“A man will go to the devil pretty fast in Tombstone . . . Faro, whiskey, and bad women will beat anyone.” George Parsons diary, September 1880
Tombstone is known as ‘the town too tough to die’. This is the town of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral. A town of saloons and gambling dens, cowboys and wild women. A boomtown where the mines produced millions of dollars of silver in just a few short years. It is a true legend of the wild west of America.
And it was in Tombstone on 23rd February 1883 that May Woodman shot and killed William Kinsman. Even in a town used to gun fights and violent deaths the murder of Kinsman was shocking to say the least. And the story of his death and the trial that followed continues to intrigue.
A Cornish Childhood
William ‘Billy’ Kinsman was born in Gwennap in 1854. The eldest son of John Kinsman and Catherine Bray, who had married around 1850. John was a miner, a trade his son followed him in to as soon as he was able.
In 1879, or thereabouts, Billy emigrated to the USA. At some point his parents took the huge step of joining him. The other children, Billy’s three sisters – Catherine, Mary Ann and Elizabeth – came too.
Initially Billy found work in a mine in Virginia City, Nevada. Then in 1880 he moved south to Tombstone, Arizona with John and Catherine. The family moved to a house on the corner of Toughnut Street and Seventh Street.
Presumably Billy and his father began work at one of the Tombstone mines in the hills surrounding the town. All appears to have been quiet with the family until 1883. It ws then that Billy was shot dead in the street outside the Oriental Saloon.
A Sporting Man
Billy Kinsman is described by one newspaper as ‘a sporting man’ and he was reportedly a frequenter of saloons and gambling dens. And in Tombstone there were plenty of such establishments to choose from.
A local favourite was the Oriental Saloon, built by the Earp brothers in 1880 on the corner of Allen and Fifth Streets. It was said to be the most elegant place ‘between Chicago and San Francisco’ and it offered the punter a lavishly decorated interior as well as the usual stage entertainment and gaming tables.
Virgil Earp was shot leaving the Oriental a short time after the gunfight at the OK Corral. And it was near this spot that Billy too met his end.
Born Mary McIntyre to Henry and Ellen McIntyre in 1855, May Woodman was already estranged from her husband Lewis (or Louis) by the time of the 1880 census. In 1881 Lewis placed an advertisement in the Tombstone Epitaph, the town’s aptly named newspaper.
“To whom it may concern. I hereby warn all persons against giving my wife Mary Woodman any credit on my account as I will not be responsible for any debts contracted by her. She having left my bed and board without just cause or provocation, signed Louis C Woodman.”
It seems clear that Lewis suspected his wife (who seems to alternate between calling herself Mary or May) of some impropriety. Some reports published after the shooting suggest that Billy and May already knew each other well at this time and were perhaps even living together. But the real catalyst for the disaster that followed came in December 1882.
An Unmitigated Falsehood
A notice was placed in the Tombstone Epitaph on 22nd December. It announced the engagement of May and Billy Kinsman. The story however was a practical joke, a prank executed by friends of Kinsman. They changed May’s name but the joke was probably very obvious to everyone in such a small town.
To make matters worse three days later the Epitaph printed the following at Billy’s request:
“Some unprincipled person came into this office a few days ago and requested us to publish the announcement of a marriage between William Kinsman and May Holzerman, which we did. It has since been discovered that no such occurrence ever took place, the alleged bridegroom denounces the statement as an unmitigated falsehood.”
Billy’s very public rejection of May must have been hurtful and not a little embarrassing. He and his friends had made a fool of her. How long she had been planning what happened a few weeks later isn’t clear, but there is no doubt this cruel prank is what set all in motion.
Murder in Tombstone
Allen Street was the main thoroughfare through Tombstone then as it is today. Lined with shady wooden boardwalks and bustling with shops, saloons and stagecoaches.
At about 10 o’clock on 23rd February 1883 a labourer, Alphanzo Ayala was standing on the street opposite the Oriental Saloon. He told the coroner he saw Mrs. Woodman and Billy Kinsman talking, though he couldn’t hear what about. May, he said, had one hand beneath her cloak while she spoke. Then, according to Ayala, quite suddenly she pulled out a pistol and shot Kinsman in his chest.
Thomas Keefe, a carpenter and another witness standing close by, gave testimony that he heard the shot and then saw Kinsman fold his arms across his body. As Keefe got nearer he saw that Mrs. Woodman was holding a nickel-plated ‘Bulldog’ pistol in her right hand. Keefe grabbed hold of May and asked her what she was doing.
She replied: “None of your damned business.”
May again pointed the gun at Kinsman, who was backing away from her. This time Keefe knocked her arm down and the second shot went into the wooden sidewalk. At this point the police officer James Coyle arrived and also took hold of May. Both men reported that she was calm and quiet.
H. M. Matthews, the local doctor, told the court that he heard two shots and he went towards the noise. He said he found Kinsman lying on the ground. The shot had entered the left side of his chest below the nipple and exited below his right shoulder blade. Kinsman dies of his injuries about two hours later. According to the doctor the cause of death was most likely an internal haemorrhage.
The jury consisted of nine men. They, along with the coroner Pat Holland, and then later Judge Pinney, heard all the evidence from the various witnesses.
Besides what actually happened that day, more details, details that paint Billy in a rather unkind light were revealed during the course of the trial.
Dr. George Goodfellow, who spoke for the defence, claimed that May was pregnant at the time of her arrest. Goodfellow also claimed that she had attempted suicide while in jail and had apparently had a miscarriage because of ill treatment.
Another doctor, Daniel McSwegan testified that before the tragic events he had been summoned to the Woodman house by May and Billy. The couple questioned him as to the probable paternity of May’s unborn child. Apparently May was unsure that Billy was the father, he only had one testicle and she thought him infertile. Of course the inference there is that there were also other candidates for father of the baby.
And May was described by one newspaper as a ‘friend of the cowboys’, whatever we are to take that to mean. McSwegan also told the court that the couple had asked for a potion for May to take to end the pregnancy. He claims he refused to provide it.
All the evidence was heard by the beginning of May, 1883. During his summing up for the jury the judge Daniel Pinney added:
“Although the jury may believe from the evidence that the deceased and the defendant lived together in open adultery and although the jury may further believe from the evidence that the deceased got the defendant in the family way and that deceased tried to have the defendant take medicine for the purpose of procuring an abortion still all this would not justify the defendant in taking the life of the deceased.”
The jury returned their verdict in just half an hour. Although May had been charged with murder the jury found her guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter and sentenced her to five years in Yuma Prison. After her sentence was read out May yelled, “May God curse you forever.”
There are a number of questions left unanswered by the newspaper reports and the transcripts of the trial. Was May indeed pregnant and was the child Billy’s? Did Billy feel he was being trapped into marriage? Did he ask her to get rid of the baby or was that her idea? How could May have expected to marry Billy when she was still married to Louis? And we must remember that Billy wasn’t able to tell his side of the story.
Billy Kinsman was buried in the infamous Boothill graveyard on the edge of Tombstone.
Opened in 1878 the burial plot became the resting place of the growing town’s more unfortunate pioneers. Buried there are Tombstone’s outlaws and their victims, the town’s hangings, linchings and suicides. Two hundred and fifty souls.
Billy Kinsman was one of the last to be buried there. The cemetery closed in 1884.
May was only the second woman to be imprisoned in Yuma and there is some indication that she may have been sexually abused by the staff.
Her mother swiftly began a campaign to have her pardoned which gathered around 200 signatures from the residents of Tombstone, including most of the jurors. In August 1883, barely 3 months into her sentence, H. M. Van Arman, acting governor of Arizona, granted May a conditional pardon.
May had testified during the trial that she suffered from insanity. She had suggested the judge “contact San Francisco for proof”, whatever that means . . . and so Van Arman decided he must protect his citizens. He decided that May could go free as long as she never returned to Arizona.
May Woodman only served a few months of her sentence for shooting Billy Kinsman. She was finally released on 15th May 1884 and was never seen again. Reports say she was heading for California.
Death in Arizona – how a Cornish miner came to die in the desert
Tangier Island, Virginia – a forgotten community founded by Cornish fishermen
Hannah Jory: Mother, Prostitute & Convict
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6 thoughts on “The Murder of Billy Kinsman – Cornishman shot dead in Tombstone”
Violent death accompanied many Cornish miners it seems. Researching my partner’s family history, I found that one of his 19th century relatives, from Gwennap too, had also been shot dead … in Peru. ” He was apparently hit by a stray bullet when two card-players pulled pistols on each other.” Thanks for your blog. Always interesting and informative!