Old man Power didn’t want his sons to be cannon fodder in the First World War. Jeff Power told his boys, John and Tom, not to register for the draft. The rich man’s war had nothing to do with them. In 1918, the Power family, originally from West Texas, had a gold mine to work in Arizona’s Gila Valley.
“They reacted the way Texans would react,” historian Jeff Robenalt says in the documentary Power’s War. “They didn’t cause the war… they didn’t make the draft. Why should they register for it?”
The young brothers planned to remain in the Galiuro Mountains until the war ended, then everything would blow over. But the US government had other plans. On February 9, 1918, Deputy US Marshal Haynes, Sheriff McBride, and Deputy Kempton met with volunteer Deputy Kane Wootan. The lawmen rode up into the mountains to arrest John and Tom Power for failing to register for the selective draft.
All four of the lawmen were members of the Mormon Church. Writer Roderick Roberts notes the Gila Valley was heavily Mormon and the Power family’s status as non-Mormon newcomers caused some of their neighbors to view them with hostility. The Powers claimed the Wootans wanted their gold mine and were willing to use the WWI conscription to take it. Sheriff McBride served as chairman of the county draft board. If John and Tom were drafted, their father couldn’t work the mine alone and would have to sell.
Just before dawn, the sound of startled horses woke Jeff Power in the family cabin. He stepped to the door and opened it. A voice in the darkness shouted, “Throw up your hands!”
Jeff Power raised his hands. Three shots cracked and the old man fell, shot down in his own doorway.
The gunfight that followed was the deadliest in Arizona history. The posse fired into the cabin. John and Tom Power grabbed Winchesters and fought back. The family’s hired hand, an ex-Army scout named Tom Sisson, took cover. When the smoke cleared, Jeff Power and three lawmen were dead, a fourth escaped, and the Power brothers had suffered wounded eyes from flying splinters and glass. The attackers never identified themselves as lawmen. Only after standing over the bodies did the Powers realize the dead men wore badges.
The shoot-out at Powers’ cabin sent Arizona into hysteria. A massive manhunt ensued, posses swearing to kill the fugitives on sight. Three hundred soldiers from El Paso joined the hunt. The Power brothers and Sisson were on the run twenty-five days before they managed to cross the border into Mexico. They should’ve been safe, but the US Army tore down the border fence and illegally entered Mexico, chasing after them.
Tom Power convinced his brother and Sisson they should surrender. The soldiers wouldn’t kill them. They could go back to Arizona and plead self-defense, let the truth come out in court.
When the Power brothers stepped out of hiding, the lieutenant leading the patrol was so frightened he fell off his horse. Lt. Wolcott P. Hayes wrote, “The three of them could have killed me with ease… I wanted to know why they had not resisted…”
“We wouldn’t shoot a soldier boy,” Tom Power told him.
The patrol rode north with their prisoners, hurrying to leave Mexico before they were caught breaking the law. They’d just crossed back into the US when a Mexican Border Patrol spotted them. The Mexicans were furious about the invasion and hit the ground and mounted a machine gun. The US patrol scattered and ran.
In jail in Clifton, Arizona, the Powers and Sisson suffered threats of lynching. Local newspapers openly called them murderers and stirred hatred for the “slackers,” draft dodgers who refused to fight for Woodrow Wilson. Demands were made for capital punishment to be reinstated. Arizona had abolished the death penalty in 1916, but as a result of the Power cabin shoot-out, it was reinstituted after the Powers’ trial.
The trial began on May 13, 1918. The court transcript mysteriously disappeared soon afterwards. Tom Power’s recollection of events is recorded in his book Shoot-out At Dawn.
John Power testified that Sisson, their hired hand, never fired a single shot. The doctor for the coroner’s jury testified that Sheriff McBride could only have been killed by a .30 and the only man with a .30 rifle was the sheriff’s own Deputy Kempton.
The jury was out for thirty minutes before they returned the verdict. The Power brothers and Sisson were guilty of murder in the first degree. On May 20, Judge Frank B. Laine sentenced the three men to life in prison, without hope of pardon or parole.
“I did study law in prison,” Tom Power said. “After I read the law books, I threw them in the corner. I found that every principle of the law had been violated in everything connected with our trial, so I decided the law was not worth studying.”
The Powers and Sisson were transported to prison in Florence, Arizona. The state legislature passed a bill for the relief of the widows of the “slain officers.” The widows received $17,500 of tax payer funds, then promptly sued the Power brothers. The warden refused to let the brothers attend the court case, so the suit went by default. The Power mining claim was awarded to the families of the men who’d killed Jeff Power. Barbara Wolfe writes: “The Power boys sat helpless in their cells while everything they owned was sold… The sheriff auctioned machinery, ore cars, rail tracks, mining tools…”
Twenty-one years passed. Young men when they entered prison, the Powers were now in their mid-forties. Tom and John were serving life sentences they had nothing to lose. They escaped from prison the night of December 28, 1939. The brothers lived in Mexico City for a time, but soon ran out of money. The Mexican government was retaliating against gringos for FDR’s Mexican Repatriation, making it hard for the brothers to find work. They decided to cross the border and wire friends for money. It was a mistake.
Crossing into Texas near Piedras Negras, the Powers were captured when border guards spotted them. They were taken into custody. While awaiting the warden to arrive from Florence prison, a Texas border official named Cleveland listened to the Powers’ story. “You men got a dirty deal,” he told them. Cleveland contacted a lawyer who told the Powers he could secure their release in Texas, but it would never be safe for them to leave the state. Tom Power said the lawyer advised them to get the warden’s promise before witnesses that he would release them within a reasonable length of time.
When the Florence warden arrived, he swore in front of the Texas officials he’d see the Power brothers were paroled as soon as possible. John and Tom Power returned to prison in Arizona on April 20, 1940. The warden never honored his promise. Angry letters arrived from Texas, but the warden ignored them.
Sisson, the hired hand and ex-Army scout, died in 1957 after thirty-nine years in prison. He was eighty-seven, Arizona’s oldest prisoner. The Power brothers and one other inmate were the only mourners at his funeral.
The next year, a newspaper columnist named Don Dedera began writing about the Power brothers. His articles brought their case to public attention and finally in March, 1960, a Parole Board hearing was held. The board consisted of Reverend Walter Hoffman, Chairman of the Board, W. W. Dick, State Superintendent of Instruction, and Wade Church, Arizona Attorney General. Reverend Hoffman brought up the killing of the “brave” officers and the Powers brothers’ “cowardly slacking.”
“Wait a minute,” Wade Church said. “Did the officers identify themselves before the shooting started?”
Hoffman admitted they hadn’t.
“Then the shooting of a man with his hands up was nothing but cold-blooded murder,” Church said. After the hearing, Church put his hand on Tom Power’s shoulder. “We’re going to get you out of here,” he said.
A month later, the Power brothers were paroled. After forty-two years in prison, innocent of any crime, the brothers were now in their late sixties. The state had stolen their lives, but they were finally free.
The governor pardoned the Power brothers on January 25, 1969. Five days earlier, Richard Nixon had been sworn in as president. Nixon would continue Lyndon Johnson’s undeclared war in Vietnam. Once again, American boys were being forced to fight a rich man’s war. The War to End All Wars had changed nothing. Some chose resistance. Young men burned draft cards, escaped to Canada, or went to prison for their refusal to kill.
Tom Power died in 1970. He was seventy-seven years-old and he departed this life free of hatred and bitterness. “I don’t hold no grudge against nobody,” he’d say. “I figure that just makes you old before your time.” Tom told of his family’s fight for liberty in his book, Shoot-out At Dawn.
John Power lived alone in his father’s old mine tunnel for a while. He reburied his father’s bones in the Klondyke, Arizona cemetery. The headstone reads: “T. J. Power, Sr. 1918-Age 54. Shot down with his hands up in his own door.”
In 1976, John Power was eighty-five, living out of his pickup parked in the ghost town of Klondyke. Roderick Roberts interviewed the old man. Roberts noted, “His memory is beginning to fail, and he is a very bitter man with marked paranoid tendencies, but in his case paranoia may represent the only intelligent approach to life.”
“They was out to kill us,” John Power said. “They weren’t trying to arrest us… They just started shooting, shot down our daddy in the doorway. You’d fight back too, wouldn’t you, if they shot down your pa?”
John Power died in April, 1976. Friends sang the hymn “I Saw the Light” at his funeral. He was buried beside his family in the Klondyke cemetery.
A neighbor wrote of the boys’ father, Jeff Power: “he seemed to have an idea that American boys would rebel against their government before they should allow themselves to be shipped across the water. ‘If you sign the register,’ he would say to his boys, ‘you become a soldier and will have to obey, but there is not a law in the world to make a man put his name on something he doesn’t want to.’”
We owe a debt of gratitude to those brave enough to resist the draft. We should thank anyone who spoke out against unjust war and risked the terror of the state. Without their public dissent, conscription would’ve continued.
To me, the Power brothers are true heroes of this country. They could have registered for the WWI draft and been killed in the trenches, lost among the forgotten fodder who died to fatten the wallets of international bankers. Instead, they chose to resist. I hope the Power family is remembered for their pride and freedom, for refusing to bow down to the state, refusing to fight in an evil war. May the government that imprisoned them be totally forgotten by history.
Reprinted with permission from MaxMcNabb.com.