Injustice could be swiftly served in the old Mogollon Rim country.
by Jo Baeza
The only sound in Gentry Canyon is the sighing of wind through the canopy of ponderosa pines. In a clearing lie three graves, side by side. Simple stone markers commemorate the grisly events of August 12, 1888, when three young cowboys who loved life were hanged before they had a chance to live it.
For more than a century, the story of Stott, Scott, and Wilson has been told and retold by those who live in Arizona's Mogollon Rim country. The classic western film The Oxbow Incident is said to have been loosely modeled on what happened here. No one knows who murdered James Stott, James Scott, and Jefferson Wilson in such a cowardly manner, or why they died. They never had a chance to defend themselves.
Arizona historian Joseph Fish wrote of those violent years: "A wave of lawlessness marked the collision of livestock, railroad, and mining interests on that remote frontier. This wave took the forms of land-jumping, robberies, beatings, and murder."
Into this melee came the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, Ltd., owned by eastern financiers. In 1885 the Aztec purchased one million acres in alternate sections across northern Arizona from the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, and brought in 40,000 head of cattle from Texas. Because the brand was shaped like a chuck wagon implement, the Aztec was known as the "Hashknife Outfit."
With the Hashknife came cowboys from Texas, some of whom had a reputation as "quick-trigger men." A few of the Texans joined the Graham faction in a range war that was heating up in Pleasant Valley to the south. Some of these cowboys were suspected of horse theft. As Jamie Stott would learn, suspicions were enough to get a man killed in Arizona Territory.
According to historian Leland Hanchet Jr., James Warren Stott was born Sept. 13, 1863, in North Billerica, Mass., the only son of James and Hannah Stott. James Stott, Sr., was superintendent of Talbot Woolen Mills. The owner of the mills, Thomas Talbot, was a shareholder in the Aztec Land and Cattle Company.
Following his graduation from a private school in New Hampshire, Stott bid farewell to his family and headed for Texas to become a cowboy. Through the Talbots, he found work on a horse ranch, where he was soon breaking mustangs. He wrote his sister Hattie in November 1883: "I can catch them around their necks when they are running or by their feet, throw them down and hold them there, and I expect to have some wild horses to break in a day or two."
Raised on a strict Baptist, Stott was not the typical hell-raising cowboy. He wrote: "There is nothing here to do except drink and go to dances around the country, and as I never drink or dance, I have not been away from the ranch yet."
After working on ranches for two years, Stott was taller, tougher, and a good shot with a rifle or six-shooter. In the spring of 1885, he took his pay in horses and set out for Arizona, where he hoped to work for the Hashknife. When he reached Holbrook on Oct. 13, 1885, he learned the outfit was not hiring any more "young gentlemen" with family connections.
His family sent him money while he looked for a place of his own. He found a 160-acre mountain meadow with permanent springs and convinced his father it was a good investment. They bought the homestead rights and Stott went to work "proving up" on it. Everyone was welcome at the hospitable Stott's ranch. His neighbors helped him build a log cabin. With $1,000 from his father, he bought mares and range cattle, keeping a record of all his transactions.
An iron-gray horse with a questionable brand put his reputation on the line. When someone stole the horse from him, he and a friend went after it. He wrote Hattie that he had gone to Tonto Basin to recover a horse "someone had taken over there and did not want to give up."
One month later, the sheriff arrested Stott and Hashknife cowboy Tom Tucker on a horse-stealing charge. The justice of the peace in Globe determined the horse's original owner was Jack Lauffer, but ruled: "There seems to be an entire lack of evidence to convict." Stott and Tucker were released, but suspicions had been planted in the minds of some prominent citizens of Tonto Basin who called themselves "regulators."
Stott was congenial and well-liked. He made one dangerous enemy, however. Deputy Sheriff James Houck was a sheep rancher, allied with the Tewksbury faction in the Pleasant Valley feud. Livery stable owner Sam Brown, famed for his bluntness, described Houck as "a bad man with long hair."
Houck had boasted publicly that he would run his sheep at Stott's Aztec Springs Ranch some day, and he baited the young Easterner whenever he could. Their feud came to a head one night in a Holbrook billiard parlor when Houck insulted Stott and Stott told him "to go and heel himself."
When three men ambushed and shot at Jake Lauffer in Tonto Basin on Aug. 5, Houck put the finger on Jamie Stott, Jimmy Scott, and Jeff Wilson.
Jimmy Scott, a ranch foreman, was the son of a prominent Texas family. According to lawman Joe McKinney, Houck carried a grudge against Scott for "calling his hand" one night in Holbrook when Houck was "shooting off his head recklessly."
When Scott rode to Pleasant Valley Aug. 9 to pick up a horse he head loaned to a man, the regulators took him prisoner, holding him at Perkins' store for two days, charging him with attempted murder of Jake Lauffer.
At Aztec Springs with Stott were Lamotte Clymer and Alfred Ingram, recovering consumptives Stott had taken in, and Jeff Wilson, a Hashknife roundup cook and prospector. Stott was in high spirits. In just three months, he would have title to his homestead.
Daylight outlined the ridge east of the ranch on Aug. 12 when Houck and two other men rode through a grove of cottonwoods and willows to Stott's cabin.
When Stott came out the door, Houck met him with a loaded Winchester. The deputy ordered Stott to put his hands up, saying he had a warrant for his arrest. Stott told him, "That's all right. I'll go with you wherever and whenever you wish." When Stott asked to see the warrant, Houck told him he had left it at Bear Springs, where they'd spent the night. Stott then invited Houck to stay for breakfast.
Just then, 20 armed men rode up with their prisoner, Jimmy Scott, another friend of Stott's. Stott cooked breakfast for all of them. After breakfast, the men "sat around for an hour or so chatting and laughing before taking their departure," according to Clymer's eyewitness account.
Clymer and Ingham knew no one in the party except Houck. The regulators took their prisoner down the Old Verde Road about 20 miles to its junction with the main trail to Pleasant Valley. There they stopped and hanged Stott, Scott, and Wilson from a large pine tree.
Clymer stayed at the ranch to take care of the animals while the semi-invalid Ingham made his way to a neighboring ranch, then on to Holbrook, 60 miles away, where he reported the abduction on Aug. 13.
On the same day, Houck rode into Holbrook with the story that he had arrested Stott and Wilson at Aztec Springs, but they had been taken from him at gunpoint by a band of 40 masked men.
On Aug. 15, four men from Holbrook drove a wagon to the site of the hanging. The fly-blown bodies had been hanging in the sun for four days. They placed blankets and tarps beneath the bodies, cut them down, and buried them in a side canyon where the ground was soft enough to dig.
The elderly Stotts received a telegram from a Hashknife cowboy Aug. 16 telling them of the lynching. The couple left for Arizona the next day. Sam Brown took them to the ranch where they gathered their son's personal belongings. They had no choice but to settle his affairs and leave Arizona behind them.
In spite of pleas from the Stott's and Stott's relatives in Texas, the perpetrators were never brought to justice. Judge D.G. Harvey wrote to the Stotts: "It is one of those crimes that is very hard to fathom, as undoubtedly every participant swears his life to secrecy."
On Oct. 10, Harvey concluded: "I am fully convinced after a thorough inspection of Jamie's books and papers that he purchased and paid a good price for every head of stock on his range, but do think he was imposed on by designing parties and through his kindness he has had to suffer."
Jim Houck ran sheep on Stott's Aztec Springs Ranch in the years following the hanging, as he had boasted he would, and for a time he was quite prosperous. According to The Arizona Republican, he died by taking strychnine in 1921 at the age of 74.
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