Michael O'Rourke


By Bill Kelly

Gambling houses were strung along at suitable distances and supplied generously with all the trappings and paraphernalia which went to complete such institutions in Tucson, Arizona, in 1878.

Michael O'Rourke stepped from the Butterfield Overland stage and inhaled the immoral atmosphere enjoyed by cowboys with fancy boots and spurs as well as by businessmen with white neckties and fancy duds. Men and women of every grade swaggered along the catwalks of Tucson: prospectors, calico queens, demimondes, professional gamblers with well-tuned fingers and lawyers with well-tuned tongues. Anyone with fifty cents could slumber at the Palace Hotel on Meyer Street, near the corner of Mesilla. Owned by Jack King, it featured a dining room, baths for both sexes, and beds with mattresses and springs. A sign outside guaranteed: "No Bedbugs." Young Michael O'Rourke got a job as a porter at the Palace.

After work, O'Rourke would visit the Foster and Hand's Saloon, where he could get a free lunch and eye the action at the faro bank. He may have sneaked a quick peek at the Barrio Libre, where anything went and you kept a sharp eye on the dealer. People of every sort joined in the wild revelry. Arms were not allowed to be worn. Disorderly conduct ended with the perpetrator checked forthwith into the local hoosegow. Attention, too, was given to the existence of portable "cat wagons," which carried what an editor with a sense of humor referred to as: "nymphs du pave," "fairs," "fancies," "scarlet ladies" "or nymphs du prairie." Far more prostitutes seemed to appear on the census record than waitresses, housewives or dance hall girls.

When news of a great silver strike in the Tombstone bluffs reached Tucson, O'Rourke and hundreds of others, including calico queens, headed for the silver boom in quest of fortune. There, O’Rourke labored as a miner for four dollars a day in the excavations of the Tough Nut and Lucky Cuss among others. O'Rourke began visiting the gambling halls and became a tinhorn gambler. Because of his habit of betting heavily when he held a no more than a deuce as his hole-card, he earned his everlasting pseudonym: Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce.

Sometime in 1880, he pulled up stakes and crossed the San Pedro River into Charleston, an untamed boom town where the day-to-day routine consisted of gambling, visiting "houses of ill fame," fighting, swearing and drinking. The Deuce made no specific impression upon the denizens of Charleston—that is, not until Friday, January 14, 1881.

That day, Quinn's Saloon was crammed with miners and cattlemen and with soldiers from nearby Fort Hauchuca, when W. P. Schneider, the chief engineer of the Corbin Mill, decided to cash in, after losing a fortune in an all night poker game. As he left the table he made a disdainful remark about the winner cheating, directing his attention to Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce. One word led to another. Both men went for their pistols. When the smoke cleared, Schneider lay sprawled on the floor, blood oozing from a hole in his chest. The event would provide newspaper fodder, and it would stamp Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce as something more than a tinhorn gambler.

Schneider, well-liked and honorable, had been one of the chief contributors to Charleston's economy. Irate miners, most of them employees of the late Schneider, began drinking and talking about a lynching. As a result of their wheedling, a wrathful crowd, led by a man named Johnny Ringo, gathered at Quinn's Saloon. Someone brought a rope. Men with six-shooters felt satisfied that they could overwhelm the local police force, which consisted of only one man, George McKelvey. On the other hand, McKelvey, with visions of an angry mob stringing up the hapless gambler to the nearest cottonwood, was too good a lawman to knuckle under to a bunch of drunks.

He hitched up a team of mules to a springboard, loaded Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce into the vehicle, and galloped for the distant mountains of Tombstone, the mob in pursuit. Although McKelvey utilized the whip vigorously, the mob gained on him. About two miles outside Tombstone, the mob pulled into rifle range. Bullets whizzed around McKelvey and the Deuce all the way into the silver camp. By the time they reached Jack McCann's Last Chance Saloon, the exhausted mules collapsed.

McKelvey, with the Deuce in tow, crashed through the batwing doors of the nearby Oriental Saloon, where none other than Wyatt Earp, the famed Tombstone lawman and gunman, was playing poker. McKelvey yelled that an angry lynch mob of two hundred was on his heels.

"Take the prisoner to Jim Vogan's bowling alley," Wyatt told his two brothers, Morg and James Earp. "If they get past me, give him a gun and turn him loose."

The angry mob surged up to the Vogan’s adobe bowling alley with its high walls. Wyatt Earp, cradling a scatter gun, stepped in front of the men. They stopped in their tracks.

"Drag him out!" someone yelled, anxious for the Deuce’s blood.

"Don't make any fool plays, boys," Wyatt replied coolly. "The price you'll have to pay won't be worth that tinhorn inside."

"Earp can't stop us all!" a man urged from the rear ranks. Wyatt cocked both hammers of his shotgun. The wide bores made an impression on the men in the front ranks. Two barrels of buckshot would cut quite a swath through the tightly packed mob.

According to Tombstone legend, Earp turned away the maddened lynch mob while Marshal Ben Sippy, Virgil Earp and Johnny Behan loaded Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce into another springboard. They raced over the road that ran across a gray-green expanse of sage and cactus into Tucson. On January 15, the prisoner was turned over to Tucson Undersheriff Charlie Shibell. Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce was jailed on a murder charge, awaiting trial by a jury of his peers.

The Tucson courthouse and jail was located on North Court Street between Alameda and Pennington streets. An old adobe with splintered wood framing around the doors and windows, the building had a reputation of providing something less than maximum security.

While Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce awaited trial, a Tucson reporter castigated the Tombstone Epitaph for its account of the gunfight between O'Rourke and Schneider. Otherwise, everyone soon lost interest in the whole affair.

Late in March, two and one-half months after the shooting in Charleston, O'Rourke and seven other prisoners tried to escape. They filed off their shackles, and they had almost cut through the timbers with a compass saw when they were caught. The failure of the jailbreak only whetted O'Rourke's hankering for the gambling casinos he was always talking about.

On Thursday, April 14, Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce made another attempt to escape, this time alone, this time successfully.

The jail was adjacent to the Leatherwood Corral, owned by Jimmy Carroll. O'Rourke scaled the wall into the corral, and scooted northeast, crossed Church Street, then crept through the narrow alley beside the IXL Lodging House. From there he darted through the cemetery yard, across Alameda Street, and across the Southern Pacific tracks toward the Santa Catalinas. After crossing the Fort Lowell road, he recrossed the tracks and sat down to rest.

O’Rourke had a long head start before Sheriff Shibell could take up the trail with three Papago Indians, expert trackers. The trackers lost O’Rourke two miles from the Papago settlement.

Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce disappeared from history. There were rumors that many years later, he appeared in New Mexico, where he spent the remainder of his days gambling at one saloon or another. Some historians claim that he returned to Cochise County, Arizona, briefly, just long enough to find Johnny Ringo, the leader of the lynch mob back in Charleston, and to kill him down by the oak trees near West Turkey Creek.

There has been no real proof of what ever happened to Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce. He came from nowhere, made a brief reputation as a gambler, then vanished into obscurity.

More about the author Bill Kelly



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