Wild West


In January 1907 William Baldwin, a 25-year-old black laborer, was helping to build the Theodore Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River in Gila County, Arizona Territory—a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation project. On the 31st, a day off for Baldwin, he appeared at the dairy ranch of Charles P. Hill with disturbing news. He claimed to have witnessed two Mexican men killing a woman at the neighboring Harvey Morris ranch, 4 miles east of the dam site, and when he’d attempted to intervene, the assailants had turned on him, slashing him across the neck. Hill immediately notified Arizona Ranger James T. Holmes, stationed at the settlement of Roosevelt, some 80 miles east of Phoenix. Holmes was experienced and tough, having killed an Apache outlaw and a whiskey smuggler in separate gunfights. Holmes sought the aid of former U.S. Army chief scout Al Sieber, a supervisor on the Roosevelt Dam project. Sieber in turn enlisted help from his onetime Apache scouts Rabbit and Yesterday, who were laborers on the project.

Holmes, Sieber, Rabbit and Yesterday, accompanied by Baldwin, rushed to the scene of the crime. There they found the body of 38-year-old Laura Frances, Harvey Morris’ wife, her throat cut and head crushed by a sharp-edged rock. A dozen feet away they found the body of 4-year-old Arminta Ann, the Morrises’ youngest daughter, her throat also slit. Holmes promptly arrested Baldwin for several reasons. For one, Baldwin had given conflicting statements about what he had witnessed. The Ranger also believed Baldwin’s wounds could have been self-inflicted or sustained as Laura Morris fought for her life. More damning, on the soft, rain-dampened ground Sieber and his scouts found only one pair of tracks, other than those of the victims, and Baldwin’s shoes fit the tracks exactly. Finally, the area where Baldwin claimed to have confronted the alleged Mexican killers showed no signs of a struggle.

As tiny Roosevelt lacked a jail, Holmes had Baldwin tied to a tree until Gila County Sheriff John Henry Thompson could take him into custody. Holmes asked Sieber to guard the prisoner, in case a lynch mob arrived. He directed the scout to do so unarmed. “If they come after him, and you cannot talk them out of it, let’em have him,” Holmes said. “I don’t want you or anyone else to get killed over him.” Meanwhile, Deputy Sheriff David Medler, stationed at Roosevelt, questioned the two Mexicans fingered by Baldwin, but both had solid alibis.

Sheriff Thompson, Deputy Bud Armer and other deputies arrived in Roosevelt on February 1. Justice of the Peace Hinson Thomas and District Attorney George J. Stoneman conducted the coroner’s inquest, at which Dr. F.C. Bennell testified Laura Morris’ killer had attempted to molest her, but “the outrage was not committed.” The coroner’s jury concluded Laura and daughter Arminta had died on January 31 at the hands of Baldwin, who “murdered them by cutting their throats with some sharp instrument.” Sheriff Thompson then prepared to transport Baldwin to the county jail in Globe. Deputy George Henderson drove the borrowed buggy carrying the manacled prisoner, the sheriff and other deputies riding along on either side.

Little over a mile outside town they encountered an angry mob of citizens who had seen the bodies of the mother and daughter and were in a lynching mood. “I don’t personally give a damn what happens to Baldwin in due process of law,” Thompson reportedly told the would-be vigilantes. “But it’s my duty to get him to jail and protect him, and I’m going to do just that.” The lawmen then drew their weapons and managed to disperse the mob. The lawmen reached Globe shortly after midnight and jailed Baldwin. As Thompson expected, more enraged citizens soon gathered outside the jail. The sheriff then secretly moved Baldwin to a point along the railroad line, arranging for a train to stop and transport the prisoner to the Pima County Jail in Tucson.

It became apparent Baldwin could not get a fair trial back in Globe. No attorney would represent him, and the people of Gila County were in no mood to wait for the court to reach the “ends of justice.” Authorities transferred his case to Solomonville, the Graham County seat, with Gila County bearing the expenses. Given the respective security concerns, Baldwin remained locked up in Tucson as he awaited trial.

Gila County Judge Frederick Solomon Nave presided over the proceedings in Solomonville on May 5. Baldwin had three defense attorneys. While there were no eyewitnesses, the circumstantial evidence was strong. The Apache scout Yesterday deduced from the single set of male tracks and other natural signs (which “he read like a printed book”) that the accused was the only man present at the time of the murders. Baldwin maintained his innocence and stuck to his story about two Mexican killers. The jury didn’t buy it and found him guilty. Judge Nave sentenced Baldwin to death, the execution to be carried out the very next day in Solomonville. Lawmen returned their prisoner to Tucson in the interim.

Baldwin’s attorneys won a stay of execution as they appealed to the Arizona Territory Supreme Court, but the court affirmed the guilty verdict and sentence. On Monday, July 8, Judge Nave told Baldwin he would be executed that Friday. Baldwin maintained his innocence, though he did thank Thompson for his protection and court officials for kind treatment. His attorneys were unable to persuade Governor Joseph Henry Kibbey to grant a new trial. Baldwin was put on deathwatch. Father John Camet, a local Catholic priest, visited the condemned man in his cell, convincing him he could receive forgiveness by joining the church. On July 11, the night before his scheduled execution, Camet baptized Baldwin. The prisoner also received a visit from Sheriff Thompson, who offered Baldwin whiskey in an effort to coax his admission to the double murder. The unrepentant convert accepted a sip or two of whiskey but refused to discuss the crime. On the morning of the 12th Camet gave him Holy Communion.

Accused murderer William Baldwin helped build the Roosevelt Dam (opposite left), while former scout Al Sieber (opposite right) helped supervise the project. Sieber visited the crime scene with Arizona Ranger James T. Holmes. Above: Gila County Sheriff John Henry Thompson, seated, and his deputies transported Baldwin to the county jail in Globe. (ARIZONA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

The public execution drew some 200 people, including one of the Morris daughters and a cousin. Widower Harvey Morris wanted to be there, but he missed a train at Globe and arrived late after traveling on horseback overnight. When his time came, Baldwin shook hands with officials and walked unassisted to the gallows trapdoor. After a few words with Father Camet, he said goodbye and stood still as a deputy slipped a black hood over his head and cinched the noose around his neck. Graham Country Sheriff Alphie A. “Pap” Anderson pulled the lever that triggered the trap. Death was instantaneous, though the attending physician stated Baldwin’s heart did not stop beating for 16½ minutes. Ranger Holmes termed the handling of the execution as “certainly neat.” He and Sheriff Thompson stated they had never seen a man go to his death with more nerve and self-possession than did Baldwin. Sieber wasn’t there. He’d been killed on February 19 when a loose boulder rolled down on him during construction of the dam. The site of the double murder may well lurk beneath the waters of Theodore Roosevelt Lake.