“This newest Mecca of the hopeful”: The fingerprints of John P. Clum’s legacy

John Philip Clum.
John Philip Clum

He was the only man to put Geronimo in chains.

He gave witness to the most famous gunfight in the West.

He was one of the most prominent publishers in Arizona.

To some of his contemporaries, John Philip Clum was an “egotistical ass”. To others, he was an advocate for the Apaches, a capable editor of Pinal County’s first newspaper, and a champion of Tombstone, both as Epitaph editor and the town’s first elected mayor. The fingerprints of his legacy surround us today, thanks in part to 30 seconds of madness in 1881.

If Arizona is critical to the Old West mythos, so Clum is critical to the realities of Arizona’s territorial days. But his journey began in New York, eventually taking him to Rutgers where he briefly played football. Clum had been studying for the ministry, but divinity was not his destiny – the frontier awaited.

In 1874, only 22 years old, Clum was sent by the Dutch Reformed Church to oversee the Apaches on the San Carlos reservation. Clum soon proved himself to be not only an able administrator, but an ally to the Apaches, granting them authority over their own law enforcement and court system. Clum’s capture of Geronimo in 1877 had the outlaw finally in chains.

Clum’s frustration with his military superiors and the eventual release of Geronimo lead him to practice law in Florence, only a few months after resigning his post.

“My life with the Apaches had been full of action and thrills,” Clum wrote in his autobiography. “Sitting in an office and looking out the window at the desert sagebrush… were not sufficiently exciting.”

The solution? Buying a newspaper.

Clum and other Florence businessmen bought the Arizona Citizen, relocating it from Tucson and making the Citizen the first newspaper in Pinal County. Clum eventually became the sole proprietor of the paper and later returned it to Tucson, selling it in February 1880.

Attracted by the promise of the silver boom, Clum moved to Tombstone and established the Tombstone Epitaph. The first weekly edition was published on May 1, 1880.

Clum’s time in Tombstone was short – he left on May 1, 1882 – but it solidified Tombstone’s place in the Old West legend.  Clum reported on what became known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Were it not for those 30 seconds on October 26, 1881, Clum – and perhaps Tombstone itself – would be footnotes to Arizona’s history.

The gang fight between the Earps and the Clantons and McLaurys lasted a matter of seconds. “About twenty-five shots were fired in quick succession,” according to a telegraphed report published in the Arizona Gazette the next day. “The streets were immediately thronged with excited citizens, many of them armed with rifles and pistols,” the report continued.

The Epitaph‘s report of the gunfight – “Three Men Hurled Into Eternity in the Duration of a Moment” – painted its own bloody picture.

Reproduction of the Tombstone Epitaph front page, Oct. 27, 1881.
Reproduction of The Tombstone Epitaph front page, Oct. 27, 1881.

“Stormy as were the early days of Tombstone nothing ever occurred equal to the event of yesterday,” the report began.

“The moment the word of the shooting reached the… mines,” it continued, the miners “armed themselves, and poured into the town like an invading army.”

“Dozens of papers [in the east] had about a paragraph” about the shooting, said Robert Love, owner of the national edition of The Tombstone Epitaph. Two years after the gunfight, an edition of Harper’s Weekly featured articles about the shooting and other staples of the Old West narrative. The story of good and evil played out in the desert, and Clum was key to its telling.

Tombstone would not be Tombstone were it not for Clum. It was under his regime that Virgil Earp became marshal. According to Love, as mayor Clum began the practice of taxing brothels in the area, using the money to fund education.

About six months after the gunfight, Clum was out of Tombstone. The mines flooded, silver lost its value, and the town’s population plummeted.

A front page report on Clum’s death in May 1932 from the Arizona Republic noted that Clum “was known to relatively few modern residents of the state.” After leaving Arizona, Clum made a career in the Alaska territory as a postmaster, and later with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Only a few paragraphs are devoted to Clum’s time in Tombstone, citing the gunfight as “one of the more lurid highlights on the pages of Arizona history.”

“These were the frontiersmen,” Love said. And Clum, the champion of a town whose legacy outlasted 30 seconds of madness, was perhaps the most interesting of them all.

Carson Suggs is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Contact him at carsonsuggs@email.arizona.edu.


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