She shot her man

On February 23, 1883, May Woodman was packing a Bulldog .38 nickel-plated revolver as she approached her lover, Billy Kinsman, in front of the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. At first, the two talked, argued maybe. After a few minutes, she raised her gun, leveled it on him and pulled the trigger without a blink of her grey eyes.

The slug entered the left side of his body below the rib cage and passed straight through. He clutched at his wound as if to staunch the blood and staggered backward. A witness seized her arm just as she pulled the trigger again, causing the second bullet to drill into the wooden boards of the sidewalk. No matter. The first bullet had done its job. Billy would be dead within four hours.

May and Billy had been living together, but it was a tumultuous affair. Twenty-seven-year-old May was estranged from her husband and well-known to the other men of Tombstone. Billy, 25, was a miner-turned-gambler—or as they called it at the time, a sporting man—who frequented the Oriental Saloon on the corner of Allen Street and Fifth. His other haunts probably included the famed Bird Cage and Crystal Palace.

History cites two possibilities for May’s action. The most popular story has it that one of Billy’s friends pulled a prank by putting a notice in the Tombstone Epitaph that “William Kinsman was betrothed to May Woodman.” Billy did not think it was funny, so he put a notice in the next edition of the paper that he had no intention of marrying May. She was humiliated.

A lesser repeated story was that May was pregnant, but she had intimate knowledge about Billy, which caused her to doubt his ability to father a child. To make sure, they consulted a doctor, who after an examination assured the pair that Billy could indeed sire a child. The doctor claimed the two asked him for a potion that would end the pregnancy, but he declined. May’s version differed. She claimed Billy wanted her to have the abortion and it was she who refused.

Billy must have wondered who else May had been overly familiar with. Perhaps Billy’s friend who ran the ad in the paper knew of May’s condition and that is why he pulled the prank. If that was the case, Billy’s public rebuke must have been more than May could take.

May showed no remorse for killing Billy and was tried for murder a month later. On the witness stand, she claimed self-defense. It took the jury a mere thirty minutes to decide that she was guilty of manslaughter instead of murder. After striking down a motion for a new trial, Daniel H. Pinney, Associate Justice on the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court, sentenced her to five years in the Yuma Territorial Prison. “May God curse you forever,” she spat at him.

After that May attempted suicide in her Tombstone jail cell by taking an overdose of chloride hydrate and morphine. She had been prescribed the medicine to help her sleep. Dr. George E. Goodfellow saved her life. He also attended to her when she miscarried in her fifth month. At that time, he noted she had several bruises on her body. Her condition led him to believe Billy had beaten her. He also said her mental condition was quite fragile.

After May got to Yuma, she settled in to be a model prisoner. But she could not remain free from drama for long. Whispers that she was pregnant again spread into full-fledged rumors, but no evidence surfaced to substantiate the gossip. Prison authorities moved quickly to squelch the talk, insisting male guards could not gain access to either of the two female prisoners’ cells.

May’s mother, Ellen McIntyre, started a petition to have her daughter pardoned. At least two-hundred Tombstone citizens, including some of the jurors from her trial signed the petition. Secretary of Arizona Territory Hiram M. Van Arman, acting as governor at the time, pardoned her—provided she leave the territory and not return.

May Woodman walked out of the Yuma Prison gates in 1884 after serving less than a year for Billy’s killing. As far as anyone knows, she never set foot in the Arizona Territory again.

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4 thoughts on “She shot her man

  1. Gloria Alden says:

    Interesting story, Jane. You’ve branched out from N.E. Ohio. I enjoyed the story.

  2. Thanks, Gloria. I’m interested in women’s crimes from all over the United States and time periods.

  3. I’ve seen an old clipping from Tucson’s AZ Daily Star about the trial starting. They note she’s the first woman to go on trial in Arizona with the possibility of getting a death sentence. We see she didn’t – and that’s how I came upon your blog. Thanks for filling in more info!

  4. Reblogged this on Westward Go – U.S. and commented:
    I liked reading this – and thought I’d repost it. I walk by the Oriental Saloon (now a gift shop!) at least once a week. It’s very cool to live in a town where you daily “relive” the Old West history.

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