Column No. 17

The Ruby Mercantile – The First Robbery

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

Tragedy struck only 11 days after the Fraser brothers completed the deal to buy the Ruby mercantile from Phil Clarke.

On February 27, 1920, two Mexican bandits robbed the store and brutally attacked Alexander and John Fraser.

Former storeowner Phil Clarke later wrote about what happened:

On the morning Friday of February 27 . . . Alex opened the store as usual. While he busied himself arranging the shelves, two Mexicans entered with pistols in their hand. John, who was in the back room washing the breakfast dishes heard the door of the store open and close, then a shot that was almost immediately followed by the ring of the cash register. Although I had cautioned them repeatedly and thoroughly about keeping guns in every room (they had taken my advice and placed a shot-gun or rifle in several corners), John rushed into the store without a gun. He saw a man he knew as Lara standing over the body of his brother with a pistol still smoking in his hand. Lara seized John and forced him to open the safe. After he and his accomplice, Garcia, also known to the Frasers, cleaned out the safe, Lara shot John in the eye. John fell unconscious to the floor. The Mexicans took what else they could carry and started off for the border.

Later, Jose Cuesta of Ruby entered the store and found that Alex was dead but that John still lived. He rushed for the Justice of Peace, John Moloney. I was also notified. John regained consciousness and identified the murderers Mexicans Ezequiel Lara and Manuel Garcia. John was taken to Nogales . . .

County Ranger Oliver Parmer, at the scene of the murders soon after the crime, provided additional details on Alexander and John Fraser’s wounds:

Although we were prepared for the sight of death, we were appalled at the grisly scene within the post office. Alexander was dead. A bullet had entered his back, coursing to the front, and a second had penetrated his head. [Clarke’s account did not mention a second shot.] This unquestionably had caused instant death. John had been shot through the left eye and the bullet had passed through his skull. He was alive . .

Parmer went on to say about the crime:

Gunplay was not uncommon in Arizona where, due perhaps to the lingering spirit of the Old West, men often faced each other and shot it out. But this was different. Alexander Fraser had been shot in the back in cold blood . .

Phil Clarke’s wife, Gypsy, added her perspective to the crime aftermath:

Almost at once, the stage arrived and it was sent back to Arivaca, 12 miles away, with the alarm. . . Before five o’clock, the . . . doctor arrived from Arivaca . . . John Fraser explained everything to the smallest detail.

Police Chief Bailey and his hounds from Tucson, and Santa Cruz County Sheriff Raymond Earhart formed a posse the day after the murders to search the border country. But the bandits had successfully escaped into Mexico.

Chief Bailey reported, “approximately $200 in cash and $300 in merchandise was taken” in the robbery. Ironically, the bandits overlooked $700 in thrift stamps in the post office safe.

Early on Saturday morning (February 28th), from Nogales, with John Fraser in the military base hospital there, Sheriff Earhart’s Office sent this telegram to Ines Fraser in San Diego:

1920 FEB 28 AM 9 01


An hour an a half later, Earhart’s Office sent a second telegram from the hospital to Ines:

1920 FEB 28 AM 10 28


That same afternoon, Ines received a third and final telegram:

1920 FEB 28 PM 2 12


Ines Fraser and her new baby daughter Constance arrived at the hospital in Nogales on Monday afternoon, accompanied by Ines Fraser’s sister, Mrs. Mary Steele of El Paso. Sadly, Mrs. Fraser arrived to find that her husband had died earlier that morning.

Following a double funeral, mourners buried Alexander and John Fraser in the Nogales cemetery on March 6th, the bodies having been held awaiting the arrival of the brothers’ sister Annie from Boston.

On March 12th, Ines and Annie “went over to Ruby to look out for the property interests” of the Fraser brothers.

The probate of the murdered brothers’ estates on March 18th revealed that their limited assets consisted only of the stock of goods in the store and about $1,500 each. John had $500 in a bank; Alexander had $1,000.

The brothers’ mines brought no money; they just weren’t worth anything at that time. Ines turned the problem of what to do about the store over to Phil Clarke and on March 19th, she departed for San Diego.

County Ranger Parmer later summed up the tragedy:

As to the characters of the Fraser brothers, I learned much from Justice Moloney and others whom I questioned later. They had lived in Ruby [the area] for a number of years, were unobtrusive, well liked, and had no known enemies. They were especially kind to the Mexicans . . often extending them credit for food. Seldom, indeed, had a crime seemed more cold blooded.

(Sources: Nogales Herald; Phil Clarke “Recollections of Life in Arivaca and Ruby, 1906-1926,” Arizona Historical Society; Oliver Parmer and Kathleen O’Donnell, “How We Trapped the Deadly Border Bandits,” Startling Detective Adventures, 1936; Gypsy Clarke letter to her brother, 1920, reprinted in Southern Arizona Trails, 1990; Tucson Citizen; Fraser family records; Nogales The Oasis; Santa Cruz County Probate Court Cases 442 and 443)

By the time the Fraser brothers took over in early 1920, the Ruby mercantile included additions for a Post Office and an icehouse. The view is to the south from the back of the store. The Mexican border was only five miles away. (Photo courtesy of Pat and Howard Frederick)


 Next time: The Shootout with the Fraser Brothers Murderer

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