by Don Bullis
Milt Yarberry (1849-1883) was born in Arkansas as John Armstrong, according to one source, although he used several aliases over the years. He began his career as a killer and thief at an early age in both Arkansas and Texas and departed from both as a fugitive and settled for a time in Colorado. Two of his better known associates were outlaws Dave (Mysterious Dave) Mather and Dave (Dirty Dave) Rudabaugh, both of whom were associated with Billy the Kid at one time or another. Yarberry is reported to have killed five or six men before he arrived in Albuquerque and became town marshal in 1881.
One source reported the he was hired by the local merchants’ association, which was not an unusual practice at the time. After all, the community enjoyed the benefits of having a regular peace officer on the job without having to pay taxes to support him. It wasn’t much of a benefit when it came to Milt Yarberry, though. A second source indicated that Yarberry was appointed town constable by Bernalillo County Sheriff Perfecto Armijo. What most likely happened was that the merchants hired and paid Milt and the sheriff deputized him as a courtesy. That was also a common practice and the sheriff gained a deputy and did not have to pay him.
In many ways, Yarberry was a poor fit for the job of town peace officer. For one thing, he was illiterate and described by some as not very bright. In character, he was a drunken loud-mouth and a bully. As noted above, the dynamics of his hiring are not clear.
He was soon in trouble. Milt, it is said, became enamored of a local grass widow named Sadie Preston. (A grass widow in the parlance of the day was usually a divorcee or an unmarried mother.) She may not have been from Albuquerque at all. Some report that she arrived from Colorado about the same time Milt did. Whatever the case, by early 1881 she was keeping company with a local express agent by the name of Harry Brown. Brown had something of reputation as a gunman. He was alleged to have singlehandedly prevented a train robbery in Kansas, although that may have been malarkey, too.
On a Sunday afternoon in March, Harry took Sadie for a buggy ride along Railroad Avenue (now Central Avenue) and stopped at a restaurant for a meal. Milt is said to have approached the couple as Sadie entered the eating establishment. Words were exchanged between Milt and Harry and, according to popular legend, Milt drew his pistol and shot Harry in the chest a time or two, killing him. Milt turned himself in to Sheriff Armijo and claimed self defense even though many at the time believed that Harry was unarmed. Whichever it was, Milt was acquitted and returned to his work as town marshal.
In June of the same year, again on a Sunday afternoon, Milt and a friend were sitting on the sidewalk in front of a Railroad Avenue saloon drinking whiskey. The marshal heard the sound of a shot some blocks distant, and he investigated by approaching a group of men and asking who fired the shot. One of the men allegedly pointed at a man walking on the opposite side of the street and said he was the culprit. Milt, in his wisdom, pulled his pistol and fired numerous shots at the man who fell dead of bullet wounds. Milt then walked across the street and danced a little jig around the fallen man and declared “I’ve downed the son-of-a-b…..” It turned out that the victim was a carpenter for the railroad named Charles Campbell who was not only unarmed, but did not even own a gun. The self-defense plea didn’t work a second time. Milt was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.
He was hanged in Albuquerque on February 9, 1883 by means of an innovative gallows which jerked the condemned upward instead of dropping him through a trapdoor. Some reported at the time that a newspaper story regarding the affair bore the headline, “Milt Yarberry: Jerked to Jesus,” and former New Mexico State Historian Robert Tórrez searched diligently for the source of that quote, without success. While New Mexico’s elder historian, Marc Simmons, wrote in his award-winning book, Albuquerque, that the term was applied to the Yarberry execution, he offered no source for the quote.
Mr. Tórrez recently wrote, “The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican and Albuquerque’s Morning Journal both seem to agree that the upward jerk broke Yarberry’s neck and death was instantaneous. The Albuquerque paper, however, added that Yarberry’s head struck the crossbeam of the scaffold as his body was violently jerked upward. This gruesome development may have caused officials to wonder whether Yarberry was killed by the jerking action of the rope or by the impact of his head against the crossbeam and may explain why the “jerk” device was never again utilized in an execution in New Mexico. However, since then I have found that the catchy, if irreverent, “Jerked to Jesus” phrase is actually found in the February 8, 1880, [Las Vegas] Optic report on the triple lynchings of Tom Henry (aka Thomas Jefferson House), James West, and John Dorseyon Las Vegas’ notorious “hanging windmill.” That day the paper expressed a certain admiration for Henry’s calm demeanor in the moments before he was “jerked to Jesus.”
Yarberry was buried with the rope still around his neck, and his headstone misspelled his name. Fitting somehow.
Don Bullis, New Mexico Historical Biographies
Howard Bryan, Albuquerque
Leon Metz, Encyclopedia of Lawmen, Outlaws and Gunfighters
Chris Penn, “Harry Brown: Express Messenger,” Journal of the Wild West History Association, April 2008
Marc Simmons, Albuquerque, A Narrative History
Robert Tórrez, Myth of the Hanging Tree