On the 100th anniversary of the infamous Power brothers shootout, an ASU professor and an alumnus with a key role in the story shed light on the fascinating, horrible tale
A manhunt spanning hundreds of miles.
One of the longest prison sentences in Arizona history.
And two old men, ghosts from the Old West, freed from prison by a crusading newspaper columnist, into a world of freeways, jetliners and space exploration.
This is the story of the Power brothers. One of the West’s most amazing tales, it’s mostly unknown except by Arizonans of a certain age. And it began with a bloody shootout at dawn a hundred years ago this Saturday.
A tragedy in the mountains
Before dawn on a bitterly cold morning on Feb. 10, 1918, a posse of four men sat on their mounts in a remote canyon in southern Arizona. They looked down at a small cabin. Smoke trickled from the chimney.
The posse — a county sheriff, two deputies and a U.S. marshal — were there to arrest the four men in the cabin below. Jeff Power, his sons Tom and John, and a hired hand named Tom Sisson lived there, working a mining claim. The brothers were wanted for draft dodging. Jeff Power and Sisson were wanted for perjury.
The posse dismounted, tied up their horses and removed their heavy clothing to be as quiet as possible. They crept down to the cabin and surrounded it, with the marshal, Frank Haynes, in the back. Sheriff Frank McBride and his deputies, Martin Kempton and Kane Wootan, waited in front.
“I guess they had planned this out, but perhaps the plan wasn’t obviously as good as it could’ve been,” said Arizona State University historian Heidi Osselaer, who executive-produced a documentary about the story called “Power’s War.” She has also written a book, “Arizona’s Deadliest Gunfight: Draft Resistance and Tragedy at the Power Cabin, 1918,” which will be published in May by the University of Oklahoma Press.
The Power family had a young colt, which was belled so they could find it in the mornings. They heard the bell on the colt and thought a mountain lion was stalking it. Jeff Power went to the door in his long johns, carrying his rifle.
“He walked outside with his gun, which is what a mountain man would do,” Osselaer said. “In every place he had lived his whole life, he had had trouble with people trying to rustle cattle, trying to jump mining claims; he had had a lot of problems with that over the course of his lifetime.”
Someone yelled from the dark, “Throw up your hands!”
He put his rifle between his knees and put up his hands. A bullet slammed into his chest.
Later on, both sides claimed the first shots came from the other side.
“We just don’t know,” Osselaer said. “I think, probably, we’ll never know that. I think whenever you get armed men, facing each other, in the dark, unexpectedly, bad things can happen. To me, it’s more important to know why was the posse up there to begin with? Usually, you won’t get a posse unless it’s some violent crimes and really dangerous people. They were up there with misdemeanor charges of draft evasion and perjury. That’s it.”
There was a lull of about a minute after the first shot.
Then all hell erupted.
Bullets shattered the cabin windows. John Power’s left eye was riddled with wood splinters, and his nose was creased by a round. His older brother Tom’s left eye was filled with glass shards. Three minutes and about 25 shots later, the gun battle was over.
“Some of us who have been in firefights know that there’s nothing in the world more unsettling to the human memory than that kind of desperate mortal combat,” said Don Dedera, an ASU alumnus (Class of 1951) and veteran journalist who broke the Power brothers’ story in 1958.
Outside, Sheriff McBride lay dead with four bullet wounds. Both deputies were killed, one shot in the back and the other in the stomach. Jeff Power was mortally wounded.
The marshal, who had been behind the cabin when the shooting started, fled. He bolted for town so quickly he rode his horse to death.
A death and a dodge
The story sheds light on a unique period. Arizona is — and always will be — the Wild West of shootouts and feuds and bad men. But the Power brothers story isn’t just another outlaw story, Osselaer said.
“These weren’t a bunch of hotheads; these weren’t a bunch of outlaws,” she said. “It was brought about, in my mind, solely because of World War I. Men who didn’t want to fight really saw this as an intrusion on their ability to earn a living, to take care of their families, that they didn’t want to go fighting in Europe for some old-fashioned aristocracies. This was a young country — we were a democracy, and a lot of people sympathized with men who didn’t want to go fighting overseas.”
Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now
World War I bitterly divided the country.
After an early isolationist stance, the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, and an unrelenting stream of propaganda swept across the country: sermons, rallies, lectures, newspaper articles, parades, posters. Rural people weren’t buying it.
“I think some people in the countryside just didn’t realize how dangerous it was to protest,” Osselaer said. “You could be arrested for something as stupid as saying, ‘I believe this war is nonsense, so we shouldn’t get involved.’
“Anybody who wanted to protest or had arguments against the war, didn’t want to participate, didn’t want to join the Red Cross, didn’t want to contribute to buying war bonds … those people were really treated as almost criminals, and they were very much told that they were disrespectful, unpatriotic,” she said. “They were outcasts in society.”
And then two things happened around the end of 1917 that would set the stage for the shootout. First, the Supreme Court heard arguments about the Selective Service Act — the draft law — and voted to uphold it the first week of January 1918.
The second event was the death of Ola May Power, Jeff Power’s youngest daughter, under mysterious circumstances at their home in Rattlesnake Canyon. Her mother died when she was a young girl, and her grandmother died in 1915; an unchaperoned young woman of 23 living alone with her father, her two brothers and a hired hand was not deemed proper. Scandalous rumors circulated in the Gila Valley that she had died at the hands of her own family. There were whispers of a botched abortion.
“All of these horrible things were being said about her, even printed in the newspapers,” Osselaer said.
An autopsy was performed, and it was inconclusive.
Enter Graham County Sheriff Frank McBride.
A man of the law
McBride was a city dweller. He lived in the Gila Valley, he was a Mormon and he upheld the law in the strictest terms. He sometimes came into disagreements with the folks who lived in the more rural parts of his jurisdiction, people like the Power family.
The Powers came from Texas, settled in New Mexico for a while and then Arizona; they were rural ranchers, and they were very different from farming families of the Gila Valley. The Powers lived by their wits; they lived off the land, hunted their own meat and rarely went into town for supplies.
“(Graham) would ride up there and say, ‘You guys are all poaching, you’re hunting out of season,’ when that was sometimes the only meat that these people had to put on their tables,” Osselaer said. “This was the progressive era when the state Legislature was passing a lot of laws: hunting laws, prohibition laws, things like that that didn’t always sit well with the folks in the mountains.”
When McBride was elected sheriff in 1916, he received almost no votes from rural precincts. His support came from Mormon communities down in the valley. They expected him to uphold those progressive laws and, when the war came, to make sure that people were registered for the draft.
At the inquest into Ola May Power’s death, her father testified under oath that her final words were, ‘Poison, poison, poison,’ and that he didn’t know what happened. Sisson also testified he had no idea what happened.
Those responses did not sit well with McBride.
After the inquest, Jeff Power, his two sons and his hand mounted up and returned to the mountains, happy to leave society at large — and the draft law — behind.
The law that Tom and John Power were breaking, however, was a misdemeanor, not a felony. It wasn’t a big crime. The maximum sentence for failing to register for the draft was a year in prison. And the Power brothers were solidly on the federal government’s least-wanted list. More than 3 million men had failed to register. The government didn’t have the money to go after them all.
But McBride had been diligent in rounding up slackers, as draft dodgers were called, and it irked him that the Power family was holed up in the mountains out of reach.
“You can see in the letters that he writes to the U.S. marshal, that he writes to the Department of Justice — he’s agitated, the sheriff is, by the fact that there are so many men that aren’t registered for the draft,” Osselaer said.
“I looked at the federal records to look at why this posse was formed,” she said. “One thing is very clear: the federal government could (not) care less about the Power family. This was really driven by local politics in Graham County in Gila Valley.”
Even though the provost marshal made a ruling that local sheriffs could go after draft evaders, it was expensive: three to four men gone for days on end, being paid and provided with food and lodging. A lot of sheriffs just threw their hands up and forgot about it.
Not McBride. His letters show he wanted to do it, but he didn’t have the budget, and the federal government wouldn’t send him anything to help. But now, with the death of Ola May Power, he had a reason to arrest them.
McBride obtained warrants from the federal government for draft evasion for the two boys and perjury warrants from the state, issued in Graham County, for Jeff Power and Sisson. He believed they hadn’t been telling the truth about Ola May. He told people he wanted to investigate, not to mention bring the slackers to justice.
“This isn’t a Mormon vs. non-Mormon story, but it’s maybe more a small-town folks vs. the country folks who viewed the coming war with different lenses,” Osselaer said. “I would say without a doubt the Powers knew they were wanted for draft evasion, but I don’t think they quite understood how quickly the public mood had changed.”
An epic chase
McBride and his posse left on a Saturday out of Safford. It was the beginning of one of the earliest snowstorms of the season. They drove about three hours on dirt roads up to Klondyke. They had supper and left late in the evening on horseback and mule, heading into Rattlesnake Canyon to look for the Powers.
They found them shortly before dawn.
After the shooting ended, the brothers and Sisson leaned over Jeff Power and knew the wound was fatal. They examined the bodies in front of the cabin and discovered who they had killed.
“We had no idea why they had come after us,” Tom said later in his autobiography. “We knew, because they were officers, that it was not safe to stay there.”
They decided to run for Mexico, reasoning they would be killed when the news got out. Sisson, an ex-U.S. Cavalry trooper who knew southeastern Arizona well, volunteered to come with them. (Sisson, in bed during the shootout, never fired a shot.) They took the posse’s two horses and mule that had been left tied near the cabin and rode a few miles north to the home of a neighbor named Jay Murdock.
They told Murdock they had killed three lawmen. They asked him to go take care of their father and rode off.
“Both of them were wounded, terribly so in the eyes,” Dedera said. “Can you imagine a wood splinter in your eye and in the other one a bunch of glass, and having to live with that on the trail?”
Down in the valley, the shootout created three widows and left 19 children without fathers. The tightly knit Mormon community was transfixed by the horror of what happened to their sheriff and deputies, Dedera said.
Thousands of men hunted them, on horseback, in trucks and cars, and with two military planes. Thomas Cobb, author of a novel about the Power brothers, noted that the gunfight was a 19th-century event while the manhunt happened in the 20th century.
The Powers and Sisson made their way south from the Galiuro Mountains, spotting truckloads of men with rifle barrels sticking out, hunting them. A few times they were so close to posse members they could have reached out and touched them. They stopped at a house and bought some food. The residents reported them after they left, and the pursuit heated up. While they saw posses several times, they avoided detection for weeks.
They came across cowboys who had heard their story, young men like themselves who sympathized with them and supplied them with food and fresh mounts. Sisson, with his military background, did what he could for their wounds.
They passed through the San Pedro Valley and crossed into the Chiricahua Mountains. At times it snowed heavily and they built lean-tos out of logs and bear grass. They starved for days, then shot and butchered calves and cattle.
They came out of the mountains and crossed into New Mexico, where the local sheriff had promised in the press that he would kill them if he had the chance. They bought food from a woman whose husband was out hunting them. The couple then alerted the authorities, who literally called in the cavalry from El Paso.
The brothers and Sisson made it into Mexico, but cavalry patrols tore down the border fence in pursuit.
In the end, they were not captured. They surrendered to Lt. Wolcott P. Hayes.
Hayes took only six of his soldiers with him across the border. The civilian lawmen stayed behind, concerned about jurisdiction.
The cavalry patrol went across the border and headed about five or six miles south. Hayes had two men with him.
“I turned around, and I was suddenly looking down three of the biggest gun barrels I had ever seen,” Hayes said later.
He jumped off his horse, but they didn’t shoot.
“We’d never kill a soldier boy, but if you’d have been those sheriffs that are hunting us, we would have killed you,” they told him.
They were filthy, starving and shoeless, with no water. John’s eye socket crawled with maggots.
“They just couldn’t go any further,” Dedera said.
A circus of a trial
The three men were handed over to civilian lawmen and transported back to Safford.
“What happened after that would send today’s ACLU into permanent orbit,” Dedera said. The new sheriff of Graham County operated a kind of carnival sideshow: For a dime or quarter, people could pass through to gawk at the prisoners.
Furious mobs also surrounded the jail.
“There was just bloodthirst,” Osselaer said. “People wanted these guys hung, and they had to go under close guard all the time.”
The Powers’ older brother, who lived in New Mexico, sent defense attorney James Fielder, who once had defended their father.
Both Fielder and the county district attorney took one look at the situation and had the prisoners moved north to Clifton.
The three of them were tried together; the trial lasted only five days.
“The whole thing was a circus,” Osselaer said. Evidence that the first shot may have come from the deputies was not admitted into the trial.
“So I think that was key to the trial; they couldn’t claim self-defense,” Osselaer said.
All the official documents related to the trial vanished. Dedera couldn’t find anything in the late 1950s, and Osselaer came up with little after scouring county, state and federal archives.
The court transcripts are missing, and newspaper coverage is of little help: It was nearly impossible to report on a trial about draft dodgers when anti-war talk was censored.
“So you just have huge blocks of testimony that would normally be copied verbatim in the newspapers,” Osselaer said. “It’s summarized in one line: ‘Many witnesses gave testimony that there was premeditated murder.’ And that’s it. It was all blocked by the censorship.”
The three men were sentenced to life in prison. Arizona had abolished the death penalty the year before.
“Many of the people in the upper Gila Valley felt they had been deprived of the one thing that might have evened the score — the death penalty,” Dedera said. “(But) by God, if the only thing left was life in prison, they were going to have to die in prison.”
A life lived in prison
For the most part, the three men were model prisoners.
They were on the honor system, let out to work: milking cows, picking fields or building roads. The brothers earned money by making spurs and tack, which were sold to the public in the prison store. They were paid $15 for every $100 sold.
In the early 1920s, Tom escaped briefly with another convict.
“He had been repeatedly refused even parole here,” Osselaer said. “The wardens will tell you this and said this repeatedly about these guys, ‘When you give somebody no hope, what are they going to do?’ They become a flight risk.”
The brothers escaped together to Mexico in the 1930s, evading capture for three months. It was during the Great Depression and state budgets were cut to the bone. The warden had to let guards go. There wasn’t money to buy gas for the prison’s cars, so if men escaped, there was no way to go after them.
While they were at large, there was concern in the Gila Valley that the brothers would come after the widows of Kempton and McBride, but officials weren’t worried. The prison warden said, ‘You know these guys are harmless. They’re riddled with arthritis from hard, physical labor their whole lives. I’m not worried about them hurting anyone.”
Their first probation hearing came in 1952. Hundreds of people showed up to protest any kind of leniency. Their case had been reviewed many times over the years, but never with a public hearing.
“In all that time they had one superficial parole hearing,” Dedera said. “Parole denied. Bang! One shot at freedom and it was automatic.”
The Powers didn’t break any laws while on the outside. They did a stretch in solitary after the Mexico excursion, but were back on the honor system in a few months.
Sisson never made an escape attempt and never caused a moment’s grief in prison. He died in 1957 in his late 80s.
The Powers’ good behavior in prison won the guards and officials over. By the late 1950s, they weren’t even living on prison grounds. They were living in a line shack they maintained outside the walls, tending to the horses, walking around freely.
By this time, the brothers were in their mid- to late-60s, the oldest inmates at Florence and in and out of the prison hospital all the time. Over the years, prison guards and wardens submitted applications to have their case reviewed. Every time, the families and descendants of the three victims got petitions together and called the governor.
“I’m not saying the Powers shouldn’t spend some time in jail, maybe on manslaughter or second degree, and certainly they evaded the draft and they were stupid about it,” Osselaer said. “But at the same time, should they have spent their life in prison?”