Ghosts of the Prairie
spirits of tombstone
haunts of a town too
tough to die
A Book Excerpt from Troy Taylor's "No Rest for the Wicked" (2001)! For the complete story of the ghosts of Tombstone and other hauntings connected to crime, outlaws and criminals.... Click Here for the Whitechapel Productions Press Page!
The town of Tombstone is located in southwestern Arizona and during the 1880’s gained infamy as one of the most famous silver boomtowns of the Old West. During this period, the eyes of all Americans were focused on the events that took place here, from the first silver strike to the bloody gunfights in the town’s dusty streets. The death toll in Tombstone reached such epic proportions in 1882 that President Chester A. Arthur even threatened to declare martial law in the city! It was a rough and dangerous place and certainly lived up to its reputation as one of the wildest towns in the west.
As seems to be the case with many violent locations, the number of ghosts who still linger in Tombstone may outnumber the permanent living population. Many of them, it is believed, don’t even yet realize they are dead and continue looking for the next fight, the next drink, or even the next roll of the dice. Such a present, and such a past, makes Tombstone one of America’s most haunted small towns!Schiefflin spent the entire next summer staying away from the Apache Indians and seeking ore. By October, he was out of supplies, his clothing was in tatters and he had nothing left. Just as he was about to give up, he discovered the first vein of pure silver. It was only seven inches wide, but more than fifty feet long. He called the strike Schiefflin’s Lucky Cuss and he produced $15,000 per ton of rich silver. Partnering with his brother Al and an assayer named Dick Gird, they founded the Tombstone Mining District.
Tombstone got its start on April Fool’s Day 1877. On that afternoon, a prospector named Ed Schiefflin rode into Fort Huachuca in the San Pedro Valley and announced that he intended to look for silver in the Apache country. The soldiers scoffed at his plans and did all they could to dissuade him from such a dangerous endeavor. All that he would find, they told him, would be his tombstone.
Tombstone in the Early Days
Soon, other miners and prospectors began flocking to the area and Tombstone began to boom. The prospectors attracted the suppliers, the saloonkeepers, the gamblers and the whores. It wasn’t long before Tombstone became known as the place to find just about any vice known to man. Saloons such as the Oriental and the Crystal Palace operated 24 hours a day. John Clum, editor of the Tombstone "Epitaph" once wrote that "Tombstone is a city set upon a hill, promising to vie with ancient Rome, in a fame different in character but no less important."
While Tombstone certainly attracted more than its share of sin and vice, there were traces of the kinder, gentler life as well. Churches and schools were supported by a heavy tax on gambling and culture could be found at Schiefflin Hall, which had been erected to attract touring theatrical companies.
But of course, it was not the churches that attracted the real stories to Tombstone, it was the gambling, the violence and the death. It would be here that western legends would be created and it was also here that many of them would come to an end. Tombstone’s Boot Hill Cemetery was an unforgiving place.
Perhaps the name most connected to Tombstone is that of Wyatt Earp, one of the most famous lawmen and gunfighters of the Old West. Wyatt was born in 1848 in Monmouth, Illinois and his early years were spent farming with his father and brothers in Illinois and Iowa before an 1864 move to California.
In 1870, Earp returned east and ended up in the town of Lamar, Missouri. He wed Willa Sutherland and he defeated his half-brother Newton in an election for town constable. Less than four months after they were married, Willa died. Wyatt and his brothers, James, Morgan and Virgil got into a street brawl with Willa’s brothers. What exactly happened is unknown but we do know that after the bloody incident, the Earp brothers headed west.
In 1871, Earp was arrested in Oklahoma for stealing two horses but he jumped bail and fled the area. By 1872, in violation of the Indian treaties, he was hunting buffalo with Bat Masterson at the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River. He and Masterson would remain friends throughout life.
Earp then drifted on to Wichita, where he made a living as a gambler. He was also a policeman for eight months but didn’t fare well. He was accused of pocketing fines and on one occasion was almost killed with his own gun. While playing cards at the Custom House Saloon, his revolver accidentally fell out of his holster and discharged as it struck the floor. The slug passed through Earp’s coat, struck the north wall of the saloon and then passed out through the ceiling. He later got into a fistfight with a candidate for the office of town marshal and was fired from his job.
After that, he moved to Dodge City, the most famous cow town of the West. Here, he dealt faro at the Long Branch Saloon and again worked as a police officer. He left in 1877 for an unsuccessful attempt to prospect gold in the Black Hills, then returned to Dodge City. During this time, he killed his first man, a drunken cowpoke named George Hoyt, became a deacon of the Union Church and served as a United States Marshal. He remained in Dodge City until 1879, solidifying his friendships with Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday.
Then, with his common-law wife, Mattie Blaylock, he went to Texas, Las Vegas, New Mexico and ended up in the silver boomtown of Tombstone. Here, his brothers, Virgil, James and Morgan joined him. On December 1, 1879, Wyatt, James and Virgil arrived in Tombstone and the following month, Morgan and Wyatt’s long-time friend, Doc Holliday, joined them.
John Henry Holliday was born in Georgia in 1851. He is best remembered as a tuberculosis-stricken gambler and gunfighter today, but he started out as a dentist. In fact, he graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in 1872, practicing in both Atlanta and Griffin, Georgia. At the age of 21, he was advised that he had contracted "consumption" and was advised to move to the drier climates of Arizona.
So Doc went west, first stopping to practice his dental skills and his luck at the card tables in Texas. His card-playing led to his first brush with the law when a fellow gambler accused him of cheating. Doc abruptly shot the man. Rather than deal with the local authorities, he simply rode out of town. He was next reported 200 miles to the west in Jacksboro, where he gunned down a soldier in another gambling dispute. After that, Doc disappeared for a time.
He next surfaced in Denver, dealing faro, and then passed through Arizona and New Mexico on his way to Fort Griffin, Texas. He became involved with a prostitute here named Mary Katherine Michael, better known as Katie Elder. It was also at Fort Griffin where he met Wyatt Earp for the first time when the lawman came into town in search of the outlaw Dave Rudabaugh.
By December 1877, Doc was in trouble again. A man named Edward Bailey questioned his honesty in a card game and in return, Doc sliced him open with a Bowie knife. Fort Griffin had no jail and so the sheriff locked him up in a hotel room. When Katie heard that a number of angry townsfolk planned to lynch Doc at dawn, she came up with a plan to stop them. As the mob came to the hotel, she set the rear entrance of the building on fire to distract them. She then managed to get the drop on Doc’s guard and the two of them quickly headed out for Dodge City.
Doc was soon back at the gambling table and Katie was practicing her chosen profession. Holliday also renewed his friendship with Wyatt Earp, who was a U. S. Marshal in Dodge. One night, a killer attempted to ambush Earp from behind and Holliday snuck up on the man and disarmed him. He had saved Earp’s life and the incident cemented their friendship.
Eventually, the restless Holliday grew tired of both Katie and Dodge City and he left for Colorado, then drifted to New Mexico, where he joined in a saloon venture. After a confrontation at the saloon, Doc Left town and in January 1880, arrived in Tombstone.
After arriving in the city, Wyatt’s first job was as a guard for Wells Fargo. Morgan also hired on to ride shotgun for the Tombstone - Tucson stage while Holliday gambled. Things began to change though and soon Wyatt had purchased a quarter interest in the Oriental Saloon. The Earp’s also began to be approached by local officials about law enforcement duties. They refused at first but soon realized that this would not only offer them steady work, but a chance to clean up Tombstone of some of the seamier elements. By this time, the brothers had discovered the town as a place where they hoped to permanently settle.
On July 25, 1880, the first in a series of incidents would occur that would begin a feud between the Earp’s and an unruly segment of Tombstone’s population. On that day, Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil were asked to accompany Lieutenant J. H. Hurst, and several soldiers, to the McLaury Ranch outside of Tombstone. The McLaury’s, Frank and Tom, were suspected in the theft of some government mules. The two factions clashed and two days later, Wyatt was appointed Pima County deputy sheriff. The trouble between the Earp’s and the McLaury’s had just begun.
The Earp’s soon became local celebrities and were constantly in the newspaper for their law enforcement exploits. Wyatt’s image as a virtuous lawman had been created in Dodge City by dime novel writer Ned Buntline and his adventures in Tombstone only added to his popularity.
But not everyone liked the Earp’s. At one point, Virgil was appointed city marshal, but he failed twice in getting elected to the post. As a Pima County deputy, Wyatt hoped for a position in the newly created Cochise County, but he was overlooked in favor of rival John Behan.
The McLaury’s were not the only ones who disliked the Earp’s either. Their neighbors, the Clanton’s, were suspected cattle rustlers who also ran afoul of the Earp’s. Ike Clanton and his sons, Joseph, Phineas and Billy often joined the McLaury’s in their illegal dealings and because of this, frequently ran afoul of the lawmen in Tombstone.
The Earp’s had an extreme dislike for the Clanton’s and the McLaury’s and this wasn’t helped when one of Wyatt’s fastest horses was stolen, only to reappear a few days later under the saddle of Billy Clanton. Wyatt felt as if the bunch was blatantly allowed to abuse the law, thanks to their friendship with John Behan. Wyatt believed that the Cochise County sheriff overlooked their dealings and he was determined to prove it. The rivalry would lead to bad blood in the days to come.
The tense situation in Tombstone was further strained on the night of March 15, 1881. The Tombstone stage, carrying $26,000 in silver, was robbed outside of Contention City, Arizona. During the holdup, shotgun rider Budd Philpot was killed, as was one of the bandits, Bill Leonard. Two of the other robbers, believed to be Harry Head and Jim Crane, killed a passenger.
A posse that included Doc Holliday and the Earp’s organized the following day. Wells Fargo offered a $3,600 reward for the capture of the thieves. On June 6, Leonard and Harry Head, both implicated in the robbery, were shot and killed in the Hachita Mountains of New Mexico. Wyatt would maintain that Leonard had lived long enough to confess. The Hazlett brothers, who had planned the robbery, killed the Head’s and in turn, Jim Crane and some cohorts killed the Hazlett’s. It seemed to be a case of the criminals wiping one another out!
Not long after though, things got more confusing. A newspaper that was in competition with the "Epitaph", and against the Earp’s, started a rumor that Doc Holliday had also been involved in the stage robbery. On July 5, 1881, Judge Wells Spicer issued a warrant for Doc’s arrest. He was captured by John Behan, but was immediately released on bail that was posted by Wyatt Earp. Holliday was enraged over the incident but so were the Earp’s, as rumors were being spread that they had planned the robbery and Doc had carried it out.
Things continued to simmer over the next few months but that summer, Tombstone itself literally went up in flames. A major fire destroyed a large portion of the city when the proprietors of the Arcade Saloon tossed a barrel of bad whiskey out into the street. Someone got too close to the spill with either a cigar or a match and it exploded into a blaze. Sixty-six buildings in the business district were destroyed.
On September 10, another stagecoach robbery prompted Sheriff Billy Breakenridge to organize a posse that included Morgan and Wyatt Earp. They were able to trace boot tracks at the scene to Deputy Frank Stilwell and Pete Spencer. They were arrested at Bisbee but Ike Clanton posted their $14,000 bail.
On October 4, Breakenridge and another man found the body of a wood hauler in the Dragoon Mountains. It appeared that he had been slain by Indians. At Tombstone, he rounded up a posse, including Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil, and went searching for the renegade Apache. At the ranch of the McLaury’s, the posse was told that the fleeing Indians had stolen 27 horses and had escaped.
The following afternoon, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury drove a wagon into town. They checked into separate hotels and waited for Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton to arrive. Both men went to eat and to look for an evening’s entertainment in Tombstone.
Ike strolled into the Alhambra Saloon a little after midnight, sat down and ordered a meal and a whiskey. He didn’t see Wyatt and Morgan in the room but he did see Doc Holliday. Doc strolled over to Clanton’s table and began to taunt and provoke him, trying to push him into action. Unarmed, Clanton quickly lost his appetite and he quickly fled from the saloon. Doc and Morgan continued to call out to him in the street. "Go heel yourself", Holliday called after him in the street, urging the man to come back with a gun. Ike wisely kept walking and got involved in an all-night poker game at another saloon.
The powder keg had been ignited in Tombstone and it was just about to explode.
Wyatt woke around 11:30 on the morning of October 26. Oriental Saloon bartender Ned Boyle had seen Ike Clanton earlier that day and he told Wyatt that he was armed and looking to kill an Earp. Ned’s story was confirmed by Deputy Sheriff Harry Jones, who told Wyatt that Ike was "hunting you boys with a Winchester rifle and a six-shooter". Wyatt found Virgil and the two of them went looking for Ike.
They spotted him in an alley and Virgil came up behind him, grabbed his rifle and then clubbed Ike over the head with a revolver. "I asked him if he was hunting me," Virgil later said. "He said he was, and if he had seen me a second sooner, he would have killed me."
Ike never had the chance. He was quickly subdued by Wyatt and Virgil and was taken to Justice of the Peace A. O. Wallace’s courtroom. Morgan appeared as they were taking him in and he offered Clanton his pistol back. "If you want to make a fight right bad," he reportedly said, "I will give you this one." Another law officer stepped in between them and Judge Wallace was able to hear the case. He fined Clanton $25.
As he was leaving the courtroom, Wyatt ran into Tom McLaury. The two exchanged words and Wyatt whipped out his pistol and slashed McLaury over the head with it. The two men were pulled apart.
"If you want to make a fight, I will make a fight with you anywhere," McLaury threatened and Wyatt shrugged off the hands that bound his arms.
"Jerk your gun and use it!" he shouted at McLaury but the other man refused to draw on him. He knew that he would be instantly killed.
When McLaury backed down, Wyatt slapped him across the face with his left hand. Then, he hit him again with his revolver, drawing blood. A stunned McLaury slumped to the floor. Disgusted, Wyatt walked away.
Around 2:00, Wyatt was buying a cigar in Hafford’s Saloon when he saw Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton ride into town. Frank heard about what had happened that morning while drinking at the Grand Hotel. He met with Tom McLaury, a friend named Billy Claiborne, and the two Clanton’s. According to their story, they opted against confronting the Earp’s and decided to leave town. The five of them would go over to the O.K. Corral and retrieve their horses.
According to Sheriff John Behan, he was getting a shave in a barber shop a short time after this when he saw Doc Holliday standing with the Earp’s. Virgil, he reported, was holding a shotgun that later ended up in the hands of Doc Holliday. The barber spoke up that trouble seemed to be brewing and Behan quickly left the shop. He caught up to Doc and the Earp brothers and told them that he would disarm the Clanton’s and McLaury’s if the Earp’s would give him a few minutes to do so. The Earp’s agreed and according to their later testimony, they followed Behan to assist in the disarming.
Morgan, Virgil, Wyatt and Doc walked four abreast through the streets of Tombstone. Wyatt had told Doc that this was not his fight, but Holliday refused to step out and turn his back on his friends. Virgil then deputized Doc on the street. Moments later, Behan returned and tried to disarm Doc and the Earp’s, stating that the Clanton’s and McLaury’s posed no threat. He was ignored by Holliday and the Earp’s.
As the four men approached the corral, Claiborne, the Clanton’s and the McLaury’s backed into an adjacent empty lot next to the corral. They turned to face the approaching men while Behan moved out of the way. Nine men, along with horses, were now forced into the crowded lot. It was a deadly setting for a gunfight.
Reports say that Wyatt addressed the men first, but others claim that Virgil cried out to them, ordering them to "Throw up your hands! I want your guns!" According to some, Wyatt yelled "You sons of bitches, you have been looking for a fight and now you can have it!" Either way, the result was the same... someone pulled a gun and the shooting started.
The Earp’s and Holliday opened fire. Billy Clanton aimed at Wyatt as Wyatt shot down Frank McLaury. Morgan shot Billy in the wrist and the chest and he fell, firing as he went down.
Ike Clanton scrambled forward toward the Earp’s. "Don’t shoot me! I don’t want to fight", he yelled and he tried to grab Wyatt’s arm. When Earp saw that he was unarmed, he pushed the man away from him. "Go to fighting or get away!" he snarled. Clanton ran, burst through the door of a photographer’s studio next to the lot and ran out the back. Doc tried to hit him with a shotgun blast but missed.
Frank McLaury’s horse ran out into the street leaving Tom exposed. Doc leveled the shotgun at him and fired. He managed to stagger down the street but then collapsed and died. Frank McLaury, already wounded, fired at Doc. Holliday fired at the same time and so did Morgan. Doc was wounded in the hip and a stray shot from Billy Clanton wounded Morgan in the shoulder. Morgan and Wyatt returned fire, knocking Billy off his feet. Virgil was wounded in the calf, but Wyatt never received a scratch.
The legendary Gunfight at the O. K. Corral was over in minutes but the repercussions from the deadly event lasted for months. Wyatt and Doc were both charged with murder but both made the $10,000 bail. Virgil and Morgan, who were both laid up and recuperating from their wounds, were not charged. The two McLaury’s and Billy Clanton were placed in matching coffins and placed on display in the windows of the hardware store. The three were put to rest on Boot Hill amid rumors of murder and conspiracy on the part of the Earp’s and local officials. The citizens of Tombstone seemed to be split on whether or not the Earp’s were heroes, or cold-blooded killers.
In November, the hearings to decide the innocence of Wyatt and Doc were opened. John Behan was the first to testify and he blatantly accused the Earp faction of planning the murders. They were revenge killings, he said, to cover up the fact that Doc Holliday had been involved in the earlier stage robbery.
Wyatt and Virgil both followed him to the stand and both claimed self-defense in the matter. Based on the statements made by Ike Clanton that morning, it was hard not to believe them. And on November 30, Judge Wells Spicer agreed. "I cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides," he pronounced in open court, "that it is a necessary act, done in the discharge of an official duty... I do not believe that any trial jury that could be got together in this territory, would, on all the evidence taken before me, with the rule of law applicable thereto given to them by the court, find the defendants guilty of any offense".
And thus ended the legal matters in the case... but it was far from over.
Retribution came calling three days after Christmas. Virgil left the Oriental Saloon one night around 11:30. He stepped outside into the cool night air and he paused on the wooden porch to light his cigar. He would enjoy it as he walked home, he thought, and stepped into the street. His soft sigh of contentment was never heard for the sound of a shotgun blast shattered the stillness of the dark. Virgil was struck and the wound left him crippled for life.
Just before 11:00 in the evening on March 18, 1882, Morgan was playing pool at Bob Hatch’s Billiard Parlor. Wyatt stood nearby, smiling as his brother chalked up his cue. He leaned over, one eye carefully lining up his shot. Just before the cue ball cracked against the other balls on the table, two rifle shots rang out from the back door of the room. The first shot barely missed Wyatt, but it struck Morgan in the spine. He died just before midnight, his body stretched out on one of the pool tables and his blood seeping into the cloth covering.
Wyatt demanded revenge. Three men had been spotted running away from the pool hall - an unidentified Indian, John Behan’s deputy Frank Stilwell and a friend of the Clanton’s named Pete Spence. He would hunt them down, he vowed, but he had other things to attend to first.
Another Earp brother, Warren, had joined his family in Tombstone just before the gunfight at the O. K. Corral. Two days after Morgan’s funeral, Wyatt convinced Virgil to leave and travel to Tucson. Wyatt, Warren, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMasters and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson escorted Virgil, his wife, Morgan and Wyatt’s wives, and Morgan’s coffin to the train. With the rest of the family out of the way, the remaining Earp faction got down to business.
The first to die was Frank Stilwell, who was found trying to board another Tucson bound train. As the conductor called out the "all aboard", six shots mowed Stilwell down. His body was found the next day, after Wyatt and his men were back in Tombstone.
On March 22, the group paid a visit to Pete Spence’s camp on the outskirts of town. Spence wasn’t there, but Florentino Cruz was. Wyatt and the others decided that he was the "unidentified Indian" and they filled him full of holes and left him for dead.
Two days after the Cruz murder, the Earp and his riders headed to the Whetstone Mountains, where they tracked down Curly Bill Brocius, a dangerous killer and thief who was linked to the vigilante riders known as the "Cowboys". He had been a friend of the Clanton’s and a constant source of trouble for the Earp’s. After another gunfight, Curly Bill was also killed. Shortly after, Wyatt, Doc and the others vanished.
The last victim of Wyatt and his men may have been a mysterious gunfighter known as Johnny Ringo. Little is know about this man, other than he may have come from New Jersey or Missouri and that he spent time in prison with John Wesley Hardin, the notorious killer. In Tombstone, he was known to drink and quote Shakespeare. He was also fluent in Latin and once reportedly killed a drunk for speaking "disrespectfully" to a lady. He also worked as a deputy for John Behan and was associated with the Clanton’s and Curly Bill Brocius. Strangely, in the summer of 1882, he was found on the edge of Tombstone, sitting under an oak tree, scalped and with a bullet in his head. His guns had never been fired and his boots were gone. His death has remained as curious as his life.
After the death of Curly Bill (or perhaps Johnny Ringo), Wyatt and Doc Holliday rode for Denver. Arizona authorities later tried to extradite Doc but Bat Masterson spoke to Colorado Governor Pitkin on his behalf. The request was denied.
After that, Doc gambled in Deadwood for a time and then returned to Leadville, Colorado. In August 1884, he got into a fight with a bartender and Doc shot him in the arm. He was acquitted of the assault, which turned out to be his last gunfight. Within three years, he would be dead.
In May 1887, he checked into a tuberculosis sanitarium in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He was only 36 years old, but looked much older. He was lying in his bed on November 8 and happened to notice that he was barefoot. "This is funny," he said, realizing that he would not die with his boots on. He took a final sip of whiskey and he slipped away to the next world.
In 1883, Wyatt joined up with lawman Luke Short’s Dodge City Peace Commission but headed north to Idaho a year later to look for gold and to run two saloons. Later that year, he was wounded in a gunfight during a poker game.
Wyatt never returned to his wife Mattie and instead remarried and he and Sadie Earp traveled west to California. In 1896, Wyatt refereed a boxing match between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey and he was accused of throwing the decision for Sharkey. He left town in disgrace and he and Sadie ran a saloon in Nome, Alaska for nearly four years during the Klondike gold rush. For the next five years, they ran another bar and gaming establishment in Nevada. In 1906, they returned to California and this time, settled in Los Angeles. Wyatt went to work as a bank guard but in 1911 was charged with vagrancy and running a bunco operation.
By the time, his finances dwindling, Wyatt went to work for the fledging motion picture industry. He worked as an unpaid advisor for several westerns before journalist Stuart Lake discovered him in 1927. Wyatt began dictating his memoirs and when he finished, he took one last nostalgic trip back to Tombstone. Wyatt died in his sleep at the age of 80 on January 13, 1929. Two years later, Lake published the book WYATT EARP, FRONTIER MARSHAL and the deceased gambler and lawman became famous all over the world.
In death, a great legend was born.
As for Tombstone, the lawlessness did not end with the demise of the Clanton’s and McLaury’s. After the Earp’s left town, the violent conditions continued. However, a trend toward law and order was slow... but it was coming. The death knell for the Tombstone outlaw factions sounded in 1886 when tough lawman Texas John Slaughter was elected as the sheriff of Cochise County.
Slaughter was an odd man in his own right. He managed to clean up tombstone for good, but he did so (or so he claimed) with the help of his "guardian angel". According to Slaughter, a woman’s voice often warned him of danger and saved his life on several occasions. He said that the voice came from the "spirit world".
By the end of the 1880’s, Tombstone had become almost a ghost town. After several of the mines struck water and flooded, a disastrous drop in silver prices closed them down for good. The boom was over and the "wildest town in the west" was now just like any other.
After the violent events of the Earp years and the bloody gunfights and killings that took place both before and after, is it any wonder that Tombstone is considered one of the most haunted towns in the west?
There are a number of places in town that still hold the spirits of yesterday and perhaps the most haunted is the legendary Bird Cage Theatre. The building, now a national historic site, is a long, narrow structure that is one and three-quarters stories high, with a basement. It is fronted with wooden sidewalks and gas lights and looks as though it somehow came from another time in place.
The Bird Cage is preserved in the way that it looked when it (and most of the rest of the town) closed in 1889. Visitors here can see the saloon, the gambling parlor, the wine cellar, the dance hall and the stage where the dancing girls performed for the cowboys, gamblers and miners who frequented the place. In its heyday, the theatre also served as a bordello. Fourteen, bird-cage cribs, where the girls entertained their clients, were suspended from the ceiling. These "bird cages" remain today with their red velvet drapes still intact.
The tourists who come here now don’t have to try hard to imagine how the hall looked, smelled and sounded when it was still operation. In fact, according to many, the past is still very much alive and well at the Bird Cage!
A few years ago, author Arthur Myers interviewed Bill Hunley, the owner of the Bird Cage. The theatre had been in his family for generations and had been built by his great-grandfather during Tombstone’s glory days in 1881. He maintained that the building was a bastion for ghosts, including the spirit of a boy who died in yellow fever in 1882 and Hunley’s own aunt, who passed on in 1958. He was pretty used to the ghosts though. "When you’ve got a place like the Bird Cage, where something happens everyday, you don’t pay much attention to things like this."
According to Hunley, one of the most common incidents reported in the building was the sound of a woman singing. "You can’t hear the words but you can hear her real clear," he explained. "Hundreds and hundreds of people have heard this. I have no idea who it might be."
Other people have had their own encounters and their own stories to tell. Some have recalled thumping sounds under the floor, muffled music, voices that sound as if they belong to a large group of people and phantom footsteps.
And stories of these strange sounds have been told for years. After the Bird Cage was closed down, it remained boarded up until 1934, when it was opened again as a tourist attraction. Prior to that, in 1921, a high school had been built across the street. Space had been made for it by tearing down Tombstone’s old red light district. Students who attended the school claimed that, while walking past the ruins of the Bird Cage, they would hear music playing and people talking inside.
The theatre also features smells and sights, as well as sounds. It is not uncommon for tourists to report people in the building wearing old-fashioned clothing, even when no actors are present. They assume that the costumes are part of the historical presentation of the place, only to discover later that no one was dressed up on that day. In addition, it is not unheard of for people to be engulfed in clouds of cigar smoke when no one among the living is smoking.
Things often tend to turn up where they don’t belong around the theatre. A few years ago, a tourist discovered a $100 poker chip lying on a table in the casino. The problem was, the owners had no idea where it had come from. Hunley took a look at it and found that it was genuine. He locked it in a drawer of his roll-top desk and called a couple of historians that he knew to take a look at it. When they showed up a couple of days later, the chip had vanished, even though Hunley had the only key to the desk!
"They left," Hunley recalled, "and I opened this oak file cabinet, and it’s in there."
He then took the chip and placed it in a lock box at the bank across the street. "More historians came to see it, and that son of a gun was gone again!" he laughed. There was no way that it could have been removed from the box and a few have asked Hunley if the chip really exists at all. "My ex-wife has seen it, my fiancee has seen it, and all the employees who were there when the tourist found it saw it.... it just keeps jumping around!"
And the Bird Cage Theatre is not the only haunted place in town. In fact, even the streets of Tombstone lay claim to being infested with ghosts. There is a man in a black frock coat that has been seen by residents and tourists alike, always trying to cross the road. However, he never makes it to the other side. There is also a woman in a white dress that has been reported to stop traffic on one of the roads. The legend states that her child died from a fever in the 1880’s and she committed suicide shortly after. She is often seen wandering around the town.
The Aztec House is one historically haunted spot. This antique shop is the scene of many phantom sights and sounds. The owners believe that the ghosts are attracted to the place because of the authentic goods and furniture from their own period. The woman in white (mentioned previously) is also seen most frequently in front of the shop.
Another location where ghosts lurk in downtown Tombstone is Nellie Cashman’s Restaurant, where employees and patrons have reported objects that move about, crashing sounds and otherwise playful pranks.
Schiefflin Hall, which was once the center for cultural activity in the rollicking days of early Tombstone, is also reportedly haunted. Ghosts still linger here from days gone by and seem to be most active during the periodic meetings of the Tombstone town council, which occur in this building.
An additional haunted location, linked strongly to Tombstone’s past, is the old Wells Fargo stage stop. Here, the apparitions of stage drivers and cowboys have been seen wandering about. Near this spot is where the man in the black frock coat is sometimes seen attempting to cross the street.
One of the most active buildings in town is the former Grand Hotel, now called Big Nose Kate’s. This old building was constructed three-stories high, which made it the largest structure between Tombstone and San Francisco during its heyday. It still has the original bar and many of the original walls and floors.... and some believe many of the original guests as well!
The old saloon is said to be haunted by the ghosts of cowboys but these range riders may not be the most famous resident haunts. Just before the Clanton’s and McLaury’s left for their ill-fated appointment at the O. K. Corral, they were believed to have had their last drink at the Grand Hotel. Apparently, they often frequented the place and some feel that it may be one of their ghosts haunting the bar.
Doc Holliday, while living in Tombstone, also called the hotel "home". He lived in Room 201 with a young woman named Mary Katherine Harmony, also known as Big Nose Kate, after whom the saloon is now called. She was said to be a prostitute who made the mistake of falling in love with the elusive gunfighter. Could it be Kate’s ghost, or even Doc’s, that still lingers in the old hotel?
It’s hard to say, but stranger things have happened in Tombstone... and most likely things will grow stranger still in the years to come!
Sources & Bibliography for this section are available in the book “No Rest for the Wicked” by Troy Taylor (2001)
(C) Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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