Cabin Fever

Douglas TowneMay 1, 2016
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PHM0516PF CF 01The half-minute it took gunslingers like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Billy Clanton to unload their bullets at the O.K. Corral has been immortalized in legend and film. But that Tombstone Territorial-era battle isn’t Arizona’s most lethal shootout. That bloody title goes to what is considered the frontier’s final gunfight – at Power’s Cabin, which left four dead in 1918. The resulting fugitive search became Arizona’s greatest manhunt, lasting 28 days and involving a posse of more than 1,000 men.

The shootout occurred almost a century ago, but emotions still simmer in southeastern Arizona, as the human toll extended far beyond the four men killed and two wounded at Power’s Cabin. “What made this such an infamous gunfight is that it left three widows and 19 children without a father,” Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian, says.

And all the bloodshed began inexplicably with the mere misdemeanor of draft-dodging during World War I. Missing official records have led to folklore supplanting history, clouding what set off the carnage. “It was an incredible event for which we don’t have explanations of what caused it, what led up to it,” says Thomas Cobb, who wrote about the shootout in the nonfiction novel With Blood in Their Eyes. “It’s as if the event just springs out of nowhere.”

The roots of the conflict began in 1909, when the Power family moved from Texas to the Galiuro Mountains, located south of the town of Klondyke. The Powers led a secluded, hardscrabble ranch life. “I’ve been in rough country all over Arizona, and I would say the Galiuros are as rough as you can get,” Jim Shepherd, a relative of a lawman killed during the shootout, says.

The family patriarch, Jeff Power, reeling from the deaths of his wife and his mother, leveraged his meager assets to purchase a nearby gold mine in 1917. Along with his sons, John and Tom, and a family friend, Tom Sisson, they constructed a 25-mile wagon road, built a nearby cabin, and brought in a secondhand stamp mill to process ore. The mine never produced much gold. “Back then, people bought mining claims,” says Heidi Osselaer, author of Defiant, an upcoming book about the shootout. “Today we go to the casinos or buy lottery tickets. It is just a different generation hoping to get rich quick.”

But then America entered World War I. The Power brothers failed to register for the draft, claiming the recruiting officer in Klondyke said they weren’t needed. John and Tom became draft-dodging “slackers,” subject to arrest. They probably would have been ignored by the law if not for the unexplained death of the family’s only daughter, Ola May, in December 1917. Her passing sparked a tidal wave of rumors in Graham County. 

“The Power family had already made enemies for their secretiveness; then Ola May died under puzzling circumstances, and Jeff was uncooperative with an official investigation. That Tom and John refused to register for the draft was the final straw,” speculates Cameron Trejo, director of the documentary movie Power’s War

Graham County Sheriff Robert F. McBride, an ambitious lawman, assembled a posse consisting of himself; two deputies, Martin Kempton and T. K. “Kane” Wooten; and Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Haynes. They set out from the town of Safford for Power’s Cabin, more than 70 miles away, to arrest the Power brothers. 

At dawn on February 10, hearing agitated animals outside, Jeff Power grabbed his rifle and went to the front door. “Throw up your hands!” Deputy Wooten shouted. There are conflicting accounts of what happened next, especially whether Jeff Power came to the door with his hands up or with his rifle cocked. What’s for certain is that the subsequent two-minute shootout killed the three Graham County lawmen, and wounded three men in Power’s party, Jeff mortally so. 

Most researchers think one of the deputies, Wootan or Kempton, unloaded the initial bullet. “There are many problems with the theory that the Powers fired first,” Osselaer says. “Just to name a few issues, Jeff Power was a sitting duck standing out in the open in front of his cabin and was the first man shot. No one died among the lawmen for a while, who were out in the open and could have been picked off easily, as they eventually were.” 

In the gunfight’s aftermath, Haynes rode back to Klondyke for reinforcements. After carrying Jeff Power inside the cabin, where he died, the Power brothers and Sisson realized they had killed three lawmen. Fearing being lynched, they bolted for Mexico. The trio relied on Sisson’s local knowledge, their backwoods skills, and local help to evade capture for almost a month. A massive posse equipped with Apache scouts, bloodhounds, horses, trucks and two airplanes kept them on the run. 

“One of the things I love about this story is it’s almost as if the shootout happens in the 19th century, and then the pursuit with the phones, telegraphs, pickup trucks and cars happens in the 20th century,” Cobb says. 

Authorities arrested the trio in Chihuahua, Mexico on March 8, 1918. Dubbed unpatriotic outlaws in the press, the three were tried as a group. The Power brothers and Sisson claimed self-defense, saying the lawmen fired upon them without cause, but were found guilty of first-degree murder in a Clifton courtroom. “Rumors convicted these men before their capture,” Osselaer states.

Sent to the state prison in Florence, the Powers and Sisson were model inmates, but served unusually long sentences. Family members of the slain Graham County lawmen helped influence their parole denials over the years. Sisson died in custody at age 68. The Power brothers, assisted by a campaign by Arizona Republic columnist Don Dedera, were finally released in 1960. Nine years later, Arizona Governor Jack Williams pardoned them. 

Tom Power died in 1970, and John passed away six years later. The brothers are buried, along with the rest of the Power family, in the Klondyke cemetery. Their father’s tombstone reads, “Shot down with his hands up in his own door.”

The debate around the Power’s Cabin shootout will continue, but the Power family’s rebelliousness probably contributed to their tragedy. “As Americans we like to mythologize about the rugged individualist, but they are celebrated only in certain times for certain reasons,” ASU history professor Eduardo Pagán, of the PBS series History Detectives, ruminates. “And as a nation, when we need to band together, we band together, and individuals will pay the cost of being who they are.”

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“ScreeningPower’s War to 25 sold-out audiences across Arizona has been a highlight of my filmmaking career,” director Cameron Trejo says. The 65-minute, award-winning documentary eschews cheesy re-creations. Instead, Trejo tells the story using single-frame drawings commissioned for the film interspersed with interviews with family members and historians. The narration is by John Slattery, who portrayed Roger Sterling in AMC’s Mad Men.

Scenes were filmed in the locations where the events happened, providing beautiful cinematography. “My team and I felt it important that the viewer experiences the history that still stands in the Galiuro Wilderness,” Trejo says. “We made six grueling trips to Power’s Cabin.  Needless to say, it was one of the most difficult undertakings I have experienced as a filmmaker.”

Trejo’s painstakingly researched documentary assesses the never-ending rumors surrounding the tragic event and tells both sides of the 1918 gunfight. “Cameron Trejo is the rare filmmaker who was adamant about finding the truth,” Heidi Osselaer, one of the historians interviewed, says. “Reactions have been very enthusiastic from the several thousand people who have seen the film in theaters. Many viewers were related to participants, especially the lawmen’s side. Often for them, the event is still very personal and emotional.”

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