This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Crime and Punishment in old-time Phoenix


Obeying the law can be a tricky thing to do for anyone, even people who consider themselves "law abiding". Speaking for myself, I was on such a tight budget while I was going to ASU that one of things I did was to be absolutely sure of the laws regarding driving in Arizona (I had grown up in Minnesota). My budget couldn't even stand a parking ticket, let alone a moving violation, so I kept the Driver's Manual after I got my license in Arizona, and studied it as carefully as I studied any other book that I had in college. Even then, it made me nervous, and obeying the law still does, to this day. My favorite joke with friends is when they park in front of a sign that says, "2 hour parking", and we're only there for one hour and fifty-nine minutes. Let's take a look at crime and punishment in old-time Phoenix...

Crime and punishment is something that puzzles a lot of people, and not only in Arizona. Since it never really applied to me, I can't say that I've studied the punishment of bigger crimes, like robbing liquor stores, or killing people. That wasn't going to be something that I did in ignorance of the law, like parking the wrong way on the street (which, by the way, makes you liable for two tickets, both parking the wrong way, and driving the wrong way down the street - bet'cha didn't know that!). So I really have no idea how many liquor stores you need to rob before you go to jail, but my best guess is one.

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Arizona has historically been a bad place to be a criminal. From its earliest days there were lawman who "shot first and asked questions later". Phoenix grew up because of the gold in Wickenburg, and Phoenix had a lot of banks, and still does. And that kind of thing attracts criminals. As the famous bank robber, John Dillinger once said, "It's where the money is".

Unlike a lot of "wide-open" Western towns, Phoenix prided itself on being a safe place. There were, of course, the usual drunken brawls, and cowboys were known to shoot at the the decorative statue on top of the Capitol building, to make it spin around, but mostly Phoenix was a bad place to be a bad guy. So if you came into town intending to rob banks and make trouble, there were some tough lawmen that you had to deal with, including Sheriff Carl Hayden (pictured above).

Phoenix City Hall in 1888, Washington between 1st and 2nd Streets. You're looking east. 

If you committed a crime in the 1880s, you would have had to face Henry Garfias. And the punishment would probably be a bullet, as he was an excellent shot, and did not hesitate to shoot. When the City Hall was built, on Washington between 1st and 2nd Streets, there was a tiny jail in the basement, if you were lucky enough to not get shot. Of course, when the new County Court House and City Hall was built (now historic City Hall) on 1st Avenue and Washington, you could stay at the jail there for committing a crime. Accommodations for people who have committed crimes have grown in Phoenix.

Historic City Hall, which is on Washington between 1st Avenue and where 2nd Avenue (now closed to traffic).

So, here's my suggestion, don't commit crimes. Yeah, I know that no one is perfect, and sometimes the tiny details can make criminals of us all. And it's true that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, but you really don't have to be a mastermind to know that if you rob a bank, they're gonna come after you, and you're going to jail.


Image at the top of this post: Sheriff Carl Hayden in 1915, Phoenix, Arizona.