Eight months after the June 5th 1882 murder of notorious Irish gunfighter James Leavy in front of the Palace Hotel in Tucson, Arizona Territory, professional gambler and fellow Irishman Johnny Murphy rose to make a statement upon his acquittal:
Your honor, I thank you and the jury, but I desire to say that I have lived all my life on the frontier. I was honorably discharged from the navy, when a young man, on the coast of Florida, and came right through to the frontier. I have been amongst rough men all my life, have stopped many a bad fight, and never before been in any trouble. I regret this occurrence, but what I did was done by me conscientiously and with a belief that it was all I could do to save my own life, and it was done in self-defense.
Murphy, along with accomplices William Moyer and David Gibson, shot down Leavy in a hail of small-caliber gunfire after a night of heated arguments over one of Murphy’s faro tables at Tucson’s Fashion Saloon.
Immediately afterwards all three surrendered and were placed in the county jail and the protective custody of Pima County Robert Havlin “Bob” Paul.
Testimony began in a preliminary hearing against the three defendants when suddenly the trio escaped the county jail in what the Arizona Weekly Citizen called, “a bold and successful break for liberty by desperate criminals.”
During his life, and even after death, those who knew Irish gunman James Leavy described him as an honorable and intrepid fighter. Some remembered him as a man willing to give anyone a fair show. But he was also considered a hard case and a dangerous man.
One Deadwood pioneer recalled Leavy’s ability as a gunman, claiming he was second only to James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. For a brief time Leavy’s notoriety spread far and wide, surpassing even that of his former business partners Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Of the hundreds of gamblers and gunmen in the trans-Mississippi West, few fostered a more fearsome and geographically transcending reputation than Leavy.
By some accounts Leavy survived 16 shootouts. Although most can’t be properly documented, that is not unusual for a legendary Old West gunfighter.
That Leavy is not better known today (no photograph of him is known to exist) is somewhat of a mystery. But details are coming to light on his career as a gunman, thus landing him a spot among what author Richard Maxwell Brown terms the “glorified gunfighters.”
The early life of James H. Leavy is riddled with mystery. His last name is often misspelled “Levy,” but letters he wrote and legal documents show the addition of an “a.” He was born in Ireland, probably in 1842, and though he was likely Catholic, much of Leavy’s modern legend as a shootist rests upon the fact he was thought to be Jewish (no evidence has turned up to support this claim). In early 1852, young Jim departed Liverpool, England, with his parents and sailed to the United States, docking at New York City on May 14.
While still in his teens, he traveled west and found work in the gold mining camps of California. When news broke of significant silver strikes in Nevada in the late 1860s, Leavy ventured to the rough-and-tumble mining camp of Pioche in southeast Nevada’s Lincoln County. It was there Leavy likely learned about gun handling and gun play from another Irishman, Richard Moriarty, alias Morgan Courtney, who had built a reputation as a feared gunman and participated in at least three gunfights.
Leavy got into a gunfight of his own in Pioche in May 1871. A prospector named Mike Casey claimed to have shot another man that March in self-defense, but Leavy testified that he had witnessed the shooting, and that Casey had fired first. The angry Casey tracked down Leavy, and the two engaged in a wild shootout in an alley. Leavy killed Casey, but Casey’s friend Dave Neagle, a future Arizona Territory lawman, in turn shot Leavy through the jaw, leaving the Irishman with a disfigured and sinister face.
Born in Ireland in 1847, Murphy first enters the record shortly after the Civil War as a Landsman aboard the USS Contoocook, a screw sloop-of-war. Murphy was admitted to the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, New Hampshire after becoming ill from exposure from “washing deck.” What brought Murphy to Arizona remains unclear, but evidence suggests early mining opportunities attracted Murphy to central Arizona thus establishing his tenure in the Territory.
In 1880, Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell entered Murphy into the Great Register of Pima County. Two years later, in 1882, Murphy is known to have been operating faro tables at several saloons in Tucson and under his employ was fellow gamblers William Moyer and David Gibson. Gibson, a noted Tucson card sharp, had a run-in with “Big Ed” Byrnes’s “Top-and -Bottom Gang” of con-men and gamblers recently expelled from Benson during the annual San Augustin Festival in Tucson:
The usual amount of gaming was in progress, and the “sure thing” crowd were still exhibiting numerous tempting devices for trapping the unwary. A fight occurred on the feast grounds between Dave Gibson and one of the "top-and-bottom” gang. The latter used a revolver freely in clubbing Gibson over the head, cutting him quite badly.
The attraction to Tucson as a gambling center drew James Leavy, a veteran of the gambling dens of San Francisco, Deadwood, Pioche, Cheyenne and Tombstone. Hot-tempered and dangerous when drunk, Leavy strongly accused Murphy of running a “crooked game” and demanded a duel with Murphy to settle the score. Knowing a fair fight with Murphy would likely end in his own death, Murphy enlisted the help of his fellow gamblers and set-out to even the playing field.
After the murder of Leavy a short trial began before Murphy and his two co-defendants escaped from the Pima County Jail. Both Murphy and Gibson were later caputed living under assumed names in Fenner, California and were both acquitted of their crimes. Moyer was captured about the same time in Denver, Colorado and was sentenced to life (a sentence that was later pardoned) in prison at Arizona's notorious Yuma Territorial Prison.
Leavy's remains are in an unmarked grave somewhere in Tucson's urban sprawl. Following his acquittal, Murphy remained quiet, but his presence in the gambling underworld was still strong. For years Murphy was deeply involved in gambling rackets in Tucson and Bisbee, a mining town south of Tombstone in Cochise County. Both cities record several arrests against Murphy for various charges well into the early 1900s. In 1903, pioneer photographer William E. (W.E.) Irwin staged a series of photos inside Bisbee’s Orient Saloon. One of these images, “Orient Saloon at Bisbee, Arizona…Faro game in full blast” would become one of the most widely-distributed and easily recognized images of the frontier, but few know that the faro dealer in the photograph is none other than Johnny Murphy.
On March 27, 1926, Johnny Murphy died in Tucson. Buried in an unmarked grave in Tucson’s Evergreen Cemetery, Murphy seems to have earned redemption and forgiveness with his obituary from The Arizona Republican
Death Thursday claimed one of the few remaining picturesque characters of Tucson’s wide-open gambling days in the passing of John Murphy, resident of Arizona since the early eighties when he figured as one of the professional gamblers of Tucson and one of the most skillful rough-and-tumble fighters of the old regime. He was 74 years of age at the time of his death and retained much of his old-time robust vigor to the last.
*adapted from the author's Gamblers, Guns & Gavels, 2016