Ghost Hunting Chronicles: The Old Bisbee Jail House

It is said that Bisbee, Arizona is one of the Southwest’s most haunted towns with notable haunts such as Brewery Gulch, The Copper Queen Hotel, The Bisbee Inn, The Bisbee Mining Museum, The Queen Mine and the Grand Hotel just to name a few.

There are numerous ghost sightings reported as far back as the turn of the century.

Bisbee grew out of the sides of the Mule Mountains as a Copper, Silver and Gold mining community. In the early days, it was a rough town with notable outlaws such as the Clanton Gang and Frank Stilwell and lawmen such as Wyatt and Virgil Earp amongst its patrons.

From its early beginnings in 1880 until 1910 the town boomed and stores, houses and shops suddenly sprang up. Along with the boom came the dark side of prostitution, gambling, corruption and gunfights.

Floods and fires destroyed the town on several occasions and the population suffered from Typhoid Fever and Small Pox due to the poor sanitary condition of some of the less-than cosmopolitan areas of town.

Bisbee also had its fair share of barroom fights, gunfights and murder.
And with such a history, I started my ghost hunting in Bisbee, Arizona at the rest-stop for many – The Bisbee Jail House.

This was one of my first ghost hunting experiences outside of Ontario and one that started my ghost hunting in the South West. Armed with the most advanced ghost detection equipment, a pad, paper and 35mm camera I spent the night in the jailhouse.

The Jail is located on OK Street just a short distance from Brewery Gulch and the Copper Queen Hotel. The streets are narrow, winding and eerily empty at night and as I arrived I was given keys to the jail and made my way to the 2nd floor room I was staying in. It over-looked the street below where it is said numerous ghost sightings have taken place including eye-witness accounts of a woman with earthworms crawling out of her decayed eye-socket.

The night was comfortable as the daytime temperatures gave way to a cool evening. I was alone in my cell and started to feel as if someone else was finally with me.

I jotted down the name that came to me: “Johnny” and a last name starting with an "ha" sound.

I started to feel a cold spot develop around my neck and back and snapped a few pictures but got nothing out of the ordinary.

Then I heard rough words echoing from the front lobby below (which was the jail-keepers original room). “Get in!”

It was an audible shout and I went to investigate but the room and OK Street were empty and quiet.

I asked if anyone was there and I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and saw the apparition of an arm, but it quickly disappeared.

“Johnny?” I asked but did not get a response.

“Who’s here with me?” I probed.

And then I heard the words whispered: “You don’t belong here.”

I probed with more questions and took more photos but nothing materialized. I went back to the jail cells to see if I can find more.

I wrote down the words and phrases that came into my mind’s eye – “The empty lot” – “Fire – it burned down.” And “Tell Sally I miss her.”

So where was this empty lot? Who was Johnny and who was Sally?

I pressed for last names and more information but didn’t get anything.

The night drew on and I managed to sleep comfortably after 3am and awaking at 9am. I felt refreshed and snapped out of bed to find out if anyone named Johnny or Sally were connected to the jail.

As I walked down OK street I turned a corner and found the empty lot. And it looked like it had been empty for some time. Here, I got the distinct feeling that both Johnny and Sally were and still are and somehow connected to the jail.

Searching the historic records I found a famous Johnny – John Heath, a Bisbee Saloon owner. I also found connected to him a Sally R., a saloon prostitute. No one knows what happened to Sally, but John Heath’s history is demise is very colourful.

On December 8, 1883, five men held up the Goldwater and Castenada Store in Bisbee, leaving behind four people dead, including a pregnant woman.

The vicious robbers included Daniel “Big Dan” Dowd, Comer W. “Red” Sample, Daniel “York” Kelly, William “Billy” Delaney and James “Tex” Howard.

Having heard that a $7,000 payroll for the Copper Queen Mine was held for safekeeping in the store, two of the men charged inside demanding the money, while the other three waited outside.

However, to their disappointment, they discovered that the payroll had not yet arrived. Angered, they then took what money was in the safe (reports vary from $900 to $3,000) and robbed the staff and customers of any valuables.

In the meantime, the three outlaws waiting outside began a shooting spree, first aiming through a window and killing a customer named J.C. Tappenier. Hearing the shot, Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith, who operated the jailhouse, came running and was immediately shot down by the bandits.

A bullet gone wild entered a boarding house, killing a pregnant Annie Roberts. Another shot hit a man named J.A. Nolly as he stood outside his office. Yet another unknown man took a bullet in the leg as he was trying to run away from the shooting spree.

The town leaders wasted no time notifying Sheriff J.L. Ward in Tombstone by telegraph. Ward soon formed two posses, with himself leading one, and Deputy Sheriff William Daniels, leading another.

When Daniels arrived in Bisbee he began to question its citizens, including John Heath, whose saloon was just down the street from the Goldwater-Castaneda Mercantile. Heath told Daniels that he knew the men involved and could probably help to lead then to outlaws.

Though Daniels was apprehensive of Heath, due to his already having a reputation as an unsavory character, he also hoped to quickly apprehend the outlaws. With Heath at the lead, the posse found nothing and soon accused Heath of leading them on a false trail.

Heath returned to his saloon and the posse continued to search for the outlaws. Though it took several weeks, all five were found, two in Mexico, one in New Mexico, and the other two in Clifton, Arizona.

When questioned, some of the outlaws began to indicate that John Heath knew more about the crime than he should have. Soon, the authorities brought Heath in and began to question him. Under pressure, Heath “fessed” up to having prior knowledge of the crime and many believed that he probably master-minded the whole affair.

All were scheduled to be tried, but Heath requested a separate trial and was given it. Furious Bisbee citizens awaited the outcome of the outlaws involved in what had become known as the “Bisbee Massacre.”

On Feburary 17th, the trial began for the five killers and two days later they were all sentenced to be hanged on March 8, 1884.

Heath’s trial began on February 20th, where he admitted to being the mastermind of the robbery, indicating that the others lacked the intelligence. However, he adamantly insisted that the killings were never a part of the plan and that he was in no way responsible for the actions of the other five men. A coward at heart, he even admitted that when he heard the shots being fired, he hid behind the bar of his own saloon. The next day, Heath was convicted of second degree murder and conspiracy to commit robbery, and sentenced to life in the Yuma prison.

Though Heath was obviously relieved, the citizens of Bisbee were furious and determined to do something about it. Early on the morning of February 22nd, a mob of some 50 men, led by Mike Shaughnessy, descended upon the Tombstone jail and dragged Heath from his cell into the dusty street.

At the corner of First and Toughnut Streets, they looped a rope over the crossbeam of a telegraph pole, as Heath continually claimed his innocence. The vigilantes were not listening.

In his last moments, he said: “I have faced death too many times to be disturbed when it actually comes." As the rope began to pull him skyward, he cried out one last request, "Don't mutilate my body or shoot me full of holes!"

Public approval of the hanging was reflected in the verdict of the coroner's jury:
"We the undersigned, a jury of inquest, find that John Heath came to his death from emphysema of the lungs--a disease common in high altitudes--which might have been caused by strangulation, self-inflicted or otherwise."

The other five killers' scheduled hanging for March 8th remained unchanged, soon taking on a carnival like atmosphere. Free tickets were issued for the event, but when Sheriff Ward ran out of them, an enterprising business man built bleachers around the gallows and began selling yet more tickets.

However, famous business woman, gold prospector, and spiritual caretaker, Nellie Cashman, objected adamantly to the circus that was surrounding the event. Outraged at the citizens’ behavior and feeling that no death should be “celebrated,” she soon befriended the five convicts, visiting them often and providing them with spiritual guidance.

She pleaded with Sheriff Ward to place a curfew on the town during the time that the hangings were to take place. Ward conceded and the vast majority of interested onlookers were not allowed to watch the “event.” In the meantime, she and some friends had destroyed the bleachers that had been built. When the five men were standing on the gallows, reportedly Dan Dowd remarked that the multi-gallows were a “regular choking machine.”

Unfortunately, he was right, because of the five men, only one died of a broken neck, the other four dying slowly of strangulation.

After they were executed, the men were buried in Tombstone's Boot Hill cemetery. Cashman also found out that there was a plan to rob the bodies from their graves for a medical school study. This, too, outraged the woman and she hired two prospectors to guard the graves for ten days, which were left undisturbed and remain at Boot Hill today.

On such history I went to Tombstone, Arizona to the death site of John Heath and to his gravesite in Boot Hill Cemetery. At the Boot Hill cemetery, I found the marker for the five men and also the gravesite of John Heath. I found nothing particularly haunted about the gravesites and later researched that John Heath’s body was removed and re-buried in a family plot in Texas.

Today, you can visit Bisbee and all the history it offers. In the 1970s it was re-invented by the hippie culture and offers one of the best artist-communities in North America. You can also stay a night in the old Bisbee Jail House. It is now operated as a unique hotel and who knows – you might also encounter some ghostly never-do-gooders.

This investigation continued with further investigations in Cochise County, Arizona.


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About This Blog

Out of the Dark: The Ghost Hunting Chronicles is a blog providing detailed investigations of the Out of the Dark team, paranormal news and editorial.

It will also feature the past investigations of paranormal investigator and author John Savoie.