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James Burnett: Another View

James Burnett was shot and killed by William Greene, but was it murder or something else?

James Burnett
James Burnett

James C. Burnett was shot four times by William C. Greene at the O.K. Corral on July 1, 1897. The story of that event is found in another post on this blog, but the New York Sun newspaper printed the following on September 17, 1897.


A MURDER OUT IN ARIZONA.

DETAILS OF THE KILLING OF JIM
BURNETT RECEIVED HERE

He Was New York Boy Who Drifted to the West and Became A Famous Justice of the Pence-The Man Who Killed in Cold Blood on Bail-A Picture of Arizona Life.

Jim Burnett, Justice of the Peace at Pearce Camp, who was shot and killed at Tombstone, Ariz., on July 1 by William Greene, a rival ranch man, was an old New York boy. He was born at Eighteenth street and Eighth avenue, in the Sixteenth ward, and his family and relatives were well known on the west side of town years ago. He was 69 years old when he was killed. He left his home in this city when a lad of 19.

He was of a wild, restless disposition, but also hard-headed and chock-full of pluck and determination. He went to California first and remained there for several years. Then his roving temperament asserted itself and he rambled around through the mining camps in the West until he settled down in Arizona. The story told about him in The Sun on Wednesday of last week was characteristic of him. He was one of the early settlers in Charleston, on the San Pedro River, in Arizona, when that mining town was a community of desperadoes. He was made Justice of the Peace, and when the County Supervisors cut down his fees one half he just quit sending in bills and financial returns and punished all offenders by fining them, and pocketed the fines. He fined a man $1,000 for killing another man and declined to issue appeal papers. When the man consulted a lawyer the latter advised him to pay and skip out. It was said that Burnett made $22,000 in this way.

Henry Burnett, Lieutenant of Engine Company 19 in this city, is a brother of the late Justice of the Peace Burnett. Lieut. Burnett had heard from his brother in the West only at intervals of years. When Jim was killed Lieut. Burnett wrote to his brother’s friends at Tombstone asking for particulars, and from the replies that he received it appears that civilization has not altogether prevailed over wild Western methods at Tombstone. One letter was from P. B. Warnekros of Tombstone, and read as follows:

“I am glad to hear from you, and will give you such details as I know. I had known and done business with your brother for the last twelve years when he was contractor at Fort Huachuca, about twenty-four miles from here. I used to supply him and our business relations have always been pleasant. I always found him strictly honorable in all his dealings. He married a Mexican woman about nineteen years ago. She had a family there of three grown girls of which he was very fond and always provided for them the best he could. He bought a ranch on the San Pedro River about thirty miles from Tombstone, which he gave to his wife, and he gave her all the money he made to invest in it. He lived most of the time at Fort Huachuca, where he had beef, wood, hay and mail contracts.”

“This man, W. C. Greene, that murdered poor Jim, owns a ranch on the river adjoining that owned by Jim. Greene was accused by Jim’s wife of stealing and killing her cattle, and this started bad feeling between the two families. Greene rented about forty acres of his land to some Chinamen for vegetable gardening, and got a big rent. The Chinamen dissolved and Jim rented one part of his ranch. They became rivals. Jim’s Chimaman raised fine crops this year, which made Greene envious.

“About the middle of June Greene’s daughters and another girl and Greene’s stepdaughter’s husband went to the dam near Jim’s ranch to fish. They fished with giant powder, the young man throwing the powder in and the girls wading in afterward and catching the fish as they came to the surface. They enjoyed themselves for some time and when it was time to go home the two older girls requested the young man to go ahead with the younger girl, saying they would follow later, as they wanted to take a swim on the other side of the dam. He went along home and when the two girls did not get home in a reasonable time he and others set out in search of them. They found their bodies at the bottom of the river. One had evidently lost her footing and fell in the river and the other had tried to save her, as both had all their clothes on. Greene was away at the time and when he returned he visited the scene of the drowning and found a stick of the powder his son-in-law had been using.

“Greene at once proclaimed that Jim had blown up his dam with powder and drowned his girls. He thought such a report would justify him in doing what he then had on his mind. He went to the Chinaman that had leased Jim’s land and compelled him at the point of his revolver to break and destroy Jim’s dam in five or six places, and then threatened to kill all the Chinamen if they did not leave. Jim was at this time running a store for me in Pearce camp about twenty-eight miles from here and sixty miles from his ranch.

“The Chinaman telegraphed for him to come home, telling what had happened. Jim’s wife come in and met him coming into Tombstone, Jim had papers made out for Greene’s arrest for destroying his damn. This was on June 30. On the morning of July 1 the Sheriff came in with Greene. He was taken to the Justice’s Court and the trial set for that afternoon. Greene knew that Jim would make him pay for all damage done to his land by destroying the dam; besides, he had damaged all the other ranches along the river, and it exasperated him so that he thought he would kill Jim and allow the public to think he did it to avenge the death of the girls that were drowned.

“Jim had no idea that Greene would attack him in the manner he did, for when they met in the morning Greene commenced to abuse Jim in the street. Jim told him to stop that abuse, and said that if he wished to settle the trouble personally with him he could step out of town and he would give him satisfaction. Greene declined. So about 1 o’clock after Jim had had his lunch he sat down outside of a stable and lit his pipe. He had just been talking with our Supervisor when Greene stepped out of the office in the stable, turned around, faced Jim, and shot him while he was sitting down. Jim must have gotten up. for it was several seconds before he fired the second shot, and as he fired the third shot Jim ran about ten feet and fell on the sidewalk. Greene walked out and down the street. He turned and noticed Jim lying down on the sidewalk. He came back, stooped over Jim, hunted a vital spot, and deliberately shot him again.

“My store is only a short distance from the stable, and my wife was the first to run out. She saw Greene fire the last shot, and when she heard whom he had killed she flew toward Greene and begged the people to tear him limb from limb. She then went to poor Jim and turned him over and lifted his head, but poor Jim was dead. He never spoke after he was hit, and his pipe lay beside him. He had not even a pocket knife on him. Greene delivered himself to an officer who had run to the scene, and was taken to jail. He enjoyed every liberty and freedom, as the Sheriff is a personal friend of his. We had poor Jim buried next day and he had many friends. Not one person speaks of Jim but what they tell of some favor or kindness he had done for them at some time or other. Greene was examined and bound over for the Grand Jury, but they took his case before the Court Commissioner and he fixed ball at $30,000 for Greene’s appearance at the November term.

“Greene and his friends have been having stories circulated in papers throughout the Territory stating that the shooting was justifiable, and representing Jim as a man who had killed good many men and generally a bad character. Several home papers attempted to do the same, but were quickly overhauled, as Jim’s reputation here was too well established. He was the friend and counselor of everybody.

“I should be glad to hear from you and also if you can suggest anything toward the prosecution. We feel like we ought to do all we possibly can to see the foul, cowardly assassin brought to justice, for if ever a man was murdered in cold blood it was poor Jim.”

The description of the killing given by Mr. Warnekros is corroborated by a letter which Lieut. Burnett received from James F. Duncan, Justice of the peace at Tombstone, before whom Greene was taken after the murder. Justice Duncan says:

“It was a cold-blooded murder and premeditated. I held the inquest and also the preliminary examination. The Court Commissioner, on a writ of habeas corpus, let Greene go on $30,000 bail, furnished by men who are all right, but who gave as security cattle and merchandise, which are subject to epidemic and fire. The case will come up at the November term of court if Greene can be found, of which I have my doubts. I cannot recommend any lawyer here to you; they are lawyers in name, but God keep me from ever having to employ any of them!”


The January 9, 1898, Tombstone Epitaph, reported on a libel suit filed by William Greene against P. B. Warnekros over the Sun article.

Tombstone Libel Suit

A $25,000 Damage Case Filed Today.

A libel case was filed in the District Court this afternoon that will prove of more than ordinary interest. The title of the case is W.C. Greene vs. P.B. Warnekros and wife. From the complaint on file the plaintiff claims that the defendants are the authors of an article published in the New York Sun of Sept 17, 1897, and subsequently published in the San Francisco Chronicle, which is claimed to be a false, malicious, and defamatory libel on the character of the plaintiff, and the damages fixed at $25,000, which amount is being sued for.

Owing to the lateness of the hour we are unable to publish the article, but will in our next issue reprint the complaint in full.


James Burnett’s grave is in the Tombstone Cemetery on west Allen Street, near the edge of town. The Goodenough Trolley Tour passes the cemetery and I tell about Burnett’s death as we pass by.


By George

I was born and raised in Missouri and have been an elementary school teacher, an EMT, an electronics technician, and a dean at a community college. I retired in July 2019, so I now have time to follow my dream and lead tours in Tombstone, Arizona. I work at the Goodenough Silver Mine and lead tours down into the mine, trolley tours around Tombstone, and ghost tours every weekend.

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