Wild West Wednesday: The Ruby Murders

WildWestWednesdayThis Wild West Wednesday article is a continuation of last week’s Ghost Town Wednesday article about Ruby, Arizona.  In case you missed it, you can read it here.  In 1914 the Ruby Mercantile was sold by Julias Andrews to Philip Clarke, who moved his family to Ruby and built a bigger store up on a hill.

The Clarke family soon discovered the dangers of living in Ruby with its proximity to the Mexican border and the presence of bandits in the area.  According to Legends of America, store owner Philip Clarke and his wife kept guns in every room of their home and store.  Clarke later moved his wife and children to a nearby town while he continued to operate the mercantile.

By 1920 Clarke had purchased substantial acreage and cattle in the area and sold his store to John and Alexander Fraser.  The Fraser brothers were warned about Mexican bandits – to be forewarned was to be forearmed.  They may not have heeded Clarke’s warning, however, because on February 27, 1920 both were found shot inside their store.  Alexander had been shot dead in the back and head and John, still alive with a shot to his left eye, died five hours later.

Authorities suspected that the bandits were “Villistas” – cohorts of Francisco “Pancho” Villa.  They cut the store’s telephone wires and later speculated that as Alexander was opening the safe to comply with the bandits’ demands he was shot from behind.  Santa Cruz County Sheriff Ray Earhart noted that the bandits, however, had left behind about seven hundred dollars in thrift

Earhart quickly assembled a posse and was joined by the Tucson Chief of Police Oliver Parmer, his officers and their bloodhounds.  Federal troops were requested to escort the lawmen to the international border, but when the trail went cold the lawmen returned to Ruby.

A school teacher had noticed two Mexican men eating apples near the post office the day of the murder and investigators had found fresh footprints with heel marks typical of someone wearing high-heeled cowboy boots.  Earhart printed circulars and distributed them around the area in hopes that someone would recognize the two bandits.

Frank Pearson and his wife became the new owners of the mercantile, and along with their young daughter Margaret, lived in the store.  Pearson was aware of the Fraser murders but apparently didn’t think that history would repeat itself.  How wrong he was.

On the morning of August 26, 1921 Pearson and his wife Myrtle rode their horses up in the surrounding hills and spotted a band of Mexicans on their way into town.  Thinking the Mexicans might want to purchase supplies at their store, they rode back to town.  The Mexicans asked for tobacco, but when Pearson turned around to get it for them he was shot dead in the back, although he did grab his own gun and fire off three wild shots.

Myrtle ran into the store screaming for the murderers to stop, but when one bandit noticed she had gold crowns on her teeth he assaulted her, shot her in the neck and knocked her gold teeth out with the butt of his gun.  According to an account given by Oliver Parmer, one of the lawmen involved in the manhunts surrounding the series of murders, and published in the March 1936 issue of Startling Detective Magazine, Margaret had walked in on the scene but was grabbed by one of Myrtle’s sisters, Irene.   She quickly rolled the two of them under a couch and out of sight. Another of Myrtle’s sisters, Elizabeth, crawled behind the counter to find Frank’s gun but was spotted by one of the bandits and grazed.

After killing Frank and Myrtle and wounding Elizabeth, the bandits ransacked the store and took money, stamps, money orders and groceries, then tore out of town on their horses.  Elizabeth and Irene took their niece Margaret and walked to the nearest ranch, eight miles away, to report the robbery and murders.

Bisbee_Daily_Review_Sat__Aug_27__1921_Later that day Sheriff George White (Earhart’s successor) and his deputies arrived at the crime scene and found the carnage.  White noted that Frank Pearson had been shot in the same fashion and approximately the same location in the store as had Alexander Fraser the year before.  The telephone wires had also been destroyed again.  Some locals had spoken of a curse on the mercantile building, brought about by a warning from a man called Tio Pedro who had predicted nothing but bad luck for the owners since the store and post office were built over an old padre’s grave.

Authorities in Nogales suspected that the leader of the seven bandits was Ysiquiel Lara, and that he and his gang were responsible for both incidents. A $5,000 bounty was posted for their capture and the hunt was one.  An Army biplane was even dispatched to aid the search – the first aircraft in Arizona history to be used in such a way.

According to Bob Ring, author of Ruby, Arizona: Mining, Mayhem and Murder, the murderers involved in the first incident were Ysiquiel Lara and Manual Garcia.  Lara was later imprisoned for another murder while Garcia died in a shootout with lawmen on October 12, 1920.  As it turned out, two others were responsible for the Pearson murders.

Three days following the murder, local residents formally petitioned the United States War Department for a detachment of solders to protect the area.  Sheriff White had meanwhile begun executing his own plan for capturing the bandits.  He and Oliver Parmer slipped across the border at Sonora and spoke with Mexican officials, who gave them assurance of their full cooperation, this even though there was as yet no formal extradition treaty between the two countries.

On September 6, White was informed by Mexican General Calles Plank that his soldiers had encountered two men at a café in Sonora who claimed to have robbed the Ruby post office.  White, Parmer and four deputies headed for the area just north of Sonora, hoping to pick up the bandits’ trail.  They wandered around the mountains and through the sagebrush for two days and found nothing.

During the fall and winter, several tips were pursued but garnered nothing and the suspects later released.  White was sure the bandits were holed up somewhere in the Sonoran mountains just waiting to strike again.  However, on the off-chance they had crossed into the United States, he and his posse continued the search.

In April of 1922 one of White’s deputies happened to be in a bar in Sasabe, Sonora, about thirty-five miles southwest of Ruby.  There he overheard a conversation between the bartender and one of his patrons.  The conversation was regarding some sort of bargain and went something like this:

“Sell you all of them for three pesos?”  “No, I’ve only got two pesos.”  “Guess I’ll keep them.”

The deputy casually glanced in the direction of their conversation and saw what was being bartered – five gold teeth.  The deputy asked the Mexican how he had obtained the gold teeth.  The man said that Manuel Martinez had sold them to him the previous fall – he had paid only sixty-five centavos for them.

To the astonishment of the bartender, the deputy paid his asking price and was sure he had stumbled upon a key clue in the case.  White and Parmer examined the teeth and were certain as well.  They suspected two vaqueros by the names of Manuel Martinez and Placido Silvas.

RubyPosseSilvas was brought in for questioning and charged with murder and a trial was scheduled.  Martinez was more elusive and a manhunt ensued.  When tracked down in the mountains and threatened with lynching, Martinez confessed.  He was brought in just as Silva’s jury was about to start deliberations, but after Martinez was booked Silva’s jury was dismissed to await further evidence from Martinez’s case.

He had confessed to the murders but still pleaded not guilty.  A few days later, however, it took the jury only forty minutes to find Martinez guilty of first degree murder.  Curiously, Silva’s case was retried the next day but the jury hung on the verdict.  Another trial was convened, lasting twenty-one days, and Silvas was ultimately found guilty as well.

On July 12 the two appeared before the court to receive their sentences.  Martinez was to be hanged on August 18, 1922 and Silvas received life imprisonment at the Arizona state penitentiary.  The judge declared their crimes the cruelest he had ever seen committed in Arizona, and the punishment he gave them was meant as a warning to anyone else thinking of committing such acts of mayhem.

End of story?  Not quite.  Santa Cruz County Sheriff George White and his deputy L.A. Smith transported the two prisoners to the state penitentiary in Florence.  The sheriff of Pima County received a call saying the prisoner car had been found rolled over in a ditch.  Nearby were the bodies of White (dead) and Smith (barely alive) with their skulls caved in.

RubyMurderersIt was speculated that Martinez and Silvas had jumped from the moving car and the investigators later found the blood-stained wrench they had used to bludgeon the lawmen, according to Oliver Parmer’s account.    Another manhunt ensued, but with an accompanying rainstorm their search dogs lost the scent.  Deputy Smith died later and news of a third double murder brought posses from neighboring counties, determined to capture the murderous duo.  Five days following the prisoners’ escape around seven hundred men were on the hunt.

On the sixth day a blood-stained file was located, and probably the instrument Martinez and Silvas used to cut off their handcuffs.  The trail picked back up and the two were finally captured hiding in brush in the Tumacacori Mountains.  They had gone about seventy miles on foot and were hungry, thirsty and exhausted.  The posse wasted no time transporting them to the state prison.

On August 18, Martinez was granted a stay at the last moment.  His appeals went on for some time, but when he had exhausted all avenues another execution date was set – May 10, 1923.  The Mexican Consul intervened with a writ on that day to delay the execution.  The Supreme Court became involved, quashed the writ and on August 10, 1923 Martinez was hanged.

Silvas managed to escape again, however, on December 3, 1928 and was never seen again.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2015.

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