The Hanging That Prompted a Library

The Hanging That Prompted a Library

The life of copper miners in old Arizona was not an easy one. Companies, more interested in profits than in the welfare of their workers, were indifferent to the deplorable mining conditions. Common mine incidents included being blown sky—high by a dynamite blast or asphyxiated by noxious gas. Cave—ins and fires were a constant menace. Faulty equipment was almost routine—for example, the cable controlling an elevator cage that broke, sending nine miners hundreds of feet to their deaths.

The advent of steam drills only made conditions worse, because the drills kicked up clouds of rock dust for the miners to breathe. The drills were called "widowmakers" in cynical recognition of the deaths that resulted from the dreaded silicosis of the lungs. The only restitution a widow could expect after an industrial accident was whatever the local citizens might collect for her. Men worked deep in the bowels of the earth on 10—hour shifts, six days a week, and earned three dollars a day. This was known locally as the era of the 10—day miner, for that was about as long as the average laborer could endure the intolerable working conditions.

In 1880 a small eastern mining firm known as Phelps—Dodge and Company sent Dr. James Douglas to Arizona to check out the prospects for a mining venture. Douglas, a physician turned geologist, sent back favorable reports on the ore potential of the region. Dr. Douglas moved to Bisbee and became an assayer for the booming mine that came to be known as the Copper Queen.

Bisbee, a town of miners, some with families, had grown around a canyon appropriately named Brewery Gulch. The canyon was lined with saloons that provided an overabundance of relaxation for the miners. The reputation of the saloons was that the farther up the gulch they were, the rougher the clientele. Beyond them were the sporting houses; all that remains today are the concrete stairs that led up to the wooden shanties where the girls worked—symbolic, perhaps, as remnants of a way of life that, for most, led nowhere.

Most of the town's houses were built on slopes so steep that, as local people would attest, anyone falling "off" the front yard would land on a neighbor's rooftop. The social status of residents was determined by how high they lived on the hillside. The most affluent part of town, where the highest—ranking company officials lived, was called Quality Hill. An important feature of the neighborhood was a cave in which company owners and managers could (and did) lock themselves away during serious labor disputes. These happened with some regularity.

Bisbee lived up to its reputation of having sunshine 330 days of the year, but moonshine was there every day. Moonshine whiskey, known locally as "bug juice," provided the inflammatory spirit that gave the town its sensational aspects. Indirectly, bug juice also provided Bisbee its most unusual resource, something lacking in all other existing Arizona towns: a library.

On an unremarkable Sunday afternoon in 1882 some miners were playing twenty—one in the Bon Ton Saloon. The usual drunken argument took place, and a man involved in the dispute shot three times, killing an innocent bystander and wounding a miner and the surprised bartender in the adjacent saloon. The miners promptly discharged their civic obligation by hanging the man from a cottonwood tree near the center of town and then returned to the saloon. They continued their game of twenty—one to determine the loser, who would be responsible for cutting down and burying the hanged man. This led to more disputes and additional shooting. Meanwhile the dead man continued to swing in the breeze.

At this moment three men came riding by: Dr. James Douglas and two gentlemen from New York—Mr. Phelps and Mr. Dodge, who had come to see their newly acquired property. The three men were horrified at the sight of the swinging corpse. They resolved that the miners needed a diversion, a means of relaxation during their time off so they could develop better spirits and character.

A new building was soon erected in Bisbee near the lower end of Brewery Gulch and was endowed as the town library. Here the men could read the works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton, with Chaucer, Dante, and Goethe as lighter fare. That the miners had never heard of these well—known authors didn't matter, since more than 90 percent of them could not read anyway.

During the early days of the library it served as a meeting place for the miners. They didn't read any of the books, but the card games were pretty wild. To endow the library users with some shred of refinement, no liquor was allowed on the premises of the Copper Queen Library.

The library is still there!

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning