On a short detour south, off the well-worn path on the vast cross-county interstate 10, lies the wild west town of Tombstone. And they happen to have a unique and inviting public library for the living!
The once-booming mining town back in the 1880s is now the stuff of Hollywood legend and so familiar from the big screen. And it’s still a popular legend today with many versions, including the films Tombstone and Wyatt Earp.
The Arizona town is well worth visiting off screen too. It’s only 70 miles southeast of Tucson, with so much to see and experience.
First stop was the Tombstone City library in the historic district. As usual, the librarian was friendly, but first, you must walk past a Native American figure guarding the entrance. Luckily, he didn’t ask to see my library card!
The library’s loaded with books, in a good way, and it’s in the town’s original train depot from 1903. So often, libraries have moved into a modern building in another part of town. Let’s hope the library in Tombstone can add space to its existing premises without ruining the old west look.
Tombstone is in Cochise County, named after a local Apache chief who led an uprising and entered a peace treaty in 1872. Cochise means having the quality or strength of an oak tree which is one of the strongest.
The O.K. Corral is the site of one of the most famous gunfights ever. Lawmen Doc Holliday and the brothers Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp confronted five cowboy outlaws on October 26, 1881. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran off, but Bill Clanton, Tom McLaury, and his brother Frank died after the 32-second gunfight. Only Wyatt Earp magically walked away from the battle injury-free.
The historic battle wasn’t well known until 1931, when the book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was published. Perhaps Tombstone’s library stocks some copies. Hollywood hired the successful Director John Ford to film the first version, My Darling Clementine, in 1946. Henry Fonda took on the lead role of Wyatt Earp, and Clementine was his love interest. But in the film, she’s also Doc Holliday’s girlfriend. The screenwriter played loose with the facts and dreamed up a secret love triangle.
Here’s a short trailer from IMBd, the movie database. Link to trailer
Today, reenactments are held within spitting distance of the actual site, a strange patch of sacred ground. Statues of the outlaws versus the lawmen are frozen in their pose during what may be the most famous gun battle ever.
The photography studio of C.S. Fly was right across from the O.K. Corral. Photography was new at the time, and Camillus Sydney “Buck” Fly was in his studio on the afternoon of the shootout. He photographed the three dead men afterward. The funeral parlor on Allen Street, the main commercial street, displayed the photo in their window the next day. This macabre practice was widespread back then. Supposedly, it was their first, last, and only photo ever. Hard to imagine in today’s world with selfies everywhere.
Tombstone Courthouse, built in 1882 and a block from the library, is now a museum filled with fascinating exhibits. You could spend hours here, and it’s a nice break from the sun, dust, heat, and ongoing shootouts. The staged shows use blanks, but the sound of gunshots takes getting used to.
Ed Schieffelin was the first white settler to stick around when he bought a prospecting claim in 1877. People warned him that all he would find here would be his own tombstone, hence the name. The harsh desert environment still lingers, so he must have been tougher than tough. But instead of dying, he found silver. Tons of it, making his fortune and then some.
The museum is loaded with information about life in the area and artifacts, including many photographs of old Tombstone. Buck Fly was a busy man, and his work captured another way of life. He traveled by horseback with his bulky equipment far from town to photograph Native Americans and even Geronimo.
Some of the rooms in the courthouse showed how it once was.
The Bird Cage, a notorious 24-hour bar, dance hall, and house of sex and scandal, still stands, or should I say lounges, at the end of Allen Street. The New York Times newspaper, which prides itself on containing “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” awarded this place “the wildest and wickedest” night spot between two famous red-light districts in the 1800s. If you’re wondering about the other two, they meant Basin Street in New Orleans and the Barbary Coast in San Francisco.
They say, “Sex sells,” but anyone who visited back then, might have best kept any lounging to a minimum to stay on guard. When the big bad Bird Cage closed in 1889, it contained over 140 bullet holes from just 16 gunfights!
Supposedly, Wyatt Earp met his third or possibly fourth wife, Josephine Sarah “Sadie” Marcus, at the Bird Cage. Respectable women wouldn’t walk to that end of the street. But Sadie did, and another stayed put. The 9-foot painting of Fatima has hung on the wall in the same spot since 1882, despite six visible bullet holes.
Outside town, on our way back to I-10 and New Mexico, we stopped at Boothill Cemetery. Aptly named for the way so many died back then – suddenly and often violently with their boots still on! The three fatalities from the OK Corral shootout were buried here, but not Doc Holliday or the Earp brothers.
Virgil Earp was seriously injured but survived a retaliatory attack not long afterward. About six months later, Morgan Earp was shot and killed while playing pool with friends inside a bar on Allen Street. His last words were to brother Wyatt, “I can’t see a damned thing.” They had promised to tell each other if they saw any visions during their final moments.
Wyatt sent his brother’s body for burial in Colton, California, where their parents and Morgan’s wife had been sent for safety. Despite his debilitating injuries, Virgil and his wife followed Morgan’s casket on the long carriage and train ride. The two Earp brothers and Doc Holliday managed to get out of Tombstone, and their wild west story lives on today.
P.S. For an excellent lunch, stop in at Puny’s BBQ and buy a jar of their homemade Prickly Pear Cactus BBQ Sauce to bring home. And if you have time, stop for a wine tasting on historic Allen Street. Someday, I hope to return!
Karen Stensgaard is a novelist with three books under her belt and room for more. Her latest, Project Onion, has some guns but avoids Wild West shootouts and cemetery visits. Here’s a link to her Author Page on Amazon in case you want to take a gamble and see more. The Link