When Travis Walton and the Skyfire Summit held their press conference a couple weeks ago it was at the historic county courthouse in Holbrook on Arizona Street. That’s because in 1975, the courthouse was still in use. Today, the historic building is home to the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce, a Visitor’s Center and the Navajo County Historical Museum.
In 1898, the county erected the courthouse that would become the scene of a number of notorious trials over the years. The basement of the courthouse housed the jail cells, manufactured as complete units in St. Louis, Missouri and shipped to Holbrook on railroad flatcars. The small, dark cells were very effective throughout the years, as no one ever escaped from them.
In November, 1899, the new courthouse jail was holding one of its most notable prisoners, a murderer named George Smiley. Convicted of having killed a railroad section foreman named McSweeney, Smiley was scheduled to hang on December 8, 1899. At this time Arizona law required that the county sheriff send “invitations” of executions to the other Arizona sheriffs, as well as certain territorial officials. However, the legislature did not provide a form for the required invitation nor any guidelines on the format.
Sheriff Frank Wattron issued a tongue-in-cheek invitation, having it professionally printed on gilt-bordered paper. It said “You are hereby cordially invited to attend the hanging of one George Smiley, Murderer. His soul will swing into eternity on Dec. 8, 1899 at 3 o’clock pm sharp. Latest improved methods in the art of scientific strangulation will be employed and everything possible will be done to make the surroundings cheerful and the execution a success.” However, when a reporter got a hold of the invitation, he wired it to the Associated Press.
Before long the invitation was printed in newspapers all over the nation and even appeared in the London Times, the Berlin Tageblatt and Paris Fiarge.
President McKinley then wired Arizona Governor Nathan Oakes Murphy, who stayed the execution for 30 days and issued a reprimand to Wattron.
Though Sheriff Wattron was seemingly un-phased, he was determined to make his point and have the last word, so he prepared a second printed invitation, this time more “mournful” than the first and slightly sarcastic. It too was professionally printed, though this time the invitation was edged in black. He then waited to mail out the second invitation until he was sure it would not be received by the governor and other officials until after the execution had been performed.
In any event, George Smiley was finally hanged on January 8, 1900 in the courtyard. It’s said he haunts the courthouse to this day.
Another ghost said to haunt the courthouse is a woman named Mary. She died in the women’s cell about 1960 and is said to have hung herself.The jail is dark, dank and depressing and is still there for visitors to see.
The rest of the building if filled with old law books, lost of old typewriters and all kinds of early adding machines, etc. There are quite a few interesting rooms decorated with lots of period antiques, Native American artifacts and lots of Old West flavor.
If you enjoy history next time you cruise into Holbrook, take an hour or so and stop to visit the Museum.