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The Unsung Outlaw Milton Yarberry
"Gentlemen, you are hanging an innocent man," were Milton J. Yarberry’s last words as he was led to the gallows in Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 9th 1883. But Yarberry wasn’t his real name, or so many historians believe, but rather an alias.
Research suggests his real name was John Armstrong, born in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas in 1849. He had fled Arkansas after killing a man in Sharp County during a land dispute and changed his name as not to bring embarrassment to his allegedly quite prominent family. Or that’s what he confessed to a friend shortly before getting his neck stretched.
There were a lot of celebrated names and legendary characters in the Old West, but Yarberry wasn’t one of them. But perhaps he should have been…his life was no less colorful than many of his contemporaries. He is perhaps best remembered for becoming the first Town Marshal of Albuquerque, New Mexico. One author included him in his book, Deadly Dozen, which lists him as one of the twelve least known but most dangerous gunfighters of the Old West.
Because he was using an alias, nobody really knew much about his past, but he became an outlaw, gunslinger and a lawman of some notoriety. He was known to be fast and dangerous with a gun and may have killed as many as 8 to 10 men. Some were proven and some he was strongly suspected of.
Walnut Ridge Circa 1909
The first documented records of him mention he was joined up with “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh and “Mysterious Dave” Mather, two other infamous outlaws in the early 1880s. They were staging robberies and being a general nuisance around southern Missouri and parts of Northern Arkansas. But the law got serious when they became suspects in the murder of a wealthy Arkansas farmer.
The trio quickly cleared out of the area heading for Texas. There, the gang split up and Yarberry landed for in spell in Texarkana, Arkansas. But in 1875 he killed another man and he returned to Texas. Using the name “John Johnson” he signed up for a brief stint with the Texas Rangers. He mustered out honorably in 1876 and settled down in Decatur, Texas.
Yarberry decided to try his hand as a saloon owner going into business with a man named Bob Jones. But it was a short lived proposition. A bounty hunter began snooping around trying to dig up information on his whereabouts. Yarberrry packed up, sold his share of the business to his partner and left town. The bounty hunter was found shot to death several days later.
Yarberry was next heard of in Canon City, Colorado opening the Gem Saloon, with a variety theater as a side line. His new partner was a man named Tony Preston. But once again fate stepped in. In March of 1879 a new bartender had an altercation with Preston and shot him. Preston’s wounds were serious, but not fatal and he eventually recovered. But, Yarberry had had enough of the saloon business and once again sold out to his partner.
Yarberry’s next move was to Las Vegas, New Mexico where business was booming due to the number of rail road workers. He found another business partner and together began operating a brothel. However, trouble just naturally seemed to follow Yarberry. He was suspected of killing a freighter who was passing through on business. But the proverbial dust hit the fan when he did, in fact, shot and killed a man during an argument involving a prostitute. Once again he was forced to flee.
As luck would have it, his former partner Preston, was recuperating in San Marciel, New Mexico…good a place to go as any. So, that’s where he went. Good for Yarberry, not so much for Preston. It was said Yarberry had begun an affair with Preston’s wife, Sadie, back in Canon City. Whether that was true remains to be seen, but in any case, he was now.
Not long afterwards Sadie, her four year old daughter and Yarberry moved to Albuquerque where he became fast friends with County Sheriff Perfecto Armijo. With his backing Yarberry became Albuquerque's first Town Marshal in 1880.
Yarberry seemed to have found his niche as he performed exceptionally well in that capacity. Then, Harry A. Brown, a drunken braggart who fancied himself a gunfighter, arrived in 1881. Although there was never any documentation to prove Brown had ever shot or killed anyone he was always boasting of the numerous men he had slain. Apparently, he believed his own lies. Not so bad in itself, but he was hot headed and would go for his gun at the drop of a hat. This, and the fact the two timing Sadie was now carrying on an affair with him, made a recipe for disaster.
One night in March 1881, Sadie left her daughter at home with Yarberry to slip off and have dinner at Gerard's Restaurant with Brown. Apparently Yarberry didn’t yet know the two had become romantically involved. The two had arrived at the restaurant by coach. John Clark, the coach driver, would be the only eyewitness to what was about to take place.
Brown and Sadie had barely sat down to eat when someone tipped off Brown Yarberry had been seen heading for the restaurant with Sadie’s little girl. Brown, in order to avoid a scene, walked outside to meet him. But Yarberry initially ignored him and walked on inside. Minutes later Yarberry came back outside, minus the little girl, and began having words with Brown. According to the coachman who was still there, the two took their argument to a nearby vacant lot. The braggart was heard to tell Yarberry he wasn’t afraid of him and more or less to “bring it on.”
By this time Sadie had become concerned and also came outside. Knowing what was about to happen she called to Brown, momentarily distracting Yarberry. Brown immediately took advantage of the situation striking his opponent in the face and simultaneously drawing his gun. Brown got off one shot which grazed Yarberry’s hand. Yarberry’s subsequent quick draw astonished Brown as two shots, sounding almost like one, hit him in the chest in quick succession. Brown died on the spot.
Sheriff Armijo had no choice but to arrest his friend. The preliminary hearing cleared Yarberry on the grounds of self defense as Brown had been heard bragging in the saloons he was going to kill him and had also fired first. However some leading town citizens weren’t satisfied with the ruling and called for a Grand Jury indictment. They got their wish, but Yarberry was again cleared on May 19, 1881, after numerous citizens testified in his behalf.
However, it seems Yarberry couldn’t resist the temptation to exercise his trigger finger because less than a month later he was involved in another shooting which killed a man on June 18, 1881. Yarberry was having a conversation with a friend, Monte Boyd, when a shot rang out down the street. The two ran toward where the shot had come from and asked a bystander who had done the shooting. He pointed to a man who was walking away. Yarberry called after him to stop. It’s not clear what exactly happened next as there were conflicting reports. But in any event, three shots were fired and the man, Charles D. Campbell, was dead.
Sheriff Armijo arrested Yarberry and Boyd. Yarberry didn’t know Campbell but claimed he had a gun in his hand when he turned to see who was calling him, so he fired in self defense. However, one of the shots had hit Campbell in the back. Yarberry explained that wound must have happened after he turned and was hit in the front which spun him around in time to be hit by Boyd who had fired twice.
Witnesses testified Campbell was armed but no one knew for certain if his gun had been out of its holster when he was shot. Both Yarberry and Boyd were cleared. However, despite evidence indicating the two had acted in good faith, prominent citizens once again set up a hue and cry. Boyd left for Arizona before another Grand Jury could convene. Some say he was killed shortly after during a scuffle with Navajo Indians.
On May 11, 1882, a Grand Jury indicted Yarberry for murder in a trial which lasted only three days. He was sentenced to hang and sent to the Santa Fe, New Mexico Jail to await his fate. But the resourceful Yarberry managed to break out with three other prisoners in September 1882. It wasn’t long before authorities slapped a $500 reward on him for his capture. The other three escapees were quickly rounded up, but Yarberry was still at large.
On September 12, Yarberry was captured and arrested about 30 miles outside of town. After exhausting all of his appeals the charge of murder still stood.
On February 9, 1883, Yarberry was led to the gallows. Sheriff Perfecto Armijo was given the job of pulling the lever to hang his friend. Yarberry respectfully requested Sheriff Armijo be relieved of the task and it be given to Colfax County Sheriff Mason T. Bowman. But Bowman declined. Over 1,500 people watched as Sheriff Armijo pulled the lever. He was buried with the noose still around his neck.