Thomas Harper arrived in the Tombstone, Arizona area during the silver mining boom circa 1879. Harper did not have any mining interests, as he was a thief. Harper rode with the infamous “cowboys,” involved in the business of cattle rustling. During this time, Harper became a close friend of Curly Bill Brocius.
In September 1880 Harper traveled to Huachuca and while there agreed to collect a ten dollar debt for John Talliday. When Harper collected the money, he spent it. When Talliday, described as an old man, met Harper at Ramsey’s Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains on September 18, 1880 he was outraged to discover that Harper didn’t have his money. During the confrontation, Harper shot the unarmed Talliday to death.
On September 25, 1880 the Tombstone Epitaph printed this article concerning the arrest of Thomas Harper the previous day:
Charleston, Sept. 24. -- Thomas Harper, the man who killed John Talliday, at Ramsey's Canyon on the 19th inst., was arrested in Sonora, near Halstead's ranch and brought there today by Mr. Bell, a deputy sheriff, and Mr. Halstead. Harper demanded an examination, which is set for Sept. 26th, giving time for witnesses to be brought before Judge Blair at this place. Harper was taken to Tombstone tonight for safe keeping.”
The Pima County Grand Jury indicted Harper for murder in the first degree. After a trial, a jury of his peers found him guilty as charged. The trial judge sentenced Harper to hang on July 8, 1881.
Harper hoped that somehow his scheduled execution would be prevented or postponed. There was a petition in circulation asking the governor to commute Harper’s sentence to life imprisonment.
On May 22, 1881, the Arizona Weekly Citizen newspaper in Tucson, Arizona published the following article regarding the murder of John Talliday. (Please note the reporter’s error on Talliday’s first name. The name should read John Talliday instead of Frank Talliday.)
The Death Sentence
We understand that a petition is being circulated praying for a commutation of the death sentence passed upon Thomas J. Harper (sic) by the District Court, condemned for the murder of Frank Talliday (sic), in the Huachuca Mountains, last September.
While we are opposed to capital punishment in the abstract, there are many circumstances which render such extreme measures necessary, especially in a frontier country like Arizona. In the present case, the criminal committed a most wanton and deliberate murder, wholly unjustifiable, and in the absence of the least mitigating circumstance, the sentence of the court should be executed.
The evidence upon which Harper was convicted showed that Talliday, on the last day of his life, had simply asked the prisoner for a sum of money owing him, amounting to ten dollars. Some hasty words ensued, which resulted in Harper deliberately procuring a pistol and as deliberately shooting down his creditor. He then turned his weapon upon a companion of Talliday who was present, and threatened to serve him in the same manner if he did not precipitately take to his heels.
What human mercy ought such a fiend to expect when a jury of his peers has declared him guilty of the greatest crimes? It is a false sympathy that attempts to awaken a sentiment of pity in his behalf. He was fully aware of the enormity of the crime ere he committed the act, and to endeavor now to convince him that he is a martyr to a perverted system of laws is to justify, in a measure, the great crime for which he has been convicted.
Could any plausible cause be shown or any mitigating circumstances cited to lighten the heinousness of the offense, no word of ours would be uttered to restrain a charitable demonstration for the condemned; but the deed was so heartlessly cruel that a proper regard for the precious lives of others makes it a sacred duty of the officers of the law to place him beyond the slightest possibility of ever being able to again commit the terrible crime of murder.”
Harper’s final communication was a letter written to his friend Curley Bill Brocius as follows:
"Curley, you are aware that I am not in the habit of lecturing any man, but in this case you may remember the words of a dying man (for I am all to intents and purposes such), and perhaps give heed to them. . . . Curley, I want you to take warning by me. Do not be too handy with a pistol. Keep cool and never fire at a man unless in the actual defense of your life. You must stand a heap from a man before you kill him. Words do not hurt, so you must never mind what is said to aggravate you. As I said before, don't try and hunt a row. Give my kind regards to any of my old friends who you may chance to meet, and tell them to take a warning by me. I bear no ill will, and I think I am going to die in peace. Hoping you will take heed of what I write, I am, as ever, your unfortunate friend. THOMAS HARPER"
Harper’s hopes of escaping the hangman’s noose were dashed when a telegram from acting Governor John J. Gosper documented the Governor’s refusal to interfere and ordered the execution be carried out as ordered by the court.
On July 8, 1881 by 2:15 p.m. the day of the execution two hundred people assembled at the gallows. After the death warrant is read, the condemned prisoner removed his hat. After being positioned on the trap door Harper said “Good-bye to the United States,” Next Harper shook hands with the Pima County Undersheriff and said, “Boy, I always liked you.” Father Antonia prayed for Harper and shook his hands as the noose is readied. Harper placed the noose around his own neck by choice but the sheriff adjusted it. After the noose adjustment, Harper said, “That won’t do, that’s wrong.” Harper changed the noose back to where he had it and the Sheriff changes it back again. Then the prisoner’s arms and legs were strapped. Harper stated “Boys, well here goes.” When the Sheriff pulled the black cap over his head Harper smiled and said, “I have something to say before I die.” Before he could say another word, the Sheriff hit the trap door release at 2:30 p.m. The fall broke Harper’s neck and he died without a struggle. Harper was pronounced dead, deposited in his coffin and was buried in Tombstone’s Boothill Cemetery before sundown. This execution was Pima County, Arizona’s first legal hanging.