According to the town website, Ed Schieffelin left Camp Huachuca
to prospect in the Arizona mountains. His friends thought soldiering
was safer and warned him that all he'd end up with was his tombstone.
In 1877, though, he staked his first silver claim and named it
the Tombstone. His success brought a flood of people hoping to
strike it rich, and they honored his strike by naming their boomtown
after his mine. For a lot of people, the name wasn't so auspicious.
Tombstone is still famous for two things: The gunfight at the
OK Corral between the Earps and the Clantons and Boot Hill, where
so many of its citizens went to an early grave.
We arrived along with lots of other tourists for the annual
Celebration of Tombstone Days.
The main street is lined with various saloons and restaurants
as well as gift shops. It's very picturesque.
A lot of people were in period dress. Seeing them getting out
of a pick up or talking to someone in modern clothes was a little
The most famous and notorious establishment in the West was
the Bird cage, also called the Bird Cage Opera House Saloon.
It was originally called the Elite Theater, and while it did
have entertainment on stage, it was also a brothel and gambling
house. To maximize space, the "ladies of the evening" entertained
their callers in one of the 14 cribs that were suspended from
the ceiling, 7 on each side. Just after it opened, Eddie Foy,
a noted vaudevillian, and Arthur Lamb were discussing the building.
Foy thought the room looked like a coffin because it was so
long and narrow, but Lamb said it reminded him of a bird cage
with the scantily-clad girls and the feathers in their hair.
With their cribs, he remarked,
"They are like birds in a gilded cage." He thought that might
be a good song title, and he began fiddling with it, finally
producing one of the most famous songs of the day, She's Only
A Bird In A Gilded Cage." He gave it to a young girl singing
that night. The crowd loved it and so did the owner, who immediately
changed the name to the Bird Cage and so it was known from then
on. The young girl's career was also launched and she went on
to fame and fortune as Lillian Russel, making the song one of
the most popular of the 19th century.
The O.K. Corral wasn't the site of the famous gunfight. It
actually happened nearby in an alley on Fremont Street between
Fly's Photo Gallery and Jersey's Livery Stable. In less than a
minute, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton of the Clanton
Gang were dead and Doc Holliday, Morgan and Virgil Earp were
Today Tombstone is a place for tourists, but in the late 1800s,
it had a population of between 15 and 20 thousand and was the
fastest growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco. It had
over a hundred saloons with an accompanying red-light district,
schools, churches, two newspapers, lots of restaurants, and a
large Chinese population. The greatest entertainers of the day
appeared on its stages, both at the disreputable Birdcage and
at the Schieffelin Hall. The latter is the largest adobe structure
in the southwest. Performances and town meetings were held there.
We felt obliged to attend one of the shows. Aptly named, considering
the heat and sun.
We sat in the blazing sun waiting for the show to start and
read about Tombstone. An amazing number of people passed through
and lived in the city during its heyday. In 1882, the NY Times
reported that "the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest
night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast." Doc Holliday
played cards there. He probably contributed a few of the 140 bullet
holes still visible in the building.
Tombstone was truly the Wild West. During the years of prosperity,
its criminal, lawless component was a problem for the solid
citizens but provided endless fodder for dime-novel writers
and reporters. All this came to a halt after WWI when the cost
of mining had become prohibitive. By the 1930's only about 150
people were left.