First built into the county courthouse in Tombstone in 1882, the Cochise County Jail has held a host of legendary heroes and villains of the Old West. The jail, at one point or another, housed both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, arrested and incarcerated for a night by Sheriff Behan, as well as members of the outlaw Cowboy gang that they faced in the famous gunfight at the O. K. Corral.
The original Tombstone jail saw use almost immediately when, in 1883, a botched robbery at the Goldwater and Castaneda general store in Bisbee claimed the lives of four people, including a deputy sheriff and a pregnant woman.
Five outlaws rode into town on the evening of December 8th intending to loot the shop while its coffers were full, payroll having been delivered shortly prior. Three of the men burst into the shop, leaving two to stand watch, and held the proprietor at gunpoint, forcing him to open the safe. When he did, they discovered that they had mistimed the robbery: payroll hadn’t arrived yet, and the safe was virtually empty.
As the robbers inside looted what they could, the two standing watch were confronted by a citizen of the town, J. C. Tappenier. When Tappenier refused to retreat back into the local saloon, one of the outlaws shot him through the head with his rifle.
The noise of the gunshot brought deputy D. Tom Smith, who, announcing himself as a lawman, was immediately gunned down.
As the outlaws fled, they shot anyone in sight, including the pregnant Annie Roberts, who they mortally wounded, and a fourth bystander, who they shot in the chest. Both victims would die within the day, and a further victim would be shot in the leg but recover.
The five men were soon captured (one of them having neglected to wear a mask during the robbery) as well as a sixth alleged conspirator, John Heath, who was accused of playing a part in the formulation of the robbery plan.
Both the five robbers and Heath were convicted, the latter based entirely on testimony provided by a prisoner who received a reduced sentence for his cooperation. The five outlaws were sentenced to hang, while Heath was to live out the rest of his days at Yuma Territorial Prison.
On the morning of February 22nd 1884, a mob of Cochise County citizens stormed the jail. Dissatisfied with Heath’s having escaped the hangman’s noose, they held the jailers at gunpoint and demanded that he be handed over to them. The jailers, outnumbered, had no choice but to comply.
John Heath was dragged to the middle of Tombstone and hanged from a telegraph at approximately 8 AM, having used his last words to attest to his innocence.
The five perpetrators of the massacre would be legally hanged outside the county jail a little over a month later, on March 28th. Over a thousand people attended the execution.
When, in 1929, the county seat was moved from Tombstone to Bisbee, the county jail went with it. The most recent iteration of the Cochise County Jail is a modern steel and concrete complex built in 1985, just over a century after the original was completed.
In 1959 the old Cochise County Courthouse in Tombstone was converted into a museum, and the county jail with it. A replica gallows stands next to it.
Today, the Cochise County Jail is administered by the Detention Division of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, and houses approximately 250 inmates.