February 16, 2015
We have had a very spirited debate, both here and on Facebook about the probability of Frank Stilwell making his alleged 75-mile horseback ride—in six hours, at night.
Daily Whip Out: "Did Frank Stilwell Make A 75-Mile Midnite Horseback Ride From Tombstone to Tucson? (Or, did he take a more cushioned ride?)
Most of the Horseback riders who weighed in here, basically agree it was a long ride, but could be done (it's 12.5 miles an hour, not an impossible feat for someone who knows how to pace a horse by trotting, loping and galloping). It has also been suggested Stilwell may have had a change of horses. In fact, Frank owned a livery stable at Charleston and could have easily stashed at least one extra horse upstream at Contention, which would have given his midnite ride a little more plausibility.
It was even surmised that perhaps Stilwell cut across towards Sonoita, a more direct route to Tucson and thus shaved off some time.
Other seasoned horseback riders told us it was only possible if there was a full moon that night. Well, that is a problem: our very own Gold Lady shot that theory down, with a link to moon cycles
There was no moon to speak of on the night of March 18-19, 1882, so that theory, did not, ahem, survive the light of day.
My good friend Kevin Mulkins, who lives in Tucson, has Frank Stilwell's signature and I thought perhaps we could compare it to the signature in the Palace Hotel guest register (where Frank's check-in time was allegedly 5 a.m.), but we hit the wall with that because the Arizona Historical Society has the Palace register for 1877-79 but the year we want—1882—is missing. But while I was trying to track down the whereabouts of the register and questioning my historian friends and collectors about the register, I got this from John Boessenecker:
"Frank Stilwell came from Tombstone to Tucson, arriving on the westbound train from Benson on the morning of March 19, the day before he was killed."
—Tucson Weekly Star, March 23, 1882.
Well, needless to say, this changes everything. Stilwell could easily leave Tombstone at midnite on horseback, ride to Contention and take the train to Benson, change trains and arrive in Tucson in plenty of time to check into the Palace Hotel at 5 a.m. it is a little funky because train service in the middle of the night seems a bit of a reach for those times, but then Wyatt Earp and crew flagged down a freight train late at night, on their return to Tombstone after the killing of Stilwell, so it certainly is possible. And the newspaper reported it three days after his death.
As for the train schedules, I just got this from John Boessenecker: "In July 1882 the Southern Pacific advertised a new schedule in which the train arrived in the afternoon, one train a day."
Now, we are back to the horseback ride. If Frank Stilwell was one of the shooters of Morgan Earp on the evening of March 18, 1882, he could ride a horse to Contention, but catching any train at midnite is problematic.
So, all of this begs a bigger question: where did the story of Frank Stilwell riding horseback to Tucson originate?
". . .there is positive evidence that Stilwell was in Tombstone Saturday night at the time Morgan Earp was murdered, and that he rode into Tucson on horseback on Sunday."
—The Tombstone Epitaph, March 27, 1882
In conclusion, we are left with nagging inconsistencies and no absolute proof, either way. Riding cross country, without roads, on a moonless night seems ridiculous and out of the question. Stilwell simply may have ridden a horse to Benson, caught the daily passenger train to Tucson and backdated his arrival on the register to 5 a.m. We will never know. It would be great to locate that guest register for the Palace Hotel. Maybe someday it will turn up.
"History is a cruel trick, played on the dead by the living."
—Old Vaquero Saying