The morning started with an exciting thunderstorm in Bisbee. We drove through torrential rains on the way to Tombstone but, by the time we arrived, the weather had calmed. Umbrellas were needed but it was not unpleasant for the tourists. The poor man in cowboy drag and his horses who had to wait in the rain hoping someone might want a stagecoach ride must have been miserable, however.
The lore of popular culture suggests Tombstone was home to cowboys and gunslingers, and it was, but, most of all, it was a mining ‘boomtown’. Tombstone was founded in 1879 and named after the nearby silver mine of Ed Schieffelin. Schieffelin had named his claim “The Tombstone” because, when he decided to go prospecting in the area, he was told “The only rock you will find out there will be your own tombstone”. Whoever said that turned out to be wrong. In the 13 years of mining operations the Tombstone area mines produced $85 million in silver bullion.
The history of the town is a classic “boomtown” story with its fortunes tied to those of the silver mines. In 1879, after the first silver claims were filed, the town had a population of 100. By 1881 that had grown to 7000 and by 1886 had reached 14,000. A fire in 1886 destroyed the pumping facility that drained groundwater from the mines. It was not economically feasible to restore pumping operations so the flooded mines ceased production. By 1890, four years later, the population had dropped from 14,000 to less than 2000. In 1910 the population was 694.
In the early ‘boom’ years, Tombstone boasted a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, two banks, three newspapers, and an ice cream parlor. It was somewhat less boastful of the 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls, and numerous dancing halls and brothels. The gentlemen and ladies of Tombstone attended operas presented by visiting acting troupes at the Schieffelin Hall opera house which opened in June 1881. The miners and cowboys* enjoyed less sophisticated entertainments at the Bird Cage Theatre . By local custom, respectable women stayed on the north side of Allen Street. The prostitutes worked the saloons on the south side and in the southeast quarter of the town, as far as possible from the proper residential section north of Fremont Street.
* The term “cowboy” was a term of derision. It was used to describe the loosely organized gangs of men who made their living smuggling goods across the Mexican border or crossing into Mexico to steal cattle which they brought back into the Arizona territory to sell. Respectable cattlemen were referred to as herders or ranchers. It would have been a serious insult to call them “cowboys”.
The most famous event in Tombstone history was the gunfight at the OK Corral. Fought on October 26, 1881, the gunfight matched the local U.S. Marshal, Virgil Earp, along with his deputies; his brothers Morgan and Wyatt, and Doc Holliday, against outlaw cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike & Billy Clanton and Frank & Tom McLaury. Claiborne and Ike Clanton fled before the fight. The fight lasted approximately 30 seconds leaving Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers dead. Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded. Only Wyatt was unharmed. While the event was short in duration it was a long time in coming. Tensions had been increasing between the Earps who, as law enforcement, primarily represented the mining interests; most of whom were Republicans and Northerners who’d supported the Union in the Civil War, and the cowboys who were primarily Democrats and former Confederates. Billy Clanton and the McLaurys are buried side by side in the Boot Hill Cemetery. Virgil Earp would be shot 3 months later by a sniper in retaliation. Morgan Earp was killed 3 months after that by associates of the Clantons.
As expected, the highlight of the trip to Tombstone was my visit to The Bird Cage Theatre. (Please see my previous post for some additional details about this establishment.) While certainly ‘touristy’, the place is fascinating. As you enter, a greeter in Old West garb gives a tour of the lobby area, it was the saloon when the Bird Cage was in operation. The bar and other decor are original. His enthusiasm was infectious as he pointed out the bullet holes in the walls and floor from 19th century shootings. There were also places where the paintings were damaged during knife fights of yesteryear. He also collects the admission charge that allows you explore the rest of the Bird Cage. The most interesting factoid from his presentation: the cost for sharing the favors of one of the Bird Cage’s comely young lasses was $25….that’s 1880’s dollars. Adjusted for inflation those are some expensive favors!
The Bird Cage opened its doors on Christmas Day, 1881 and was open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year until it closed in 1989. The store front entrance was into the saloon. Through the saloon was the entrance to the theater. From the main floor seats, customers could enjoy performances of traveling actors and musicians as well as more exotic entertainments such as belly dancing. On the second floor there were private boxes on both sides. With the curtains open, box patrons could enjoy the performances on stage and get a bird’s eye view of the action on the main floor. When the curtains were closed, the patrons could chat privately with young women of flexible virtue.
Prostitution was legal in Tombstone and to work in any of the established houses of ill fame a license was required. Separate licenses were required for Madames seeking to run such an establishment. The licenses for all involved had to be renewed annually. Please note the requirement that the license had to be “displayed in a conspicuous place above the bed”. This is the license of “Sadie Jo”. Her real name was Sarah Josephine Marcus. The license is signed by Marshal Wyatt Earp who would later be her husband. She had previously been engaged to County Sheriff John Behan but he disapproved of her professional endeavors.
Each of Tombstone’s “Soiled Doves” had a unique story, most of them tragic. Certainly it was a time when options for women were limited.
The caption reads; “Miss Evie – She feared dying an old maid with no life experiences. She became a prostitute and was later married by one of her customers.”
“Maxine – She worked at every house in town. She moved from place to place because of her sticky fingers.”
Jessie Jo – This young girl was forced into prostitution by her husband who spent his time drinking and gambling.”
“Ida Crowley – Came to Tombstone from Europe and took up the only profession where language was no barrier.”
Sometimes there just wasn’t much to say.
Gambling took place on the lower level. It is reported that the poker game ran continuously for more than 7 years with players coming in and out as space and fortunes allowed. By one estimate, more than $10 Million changed hands at the table.
Not all the entertainment fell into the category of vice. The Bird Cage’s stage hosted many of the leading names in the theater at its time.
Unfortunately, we missed seeing one of Tombstone’s current attractions. According to Guinness, the world’s largest rosebush was planted in Tombstone in 1885 and still thrives today. This Lady Banksia rose covers 8,000 sq ft of the roof of a local inn. The trunk has a 12 ft. circumference. Had I only known I would have sought it out. I guess I have a reason to return some day.