Pinal County Politics in the Old West

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By John Hernandez

Pinal Nugget

Politics have always been an ugly game. Dirty tricks, gerrymandering, racism, fear, propaganda and outright lies are just some of the methods politicians use to get elected. Arizona politics and Pinal County politics are no different. The birther movement was used by Arizona politicians to get publicity and votes. Even Sheriff Joe wasted taxpayer money to look for the mythical forged birth certificate of the President of the United States.

In the old west and early days of statehood, politics were the same. Anti-immigrant laws and the fear of Indians and Mexicans were used to get elected and push through legislation. Candidates bought votes with whiskey and tampered with the ballot box. One politician in Pinal County would make a rather stupid mistake during the last months of his campaign. His name was Joe Phy.

Josephus Phy was an under sheriff and deputy in Maricopa County. He also owned a feed stable and corral in Phoenix. In 1878 he ran for the office of Maricopa County Sheriff but lost to Reuben Thomas. In 1879 he moved to Tucson where he was a deputy and was involved in mining interests in Silverbell and Quijotoa. He later moved to Florence and was hired as a deputy by the popular Sheriff John Peter Gabriel.

In 1886 Gabriel decided not to run for re-election. Joe Phy threw his hat into the ring and would run as a Democrat with Gabriel’s support. In September, Phy traveled to Casa Grande to confront a man who had been making comments about him that was costing him votes in the Casa Grande area. The man was Tom Montgomery, a teamster who freighted between Casa Grande and the Silver King mine. He had been telling everyone that Phy had made the comment “that he had come over here to run for sheriff against a scrub” referring to one of Phy’s opponents, Jere Fryer a popular businessman in Casa Grande. TheArizona Weekly Citizenreported it like this under the title “The Democratic Way”:

“Joe Phy, the Democratic candidate for sheriff of Pinal County, made a cowardly attack last evening upon Tom Montgomery a teamster, beating him with a six shooter into insensibility and then continuing the assault upon the man while he lay face downward in a pool of blood, by kicking him in the head and striking him with the gun. He also drew his gun on those who interfered to prevent further blood-shed. The cause of the difficulty was an assertion made by Montgomery damaging to Phy, and which Montgomery says he can prove. After the assault Phy was with some difficulty found. He was then arrested and placed under bonds for his appearance next Tuesday. Tom Weedin accompanied Phy here from Florence.”

Phy was unable to post bond and was confined in the Florence Jail. Sheriff Gabriel fired him and withdrew his political support. Phy would lose the election to Jere Fryer who had run as an Independent. This would be the beginning of a feud between Phy and Peter Gabriel. The bitter feelings between the two would end in 1888 at the Tunnel Saloon on Main Street in Florence when the ex-sheriff killed his former deputy in a gun duel. Gabriel was seriously wounded but survived.

John Hernandez (482 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.


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