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James Burnett’s Death

About the only fact that is indisputable in the death of James C. Burnett was that he was shot four times by William C. Greene at the O.K. Corral on July 1, 1897. Unfortunately, the events that lead up to those fatal shots are hard to pin down.

About the only fact that is indisputable in the death of James C. Burnett was that he was shot four times by William C. Greene at the O.K. Corral on July 1, 1897. Unfortunately, the events that lead up to those fatal shots are hard to pin down.

James Burnett moved from New York to Hereford, Arizona Territory, sometime in the late 1870’s. He did a lot of different jobs for income, including part-time coroner, butcher, and provisioning beef to the soldiers at Camp Huachuca. His most steady income, though, was from his cattle ranch on the San Pedro River. At the time of his death he was the Justice of the Peace at Pearce, about 20 miles from his ranch; and it was this role that earned him the nickname of “Justice Jim.”

Burnett’s nearest neighbor upriver on the San Pedro was William Greene. Greene was, like Burnett, a pioneer in this region, but the similarity ends there. Where Burnett was something of a bully who constantly scrambled to make a few dollars, often just inside the law, Greene was a highly-regarded family man who earned money from ranching, farming, and mining. These two men often quarreled and Greene made it known that Burnett had threatened his life more than once.

To give his cattle a drinking hole, Greene built a small dam on the San Pedro River just above his ranch. When Burnett built a dam of his own to expand his ranch, he hired a Chinese crew to destroy Greene’s dam. In late June, Greene’s dam was blown up and on June 27 his daughters, Eva and Ella, along with their friend Edna Cochran, went swimming in the river. They went to their regular swimming hole where Ella and Edna jumped in but learned too late that the water was now far deeper than they expected. Both of the children drowned.

On the morning of his daughter’s death, Greene had traveled to Sonora, Mexico, on business. Later that day he received a telegram informing him of Ella’s death and he returned immediately. On July 1 he came to Tombstone with his friend, Scott White, the Sheriff of Cochise County, in a buggy. Greene took his rig to the O.K. Corral and asked the owner, John Montgomery, to lock up his pistol while he was in town. About two hours later, Greene went back to the corral and asked for his pistol back so he could take it in for repairs. At that time, Burnett was sitting in a chair in the “driveway” of the corral. Greene left the office and Montgomery reported that he heard Greene and Burnett exchange words about the destruction of the dam. Next he heard three shots fired with a fourth a few seconds later. Montgomery left his office after the first shots and saw that Greene had the pistol in his hand, pointed toward Burnett. Chief of Police Wiser quickly appeared on the site and Greene surrendered himself to the police. A few minutes later Sheriff White also appeared on the scene and Wiser turned Greene over to the Sheriff.

A reporter from the Prospector newspaper visited Greene in the sheriff’s office a few minutes after the shooting and asked him if he had any statement to make. Greene replied, “I have no statement to make other than that man was the cause of my child being drowned. I ascertained beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was the guilty man and when I thought of my little girl as she put her arms around my neck on the day she was drowned, I could think of nothing but vengeance on the man that caused her death. I have lived in this territory twenty-five years and have always been a peaceable law-abiding man. I held no animosity and have no regret for anything except the death of my little girl, and the little Cochran girl and the grief of my poor wife.” He added, “Vengeance in mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”

Shortly after the shooting the coroner convened an inquest and they found, “…that the deceased came to his death by pistol shot wounds inflicted by William C. Greene.”

The July 2, 1897, Tombstone Epitaph, published this notice:

The funeral of James C. Burnett who was the victim of the tragedy of yesterday at the hands of W.C. Greene took place this afternoon from the undertaking parlors of C. B. Tarbell and was largely attended by courses of relatives and friends. The deceased was 67 years of age and at the date of his unfortunate end was justice of the peace at Pearce. His family and immediate relatives consisting of Mrs. Burnett and two daughter, Mrs. Marks and Mrs. Frankie Bauer, also Geo. Hand and wife, the latter a granddaughter of the deceased, arrived early this morning and were present to consign the last mortal remains to their resting place. The sympathy of the community is extended to the family in their bereavement.

On December 18 Greene’s two-day murder trial commenced. The Epitaph published the following notes concerning Greene’s defense.

“John McCarthy proved one of the strongest witnesses for the defense. He testified the fact of Burnett asking him if he had a gun, and upon being told he had not, Burnett said: ‘Well, no matter; I have one myself.’ Burnett then referring to Greene, said he would kill him before night.”

“Sheriff Scott White testified to coming into town with Green on the day of the homicide, and being stopped by Deputy Sheriff Ritchie, who said there were threats being made against Greene by Burnett.”

“One of the best of all the witnesses for the defense was little George Gailen. He was in Burnett’s store in Pearce two days before the homicide, when Burnett asked him to clean the cylinder of his (Burnett’s) pistol, saying at the time: ‘Either I will kill Bill Greene or Greene will kill me.’ The cross-examination had no effect to change his testimony.”

The prosecution then presented a number of witnesses who testified that no gun was found on Burnett’s body after he died.

In the end, William Greene was found not guilty and released.


Photos

James Burnett is buried in the Tombstone Cemetery on west Allen Street in 1897. His grave was either never marked or the marker weathered away, so for many years the grave was considered unmarked. In 2019 the “House of Burnett” placed a marker on his grave. The photos below show the location of his unmarked grave in early 2019 and then the site after the marker was put in place.


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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