was smoking badly and giving a little light. The smashed chimney strewing the top of the piano. The reflection from the moonlight helped. Jack the Ripper was still at the bar, leaning over it on both elbows it seemed. As I looked, he slumped over backward to the floor.

It so happened that Harry Wheeler, then a Lieutenant of our Arizona Rangers, was in town. He appeared and took charge of the proceedings. An inquest was immediately held.

Then we learned that the user of the Luger automatic was Jesse Fisher. With his left hand he was holding onto that area below and behind his left hip where the Ripper’s third shot had punctured him. It was only a flesh wound, though rather inconvenient. Jack the Ripper was completely dead.
Fisher stated that when the Ripper shot out the lights he thought it was simply friendly fun, but when the third shot stung him where it did, he felt he must stop the racket lest Jack hurt someone else. Of course, all the other witnesses corroborated Fisher and he was freed on the spot.

All the Luger slugs hit in Jack’s breast. A silver dollar would have covered most of them. They made one big hole right through. Pretty good shooting in the dark.

I went to bed. Arose late the next day. Went down town. Business as usual everywhere. All the business houses, including Fishers saloon were open. A new barman was on duty. Hardly a word to be heard anywhere concerning the flare up of the night before. The Benson of those days had seen too many saloon killings to be excited by this little affray.

That afternoon a train pulled in from Nogales. The Mexican officials had turned the Americans loose and we left around six o’clock for Sonora.

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