Billy Stiles and Burt Alvord were an oddly matched pair. Billy was reportedly smarter than Burt and better looking with a lot more hair, but Burt was large and imposing, being a good deal taller and more muscular than Billy. Burt was easy going with a good sense of humor while Billy was more intense. Billy was introverted while Burt loved to play pranks and be the life of the party. But despite their differences, they got along well. They both always dreamed of being lawmen. Yet their wishes came true, they could never make up their minds which side of the law they preferred. Both were Cochise County Deputy Sheriffs. Both were train robbers.
Burt was born in 1867 in Susanville, California. His family moved to Tombstone in Arizona Territory in 1880. His father, Charles Alvord served as Justice of the Peace for many years and was well respected. As a teenager, Burt spent some time working at the OK Corral, sweeping out stalls and caring for the horses. He may have seen the notorious gunfight between the Earps and the Clantons in October of 1881. Probably all the boys in town (and not a few girls) were drawn to that scene of drama and death.
Billy was born William Larkin Stiles in Casa Grande in 1871. Not much is known about his childhood except that he reportedly killed his abusive stepfather with a shotgun during an argument when he was twelve. He immediately hopped on a horse and left home for good. Most of his intervening history is unknown. He ended up in Cochise County after spending some time prospecting in the Superstition Mountains.
In 1886 John Slaughter was elected Sheriff of Cochise County. Slaughter owned one of the largest ranches in the county and had earned his reputation for being honest and hard working. Unfortunately, he wasn't particularly good at picking deputy sheriffs. Both Burt and Billy worked under Slaughter in the four years he served as Sheriff. The young men did well in the first couple of years, aiding Slaughter in bringing law and order to the Wild West of mining camps and boom towns.
Slaughter and Alvord worked well together, bringing quite a few miscreants to justice. They'd track the robbers to their campsite, then take off their boots after the bad guys had gone to sleep and creep in quietly in their stocking feet to wake up the bandits with guns in their faces. At least once this went a little wrong when the Jack Taylor gang came awake shooting. But Slaughter and Alvord and another deputy managed to avoid injury themselves while injuring one thief, killing another, and capturing a third.
Burt earned a reputation for being honest and fair and lived up to it until he started drinking heavily around 1889. He began to hang out in the saloons, fraternizing with the people he was supposed to be arresting. The relationship between Alvord and Slaughter became strained.
Burt also had a reputation for playing elaborate practical jokes, which didn’t improve his relationship with his boss..
In June of 1890 Burt and a friend, Matt Burts, were in Bisbee. They planned to return to Tombstone that afternoon. To stir up excitement and consternation in Tombstone, they sent a telegraph to the Tombstone Telegraph newspaper: “Bodies of Alvord and Burts will arrive this afternoon.”
got on the stage and headed for Tombstone.
Meanwhile in Tombstone rumors ran wild. The story was all over town long before the stage arrived. When it did pull into town, a large crowd was waiting to see the bodies. Alvord and Burts, very much alive, stepped out into the dust of the street and said “Sure our bodies arrived. We never go out without 'em.” Most people (although not all) thought it was funny.
Burt and another friend of his, Biddy Doyle, a man who knew how to box and to wrestle and who also loved practical jokes, concocted a scheme to make money. They were going to pit Biddy, a scrawny little Irishman, against a big Cornishman who worked in the mines, a lopsided wrestling match. The miner happily agreed to take a fall for sufficient compensation.
They would stage this travesty in Bisbee in the manure pit just outside the entrance to the Copper Queen Mine. As the days passed, the betting was heavy on the big miner. On the day of the fight a large crowd had gathered at the manure pit. Biddy and his large opponent faced off in the slime. When the referee said go, they moved forward. But Biddy didn’t close with the miner. Instead he ran around the ring several times, slipping and sliding in the muck. The big man turned, trying to keep his little opponent in sight, but Biddy got behind him and jumped high on the miner’s back and neck. Off balance the man fell face first into the manure. Biddy sat on his head, refusing to get off until the man conceded the match. It didn’t take long for the Cornishman to give up. Biddy decamped. Burt grabbed the proceeds of the match and the two of them jumped on their horses and high tailed it to Tombstone.
The Tombstone newspaper reported the prank and scolded the “bad boys” for sullying Tombstone’s good name.
By 1890 Burt
was spending more time in saloons than he did working. Slaughter had
enough. He told Alvord to stop or lose his job. Burt tossed his badge on the desk and walked out.
For the next few years he worked as a ranch hand, sometimes as a deputy constable in Fairbank and Willcox. In 1895 gold was discovered near what became Pearce, south of Wilcox. The town grew quickly to a population of 200 with a general store, two boarding houses and several saloons. Burt had just gotten married and he and his wife, Lola Ochoa, moved to Pearce and bought a house on Main Street. They also bought the Warren Ranch outside of town, where Burt planned to raise horses.
In March of 1897 George Bravin, Constable of District 9, hired Burt as a Deputy Constable in Pearce. The two of them subdued the raucous, rowdy town in just a few months. But Burt’s reputation got him a better offer and he accepted the position of acting Constable in District 3, based in Willcox. The previous constable had resigned. Burt was later elected to the position.
Willcox was much bigger than Pearce with a population of over 500. It was an important stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad, having become a large shipper of cattle. It even earned the nickname of the Cattle Capital of the West. It had a telegraph office, hotels and two large general stores, as well as the omnipresent saloons and brothels.
In January of 1899, the Cochise County Sheriff, Scott White, appointed Burt as a Deputy Sheriff. Burt also continued on as Constable in Willcox. White also deputized Billy Stiles. And that's when the trouble started.
Burt Alvord and his colleague and friend, Billy Stiles, decided that they weren't getting enough money enforcing the law, breaking up fights and chasing robbers and assorted bad guys. They figured that since they were the peacekeepers who would form the posses that went after any robbers, maybe they should just form their own gang. Then they could chase themselves and come back looking worn out, professing that they couldn't find a trace of those robbers.
So they got together with two of their pals; William Downing, who ran the Free and Easy Saloon on Maley Street in Wilcox and Matt Burts. Their first train robbery was at Cochise Station on September 11, 1899. Burt and Billy, along with Downing and Burts started a card game in the back room of Schwertner’s Saloon in Willcox, making sure everyone knew where they were. They paid off a waiter to bring them rounds of drinks every half hour or so. Meanwhile Stiles and Matt Burts sneaked out a window and set off for Cochise Station in time to catch the train pulling in from the East.
One of them stopped the train by standing on the track and waving a lantern with red glass in it. Shortly thereafter the engineer and fireman found themselves looking down the barrels of guns, wielded by masked men. They got the guard in the Wells Fargo express car to open the door by threatening to blow up the car. They blew the safe with dynamite and rode off with somewhere between $3000 and $30,000, the amount varying according to different reports.
When the train finally pulled into Cochise Station, one young man who had been hiding under his seat, ran outside and excitedly fired two shots into the air with a revolver. Brakeman Gray took the gun away from the hysterical Easterner and led him back to his seat.
Riding Hell bent for leather, the robbers reached Willcox ahead of the news. When the bartender came rushing in to inform Deputy Sheriffs Alvord and Stiles of the robbery, they were deeply involved in their poker game.
Alvord immediately deputized Downing and Burts and they all took off to chase the miscreants. Not surprisingly, they were unable to trace the robbers.
Unfortunately Wells Fargo was not amused and sent out one of their best investigators, Bert Grover. Grover wasn’t impressed by the fact that Billy and Burt were lawmen. Nor was he impressed by their alibi. The weak link was the waiter who, after being leaned on by the persistent detective, confessed that for quite a while that night the only players at the table were Burt Alvord and William Downing. The next day the waiter had skedaddled and Grover’s case collapsed.
The success went to their heads. Billy and Burt were not relieved of their badges so they set about plotting their next train robbery. They brought in the Owens brothers, George and Louis, Three Fingered Jack Dunlop, Bravo Juan Yoas and Bob Brown to do the robbery this time. They picked a date when Wells Fargo express guard Jeff Milton was not supposed to be working. No one wanted to go up against him. Milton was a dangerous man.
On February 15, 1900, the five men pretended to be drunken cowboys waiting for the train at Fairbank. As the train pulled in, the robbers saw Jeff Milton standing in the open door of the express car. At first they thought about leaving, but he didn't have a gun so they opened fire and Milton fell with a bullet in his left shoulder. But as he fell, he grabbed his shotgun and emptied it into Dunlop, also hitting Bravo Juan in the buttocks. He pulled the door closed and managed to hide the key to the safe before he passed out.
The would-be robbers got the door open but couldn’t find the key and rode off with a dying Three Fingered Jack and no money. Soon they had to leave Jack by the trail with a bottle of whiskey to kill the pain. He was found by a posse led by Sheriff Scott White and taken to Tombstone. Before he died, he gave a detailed interview to the sheriff and to the Tombstone Prospector and named names, confessing everything.
The gang was rounded up and thrown into jail at Tombstone where George Bravin was now jailer. Billy Stiles soon started whining and then confessed everything. He was given trusty status and allowed the freedom of the town. But trusty he wasn’t. On April 8, 1900 he returned to the jail with a gun and ordered Bravin to open all the cells. There were 25 prisoners at that time. Bravin refused and Billy shot him in the foot, took the keys and opened the cells. Yoas and Alvord were happy to be freed, but Bravin told the other prisoners that they would only get in more trouble if they ran. No one else took advantage of Stiles' offer of freedom. Downing stayed in his cell and Matt Burts was outside with a deputy.
One week later a Mexican man walked into the jail at Benson and handed over the keys to the Tombstone jail with a note signed by the three escapees. “Tell the boys we are all well and eating regular.”
Alvord, Stiles and Yoas took off for Mexico. For the next two years Alvord and Stiles stayed near the border, riding back and forth. They were often seen as they stopped in to visit friends or have a drink at a bar despite the $1000 reward on each of their heads. The Tombstone Epitaph reported on March 1, 1901 that Alvord was seen at the Warren ranch in Sulphur Springs Valley near Pearce. A rather incensed California reporter filed a story with the Los Angeles Herald on February 8, 1904, angry because the two outlaws were spotted drinking and playing cards with friends in the Sonora Club at Naco. Despite the reward, despite the frequent searches, the two seemed to be able to come and go as they wished. The law couldn't catch them.
They were famous from Los Angeles to New York City. Newspapers across the country printed accounts of their exploits. They had a lot of friends, who warned them when the deputies were close by. Alvord and Stiles were folk heroes somewhat like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If Burt had had hair, they probably would have been the most celebrated outlaws in the Wild West.
One person who wasn't happy with the wild boys was Lola Ochoa Alvord. She divorced Burt in September of 1900. They never had any children.
Burt and Billy split up when Burt began riding with the infamous outlaw, Augustine Chacon. Chacon was a stone-cold killer. He had murdered over thirty people, several in Graham County, Arizona Territory, where he had been tried and sentenced to hang before he escaped.
Meanwhile Burton Mossman, the Captain of the newly formed Arizona Rangers, wanted very much to capture Chacon. He developed a plan, which involved getting Billy Stiles to help him. Mossman went to Maria Stiles, Billy’s wife, and asked her to contact Billy. Everyone knew how close Billy and Maria were. He would come to see her often in Hereford, where she was living.
Billy wanted more than anything else to carry a badge again. His price for helping Mossman was to become an Arizona Ranger. So on January 15, 1902, Billy Stiles was enrolled in the Arizona Rangers as a private. For months Billy worked diligently and happily as a lawman. Of course, he was still Billy Stiles, so he engaged in a little sideline of smuggling Chinese laborers into the country across the Mexican border.
Billy contacted Burt and on April 2, 1902 the two of them met with Mossman just south of Naco. Mossman told Burt he would clear the train robbery charges and get leniency for the outlaw.
On August 2, 1902, the three of them went after Chacon. Alvord had induced Chacon with a plan to steal thoroughbreds from the Colonel Green ranch just north of the border.. Billy brought Mossman, who posed as a buyer for the horses, into Chacon’s camp. Chacon was suspicious, but he also wanted those horses and he knew Billy. The four men, Billy, Burt, Chacon, and Mossman, rode to the ranch that night. Alvord became anxious and finally left the camp, saying he was going to search for firewood. He did not return.
Chacon was left with the two gringos and was even more suspicious, keeping his eyes on Mossman practically all night. In the morning Billy diverted Chacon’s attention just long enough for Mossman to draw his gun. Billy handcuffed Chacon. Mossman ordered the man to mount his horse. Chacon refused. Mossman looped a noose around the murderer’s neck and threatened to drag him back across the border if needed. Chacon got on the horse.
Chacon was turned over to the Graham County Sheriff and was taken back to Solomonville where he was hanged on November 21, 1902. His last words were “Adios, todos amigos.” Like Billy and Burt, Chacon was a folk hero. His hanging was delayed for two months while petitions circulated to have his sentence commuted to a prison term. On his tombstone these words appear.
1861 – 1902
He lived life without fear.
He faced death without fear.
Hombre muy bravo.
Mossman was replaced as Captain of the Rangers very shortly after the capture of Chacon. Billy was summarily tossed out of the Rangers and he was back to being wanted. He teamed up with Burt again.
But Burt turned himself in to Cochise County Sheriff Del Lewis in Mexico on December 1, 1902. For months Burt languished in jail, most of the time in Tucson. He was returned to Tombstone for the grand jury inquiry. In July of 1903, the grand jury indicted him on six counts of tampering with the U.S. mail. They refused to indict on the charges of train robbery because that charge carried the death penalty.
Billy also surrendered to Sheriff Lewis in November of 1903. The two pals were reunited in the Tombstone jail and set about trying to escape. They were able to loosen a bar in the cell, which could be replaced when a jailor came in. With the bar they began to dig through the adobe wall at the back of the cell. On December 15, 1903, the two outlaws along with nineteen other prisoners very quietly slipped out the hole. The last man ran around the front of the jail and told a deputy what was happening. Everyone was recaptured – except for Billy and Burt, who had horses saddled and waiting for them.
In January of 1904, the pair robbed John Tenner, owner of the Klondyke Mine near Nacosari, Mexico, of a large amount of gold bullion. The Mexican authorities were extremely unhappy with the boys and this was the last straw. The bad boys knew that if they were captured in Mexico they would be executed.
Sheriff Lewis tracked Billy and Burt to a camp near Naco in February of 1904. A gunfight resulted in injuries to both outlaws. Burt was shot twice in the leg and Billy in the left arm. Billy was able to mount his horse and escape, but Burt was captured.
Burt was sent to Yuma Territorial Prison where he served nearly two years. But as the end of his incarceration approached, his future became dimmer. The Mexican authorities wanted to extradite him for his crimes in Mexico. That would be the same as a death sentence. Fortunately, the warden of the prison liked Burt and let him out two weeks early.
Burt went to stay with his sister in San Francisco for a short time and then headed for Central and South America. He worked in the construction industry in Panama and Brazil under the name Tom Wright. His banker was the only one who knew who he was.
Two years later, he developed yellow fever and was sent to the Barbados by the company. They had a camp for workers who developed the endemic disease. Burt died on November 24, 1909, a sad end for a folk hero. He is buried in a cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados. His banker was able to transfer his estate, which consisted of $800, to his sister.
As for Billy, he disappeared. Rumors abounded. He was in California. He was in the Philippines. He was in China. Actually he was in Nevada. He settled in Humboldt County, Nevada and at some point became a Deputy Sheriff under the name William Larkin. Larkin was his middle name. He loved being a lawman. He built a reputation as an honest and fair deputy and became respected in the community of Winnemucca.
On December 8, 1908, Billy had ridden out to the Riley ranch 90 miles north of Winnemucca. He was going to serve papers on a sheep rancher nearby. He had lunch at the Riley ranch with the owner and the foreman. Then he and the foreman walked out toward the barn. A man stepped out from behind the barn and shot Billy three times.
As Billy fell, mortally wounded, he managed to draw his own weapon and get off one shot, but it went wild. Charlie Barr had threatened to kill Billy because of the lawman's involvement in a case earlier that year. A friend of Barr's had been killed while being arrested. Barr was eventually found in Colorado where he was in prison for robbery. Somehow he was never extradited to Nevada and brought to justice.
Billy was buried in Winnemucca in a cemetery that was later closed. The graves were moved, and the records were lost. Where he actually lies is unknown. But his name, William Larkin Stiles, appears on the James D. Hoff Peace Officer Memorial in Reno, Nevada. The National Peace Officer Memorial in Washington, D.C. also lists him as William L. Stiles.
Billy was 37 when he died, Burt 42; two men who rode on both sides of the law, the bad boys of Cochise County.
Bibliography for The Bad Boys of Cochise County
Los Angeles Herald; Volume XXXI, Number 132; February 8, 1904.
Tombstone Epitaph; April 8. 1900.
Tombstone Epitaph; March 12, 1901.
Chaput, Don; The Odyssey of Burt Alvord; Western Lore Press; Tucson, Arizona; 2000.
Edwards, Harold L.; “Burt Alvord’s Final Days”; Quarterly of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History, Inc.; University of Wyoming; Laramie, Wyoming; Volume XXV, Number 1 (January-March 2001).
Howard, Michael; Billy Stiles, Chasing the Wind; Santa Cruz Valley Press; Tucson, Arizona; 2009.
Klump, Kathy and Tenney, Peta-Anne; Willcox (Images of America); Arcadia Publishing; Charleston, South Carolina; 2009
Lowe, Sam; Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Arizona History; Morris Book Publishing; Guilford, Connecticut; 2012.
Smith, Brad; Fun on the Run: The Alvord-Stiles Gang of Cochise County, Arizona Territory; self-published; Cochise County, Arizona; 1999.
Turner, Erin H.; Outlaw Tales of the Old West: Fifty True Stories of Desperados, Crooks, Criminals and Bandits; TwoDot Publishing; Helena, Montana; 2016.
Wilson, R. Michael; Great Train Robberies of the Old West; TwoDot Publishers; Montana; 2007; pp.145-153.