My trip to the ‘Wild West’

O.K.+Corral+actors+on+the+main+street+in+Tombstone.

Ava Williams

O.K. Corral actors on the main street in Tombstone.

Bless my mom’s heart, but she can’t keep a secret to save her life. Thursday morning we woke up bright and early to drive to our “surprise” and for most of the drive, I really had no clue where we were going…until she started dropping hints. About an hour into the drive, we passed billboards and signs for “The Town Too Tough To Die.”  By that point, it was clear where we were going.

“Are we going to Tombstone??,” I questioned.

“Nope,” my mom said blatantly.

I knew she was lying…we were going to Tombstone.

History of Tombstone

Tombstone is a historic western city located in southeastern Arizona, approximately an hour south of Tucson. It became one of the last boomtowns in the American frontier. During the mid-1880s, the city grew drastically as miners and cowboys flooded the town.

“The only rock you will find out there will be your own tombstone,” Al Seiber said to Ed Schieffelin at the U.S. Army headquarters in Camp Huachuca, when he found out what Schieffelin was up to. 

Ed formed a partnership with his brother Albert Schieffelin and friend, Richard Gird when he found valuable mineral deposits while prospecting in Arizona. The three returned to Arizona to develop these claims. The Ground Hog, the Owl Nest, the Lucky Cuss, the Tough Nut, and the Contention are some of the claims that made the men rich. Ed sold his share in 1880 for $500,000 which provided an economic basis for the new town, “Tombstone.”

Tombstone’s founder and prospector of the territory. (Fair use photo from True West Magazine)

History of the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday

Wyatt Earp

American law enforcement officer, Wyatt Earp, worked in several cities and territories in the West including Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Arizona. He was a well-known businessman and took part in a variety of trades, developing a strong reputation for himself. He traveled to Tombstone with his two brothers, Virgil and Morgan, for the opportunities in the silver-mining boomtown and to enforce the law in a city that was just building up a name for itself.

City lawman and officer of Tombstone, Arizona. (Fair use photo from Wall Street Journal)
Wyatt came to Tombstone determined to enforce law and order. (Fair use photo from Arizona Daily Star)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virgil Earp

Virgil was both deputy U.S. Marshal and Tombstone, Arizona Marshal when he led his two brothers and Doc Holliday to the city to confront the outlaw cowboys, more specifically, the Cochise County Cowboys. After Fred White, city marshal at the time, was shot and killed by outlaw and gunman, “Curly Bill,” Virgil was appointed the position and one of his first regulations was to ban guns in town. Naturally, that created major conflict with the cowboys who already hated the Earp brothers for coming to Tombstone and interfering with their illegal activities. This ongoing dispute would eventually lead to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Eldest Earp brother and Tombstone Marshal. (Fair use photo from Pinterest)

Morgan Earp

Youngest of the Earp brothers, Morgan served in Tombstone as an American sheriff and lawman. He was allotted the Special Policeman position with Wyatt when the three brothers were combatting the cowboys. A more reserved individual, Morgan Earp was very much a follower of his brothers and never started any significant trouble while serving in Cochise County.

Morgan Earp, youngest Earp brother and lawman of Tombstone. (Fair use photo from Pinterest)

Doc Holliday

American gambler, gunfighter, and dentist, Doc was a close friend and comrade to Wyatt Earp. The two became close on the Texas gambling circuit in the late 1870s. Known for his role in the events leading up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, he developed a strong reputation for having killed more than a dozen men in many different disputes. Contrary to popular belief, he really only killed one to three men. His vivacious personality has been depicted in many novels and movies. Holliday moved to Arizona with the Earp brothers after they had informed him of the opportunities Tombstone had to provide. It has been said that Doc was quite stubborn to move West in his fight against tuberculosis. The doctors told him that he had two years to live and that living in a warm and dry climate would only benefit him. The Earp brothers convinced him to move with them to confront the cowboys and set the city straight. As his illness continued to worsen, Holliday was always sipping on whiskey and was recognized as the drunken lawman.

Doc Holliday, a western gunfighter, is shown in a portrait. (Fair use photo from Colorado Public Radio)

The Outlaws: Cochise County Cowboys

The Cochise County Cowboys were a loosely associated group of outlaw cowboys in Pima and Cochise County, Arizona. Cattle thieves traveled across the border into Mexico and stole cattle from the Mexican ranches, which they brought back with them into the United States and sold them for profit. After the Mexican government lowered tariffs and built forts along the border, outlaw cowboys resorted to brutally stealing cattle from nearby ranches and local citizens in the States. When Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan came to Tombstone, the cowboys resisted and hated them for interfering with their law.

Illustration of the Cochise County Cowboys of Tombstone, Arizona. (Fair use photo from Tombstone Arizona)

Earp Assassinations 

Virgil’s assassination attempt: On December, 28th, 1881, at about 11:30 pm, Virgil was ambushed as he walked from the Oriental Saloon to his room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The Sacramento Daily Record-Union reported that “he was fired upon with double-barreled shotguns, loaded with buckshot, by three men concealed in an unfinished building diagonally across on Allen street.” Virgil was hit in the back and left arm by three loads of buckshot from about 60 feet, longitudinally fracturing the humerus bone in his upper arm and leaving it permanently crippled.

Morgan’s assassination: On Saturday, March 18th, 1882 at 10:50 pm, Morgan was playing a late round of billiards at the Campbell & Hatch Billiard Parlor against the owner, Bob Hatch. Receiving threats earlier that day, Sherman McMaster, Dan Tipton, and Wyatt watched. The assassin shot Morgan through the upper half of a four-pane windowed door. Earp, approximately ten feet from the door, was struck by a bullet in the back, severely injuring his spine. After he was shot, his body was moved to the pool table where Dr. Matthews and Dr. George Goodfellow examined his body and attempted to take out the bullet from his back. Goodfellow concluded that Morgan’s wound was fatal. Before dying, Morgan whispered to Wyatt, “I can’t see a damned thing.” Wyatt reported that they had promised to each other to report visions of the next world when at the time of passing.

Image of the old Oriental Saloon in Tombstone. (Fair use photo from Tombstone Chamber of Commerce)
Sketch of Morgan Earp playing pool before his assassination. (Fair use photo from True West Magazine)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earp Vendetta Ride

The Earp Vendetta Ride was a deadly search by a federal bunch, led by Wyatt Earp in an attempt to finally take down the outlaw cowboys after they ambushed his brothers. From March 20th to April 15th, 1882, the posse searched the Cochise County Territory for the men who they believed were responsible for attacking Morgan and Virgil. The vendetta began with the killing of Frank Stillwell. Stillwell was, “the most shot-up man I ever saw” according to a railroad employee who discovered the body. Throughout the month, Florentio Cruz, Curly Bill Brocius, and Johnny Barnes would also die. 

Earp Vendetta Ride to take down the cowboys. (Fair use photo from Great American Adventures)

Places to Visit in Tombstone

The Goodenough Silver Mine

There were hundreds of silver mining claims near Tombstone, although the most productive were south of town. The Goodenough Mine was Tombstone’s major silver producer. Local mines generated nearly 32 million troy ounces (1,000 metric tons) of silver from when it opened to its closure. Most notable for creating jobs, men traveled with their families across the country to get a job as a miner in the West. When my family was on the tour, our guide told us that men would stand and wait outside of the mine until they had their chance to go inside and work. Something that really blew my mind was that the candles the workers had to hold to see what they were doing only lasted around three hours. The men thought up more efficient ways to preserve light as they became more aware of the working conditions. The most interesting thing I remember from the tour was that the men would drink out of lead containers, oblivious to the dangers of it. Many men died at early ages from consuming liquids out of lead items, life expectancy for miners back in the late 1800s was around 34 years. 

Ava waiting to enter the Silver Mine. (Ava Williams)
Inside the Goodenough Silver Mine, some of the oldest minerals. (Ava Williams)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My sister and I outside of Old Tombstone’s city replica. (Ava Williams)

O.K. Corral

The next place we visited was the O.K. Corral where the notorious gunfight occurred between the Earps, Doc, and the Clanton/McLaury’s. On October 26th, 1881, the Earp brothers were called to fight against the Clanton-McLaury gang in a shootout taking place in a narrow lot on the side of C.S. Fly’s Photographic Studio on Fremont Street, about six doors west of the rear entrance of the O.K. Corral. The gunfight was the result of a drawn-out feud between the lawmen, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan Earp, Doc Holliday, and the outlaws, Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, along with Billy Claiborne. The shootout began at about 3:00 pm and lasted for a total of 30-seconds, about 30 shots were fired. Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were killed while Ike and Claiborne ran for the hills. Wyatt came out of the gunfight unscathed, while his brothers and Doc were slightly injured. The shootout at the O.K. Corral is regarded as the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West.

We went to the play of the gunfight where men reenacted the scene of the shootout precisely to what happened in real life. All the way down to where the men were positioned in real life. It was neat to see in person rather than on a movie screen. 

Outside the O.K. Corral gift shop and location of the shootout. (Ava Williams)

Bird Cage Theater: The Bird Cage Theater was an entertainment venue that operated from 1881 until the silver mine closed in 1892. Built of cement, not wood, the building survived the two fires that rolled through Tombstone in the late 1800s. When it fully closed in 1889, everything inside was left in place and to this day, everything inside the theater is original and historic from that time. The theater was one of the “wickedest theaters between New Orleans and San Francisco.” The “bird cages” were private boxes near the ceiling of the bar/casino where prostitutes worked for $25 a night. 

My family purchased the $40 package to walk into the theater and explore all of the historic pieces and stories. Walking through the door we were greeted by massive canvas paintings, old books and posters, and to the left, an original bar. The tour guide pointed out to us that the large canvas had a knife slit through it and a few sporadic bullet holes from the cowboys themselves. It was the sight of nearly 16 gunfights that left 140 bullet holes in the walls and ceilings.

Exterior of the Bird Cage Theater. (Ava Williams)
The infamous poster with the knife slit and bullet holes. (Ava Williams)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  The Longest Poker Game in History

The Bird Cage Theater is most known for hosting the longest game of poker in western history. It was a house game that required players to purchase a minimum of 1,000 chips to even have a seat at the game. The game ran for eight years, five months, and three days. Approximately $10 million was exchanged and Bird Cage retained ten percent of the earnings. After someone finished, it was their job to go get the next person who was on the list. To this day, the poker table and chairs still remain in their original position from the 1880s.

Get this: There was an ancient poker chip that the owners at the theater put in a safe down in the basement. Every time they placed it inside the safe, the chip always found its way back to the table. It even moved around the table like it was being played. Several experiments were done to verify this activity. One case included someone putting the chip in their purse and bringing it home. The next morning, the chip was back on the table. Inside the theater, there is an abundance of paranormal activity that Bird Cage premiered on the television show “Ghost Adventures” in 2009. 

Original poker table and pieces located in the basement of the theater. (Ava Williams)
One of the original birdcages from the 1880s. (Ava Williams)

Big Nose Kate’s Saloon

For dinner, my family and I visited Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, at the former location of the Grand Hotel. Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings, also known as Big Nose Kate was a Hungarian-born-American prostitute and ex-wife of Doc Holliday. She was a stubborn, headstrong woman who did in fact have a prominent nose…always up-to-date on the latest gossip. Since the building burned down and was restored, a lot of modifications have been made to the original building. The bar area, which was previously located in the old hotel’s basement, has been relocated to the main floor. There is a gift shop in the basement and the saloon houses the Grand Hotel’s original long bar, which was the only one to survive the 1898 fire. Imagine resting your elbows on the same spot where the Earps, Doc Holliday, and the Clantons once stood.

Our waiter was a very friendly guy and offered to show us around the basement where the gift shop was located and where “The Swamper” stayed when the saloon was a hotel back in the late 1870s. The story goes like this, the janitor/odd job man, simply known as “The Swamper” had their own special bedroom in the basement of the hotel as a place to get away from work and relax. Part of the Grand Hotel was obliterated in the 1882 fire that rolled through Tombstone. After the fire was extinguished, people went back to the hotel to find the caregiver who had been missing since the night of the inferno. Alas, it was concluded that he had been caught in the fire and died. That was until they discovered a deep hole in the middle of the room that leads to the silver tunnels (the city of Tombstone was connected by underground tunnels). Did he escape the fire? Nobody knows. 

Employees at Big Nose Kate’s swear that they have seen a ghost wandering the halls and stairs of the basement. Several photographers have caught the ghostly image of an unknown figure on photos and also on a postcard of the saloon’s interior. It has been presumed that the ghost is “The Swamper” who has come back to protect the silver that may be buried somewhere in the ancient building.

Inside Big Nose Kate’s Saloon and the original bar that survived the fire. (Fair use photo from Tombstone Chamber of Commerce)
This photo was taken from the outside of the Saloon, one of the more vibrant buildings in the town. (Fair use photo from Big Nose Kate’s Tombstone)

Tombstone Ghosts & Legends Tour

My family scheduled the tour for 7 pm and we met on one of the street corners until everyone showed up. While we waited, we talked to a family who was from Utah and who have never been to Tombstone either. We chatted about college, work, and what brought us to Arizona. Once the tour began, the first place we stopped at was the Courthouse. Here, the tour guide told us the history of the building and led us to a replica of the gallows where seven men were hung for committing unlawful crimes. The next place we walked to was Red Buffalo Trading. There, the guide told us a story about how nearly every night there is a man who “rocks” in a rocking chair in the back of the store by the china cabinet. She peered into the shop and said, “He is really rockin’ tonight.” Everyone had to see it for themselves so we all took turns looking through the door to see the movement. The tour guide said that the man who haunts Red Buffalo Trading visits often and is seen almost every night. Up next was Bird Cage Theater. Our tour guide told the story of the poker chip, but also told us that every night recording devices are set up around the building to catch paranormal activity. One night, there was not very much activity at all, it was basically quiet the entire night until a bloody scream was heard, coming from a woman. The woman muttered some other things that were hard to hear, but the scream was definitely a plea for help. The last place we stopped at was the Crystal Palace Saloon. This establishment was one of early Tombstone’s first saloons. Before it burned to the ground in the 1882 fire, it had two stories, the second level holding offices for Virgil Earp, Attorney George W. Berry, and Dr. George E. Goodfellow. According to our tour guide, spirits are known for lingering around the saloon. Visitors and employees have heard the sound of boots and spurs, slamming doors, and seen a roulette wheel spin on its own, and a strange glow in photos. No one knows who these spirits are, but what they do know is that both Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate were frequent visitors to this particular saloon.

This video shows the man “rocking” in the chair as explained above.

Look off to the right side of the video and to the back of the room where you can see a mirror, if you look closely you can see back and forth movement.

Ava Williams

Overall, Tombstone has been one of my favorite places I have visited. Being able to walk in the same footsteps as the cowboys and Earp brothers was a humbling experience. The history Tombstone holds is very significant to Arizona and the Wild West era.

Photo taken on the outskirts of Tombstone. (Ava Williams)