NELLIE CASHMAN — ANGEL OF TOMBSTONE

Our Tales of the Old West leads to the main street in Tombstone, Arizona Territory in the 1880s. This rough old mining town was well known for its frontier justice. Hangings were common occurrences in the town. They became spectacles that most of the residences of the town, and many from the towns around, came to see. They filled the street in front of the jail from boardwalk to boardwalk for blocks.

A scaffolding could be quickly rigged to handle up to five simultaneous hangings if necessary. It was then easily removed only to be reinstalled when the need called for it.

For this event, the hanging of three bank robbers from Benson, an additional, make-shift grandstand had been constructed by some entrepreneurial citizens. It faced the hanging platform on the business sides of the street so that seats for over 200 additional patrons could be accommodated with an uninterrupted view of the dangling ropes – for a price.

Now, it was the night before the mass execution, and a group of men from the mines had gathered in a boarding house armed with axes, crowbars and double-jacks. In the dim light they stood quietly around a small, Irish woman, owner of the place.

Her name was Nellie Cashman, and from outward appearances she didn’t fit the part of a leader. A small, lass with dark hair and black eyes, and a thick Irish brogue. Yet, in the annals of Southern Arizona, Nellie Cashman was one of the greatest figures in the early years of the Territory.

She had seen the vast spaces of the west during her train trip across America to San Francisco – where she made her first fortune – then off to Virginia City, Nevada, Pioche and Panaca, Nevada, and then to the Arizona Territory. This town suited her personality just fine.

In the early days of Arizona there were two types of women on the scene – the few wives who went along into this man’s world just so the institution of the family could be preserved – and the ladies of the evening, who followed as soon as dance halls and cribs could be built. Nellie Cashman didn’t belong to either class.

She never married, that’s true, but she raised and educated her sister’s orphaned family, and grub-staked more prospectors than anyone would know. She gave spiritual strength to outlaws and the abandoned. She took care of the sick. She was an angel in the seeming hell of early Tombstone.

On this night in the town, Nellie Cashman took charge. “My watch says 2 a.m. Let’s go boys.”

As though a military command had been given, the silent miners picked up their tools and moved out into the night. Nellie headed the party. The street that lead to the hanging site was dark, only the moon gave the men their bearings. With Nellie on the point, it didn’t take long to reach the crude wooden structures standing in wait for the coming day.

She passed by the hanging platform. Justice would be meted out all right. Nellie didn’t have any concern about that. A legal judgment had been made a few days before, it had been just. All the men passed it by as well, but they stopped at the grandstand.

For an hour the little group worked steadily, demolishing the structure. Wood chips flew as the planking gave way to axes and sledge hammers. It didn’t take long for those strong arms, used to chipping away at solid rock, to pulverize the soft pine wood. The noise of the demolition didn’t raise anyone else from their sleep.

Nellie finally said, “Well, that’s that. There’ll be no Roman holiday in Tombstone for this hanging, anyway.”

That was Nellie Cashman. Even though the local officers didn’t have the nerve to face the mob spirit and turn thumbs down on a public spectacle – Nellie Cashman did. The hanging went off as planned, and the people gathered to watch, but there was no celebration. Nellie had made sure of it.

 

Copyright Harold Hickman, 2015 All rights reserved

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