Wells Spicer

October 26 is When we Remember the Gunfight at the OK Corral


With October’s Gunfight Remembrance, thought we’d bring up a person whose name came up a lot in the aftermath of that Tombstone incident. You’ve heard his name: Wells Spicer. His career spanned the law, mining, politics & journalism.

We’ll find out more on this man, born in Chemung NY to farming parents in 1831. At 9 the family moved to Iowa. Growing up, clerking for a judge, Spicer was admitted to the Iowa Bar in 1853. At age 25 he married & the next year fathered a son.

The family were together in Utah Territory by 1870. Spicer was admitted to the bar there & got into mining in Beaver/Minersville UT area. With marriage troubles, by 1876 they separated.

Minersville Town Hall

Dedicated by photographer to Public Domain
Also Stated Building Was Historic

Mountain Meadows Massacre Defense

John D. Lee was arrested for taking part in a mass killing of emigrants bound for California from Arkansas. The incident involved his membership in a Mormon militia allegedly cooperating with Native Paiutes. Lee & accomplices were jailed near Beaver. The trials were held in Beaver, Utah, not far from Minersville.

Somewhere in his travels, Spicer had met Lee. Lee sought Spicer’s legal assistance. Wells Spicer enlisted a defense team. Spicer’s part in the defense concentrated on motivation, relating to religious fervor overwhelming common sense.

No LDS members testified against Lee. The jury had 8 LDS & 4 non. But Wells Spicer took heat from all sides. The LDS Church felt insulted by his defense. Others were angry he was defending Lee – calling him a “Jack Mormon.” Conclusion = hung jury.

A 2nd trial began. Now the other abettors weren’t charged – only Lee. And the jury held all LDS Members. Thus Mormon officials escaped any blame in the matter. Lee was found guilty. Spicer appealed it up to the UT Supreme Court, to no avail. Then appealed for Governor Clemency. Denied because Lee wouldn’t confess – he felt he was a scapegoat.

If you have an interest for all the details, see this excellent page on the Mountain Meadows Massacre Lee Trials.

Trials Held in Beaver UT

On March 22, 1877 Wells Spicer watched as John D. Lee was executed by firing squad. Spicer was U.S. Commissioner for Utah Territory thru 1878, when it ended. He’d been referring to himself as “the unkilled of Mountain Meadows.” We can see how this event affected him, & so he left for AZ in 1879.

1877: John D. Lee Seated Left, Next to His Coffin
Spicer is in This Crowd Awaiting Lee’s Execution
by Firing Squad

Wells Spicer in Arizona

With journalism experience, his immediate position was with Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star.

He subsequently began some mining interests. So went to Tombstone. Then was able to practice law. His practice covered California notary & deed work. Plus the agent for New Boston Townsite Company.

June of 1880, Wells Spicer was designated Arizona Territory’s Justice of the First District Court. His jurisdiction covered Customs & Internal Revenue laws, and U.S. criminal cases.

From Arizona Daily Star – Wed., April 21, 1880

The court where he worked his jurisprudence isn’t the historic courthouse in Tombstone that we know today. But it’s a building that no longer stands. It was located on the West side of 4th Street. Between Allen & Toughnut Streets.

Wells Spicer Photo from 1880

Spicer’s Most Famous Tombstone Case

The Gunfight at the OK Corral brought a contentious aftermath to Tombstone AZ. A Coroner’s Inquest heard testimony from 9 witnesses. The finding was an objective view of the deaths of Billy Clanton & the McLaurys. Then Ike Clanton filed 1st Degree Murder complaints on the Earps & Holliday. Warrants followed.

Wells Spicer conducted the preliminary hearing. To evaluate if a murder charge was proper & thus a trial needed. Officially termed: “Territory of Arizona VS. Morgan Earp, et al Defendants” Spicer devoted his nearly every waking hour for the whole month of November. Giving his conclusion on the 30th.

He described his reasoning regarding the witness testimony. He brought up his logic for the circumstances as he viewed them. He brought up the historical context in relationships. And some physical evidence. Spicer cited related law & expectations for law enforcement.

Then he gave his decision. That “evidence… in this case, would not, in my judgment, warrant a conviction of the defendants by trial jury…. I do not believe that any trial jury would… find the defendants guilty of any offense.”

He pointed out the Grand Jury was then in session & could call their own witnesses & disregard his findings. He then ordered the Earps & Holliday released. It was not a wholly popular decision. Many felt he was an Earp partisan – he did partner with Wyatt in liquor & tobacco sales.

The Grand Jury did not overrule Wells Spicer’s findings, & the Earps & Doc Holliday remained cleared. As far as the historical aspect – looking back at the entire hearing’s account – that’s a whole other issue, for an entire newsletter!

Sources Say the Hearing Was Here
Next to the 1800s Epitaph Office on Fremont St.

The Hearing’s Aftermath

The 2 city newspapers of course took opposite views. The Tombstone Epitaph praised Spicer’s decision. The Tombstone Nugget thumbed their nose.

Wells Spicer got a hostile letter from “A Miner” dated Dec. 13, 1881. It advised “take your departure for a more genial clime” & “you are liable to get a hole through your coat” & “as you are allowed to dispense Justice… the sooner you depart from us the better…” Concluding with “so you will get it sooner or later…”

He indicated he wasn’t intimidated by their threats. Over the next several years, he concentrated on his mining interests.

Sad Ending

First the separation from his wife – he always still referred to himself as a married man. Then the Utah incident which brought him much grief. Then the response to his decision on this infamous gun battle in Tombstone. Altogether over the years it seemed to take a toll on his psyche.

It’s not certain what became of him. He did travel off into the desert while involved in mining ventures, never to be seen again. Several sources feel he may have committed suicide. In 1887 he’d stated he planned to. Another source believes he likely went into Mexico & eventually died there. One thing is certain – his body nor grave was never discovered.

From the Arizona Weekly Citizen
Sat., April 16, 1887 – Pg. 2

Historical places & events create curiosity for facts about people who roamed the Tombstone area & the Old West. What’s the true story? Can we discover the authentic history?

And we enjoy sharing what we find with you.

We hope we’ll see you in town sometime, (sigh – eventually in the future!) seeing areas where they spent time – back in the 1800s.

Let us know if you’ll be going to an upcoming event! Tell us how you liked any of them, or what you visited here! Just reply to this newsletter for easy input! (Let us know if we can use your comments – & how to credit you.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *