On the last day of May 1888, former Pinal County Sheriff John Peter Gabriel and his one-time deputy Josephus Phy traded angry words at a saloon in the Arizona Territory mining boomtown of Florence.


The tension between the two seasoned law officers had been building for a couple of years.

Gabriel won the sheriff’s post in 1883 and hired the 39-year old Phy to serve as his deputy. Although close friends, both men were ill-tempered.

Their political views and personalities often veered in different directions, which created even deeper animosity.

An arrangement had been in place for Phy to become sheriff after Gabriel’s retirement. But, a couple of events put them in each other’s crosshairs.

Gabriel fired Phy after the deputy administered a severe beating to a suspect he took into custody. One historian suggested that Gabriel seethed with anger over the attention Phy paid to Gabriel’s young wife.

Getting booted from the deputy post left Phy angry and seeking payback.

Gabriel decided to leave office after three years behind the badge and travel into the Dripping Springs Mountains to work a mine. 

In 1888, he returned to Florence and the inevitable showdown with Phy.

On the night of the shootout, Gabriel stood at the bar in John Keating’s Tunnel Saloon enjoying a nightcap when Phy charged in to confront the man who once hired him. 

Both had been doing their share of drinking. During the harsh exchange, each drew their revolvers and began firing at close range.

Three bullets from Gabriel’s .45 struck Phy three times. Gabriel suffered wounds to the groin, chest, and his lung. Several years earlier, he had lost the other lung in a shootout.

In all, the two men exchanged eleven shots. Phy, severely wounded, stumbled out of the saloon backward and collapsed on the walkway. 

Gabriel followed, leaving a trail of blood. He stepped over his one-time associate and staggered along the street to the front of the livery stable before he finally buckled to the ground.

Phy lived for a few more hours but died sometime after midnight.

A local physician by the name of Dr. Harvey tried to help Gabriel, but the lawman refused, angry because Harvey attended to Phy first.

Another doctor, from the Sacaton Indian Agency, arrived about four a.m. and painted a bleak picture, informing Gabriel he’d probably die within 24 hours.

Gabriel survived and stood trial. Authorities ruled the shooting self-defense and dropped the charges.

The gritty former lawman lived for another ten years and died on Aug. 6, 1898.


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1 comment to “DEADLY PAYBACK”

  • Jim Gray


    Would enjoy corresponding with you, one on one. For the last five years I have been compiling information on Josephus Phy and find the inf formation extremely interesting.

    Please drop me a note if you are willing to discuss information on Phy. My email is:

    Jim Gray

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