Tombstone: Marshal Fred White

 He was born Frederick G. White sometime around the year 1849.  Many just called him Fred and he would go down in history as the first “town marshal” of Tombstone when Arizona was a territory and the town was just new.  It was on January 6, 1880 when White was elected when Tombstone only had around 1,000 residents.  He died from an accidental shooting while in office when he was only in his early 30’s.  After his death, Virgil Earp took over as marshal of Tombstone.  Some people say that the spirit of Fred White can be seen lingering around the street where he was shot.

In movies, White was seen as an old gentleman, with a not so pleasant disposition and not conforming to the standards of what a lawman should be.  Many would say he was well liked and had the respect of not only the Earps, but the Cowboys as well.  It was told he had their cooperation when having to arrest any members of the Cowboys.  You would think that with “Curly” Bill Brocius nasty behavior they would be mortal enemies, but the stories told are that they actually got along.  So how did Brocius accidentally shoot White to death?

History says that on October 28, 1880 some of the members of the Cowboys were in town consuming lots of liquor, were rowdy, and shot their pistols up to the night sky.  White dealt with each of them, surrendering their weapons without confrontation.  When he met up with Curly Bill, he found him extremely drunk and shooting his gun off.  White demanded his pistol and Curly Bill handed it to him barrel first.  When White snatched the weapon, it discharged and shot him in the groin area.  Wyatt Earp, who witnessed the shooting, pistol-whipped Curly Bill and knocked him unconscious thinking he shot him on purpose.  Wyatt and his brother Morgan eventually arrested him for shooting Marshal White.

Curly Bill was said to have regretted shooting White and that it was an accident.  White lived for only two days after the shooting.  He died in October of 1880 and just before his death he testified that the shooting was an accident.  He noted that the gun was half cocked and because Curly Bill was so drunk he never noticed it.  Because of White’s testimony, all charges were dropped against Curly Bill.  White was buried in the Boot Hill Cemetery (old city cemetery) in Tombstone.  A sign stands at the site where Marshal Fred White was shot by Curly Bill Brocius.

Tombstone, Allen Street, 1882


  1. I remember Fred White from the movie Tombstone. It is good to read the back story. Movies never go to deeply into these things and the history is so often wrong.

    1. Yeah, I checked several different sources and some information was not exact. All of the sources said he was in his early 30's when he died.

  2. As a police psychologist for the last 24 years I find the supposed "testimony" of Martial White and of Curly Bill suspect, in that:
    1. If the two men were on friendly terms it is quite possible that White was trying to defend a friend.
    2. If White says it was dark and he "didn't notice" the hand gun was cocked, he may have had enough doubt to make the above statement.
    3. Against this is the fact that no one only half-cocks a colt unless it is to load the pistol--in fact the cylinder of the gun moves out of "battery" at half cock and even if a round did discharged the bullet would miss the barrel and plow through the ejector rod at the side of the guns barrel, i.e., the gun would blow up.
    4. Also, if the intention is to fire the weapon it is at "full cock," the trigger cannot be pulled at any other time, meaning; if Whites statement was that the pistol discharged when he "snatched" it Curly Bill would have had to fully cock the weapon first--meaning he intended to shoot the weapon.
    5. Brocious later bragged to several cowboys that he shot White on purpose preforming a "boarder shift" (holding the gun butt first then using your crooked trigger finger to spin the gun into firing position to simply pull the trigger) which would then discharge the weapon.
    To conclude: Either White was lying because it was dark and he "didn't notice" the gun having been cocked (he would be testifying to something he didn't see), or Brocious was lying to his cowboy friends about his boarder shift.
    Finally, as a police psychologist I see "risk taking behavior" every day of the week. Both criminals and law enforcement people engage in this abnormal behavior, but with the vast percentage of this kind of behavior being more usual for the average crook and only police officers who have "issues" engage in this on a regular basis.
    My conclusion is that Brocious probably cocked the gun on purpose and took advantage of the fact that he was "drunk" to see if he could pull the trigger (although he may have been surprised when the gun fired, it still takes deliberate volition to pull the trigger--he did it on purpose). Additionally Brocious may have actually allowed White to assume later that it was his own fault (remember the trial was still pending when White made his statement) because the gun discharged when he "snatched" it.
    Today Brocious would be guilty of 2nd degree murder (manslaughter).


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