Born to Serve: A Brief Bio of Sheriff Harry C. Wheeler

Harry Cornwall Wheeler was born in Jacksonville, Florida on July 23, 1875, the son of 2nd Lt. William B. Wheeler, and Annie Cornwall Wheeler. As a result of being born into a military family, he moved frequently as a child. The traits of intense patriotism and a sense of obligation to duty were instilled in him at a young age and guided him all of his life. At age 21 he enlisted in the First Cavalry at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. It was here that he met his first wife, Mamie Olivia Stafford. Their son William Allyn Wheeler was born shortly thereafter. While many sources claim that Harry Wheeler served as a rough rider during the Spanish-American War, this claim appears to be unfounded. He missed the fighting in the Philippines due to a lengthy illness. After his enlistment ended in 1900, Harry rejoined the First Cavalry at Fort Meade in South Dakota, and was later transferred to the 14th Cavalry, and was sent to Arizona, where he would remain the rest of his life. At Fort Grant he sustained an injury from a horse kick that would plague him until the day he died, and he received a medical discharge.

Harry tried his hand as a railroad laborer and a miner, but it was his service in the Arizona Rangers that he would always look back on with great fondness. Harry joined the Rangers in 1903 and quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant and then Captain, the rank he held when the Arizona Rangers were disbanded in 1909. After a brief stint as a mounted inspector for the U.S. Customs Service, in 1911 Harry ran for sheriff of Cochise County on the Democratic ticket, which he easily won. He was known as an effective, no-nonsense but fair lawman. The Wheelers doted on their son Allyn, now a popular teenager. When Allyn died in 1915 as the result of an automobile accident, a rift formed in Harry’s and Mamie’s marriage that would never fully heal. It was suspected that illegal liquor was a contributing cause to the accident, and since prohibition was in effect in the county at the time, Harry made it a mission of his to apprehend bootleggers. However, with the entry of the United States into the Great War in April of 1917, a new enemy appeared, one that threatened that which Harry held most dear: his beloved country.

Soon after war was declared, Harry offered his services on the battlefield, saying he was “capable of leading or being led.” He passed his initial examination easily, but to his dismay was ultimately rejected because of his old injury sustained at Fort Grant. Bisbee was booming because copper was in great demand for producing munitions, and the three big mining companies in town were reaping great profits. Needless to say, the mining companies were hostile to labor interests, and the mine employees were some of the highest paid in the world. A radical socialist labor union based in Chicago, the Industrial Workers of the World, or the I.W.W., began a major push in Bisbee, working under the auspices of the Metal Mine Workers (M.M.W). Although they never achieved a majority among the unionized miners, they were highly vocal, gifted in oratory, and spread discontent among the miners with great success. They also harassed and threatened miners, businessmen, and their families. When the mining companies asked Sheriff Wheeler to appoint men to suppress the strikers, Wheeler refused. (This should lay to rest the rumor that circulates to this day that Wheeler was a pawn for the mining companies). After an illegal strike was called, and when the production of the mines, essential to the war effort, began to be affected, Harry Wheeler decided that action must be taken. Harry made numerous attempts, all ignored, to obtain help from federal and state authorities to restore order in the district. Oddly enough, Harry may not have been as much concerned about the local effects of the “Wobblies,” as the union members were called, as he was about the war effort being compromised. Consulting with the mining companies, Harry began to deputize men to form a “posse comitatus.” On the morning of Thursday, July 12, 1917, approximately two thousand “deputies” wearing white armbands rounded up close to two thousand suspected “Wobblies” and sympathizers. Two men died during the roundup: Orson Pratt McRae, a deputized shift boss, and James Brew, a striking mine worker. These men were marched to the Warren Ball Park, where the men were given the chance to renounce their affiliation with the I.W.W. Those who refused (approximately 1186 men) were loaded into cattle cars and shipped to Columbus, New Mexico. The constable at Columbus refused to allow the men to disembark and the train was forced to backtrack to Hermanas and leave the men in the desert. Most accounts say the men were provided with water and some food-others dispute this. However, what is not widely reported is that the citizens of Bisbee donated many thousands of dollars in aid and food to the families of the deported strikers, and that those who agreed not to cause further trouble were allowed back to their homes and jobs.

The deportation left a black mark on Sheriff Harry Wheeler’s record, and he lost the bid for re-election as sheriff in 1922. He and his wife Mamie were divorced three years previously. In 1919 Harry married Jessie Wills, a spunky Georgia native twenty-five years his junior. They settled in Douglas, where Harry worked at developing a mining lease. They had three children, one of whom died at an early age. In the fall of 1923 Harry purchased a 70 acre peach orchard in the Cochise Stronghold, and continued to work on mining interests. In December of 1925, Harry became ill, developed pneumonia and died on December 17. He was fifty years old. Harry Cornwall Wheeler lived a life of service to his country, and has been shamefully ignored and minimized by history. Although my novel “Law of Necessity” is historical fiction, it contains more facts than many non-fiction accounts, and is an attempt to set the record straight. Harry Wheeler deserves our recognition and respect, just as much as Sergeant Alvin York and other heroes of World War I, for helping to win the war on the home front. His willingness to follow the greater law (the law of necessity) made it possible for the United States to obtain the vital mineral resources it needed to win the war.

Source information collected from “Captain Harry Wheeler, Arizona Lawman,” by Bill O’Neal.


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James Rhodes Posted on

James Rhodes was born in Riverside, California in 1960. He has written and illustrated numerous short stories, and illustrated "Master Your Migraine" for Ron Lange, published in 1996. Law of Necessity is his first novel and is the result of years of research. He currently lives in Prescott Valley, Arizona with his wife, Kathy.

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