Raise a drink for the dead! Or in the case of a group of rogue cowboys in the early 1900s, raise the dead for a drink.
On an April night in 1905, two young bandits stopped in the Wigwam Saloon in the rough-and-tumble train town of Winslow, Arizona. The region had seen an influx of white men during the construction of the Atlantic and Pacific transcontinental railroad in the late 1880s.
When construction stalled at nearby Canyon Diablo—because a delivered bridge was too short to span the distance—a town sprung up. Seedy businesses, including saloons, brothels, dance halls, and gambling houses, relieved railroad workers of their hard-earned cash. The main drag was called “Hell Street.” The area was largely lawless and dangerous.
By 1905, however, the bridge had long crossed Canyon Diablo, the seedy spot had turned into a ghost town, and Winslow, about 25 miles due east, had become the more popular stop on the stagecoach route.
On this particular night, John Shaw and his buddy William Evans Smith (or Smythe) ordered, and apparently paid for, a round of rotgut whiskey. But before the two scoundrels received their refreshment, a dice game caught their eye. Or more importantly, a stack of silver coins worth between $250 and $600, according to various sources. A goodly sum, in those days.
The nearness of the cash proved irresistible, and John Shaw and Bill Smith pulled their guns, grabbed the coins, and dashed out the door.
Shaw and Smith hopped a train headed west, but unfortunately for them, in their haste they dropped a few silver coins near the train tracks as they fled. Navajo County Sheriff Chet Houck and his deputy, Pete Pemberton, who happened to be the owner of Wigwam Saloon, made quick work of following the bungling bandits to Canyon Diablo.
Sheriff Houck and Deputy Pemberton stopped in the trading post, where they asked the proprietor Fred Volz if he’d seen the bandits. As they were talking, Shaw and Smith sauntered by.
In the ensuing confrontation, all four men pulled guns. Multiple shots were fired. The two lawmen emerged unscathed (save for bullet tears to their jackets). Smith was hit in the shoulder but survived. Shaw, shot in the head, was killed.
Cowboy slang we should all be using
Volz provided the lawmen with a makeshift pine coffin, and Shaw was hastily buried in a shallow grave in the rocky desert near Canyon Diablo. They then boarded the train back to Winslow to take the injured Smith to the hospital. (Smith was later tried, convicted, and jailed; he would serve nine years.)
The next night, a group of about 15 cowboys was back at the Wigwam Saloon, recounting the previous night’s excitement. As they grew drunker, they realized that the two roughnecks had never gotten around to throwing back their own orders of whiskey. The gang decided John Shaw needed to have his one last drink before meeting his maker.
And so the men boarded a westbound train for Canyon Diablo. There, they demanded shovels from storekeeper Volz, who also gave them a novel Kodak box camera—perhaps to gather evidence for a possible reward, as John Shaw was surely a wanted man.
“We stopped at the depot and had a few more drinks and then we went and dug the grave open with the shovels,” cowboy Lucien Creswell later said, according to True West magazine. “Some of the boys almost cried when they saw Shaw lying there so lifelike.”
The drunks propped John Shaw against a picket fence, poured whiskey down his gullet, and then heaved him up by his arms to pose him for photographs. The photograph was proudly displayed in Wigwam Saloon until the building was torn down in 1940, according to the travel guide Weird Arizona.
As the sun came up, the cowboys mumbled prayers, put the empty whiskey bottle in Shaw’s coffin, and reburied the man.
The story has one last odd twist: Just eight months later, Deputy Sheriff Pemberton, angered over gambling losses at his Wigwam Saloon, shot and killed a man. Tried and convicted, he was sent to Yuma Prison—the same jail that held Shaw’s luckless accomplice, William Evans Smith (or Smythe). Whether the two men ever crossed paths in the jailhouse is lost to history.