Too tough to die

Gunfight reinactors, Tombstone AZ
Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan

In 1881, Tombstone, Arizona, was the site of the most famous gunfight of the Old West.

On one side were the Clanton brothers, the McLaury bothers, and Billy Claiborne, members of a loose-knit gang of part-time cowboys and part-time cattle rustlers.

On the other side were Town Marshal Virgil Earp and his deputies, Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday.

Near the O.K. Corral, the two factions faced off, four against five. Thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds, some from just six feet away.

When the smoke cleared, three of the participants lay dead, three were wounded, and two had run away.

Wyatt Earp stood alone, unscathed.


Secret passage

I visited the site of the shootout on my journey through the Arizona borderlands east of Tucson. (For more on southwestern Arizona, please see “Borderline.”)

Along the way, I stopped at Kartchner Caverns State Park, a spectacular cave only recently discovered. In 1974, a couple of young cavers, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, found a narrow crack in the bottom of a sinkhole on private land near Benson. They felt warm moist air escaping through the hole, a sign they had located a cave.

They crawled through the opening and, on multiple excursions over the next four years, explored 2½ miles of previously unknown cave passages. Their find was magnificent—multiple, huge caverns filled with wondrous rock formations that had been growing unseen for fifty thousand years or more.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument A

In 1978, they finally got around to revealing their secret to the Kartchners, the family of ranchers who owned the property under which the cavers were likely trespassing.

Fortunately, the Kartchners were intrigued.

Over time, the cavers and the Kartchners reached the same conclusion: to protect the cave, it must be developed as a park.

While seeking park status, the discoverers were so concerned about keeping the location of the cave secret, they required state officials to be blindfolded while en route to the entrance.

When initially exploring the chambers, scientists uncovered skeletons of an 86,000-year-old Shasta ground sloth, a 34,000-year-old horse, and an 11,000-year-old bear.

Pink tape

Benson AZ

The existence of the cave was finally made public in 1988, fourteen years after its discovery. Kartchner Caverns State Park opened in 1999.

Kartchner’s developers studied the preservation efforts of older parks, such as Carlsbad and Mammoth.

As a result, the cave’s systems are state of the art. Airtight doors, misting machines, lint-removal systems, and other high-tech equipment help minimize the effect of contaminants brought in by visitors.

Approximately sixty percent of the cave is not regularly visited.

The ranger who led my tour asked us not to brush against the walls. “If anyone accidentally touches a rock, ” she said, “just let me know. I’ll tag the area with pink tape and the park staff will clean it later with a solution.”

“If it happens twice, no problem,” she said. “If it happens three times, I’ll tie you up with pink tape and leave you until we return.”

Underground grocery

Benson AZ

During our underground hike, we toured the Rotunda and Throne rooms. The cave is in nearly pristine condition, as only a few visited before its development as an attraction. The chambers are highly “decorated” with stalactites, stalagmites, and twisty helictites.

The guide warned us not to bump our heads on “nogginite.” (A spelunker joke. Get it?)

Cavers have given formations fanciful descriptors, such as bacon, popcorn, fried eggs, turnips, and soda straws. (I assume they get hungry when underground for long periods.)

Soda straws are long, skinny stalactites, hanging like threads from the ceiling. The Throne Room contains one of the world’s longest soda straws at over twenty-one feet.

The centerpiece of the Throne Room is a fifty-eight-feet-high column called Kubla Khan. It resembles a six-story wedding cake with frosting dripping down the sides. Kubla Khan, like all rock formations, is growing at a rate of only one-sixteenth of an inch every one hundred years, one drop of water at a time.

Bisbee AZ

Toward the end of the tour, we watched a light show, the exotic formations bathed in alternating colors. New Age music played.

Then, the ranger doused the lights and allowed us to experience total darkness. Sensory deprivation, except for the faint sound of dripping water.

Copper Queen

On the way to the copper-mining boomtown of Bisbee, I passed through another Border Patrol checkpoint. A dog sniffed my tires. A helicopter hovered overhead. I got used to it.

Bisbee was founded in 1880 within one of the richest mineral sites in the world. Its mines produced nearly three million ounces of gold and eight billion pounds of copper. By the early 1900s, with a population of over twenty thousand, Bisbee was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.

I visited the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, once the corporate headquarters of the Copper Queen Mining Company and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

Willcox AZ

In 1975 Bisbee’s copper mines closed and its population dwindled.  Played-out mining towns seem to go one of two directions—artists’ colonies or ghost towns. Bisbee’s beautiful setting and cheap real estate attracted the artists.

Although it retains some of its rough edges, Old Bisbee today is somewhat gentrified with attractive Victorian houses, art galleries, and coffee shops lining the sides of a steep canyon. In between the buildings, narrow stairways lead up to houses perched on the cliffs above.

AARP calls it a “quirky” place to retire.

Trial by fire

Tombstone, just thirty miles from the Mexican border, was founded in 1879 by a prospector named Ed Schiefflin. When he set out to look for gold, he was warned the borderlands were dangerous. The only stone he was likely to find, his friends said, was his own tombstone. He found silver instead and named his mine Tombstone.

Tombstone AZ

When news of his discovery spread, the rush was on. Just two years later, the population of Tombstone was well over fifteen thousand, making it the largest mining town in the Southwest.

In the late 1800s, Tombstone had 110 saloons, fourteen twenty-four-hour casinos, a huge red-light district, four churches, three newspapers, two banks, a school, a bowling alley, a swimming pool and an ice-cream parlor. A sea of miners’ tents sprawled around the town.

In 1881 most of the town burned to the ground, when a cigar ignited a barrel of whiskey at the Arcade Saloon. The town rebuilt.

A year later, a fire in a Chinese laundry spread and destroyed the town again. Once again, Tombstone rebuilt and became known as “the town too tough to die.”

Tombstone Courthouse
Courthouse gallows


Tombstone today is a Disney World-esque version of its former self. Wide dirt streets, lined with boardwalks and Wild West-style storefronts fronting restaurants, saloons, and souvenir shops selling I’m Your Huckleberry T-shirts.

Still, despite the fires and the development, a few of the original buildings stand.

As listed by the National Register of Historic Places or Tombstone Historic Sites, they include:

  • Oriental Saloon, where Wyatt Earp once worked as a card dealer
  • Longhorn Restaurant, formerly the Bucket of Blood Saloon, from where Virgil Earp was shot
  • Schiefflin Hall, named after the town’s founder
  • Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, formerly the Grand Hotel (Kate was Doc Holliday’s common-law wife.)
  • Bella Union Saloon & Opera House
  • Tombstone City Hall

The two-story brick Tombstone Courthouse was built in 1882 and once housed the sheriff, jail, and courtrooms of Cochise County. Today, its exhibits cover the area’s mining and ranching history. Lots of firearms are on display, as well as Wyatt Earp’s straight razor. In the courtyard, replica gallows stand on the spot where seven men were once hanged. Nooses drift in the wind.

Tombstone City Hall

Near the O.K. Corral is C.S. Fly’s Photo Studio. Some of Fly’s invaluable portraits of Native Americans, cowboys, and railroad workers are on display.

One of his photos of a miner is the basis for Arizona’s state seal.

Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate stayed next door at Fly’s Boarding House, a building that overlooked the scene of the gunfight.

Low places

As in other mining camps, prostitution was legal in Tombstone and revenue collected from its licensing supported schools and churches.

I toured a representative “crib,” a one-room shack built for prostitution. Cribs were designed for efficiency. The prostitute’s nickname, Sweet Annie or Cimarron Rose, for example, was painted on the door and the crib rented to her for three dollars a day. Most of the customers were miners.

Fees were anywhere from twenty-five cents to a dollar. Prostitutes could make hundreds of dollars in a week. (Do the math. Or maybe not.)

Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone
Bird Cage “crib”

The line at the restored crib was long, as if it were open for business.

I stepped inside the Crystal Palace, formerly Golden Eagle Brewing, where Virgil Earp kept an office on the second floor. The current iteration was built after the 1882 fire and once featured a goldfish pond and fountain in the main room.

A massive mahogany bar anchors one side of the room. An old man in a cowboy hat sat on the stage and played guitar. It was 2 p.m. The bartender said, “Do you want a menu or are you just gettin’ drunk early?”

Bird Cage

The most famous entertainment venue in Tombstone was the Bird Cage Theatre, a combination music hall, saloon, casino, and brothel. The Bird Cage opened on Christmas Day in 1881 and operated continuously, twenty-four hours a day for the next eight years.

A painting of Fatima, the belly dancer, hung over the long bar. At one end of the theater’s main hall was a tiny gaslit stage, which offered bawdy entertainment to the miners and cowboys. Dancing girls served whiskey, beer, cigars, and sex.

Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone AZ
Bird Cage Theatre with “cages”

On the sides of the hall were private boxes (cribs or “cages”), adorned with drapes patrons could draw while dallying with prostitutes.

A card parlor in the basement was the site of the longest-running poker game in history. With rotating players, the game lasted for eight years, five months and three days. The minimum buy-in was $1,000.

As much as $10 million may have changed hands during the marathon. Participants included Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and Adolphus Busch of Anheiser-Busch.

The New York Times reported in 1882 that “the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street (New Orleans) and the Barbary Coast (San Francisco).”

Phantoms of the opera

The Bird Cage closed in 1892 and remained so until it was purchased in 1934. The new owners were delighted to find almost nothing inside had been disturbed.

Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone AZ
Longest poker game in history

More than 120 bullet holes have been found in the building. Six of them were in the painting of Fatima.

Now a museum and tourist attraction, the theater overflows with historic, albeit dusty, artifacts. The original 1881 rosewood grand piano is still in front of the stage.

The original bar was shipped around the southern tip of South America and hauled across Mexico.

In the corner is a faro gambling table once used by Doc Holliday.

A big black hearse, which carried many of Tombstone’s residents to Boot Hill Graveyard, stands in the back. Called Black Mariah, the hearse is trimmed in gold and silver, and valued at over $2 million. Mariah was said to eat a cowboy a day for breakfast.

The Bird Cage has been featured on several paranormal-investigation TV shows. The debauchery and violence that transpired within must certainly have spawned a few ghosts.


O.K. Corral, Tombstone AZ

The Earps were saloon owners, gamblers, and pimps. As lawmen, they were charged with protecting the interests of the business leaders of Tombstone.

Their adversaries were cowboys involved in stealing horses, rustling cattle, and occasionally robbing stagecoaches.

The cowboys resented the Earps’ interference in their various rackets.

For months, the feud simmered with death threats, fights, and arrests. Most of the participants were young men and heavy drinkers, which often affected their judgment.

On October 26, 1881, after a night of drinking and brawling, tensions reached the breaking point.

Town Marshal Virgil Earp sought out the cowboys to demand they turn in their firearms while visiting the town, as required by the local ordinance. He deputized Doc Holliday, his friend and a sharpshooter, to help. (Holliday was called Doc as he had a degree in dentistry. It was said he pulled more triggers than teeth.)

Gunfight reenactors, Tombstone AZ
Morgan, Virgil, Wyatt and Doc

Despite the folklore, the gunfight did not take place at the O.K. Corral. (O.K. is an abbreviation for Old Kindersley.)

The shootout actually took place in an empty lot, no wider than an alley, a few doors away from the corral’s rear entrance.

The two groups, both looking for trouble, converged in the lot and exchanged threats. Almost immediately, guns were drawn and fired.

Three of the cowboys, Billy Clanton and the two McLaury brothers, were killed. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran from the fight.

Virgil and Morgan Earp were both badly wounded. Doc Holliday suffered a superficial wound. Wyatt Earp was untouched.


I bought my ticket and sat in the stands for the reenactment. An actor dressed as a cowboy warmed up the audience with the usual rhetorical are-you-ready questions.

COWBOY. Are you folks ready to see a show?
COWBOY. (Fires pistol in air, startling audience) I said, are you ready to see a gunfight?
COWBOY. (Disgusted) You people are sick.

Boot Hill Graveyard, Tombstone AZ
Clanton and McLaury graves

Four good guys and five bad guys, as portrayed by actors, performed a rushed, streamlined retelling of the events leading up to the confrontation, followed by a reenactment of the fight with prop guns blazing.

The crowd cheered and booed, as egged-on by the actors.

Who fired first?

In the real fight, the sequence of shots was disputed, lost forever in the gun smoke. At the murder trial, the surviving cowboys maintained their comrades offered no resistance and were killed in cold blood.

According to the Earps, the cowboys aggressively threatened them with weapons. They claimed self-defense and were acquitted.

As news of the gunfight spread, the Earps and Holliday became legends. The iconic confrontation has been portrayed in numerous books, films, and TV shows. It has been said that every Western story ever written or filmed derives from the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Boot Hill Graveyard, Tombstone AZ

The shooting was not the end of the conflict. Two months later, Virgil Earp was ambushed and maimed. In 1882 Morgan was shot and killed through the door of a saloon. Wyatt, when appointed Deputy US Marshal in Cochise County, launched a personal vendetta against the remaining cowboys.

No more

One of Tombstone’s newspapers was called The Epitaph, so named because “every tombstone needs one.” A special edition containing the original news of the gunfight is available at the paper’s office.

The headline reads Yesterday’s Tragedy: Three Men Hurled Into Eternity in the Duration of a Moment. The edition includes the complete trial testimony of most of the surviving participants and several eyewitnesses.

In his testimony, Wyatt Earp said, “When Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols I knew it was a fight for life, and I drew and fired in the defence of my own life, and the lives of my brothers and Doc Holliday.”

Boot Hill Graveyard, Tombstone AZ

The judge’s verdict was also reported: “I can not resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides.”

On the west end of town, I stopped at Boot Hill Graveyard. The markers are simple wood crosses and slabs, and the plots are piled with rocks. Cacti and desert scrub grow wild.

The graveyard is believed to hold the remains of over three hundred, of which a third are unidentified.

Some people, especially Jewish and Chinese immigrants, were buried without records. Many of the markers say Shot, Killed, or Unknown.

The cemetery contains the graves of Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury, the three cowboys who were killed during the O.K. Corral gunfight.

The epitaph on another marker reads:

Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a 44
No les
No more

2 thoughts on “Too tough to die

  1. So, where to next?

    I thought Doc Holliday died of tuberculosis, as he was portrayed as a gunfighter with a bad cough. Likely just a Marlboro man!

  2. Doc was only slightly grazed at the O.K. Corral. As you say, he did eventually die of TB at the young age of 36. He was just 30 at the time of the gunfight. Thanks for reading, Bruce. See you soon.

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