By Norm Tessman
Early in the morning of November 19, 1887, George Heisler arrived in Prescott to tell "in an excited manner" of horror on Lynx Creek. Wagons were sent out to William Zadoc "Zed" Wilson's sawmill to retrieve the bodies of Wilson and five other men. Sheriff Mulvenon hastily assembled a coroner's jury, and set out for the death site.
In the late afternoon they returned bearing six badly mangled remains, which were laid out at the Rifle's Armory to subsequently be viewed by "hundreds of people through moistened eyes."
This incident may well be territorial Prescott's worst-ever tragedy in terms of violent loss of life. Those of us who grew up watching Hollywood's portrayals of the old west may be surprised to learn that this catastrophe was not a shoot out between lawmen and outlaws. Neither was it an incident in Arizona's tragic and bloody "Apache wars."
The death of Zed Wilson and his companions was not caused by bullets, arrows, or any conventional weapon. It was probably murder accomplished by sabotaging the steam boiler that powered Wilson's sawmill. Boiler explosions were a common disaster in nineteenth century America, where steam engines did virtually all heavy work not done by draft animals.
The story which George Heisler told on that long ago morning was this: Before breakfast, the boiler was fired and two logs were sawn. The saw was stopped in order to tighten a pulley. The mill hands and Wilson congregated near the boiler, warming themselves and waiting to be called to breakfast by Wilson's Chinese cook. An explosion shattered the boiler, throwing its heavy iron frame 150 feet, and killing six of the seven men.
George Heisler was spared. He had stooped, less than eight feet from the boiler, to oil a pulley. The blast threw him into a saw dust pile, and the lethal debris passed over his head. Zed Wilson, Charles Collins, John Akers, Thomas Cowley, C.B. Taylor, and Andrew Steinbrook were not so lucky. Collins body was found two-hundred feet from the mill. All were badly mutilated, but only Wilson's body was unrecognizable.
There was immediate suspicion of foul play. Teamster Alex Thompson, who hauled logs to the mill, told of speaking with Wilson on the previous night. The mill owner was fearful of "something happening," and intended to post a night watchman. What he feared has never been determined, however Wilson's two previous sawmills had each burned to the ground.
Contemporary newspapers spoke of Wilson as the most careful and sober of men, who had paid a premium to have his boiler built particularly strong. Bentley, another teamster, told of examining the boiler's steam gauges shortly before the explosion, noting a very acceptable 100 pounds per square inch.
Bentley also stated that while he was there, Collins had inspected the intake water gauge. Presumably, if the water flow had been insufficient, (the common cause of boiler explosions), Collins would have shut the boiler down. DeWitt, engineer at Fort Whipple, stated that he had recently examined the boiler, and "considered it the best in the county."
Suspicion that giant powder or some other explosive had triggered the disaster was heightened by Wilson's Chinese Cook and several teamsters who each claimed they distinctly heard two explosions, "- one sharp, heavy report, quickly followed by a duller but more deadening one."
Wilson and four of his companions were buried side-by-side in Citizen's Cemetery. The Ninth Infantry Band from Fort Whipple lead the funeral procession followed by "the longest funeral procession ever witnessed in Prescott." The sixth victim, John Akers, was buried by the Aztlan Masonic Lodge, of which he was a member.
The mill was owned by Wilson, William Coles Bashford, and Robert H. Burmister. Zed Wilson had come to Prescott about 1870. In partnership with A.S. Haskell, he built Prescott's first courthouse (1877 to 1915). Wilson also built a small house at Marina and Gurley, which was rented by 5th Territorial Governor John C. Fremont from 1878 to 1881. It is now open to the public as a period house on the Sharlot Hall Museum grounds.
Sheriff Mulvenon's Coroner's Jury found that " - parties came to their death by explosion of a boiler--- and that some foreign substance, explosive in its nature, was used to cause such explosion, but what it was is to the jury, unknown." A man named Louis Beck, who apparently had argued with Wilson, was questioned but released. No one was ever arrested for the murders.
All quotes used in this article are from the Prescott Morning Courier, and the Prescott Daily Miner, November 19-23, 1887, and Testimony of the Coroner's Jury, November 21, 1887.
Zed Wilson's grave is located in the Citizens' Cemetery, Row B, Block 9, Plot 2.
Norm Tessman is Senior Curator at Sharlot Hall Museum.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (bub8041pa)
Reuse only by permission.
Zed Wilson's lumber yard was lost in the 1888 fire (the year following the murders) which consumed the east side of the Courthouse Plaza. This photograph was taken from atop the Courthouse. The lumber yard was located on Cortez Street.