Monday, April 21, 2014

Wells Spicer: A Local Connection to the Wild West

by Erin Doane, Curator

While doing research for our new rotating exhibit that will highlight the towns and villages in Chemung County (the Horseheads exhibit is coming in July!) I came across Wells Spicer.  Wells Spicer was the Justice of the Peace in Tombstone, Arizona when the gunfight at the OK Corral took place.  He presided over the preliminary hearing that would determine if the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday would be held for trail.  Well, that’s interesting and all, you may be thinking, but why is he relevant to Chemung County history? Wells Spicer was born here in Chemung in 1831.  He is a native son of the county and, while he left here at the age of nine, his story is worth sharing.
Wells Spicer, 1875
As a young man, Spicer worked as a clerk in a law firm. He was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1853.  He worked as an attorney and was elected county judge in 1856.  He was also a journalist and publisher and tried his hand at prospecting several times.  In 1869 he moved to the Utah territory where he set up shop as an attorney specializing in mining suits and claims.  In 1875, Spicer was retained as attorney for John D. Lee who was on trial for his role in the Mountain Meadow massacre.  The Mountain Meadow massacre was a series of attacks that culminated in the killing of about 120 men, women and children in southern Utah on September 11, 1857.  John D. Lee led a militia of Mormon settlers who slaughtered nearly everyone in the wagon train of emigrants passing through Utah on the way to California.  Lee went to trial twice for his crimes and both times was defended by Spicer.  The first trial ended in a hung jury and the second with a conviction.  On March 22, 1877, Lee was executed by firing squad.  For his part in the trial, Spicer was lambasted in the press and ostracized by both Mormons and non-Mormons alike.
Execution of John D. Lee, March 22, 1877
Several years after the trial, Spicer relocated to Tombstone, Arizona.  On October 26, 1881 at around 3:00 pm, a gunfight broke out at the OK Corral.  The very brief altercation was between the outlaw Cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury on one side and town Marshal Virgil Earp, assistant town Marshal Morgan Earp, their brother Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holiday on the other.  Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were killed in the fight.  As Justice of the Peace, it fell upon Wells Spicer to decide if the Earp Brothers and Doc Holiday would have to face trial for murder.  Spicer ultimately decided that the Earps and Holiday were fully justified in their actions as they were done in the discharge of official duty.  While the hearing appeared to be even-handed, several of Spicer’s decisions during the process seemed to favor the defense.  Because of this, Spicer was the target of criticism and several death threats. 

OK Corral, Tombstone, Arizona, 1882
Spicer’s actual death is a thing of mystery.  In 1887 he wandered off into the desert and disappeared.  Before disappearing, he stopped at the home of Bill Haynes.  There he made two attempts at suicide before striking off on his own into the wilderness where he, presumably, died of exposure.  It is thought, however, that maybe Spicer faked suicide to get away from creditors.  His body was never found and there were rumors that he was seen in Mexico after his supposed death.


  1. who would have Elmira native and the OK Corral.....very interesting!

  2. Maybe he snuck back to Chemung County!