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First Posted: May 5, 2010
Oct 11, 2010

Brocius, William or Curly Bill

Brocius, William "Curly Bill" Brocius or Brocious (c. 1845 - March 24, 1882) was an American Old West outlaw, gunman and member of "The Cowboys" outlaw gang of the Tombstone and southern Arizona region during the early 1880s.

Name Confusion

Born in Crawfordsville, Indiana, with his date of birth unknown, Brocius' birth name is known to be William Graham Brocius. Because of his nickname, Brocius has been confused with "Curly Bill" Graham; a different outlaw of the same geographical region and time period. Graham was killed in a gunfight by Deputy Sheriff James D. Houck October 17, 1887, and buried in Young, Arizona, and is not considered by historians to be the same Curly Bill of Charleston and Tombstone.

In newspapers of the time, Brocius was known alternately as "Curly Bill" and "Curley Bill." His surname, "Brocius" has also been spelled as "Brocious," although the former is the spelling used for his maildrop in Arizona Territory, according to one published letter of the time.


The only known picture of Brocius can be found in the Bird Cage Theater Museum in Tombstone. He was known to have been well built with curly black hair and a freckled complexion.

William Brocius or Curly Bill

Brocius is described by contemporary Billy Breakenridge in his book Helldorado: Bringing the Law to the Mesquite as being the most deadly pistol shot of the Cowboys, able to hit running jackrabbits, shoot out candle flames without breaking the candles or lantern holders, and able to shoot quarters from between the fingers of "volunteers." When drunk, Brocius was also known for a mean sense of humor and for such "practical jokes" as using gunfire to make a preacher "dance" during a sermon or forcing Mexicans at a community dance to take off their clothes and dance naked. (Both incidents were reported by Wells Fargo agent Fred Dodge in his memoirs, and both incidents are alluded to in the newspapers of the time.)

Arrival in Tombstone, Confrontations with Wyatt Earp

Brocius likely went to the Arizona Territory from Texas around 1878 after arriving at the San Carlos Reservation with a herd of cattle, but his earlier history is open to speculation. From conversations with Brocius while transporting him to Tucson for trial (for shooting town Marshal Fred White) in 1880, Wyatt Earp thought Brocius was an escaped outlaw from El Paso, Texas. There, it was thought that he was the man who possibly had his right ear shot through by Texas Ranger Thomas Mode.

These conversations with Earp were reported in the Tombstone Epitaph at the time. According to Earp, Curly Bill had asked him about lawyers during the journey, and Earp had recommended a man named Zabriski. Curly Bill had said he could not use Zabriski because Zabriski had years earlier been his state prosecutor for a crime he had been convicted of in El Paso, Texas-a robbery in which a man had been killed. Later historical work based on this fact has linked Brocius with a man known as William "Curly Bill" Bresnaham who was convicted in a robbery attempt in Texas in 1878 along with another known "Cow-boy" of the Tombstone area named Robert Martin. These men were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but both escaped, presumably to the southwest Arizona Territory. Since both Robert Martin and Curly Bill became known as leaders of the rustlers in Arizona Territory, they are likely the same Robert Martin and Curly Bill of the Texas crime.

According to historian Robert M. Utley, Robert Martin was a member of the Jesse Evans gang of outlaws in New Mexico during the mid-to-late 1870s. Billy the Kid briefly joined this group before going to work for John Tunstall. Evans's gang, a looseknit consortium of desperadoes known as the "The Boys," would end up fighting against the "Regulators" during the Lincoln County War. Because of the time frame, the location, and his friendship with Martin, Curly Bill Brocius may have been a member of the Evans gang as well. When Brocius was shot in Galeyville in 1881, he derided his attacker, Jim Wallace, as a "Lincoln County sonofabitch." It is around that time that he is believed to have first met Pony Diehl, who would later be a suspect in many of the crimes committed by the "Cowboy" faction.

Along with a deputy, undersheriff Wyatt Earp was transporting Brocius to Tucson for trial for murder after Brocius's October 27, 1880, shooting of Tombstone town Marshal Fred White. Brocius claimed that his gun discharged accidentally while he was drunk and surrendering it to White. Initial reports indicated Brocius might have employed the commonly used road agent's spin on White, but Wyatt's testimony later largely discounted this theory. Brocius was arrested immediately after the incident by Earp, who "buffaloed" (pistol whipped) him in the process and knocked him unconscious. While Brocius reportedly regretted shooting White, even immediately following the incident and during his testimony at trial he did not consider himself to have committed a crime and deeply resented the pistol-whipping as an unnecessary response. Earp, acting in his capacity as a Pima County law enforcement officer, took Brocius to Tucson the next day for trial, possibly averting a lynching. Brocius waived his right to a preliminary hearing.

White died two days after being shot, by which time Brocius was in jail in Tucson. Before dying, White testified that he thought the pistol had gone off by accident and that he did not believe the shooting was intentional. Ironically, Wyatt Earp testified in favor of Brocius. Although formally charged with the murder of White and having spent most of November and December 1880 in jail awaiting trial, Brocius was acquitted with a verdict of accidental death.

Clanton Gang

Brocius was known as a rustler, but for a time he also worked as a tax collection agent for Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, making other rustlers pay taxes on their stolen cattle (the money went into the sheriff's coffers and added to his salary).

On May 26, 1881, Brocius was shot by a companion after an argument in Galeyville. The bullet passed though his neck and out the opposite cheek, and he survived.

In July 1881, Brocius and Johnny Ringo were said to have gone to Hachita, New Mexico, to kill William and Isaac Haslett in revenge for the deaths of Clanton gang members Bill Leonard and Harry Head, who had attempted to rob the Haslett brothers' general store weeks earlier. Later in July, Brocius was said to have led an ambush attacking a Mexican trail herd in the San Luis Pass, killing six vaqueros and torturing the remaining eight men. There was no way of verifying these stories, however, and Brocius was not charged with the crimes. These events, like the Haslett killings, also occurred quite near the time of Brocius's very serious wound, and so his involvement in them is somewhat questionable. While Parsons was riding as part of an Indian scouting party, diarist George Parsons saw Brocius on October 6 at the ranch of the McLaury brothers in the Sulphur Spring Valley and noted that even by then Curly Bill was well enough to ride but had not yet completely recovered from his wound of five months before.

Following the death of Old Man Clanton in the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre on August 13, 1881, Brocius became a primary leader in the Cowboy gang. Parsons referred to Brocius as "Arizona's most famous outlaw" in early October 1881. The Cowboys had a loose gang-based association but broke off into several small groups. The outlaw acts committed by them were rarely well planned or coordinated. The gang was a collection of independent outlaws who used their association with the Cowboys as a basis for their operations.

Gunfight at the OK Corral and After

Following the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881, Brocius may have participated in an attempt to kill Virgil Earp and in the assassination of Morgan Earp. Brocius was not charged, however, since there were no eyewitnesses to either crime.

After the killing of Frank Stilwell by the Earp party in Tucson on March 20, 1882, during the Earp vendetta ride, Brocius was deputized, given a warrant issued for Wyatt Earp by Sheriff Johnny Behan, and sent to bring back Earp, who was in the Whetstone Mountains outside town.

Earp, who was also looking for Brocius in revenge for the death of his brother Morgan, encountered Curly Bill on March 24, 1882, at Iron Springs (present day Mescal Springs). Brocius was camping outside his tent near the springs and was surprised while in the act of cooking at a campfire. In the gunfight that followed, Wyatt killed Brocius with a double shotgun blast to the chest from a range of about 50 feet (15 m). Brocius narrowly missed his own shot, hitting only Wyatt's long duster coat.

Some sources say this fight never occurred and that Curly Bill heard about it years later. He is reported to have recounted it to a rancher, urging him to forget the sobriquet Curly Bill.

After Brocius' death, his friends were, said John Flood, to have buried the body on the nearby Frank Patterson ranch on the Babocomari River. This land, close to the original McLaury ranch site (before the McLaurys moved to the Sulphur Springs Valley in late 1880) is believed to have originally belonged to Frank Stilwell and is located on the river about five miles (8 km) west of the ghost town Fairbank. If Brocius's body is there, in a still-wild section of country, the gravesite has been lost. Some claimed that Curly Bill escaped, changed his name, and went back to Texas. Whatever the truth, he was never seen again in Tombstone after March 24, 1882, despite a $2,000 reward later put up by the Tombstone Epitaph for an authentic interview and sighting of him alive.

Tombstone historian Ben Traywick has argued that this was too much money for a man like Brocius to turn down, especially since he was not wanted by the law in Arizona for any crime and had no reason to disappear when he did (and certainly no reason to go back to Texas, where he probably was a wanted man). In any case, the money offered by the Tombstone Epitaph was never claimed.