Picture it. Petroleum Centre, summer 1866. The streets are muddy, the hotels are bawdy, and you just finished a long day of work in the oil fields and are looking for a place to relax for the evening. You saunter into one of the local bars and before you is one of the most fearsome figures of Petroleum Centre, “Bully Tom” Quirk.
Bully Tom was one of the hardest, roughest men in the area and had a reputation for a “hard fist and harder words.” He boasted a long list of business ventures including theatres, concert halls, and brothels. In August 1866 his reputation for brutality grew even larger when he mutilated one of his foes.
Found and arrested in Erie County for his crime in Petroleum Centre, Bully Tom Quirk was taken into custody for biting off the ear (and possibly also the nose) of another man. He was quickly sent to the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh (now SCI-Pittsburgh) where he was supposed to serve out his sentence. But Bully Tom was not a man to be caged.
About six months after his arrival at the Western Penitentiary, Tom Quirk vanished. In late February, 1867 he made a rope out of his bed sheets, removed the bricks from the vent in his cell, and climbed down into the yard of the prison. Once there, he swung the bed sheets over the outer wall and made off into the Pennsylvanian countryside.
A fifty dollar reward (around $800 today) was offered for Quirk’s capture and the bulletin described his appearance. He was five feet six inches tall with dark hair and grey eyes. He was said to have a coat of arms tattoo on his chest in blue ink and red and blue tattoos up and down both arms. The most surprising thing about this brute was that he was only twenty-two years old, yet had established a fearsome reputation across the region.
Quirk was never to be seen alive again in the Oil Region. After escaping prison, he fled West, riding the Union Pacific Railroad to its end in Julesburg, Colorado, just across the Nebraska state line. Coincidentally, another man with a less-than-stellar local reputation named Tom Dillon ventured west to Julesburg around the same time as Quirk. The two men’s stories would soon viciously collide.
On August 20, 1867, the Titusville Herald reported that Tom Quirk was dead in Julesburg with no details available. Nine days later, the paper also reported that Tom Dillon was dead in Julesburg and that he had been hung by a mob. While unfortunate, the event was not too surprising given the sordid reputation of the wild, unlawful west. However, Tom Dillon was not ready to be silenced.
In early November 1867, none other but Tom Dillon himself showed up to the Titusville Herald offices to prove that he was not dead. He explained that Julesburg had become an outlet for “hard cases” from the Oil Region, but that he had survived its rough-and-tumble atmosphere. Quirk, he confirmed, was not so lucky.
Dillon claimed that after landing in Julesburg, Tom Quirk acquired eight “Jezebels” for his new brothel. One of his ladies, Margaret Snyder, was not as loyal to Quirk as he demanded, and she left him for the company of a man named Chanfrau, who originally hailed from Pithole, Pennsylvania. Not to be made the fool, Quirk demanded that Chanfrau give up Snyder or pay for her. Chanfrau refused to do either and thus, the two agreed on a duel.
On the outskirts of town, Chanfrau and Tom Quirk set up fourteen paces apart with guns drawn and Tom Dillon was their referee. When Dillon dropped a handkerchief, the two men simultaneously shot at one another, Chanfrau being killed instantly with a bullet to the head and Quirk being shot in the body and dying within twenty-four hours. Dillon claimed that he witnessed the entire event and brought Quirk’s body back to Erie to be buried by Quirk’s father. The Herald swiftly determined that Julesburg was the worst place on earth – even worse than Pithole.
Seemingly, the case of Tom Quirk’s demise was solved. But alas, the story did not end there. As the year turned from 1867 to 1868, new information came to light and broke the case wide open once more. A man named George Falkenburg returned to Titusville from Julesburg where he claimed he too knew what happened to Tom Quirk and that Tom Dillon had lied about the whole affair.
Falkenburg explained that there was never a duel, nor handkerchief dropped by Dillon. Dillon was not present at all, said Falkenburg, and he did not return Quirk’s remains to his father. Instead, the story was that after Quirk escaped from prison he took his wife out west. While there, he and some friends stole a large number of cattle and forged yet another sordid reputation. After settling in Julesburg, he opened a hotel. Just as he had done in the Oil Region, Quirk again began his reign of terror against men and women. Falkenburg said that Quirk was caught brutally assaulting a woman who had run away from his brothel and was shot and killed in a neighbor’s house. Quirk was buried in Julesburg where his body remained.
As for Tom Dillon, he simply capitalized off of Quirk’s murder. Originally the bartender at Quirk’s place of business, Dillon assumed control of the hotel and brothel after his death. Even this did not last long, as Julesburg was soon deserted by all who inhabited it and residents moved to Cheyenne City, the new terminus of the railroad.
Some of the biggest and baddest of the Oil Region ran from their reputations in Northwestern Pennsylvania, hopped on the train and beat it out West. Usually, their reputations proceeded them and they populated some of the wickedest towns in American history.
So, who killed “Bully Tom” Quirk? Do you believe Tom Dillon and the story of the duel? Or does George Falkenburg and the story of the assault and murder sound more likely? The world will never know for sure how one of Petroleum Centre’s most feared met his demise in the Wild West.