Any good Wild West town worth its salt saw a few gunfights in its day. The no-holds-barred, anything-goes attitude of these boom towns is something that's been romanticized, especially through Westerns. One shootout that's been told so many times that it's become a bit of a legend is the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in the town of Tombstone. The little town has become something of a tourist stop, thanks to the incident, and it's one of the best places to get a feel for the excitement and endless possibility men felt as they started to settle the American West. Plus, the ghosts, gold, and gunfighting make for a pretty fun way to spend an afternoon.
But first, a little background on the West's most legendary shootout. Like many fights, the feud between the Earp brothers and the Cowboy gang has a long, convoluted past that involved lots of other players, politics, money, etc. and basically boiled down to two groups of guys from different backgrounds (the Cowboys lived a hard life, whereas the Earps had it a little easier) trying to further their own interests. But, basically, it came down to the fact that the Cowboys, including Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury, were rustling cattle, stealing horses, and generally doing outlaw stuff, and didn't take well to outsiders Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt Earp coming in and telling them what to do. The Earps were joined by their friend, gunman Doc Holliday during the shootout. It all went down at 3pm, after the Cowboys and the sheriffs ran into each other in town. It lasted about 30 seconds and at the end of it, Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were dead. Of course, the bad blood between the two crews continued, but the battle was cemented in history as an example of how wild the West was.
You can see a re-enactment of the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Three shows are put on daily, at noon, 2, and 3:30 PM. There are also some pretty cool displays and exhibits you can browse before or after the show, including a newspaper museum, an 1880s Phaeton buggy, a running water mining sluice, an old hearse, old photos and photo equipment, the stables, the blacksmith, and more.
In a town filled with Wild West history and lore, Big Nose Kate's Saloon is pretty notable. It originally opened in 1880 as the Grand Hotel, and it was widely considered one of the finest in the state, boasting wallpaper, oil paintings, walnut fixtures, and not one, but three chandeliers in the lobby. Even by today's standards, that ain't half bad! The hotel was only around for two short years before a fire took down most of the building, but in that short time, it was host to many famous Wild West legends. Wyatt and Virgil Earp stayed there, and some from the Clanton gang had checked in the night before the showdown. Other guests included gunslinger Doc Holliday and his commonlaw wife, Big Nose Kate, for whom the saloon, built on the ashes on the Grand Hotel, is named.
Big Nose Kate, born Mary Katherine Horony, was born in Hungary, but her family moved to the US when she was 10. Her parents died when she was young, and she ran away from her foster family to stow away on a riverboat to St. Louis. She bounced around, occasionally working as a prostitute until she met Doc Holliday in Texas. The two had a tumultuous relationship, fraught with violent arguments, but they considered each other their intellectual equal, which is kinda sweet. She and Doc Holliday spent time in and around Tombstone, and she may have been the first prostitute in the town. The two eventually left for another Western town, but Kate later claimed that she followed Doc Holliday back to Tombstone after his friend Wyatt Earp asked him to help take down a bunch of rowdy cowboys (including the Clantons) in the lawless town. According to some, Kate even witnessed the shootout from the window of her boarding room.
So it's kind of fitting that the saloon built on the remains of the Grand Hotel was named for Kate. The bar serves up food and drinks (including great cocktails and craft beer) and it's got a fun, kitschy, Wild West atmosphere. Yes, that includes old-timey costumes! They also feature live music, which makes it hard to not get really into the vibe of the place. But if you're looking for even more history, finish off your drinks and head down to the basement of the saloon for a really fascinating little gem.
If you go downstairs, you'll find a little gift shop. Once you're down browsing the pretty things, head to the Swamper's Room. The Swamper was the handyman of the Grand Hotel, doing odd jobs and repairs here and there. He also lived in the hotel's basement, keeping a dingy bedroom. The room may not have been ritzy, but the Swamper knew that just beneath his floor was the silver mine that ran below most of the town. He spent most of his time digging out his own entrance to the mine, and then extracting nuggets of silver-- you can still see the entrance he dug to the mine. No one is sure what the Swamper did with the silver he took, though. Some say he sold it, while others believe that he hoarded it and that his stash is still hidden somewhere in Big Nose Kate's! If you're going in search of the treasure, be warned... legend has it that the Swamper still haunts the halls of the saloon, looking for his lost stash!
For awhile, when the town and mine were booming, Tombstone was the capital of Cochise County. Built in 1882 (shortly after the infamous O.K. Corral shootout), the Courthouse has a lovely Victorian style, and it was one of the largest buildings in the territory at the time. Making Tombstone the county capital made it easier for miners and citizens to record mining claims, deeds, contracts and the like (rather than spend two days riding out to Tucson) but it also signaled a move from outlaw justice (settling arguments with gunfights) towards law and order. Tombstone would see subsequent disputes settled in the courthouse rather than in the streets, and (for the most part) the citizens were glad to have it. Of course, as the mines dried up, Tombstone's reputation (and population) receded, and the county seat was moved to nearby Bisbee. The courthouse remained standing, though, a testament to the town's wild past, and was converted into one of Arizona's first state parks.
Many Wild West towns had a Boot Hill Graveyard, and Tombstone is no exception. Known as a "boot hill" because so many of those buried here died "with their boots on" (aka fighting, or from unnatural causes), you can find the graves of Billy Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury here, and Margarita, the prostitute murdered by Gold Dollar was laid to rest here as well. There's some good information on the various gravestones here, so take the time to read about each person... it's definitely an interesting and sobering look at just how dangerous life could be in Tombstone. Whether you were worked to death in the mines, or accidentally bought a stolen horse, or beat the wrong fellow in a hand of poker, Tombstone was a violent place to be at its peak.
The Bird Cage Theater is a bonafide piece of Wild West history, complete with “bird cages”, balconies, and the occasional ghost of its violent past. Many who spend time inside the saloon/parlor/brothel/theater tend to share the same bizarre experiences... and if you’re brave enough, you can experience them too.
The Bird Cage only functioned as a brothel and saloon from 1881 to 1889, but that certainly didn’t stop it from being one of the rowdiest, most salacious saloons in the country. In 1882 The New York Times called the Bird Cage the “…wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin and Barbary Coast.” It ran 365 days a year, twenty-four hours a day and went down in history as one of the most dangerous American brothels in history.
Named after the 14 “bird cages” still located on the balcony, the cages (or cribs) were private cubby-holes where the ladies could “entertain” their guests while the bands played, and the guests gambled below. The Bird Cage was a place where fun was the name of the game, but it wasn’t all good times here. To give you an idea of just how violent a place the Bird Cage was, you can still find 140 bullet holes in the walls... and those were just from the shots that missed their mark. Murder and mayhem were an everyday part of life in Tombstone, and the Bird Cage was no stranger to either.
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday were known to gamble and throw back a whiskey here. One of the most violent deaths to take place behind the walls happened when Gold Dollar, a Bird Cage prostitute, found her favorite customer flirting with another lady. In a fit of rage, Gold Dollar stabbed the girl repeatedly with her double-edged stiletto knife. She was never apprehended, though the stiletto was found years later tossed behind the bar. It's now on display inside the theater. Today, many guests often report seeing the ghosts of prostitutes and patrons long since gone. Men in cowboy hats or women wearing elaborate dresses can disappear right before your eyes. One of the most famous ghosts is known as the “Man in Black”, who walks back and forth across the stage with his heavy boots. At night the sounds of laugher, yelling, and music are sometimes heard echoing from the darkened saloon. The paranormal activity happens so often that the museum offers daily ghost tours of the building to satisfy any and all thrill-seekers. When you visit the Bird Cage, expect to spend the better part of the day exploring Tombstone, and there are countless tours that can lead the way.
If you're going to spend the night in Tombstone, then book a room at Crazy Annie's Bordello. The B&B/Saloon features guestrooms named for famous Tombstone prostitutes, and they're all decorated in antiques. You're within walking distance of downtown Tombstone, and a stay here includes a continental breakfast and use of the hot tub!
Whether you're looking for some kitschy fun, or to find the last remnants of the real Wild West, Tombstone is an iconic stop. As you learn about the stories of those who lived (and died) here, you're sure to enjoy your trip into the past.