Deadliest gunfight lecture a hit at Sharlot Hall
Scene: 1918; the Powers Cabin in the Galiuro Mountains of Arizona; Jeff Power, his sons Tom and John Power and hired hand Tom Sisson square off against Sheriff Frank McBride, Deputy Marshal Frank Haynes and two sheriff’s deputies.
When the dust settled, Jeff Power, McBride and the two deputies had fallen in the deadliest gunfight Arizona had ever seen.
Historian, author and 2011 Sharlot Hall Award Recipient Heidi Osselaer spoke at Sharlot Hall Museum Saturday, July 21, to a room packed with interested listeners, focusing on how she tried to solve the problems of piecing the gunfight’s events together. Scholarship is pretty thin, Osselaer said.
“Part of the problem was this happened in such a remote area,” she said. “There were no other witnesses except for the people involved and half of them … died.”
Further, it happened during World War I, and back then newspapers were censored and lots of material was not reported on because anti-draft talk, including the trial, Osselaer said.
As such, there are no records, resulting in lots of conjecture. Yet, that’s what makes the story interesting because nobody knows for sure and people like to theorize, she said.
While most previous researches use a lot of documents local to Graham County, where the gunfight took place, Osselaer said. She, on the other hand, went to every place they had lived, including Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, and tracked down those records as well as those of military intelligence and the FBI.
“I think it’s sort of like putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle where you only have about two-thirds of the puzzle pieces and you don’t even know what the picture looks like because you don’t have that box,” she said.
In her research, Osselaer said she found people believe the shootout happened because the Powers were an outlaw gang of cattle rustlers and murderers, or because they were fraudsters.
Yet, their background makes them come off more like the Beverly Hillbillies. And their mine was not valuable as John Power said at the end of his life, they never took gold out of their mine.
Furthermore, after the gunfight, the mine went up for auction and nobody bid on it.
However, the Powers were known to be against World War I, and the draft, which had just been instituted, she said. Failure to register for the draft was a misdemeanor offense with no more than a year in jail but the climate of the time, including the Espionage Act, made it so draft evaders were deemed dangerous enemies of the state.
The United States military estimates that around three million men failed to register for the draft, Osselaer said.
“That’s as many as ended up serving in the military,” she said. “Tom and John Power were just two of three million men that failed to register for the draft.”
Nevertheless, McBride was a stickler for rules and was rallying up those who failed to register all over the county, Osselaer said. And so, with warrants to arrest the sons and question the family patriarch and Sisson about the mysterious death of daughter Ola May Power eight weeks prior, McBride went up to the Powers Cabin at night in the wintertime with a snowstorm pending.
It was only because McBride suggested that Ola May Power had died violently and others might be involved that the posse was federally authorized, Osselaer said. That was a state charge though, and since a posse couldn’t be organized on a misdemeanor charge, it wasn’t a legal one, she said.
“This was, from a legal standpoint, a total can of worms. I’ve talked to federal judges, I’ve talked to prosecutors, I’ve talked to some current lawmen,” Osselaer said.
“They all said the same thing: they would never be able to, then or now, get a federal posse for anything like this.”
There was no other sheriff going after draft evaders like McBride, and though it was unique, the thought is that WWI acted as a catalyst to stir people up, she said.
In fact, he was turned down repeatedly until he said something happened to Ola May and to this day, nobody knows how she died, Osselaer said.
Following the gunfight was the largest manhunt in the history of Arizona with $5,600 as a reward, she said. They were found guilty of first-degree murder. Sisson died in custody in 1957 and the brothers were released in 1960, and later pardoned in 1969. Tom Power died in 1970, and John Power died in 1976.
After the trial, Haynes never spoke to anyone about what happened for the rest of his life, Osselaer said.
“Sometimes, silence speaks volumes,” she said.
Osselaer’s lecture was at the Sharlot Hall Museum, 415 W. Gurley St., which currently features its Arizona & The Great War exhibit. For more information, visit www.sharlot.org.