Wild West


For the masked vigilantes of Virginia City, Nevada, the wheels of justice moved too slowly.

Shortly after midnight on March 14, 1871, Hugh Kelly and Charley Fletcher were strolling down B Street when they spied something ominous—reflected orange light flickering off the houses opposite Piper’s Opera House. Springing into action, the pair filled buckets with water from a nearby trough, forced their way into the opera house and doused the fire before it could spread.

Police Chief George Downey moved just as swiftly. Within a half hour, on the corner of C and Union streets, Downey arrested William Willis for arson. His grounds for suspicion were strong. Hours earlier Willis—ironically, a volunteer firefighter of Washoe Engine Co. No. 4—had bulled his way into the opera house to watch that evening’s play. After proprietor John Piper ordered him out, Willis had sworn he’d “get even.” Later that night Officers George Potter and William Stout spotted Willis lurking about the opera house and went to investigate but soon lost sight of him. On hearing about the fire, the officers reported to Downey, who soon located Willis. Coal oil on the latter’s hands and coat sleeves was evidence enough to warrant his arrest.

Willis was in bigger trouble than that, for the opera house fire was only the latest of several blazes had fanned the flames. “It seems to be well established that there is an organized gang of incendiaries in Virginia City,” the paper surmised, “and that the numerous fires in that city were kindled by the gang. What object these miscreants expect to accomplish by destroying the city is not clear; but there is a determination on the part of the respectable citizens to wreak summary vengeance upon anyone caught at the nefarious work.”

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