John Gray celebrated July 4, 1892 by getting stumbling drunk. Unfortunately, he wobbled out of the Winchester Saloon on Payson’s Main Street and straight into the thundering hooves of a horse race.
And that’s why John Gray ended up with the “n” in his name chiseled backward on his tombstone in the Payson Pioneer Cemetery.
“His friends wondered why more wasn’t made of his death,” said David Grasse, the tour guide for the newly launched Oct. 9 Payson Cemetery Tour.
Gray’s just one of the Rim Country characters, strange deaths and tragic tales featured on the tour, including the grizzled prospector who took decades to get buried, the family patriarch who died in an Indian raid, the four boys who suffocated one night in the Payson jail, plus an outlaw.
Grasse has amassed a list of 25 local characters whose stories range from the tragic to curious. They have one thing in common: They all ended up in Payson’s Pioneer Cemetery, located off Main Street and Country Club Drive.
Just don’t call it a “ghost tour,” says Grasse.
“I call it the Notable Internees tour,” he said.
The cemetery was founded in 1882 when John and Henry Meadows died during the last Apache uprising in the state.
A band of warriors led by Na-ti-o-tish rose up after the U.S. calvary killed a powerful medicine man. Alarmed, Payson settlers gathered in town at their fort. The Meadows family came down from their home near Washington Park, but left too soon due to misinformation. The warriors killed John, the father, on the day of the attack on July 15. His son Henry died a few weeks later from a shot to the stomach.
His surviving son, Charlie, founded the cemetery to bury his father in 1882. Charlie would help launch the Payson August Doin’s rodeo and gained fame as “Arizona Charlie” in the touring Wild West shows. His stage name lives on as the namesake of a Las Vegas Casino.
Charlie buried his father in the first grave on a grassy knoll below Fort McDonald. The town grew up around the fort, including Main Street, where the first rodeos were held.
“Most pioneer towns placed their cemeteries near their main streets so the whole town could witness the funeral processions,” said Grasse.
Grasse, a third generation Arizonan born and raised in Tucson, fell in love with cemeteries as a child wandering among the headstones of Tucson’s pioneer cemetery.
“All the people had streets named after them. Louis C. Hughes, the newspaper editor for the Daily Star and one of the first governors of the state, is buried there,” he said.
Grasse studied history, then received a master’s in library sciences. He works at the Payson library now, dressed straight out of the late 1800s. To fill his extra time, he writes historical novels focused on a different point of view of the Old West history. His most recent book focuses on the hanging of Augustine Chacon, who Grasse suspects was guilty mostly of being Mexican.
Grasse decided to host a Payson cemetery tour when he stumbled across a book at the library on cemeteries in Gila County. The book told stories of how those interred found their way into the county’s cemeteries. The stories range from the comic to the tragic and just plain weird. Grasse decided a tour of the cemetery offered the perfect way to introduce the people to colorful characters of the town’s past, including a full-fledged outlaw.
Frank Armer, in 1894, tried to rob a train with two friends. The posse found them within two hours of the attempt.
“He was a cowboy who branched out from cattle rustling to train robbery when he shouldn’t have,” said Grasse.
He was convicted of robbery and sentenced to 30 years in the Yuma Prison.
His brother, Gila County Deputy Sheriff James B. “Bud” Armer, would visit his brother when he transported prisoners.
Then in 1901, Frank contracted tuberculosis. By 1903, it was so bad the governor granted him clemency. He died at his brother’s Payson ranch later that year and so found his way to the Payson Pioneer Cemetery.
One of the most tragic stories comes from a rumor Grasse heard at the library. In 1965, four young men died in the old Payson Jail. Grasse found articles in national papers about the tragedy.
John Watkins, 16, Kenny Haught, 15, Blaine Schroder, 16 and Cliff Greenland, 18, had done something stupid that bordered on illegal. To teach them a lesson, the town adults decided they needed to spend a night in jail to understand the error of their ways.
Tragically, a gas heater failed during the night. The flame went out, but the heater continued to release carbon monoxide. The boys asphyxiated between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 10:45 a.m.
“Nobody got fired, but they closed down the jail for a while,” said Grasse. He believes the community built a new jail soon after the calamity.
The cemetery houses two well-read authors.
The tour also features the odd story of Fred “Gold Tooth” Prarity, a local prospector.
“Everybody liked him,” said Grasse.
Prarity broke his leg while out prospecting. Somehow, his donkey bolted — and ran off into the wilderness. As Parity dwindled toward starvation, he resolved to end his life. So he shot himself. Payson residents eventually found his bones. They popped him in a box and took the box to the jailhouse. As the years went on, that box got moved from one room to another. Finally, someone opened the box and discovered the bones. Finally putting the prospector to rest, they decided to bury the guy in the Payson Pioneer Cemetery.
“He did the most time in jail of anybody in Arizona who committed suicide,” said Grasse.
Grasse’s cemetery tour starts at 10 a.m.
It will take up to two hours and cover a lot of ground, so bring sturdy walking shoes, a hat and water.
To sign up, please go to the Payson library on McLane Road. Tickets are $20 per person on a first come, first served basis.