The Town of Gillett: Despite Having No Jailhouse, It Had All the Criminals a Small Town Could Fit

Nikola Petrovski
Featured image
The abandoned town of Gillett, Arizona. Photos by Marine 69-71 CC BY-SA 4.0

The town of Gillett, Arizona is located on the banks of the Agua Fria River, fairly close to Lake Pleasant Park and at an elevation of 1,360 feet above sea level. It was a lively town that, it seems, had trouble staying out of the newspapers due to its lawlessness.

Even though it was a very active town in all aspects, from mining to gun-fighting and from calm poker games to gory saloon fights, Gillett is now a ghost town of which little remains.

Where the town once was. Author: Marine 69-71 CC BY-SA 4.0

The town grew up around the mill for processing ore from the nearby Tip Top mine. It was named after the mine developer, Dan B. Gillett. A Post Office was officially opened on October 15, 1876.

Towns filled with violence and hostility were nothing new in the old American South and West. There were countless towns that cultivated such an atmosphere that gunslingers and thieves felt right at home, and Gillett was no exception. In fact, it was reputedly much rougher than the rest of them.

What is left of the Burfind Hotel, built c.1878. Author: Marine 69-71 CC BY-SA 4.0

An event that took place on June 12, 1878, well illustrates Gillett’s fractiousness.

That day, the local saloons were packed with people as usual; however, in one of these bars, a fight was slowly brewing. The tension burst as a man by the name of Setwright picked up a bottle and smashed it over the head of the man he was arguing with. At first, it seemed like a regular fight, and Setwright was arrested by C. Burnett, the Deputy Sheriff.

Jack Swilling (1830-1878), an early pioneer in Arizona territory and one of the founders of Phoenix.

Later that same day, the drunken Setwright was handed over to another man by the name of Weir and the two men left town riding a mule. At first, it felt like the situation had been resolved — the sheriff could relax and Gillett could continue with its daily activities. But it wasn’t long before the mule that carried the two men was found in town… alone!

This prompted the curiosity of the sheriff. Careful investigation revealed the body of Weir just outside the town with a bullet hole in his head. Setwright was initially nowhere to be found. The sheriff and his men found him later that day, a mile away.

The tumbledown hotel is the only building that remains in Gillett ghost town, Arizona. Author: Marine 69-71 CC BY-SA 4.0

He was arrested again and brought to the house of E. P. Rains because, despite having plenty of saloons and even the very fine Burfind Hotel, Gillett had no jailhouse.

The residents had no intention of letting the murder of Weir slide unpunished as he had been a well-respected citizen. The situation started to escalate and soon Setwright was no longer inside the house but outside and in the hands of an angry mob. A rope was thrown over a branch and the other was wrapped around Setwright’s neck. He died right there in front of the crowd.

Gillett is a mining ghost town in Arizona, along the banks of the Auga Fria River. Author: Marine 69-71 CC BY-SA 4.0

Another notable event involves the rather unusual hobby of the local blacksmith. Alongside his work as a blacksmith, Henry Seymour made a handsome living robbing stagecoaches: most notably, the Wells Fargo stagecoach as it approached the town.

The Agua Fria River at the border of Gillett historic townsite. Author: Marine 69-71 CC BY-SA 4.0

He had successfully held up three stagecoaches at gunpoint and at first nobody knew who could have done it. However, a careful investigation by the country sheriff revealed the true perpetrator, and he was arrested whilst attempting to rob a fourth coach and taken to prison.

After his release Seymour disappeared, and his disappearance gave rise to a legend. Seymour never got the chance to spend the money he stole and he never returned to Gillett. It is said that the treasure still lies buried somewhere around the town.

Relics of the old town. Author: Marine 69-71 CC BY-SA 4.0

The mill was relocated to the newly-formed town of Tip Top in 1884, and this marked the end for Gillett. By 1912, the town was completely abandoned and almost nothing remained of it except the ruins of the Burfind Hotel and traces of other buildings.