Tombstone, Arizona: The Toughest Town Of The Wild West


Of all the Wild West towns in America, Tombstone, Arizona, stands out as legendary.

Tombstone got its name from a mining claim filed in 1877. Prospector Ed Schieffelin had been told by local soldiers that the southern Arizona hills were crawling with Apaches, scorpions and rattlesnakes and that he’d only find his tombstone there, so he thumbed his nose at their pessimism by naming his claim Tombstone. Schieffelin discovered the area was rich in silver and the dusty hillside soon became a boom town. Within two years Tombstone had a population approaching 1000.

One early resident, Clara Spalding Brown, wrote that Tombstone was, “. . .an embryo city of canvas, frame and adobe, scattered over a slope. . .The only attractive places visible are the liquor and gambling saloons, which are everywhere present and are carpeted and comfortably furnished. . .The camp is one of the dirtiest places in the world. . .The sod lies loose upon the surface, and is whirled into the air every day by a wind which almost amounts to a gale; it makes the eyes smart like the cinders from an engine; it penetrates into the houses, and covers everything with dust. . .The mercury gallivants around in the nineties, with altogether too high-minded ideas. . .we cannot obtain desirable food for hot weather; fresh vegetables are scarce, and the few fruits in the markets require a very large purse. . .The camp is considered a remarkably quiet one – only one murder since my arrival.”

That low murder rate was about to go up. Scattered in nearby ranches and villages was a loose-knit group of cattle rustlers dubbed “the Cowboys.” They’d cross the border into Mexico, steal cattle, and sell them cheaply in Tombstone. In most of the West, “cowboy” simply meant a drover from Texas. Now in Southern Arizona the name took on a pejorative meaning, distinct from the respectable “rangemen” or “cattlemen.”

%Gallery-159476%The cowboys engaged in worse crimes too, including stagecoach robberies. They numbered perhaps 200 but were never a rigid organization. They only came into Tombstone to sell their stolen beef and whoop it up in the saloons. The locals generally tolerated them. Their stolen cattle lowered the price of beef and they spent lots of money.

Into this Wild West town strode the Earp brothers. Virgil was appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal. Wyatt rode shotgun for Wells Fargo stagecoaches and moonlighted as a gambler. Morgan was also a shotgun messenger and sometimes a special deputy. One-armed Jim tended bar. A fifth brother, Warren, drifted in and out of town.

The Earps were not impressed with the Cowboys. Virgil said, “As soon as they are in funds they ride into town, drink, gamble, and fight. They spend their money as free as water in saloons, dancehouses, or faro banks, and this is one reason they have so many friends in town. All that large class of degraded characters who gather the crumbs of such carouses stand ready to assist them out of any trouble or into any paying rascality.”

The battle lines were soon drawn, with complex political machinations further dividing the boomtown. It all came to a head on October 26, 1881, with the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, joined by Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday, faced off against five Cowboys, killing three.

This only worsened the feud. Cowboys shot and crippled Virgil, and soon killed Morgan. Wyatt Earp launched into what’s known as his Vendetta Ride, hunting down and killing Cowboys. Eventually he left Arizona, but his legend remained.

Today Tombstone is a huge tourist draw and an easy day trip from Tucson. The famous gunfight, which actually happened just outside the corral, is reenacted every day, as you can see in this video. There’s also a cheesy animatronic recreation.

Much of the town’s historic buildings have been restored and you can see the Bird Cage Theatre and its 120+ bullet holes left by rowdy patrons, the Boothill graveyard, and many other fun sights. You need a whole day to see it all. Check out the gallery for some glimpses of a place where the West really was wild.

Christmas with Jesse James

Jesse James, jesse jamesChristmas can be a stressful time. In fact, statistics show that you’re more likely to have a heart attack on Christmas than any other day of the year. Hanging out with family too much can be hazardous to your health.

Some families, of course, are more hazardous than others. Most people don’t have the emotional baggage that Jesse James, Jr., did. He was the son of the famous outlaw but didn’t even know it until his dad was assassinated. He thought his name was Charlie Howard and his father was named Thomas.

Despite living under aliases, the James family couldn’t give Jesse Jr. or his sister Mary a normal upbringing. Junior’s earliest memory was of a gangmember shooting through the front door at a suspected prowler. They also moved a lot and were discouraged from playing with neighborhood children.

Junior was accustomed to his father going around heavily armed at all times. One Christmas while living in his father’s final home, which is now the Jesse James House Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, Jesse decided to dress up like Santa Claus to surprise his children.

The outlaw came into the house dressed in a costume he had borrowed (not stolen) from a local church. Giving a cheery “ho ho ho” and bearing gifts and candy, he delighted his son and daughter. He asked if they had been good and Junior and Mary said they had. Santa then opened up the bag of goodies and the kids rummaged around inside. Junior felt a gun under the cloth and exclaimed that this wasn’t the real Saint Nick, but his father dressed up as Santa! Their mother then explained that Santa was very busy that year and Dad was helping him out.

So next time a family member embarrasses you at Christmas, at least be grateful they’re not packing heat.

For more stories of Jesse’s hijinks, check out my series: On the Trail of Jesse James.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

The unquiet grave of Jesse James

Jesse James, Frank James, Old West, Wild West, outlaws, Missouri
Jesse James never got any peace. He grew up in western Missouri in the 1850s, where a bitter border war with Kansas was the background to his childhood. He was a teenager when the Civil War started and got beaten up by a Union militia. Eventually he joined a group of Confederate guerrillas, and when the war was lost he was unable or unwilling to return to civilian life. His years as an outlaw were ones of constant struggle, and even after he got assassinated by Robert Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri, he didn’t rest easy.

After his death rumors started circulating that he wasn’t really dead. Some claimed he had murdered someone so he could get away from the police, but Jesse craved publicity and often sent boasting letters to the press. Giving all that up for a life of anonymity doesn’t fit with his character. Some say Robert Ford had in fact killed Wood Hite, Jesse’s cousin. There’s good evidence that he did, but this was a year before he shot Jesse James. In fact, fear over Jesse’s finding out who killed his cousin became one of the main reasons Ford betrayed him.

Other stories claim Ford killed a different man. Both versions would have us believe that Ford was part of a conspiracy to hide Jesse from the law, something Jesse had been doing successfully for almost twenty years. They would also have us believe that all of Jesse’s friends, family, and associates were in on the conspiracy and took the truth to their graves. Jesse’s body was on display in an open casket both in St. Joseph and Kearney and nobody at the time voiced any doubt that the dead man was Jesse.

This didn’t stop a steady string of impostors from hitting the carnival trail looking to make a quick buck. This infuriated Jesse’s surviving relatives and if any of the impostors dared come through Missouri they’d end up face to face with a real member of the James family, and an angry one at that.

%Gallery-108698%Over time these impostors reduced in number, but even as late as the 1930s old men were puttering around telling anyone who’d listen that they were Jesse James. In 1931 a fellow named John James claimed to be Jesse, but when questioned by family members couldn’t answer basic questions about the family, such as the name of Archie, the half-brother killed in the Pinkerton raid on the James farm. Frank James’ wife Annie brought him Jesse’s boots and challenged him to try them on. Jesse had had unusually small feet, and like O.J.’s gloves, the boots didn’t fit.

But John James continued to claim he was Jesse. It only ended when his brother signed an affidavit that John was lying and put him in a mental institution. It turns out John James really had been a an outlaw. Back in 1926, at the age of 79, he’d killed a man who tried to collect a loan of 50 cents!

Then another impersonator appeared. J. Frank Dalton was first brought to the public’s attention in the 1940s by Ray Palmer, editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and perpetrator of the famous Shaver Mystery, which got thousands of Americans believing that malevolent underground robots were zapping people with mind control rays and sleeping with Earth women. Compared with that, Dalton’s story is almost believable. Well, not really. Dalton played the rodeo circuit claiming to be Jesse and told wild tales of how he was a fighter pilot in World War One at the age of 69. Stretching credibility even further, two of his gang members toured with him. All three claimed to be over 100 years old. Dalton spent his last years doing promotional work for Meramec Caverns in Missouri, celebrating his (alleged) 103rd birthday there along with a Billy the Kid impostor.

In 1950 Dalton went to court to change his name back to Jesse James. The judge made the wise ruling that: “There is no evidence here to show that this gentleman, if he ever was Jesse James, has ever changed his name. If his name has never been changed, he is still Jesse James in name and there is nothing for this court to pass on. . .If he isn’t what he professes to be, then he is trying to perpetrate a fraud upon this court.” Dalton died the next year.

Jesse James wasn’t the only person who attracted impostors. His wife Zee and brother Frank had their share of impostors too. It didn’t take much to get a media frenzy going, and there was easy cash to be taken from the gullible. This is common with important historical figures. Everyone from Bloody Bill Anderson to Hitler have accumulated stories of their survival. It seems we don’t want to let these people go, even if we actually want them dead.

All these stories caused no end of headaches for the James family. At first Jesse was buried at the James Farm in order to keep the grave safe from relic hunters. Eventually he was moved to the family plot at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. Doubts about who was really in the grave lingered, however, until in 1995 his remains were exhumed and subjected to DNA testing. When compared with the DNA living descendants, it was found that the body was, indeed, Jesse James. Descendants of some of the hoaxers were on hand for the results, and they insist the DNA tests don’t prove anything. Stories continue to circulate about how Jesse James survived his assassination.

The legend lives on. . .

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

The assassination of Jesse James

Jesse James, Robert Ford, wild west, old west
After 1876, life wasn’t the same for Jesse James.

That year he and his gang got badly shot up while trying to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The Northfield Raid left three gangmembers dead and three more in jail. Only Frank and Jesse James got away. Frank left for the East, swearing he’d go straight, and left Jesse very much alone. Most of his friends from his Civil War days were dead or disappeared, and as he gathered a new gang he had to pick men of lesser caliber: two-bit horse thieves and petty crooks who dreamed of making the big time. Among them were brothers Charles and Robert Ford.

Jesse’s only comfort in his later years was his family. He had married his first cousin, Zerelda. She had been named after his mother, so Jesse called her “Zee” to differentiate between the two Zereldas. Their uncle presided at their wedding. Jesse also had a young son, Jesse James, Jr., and a daughter named Mary. Neither child knew their real names. They thought their last name was Howard and that their father was some sort of businessman. Zee knew the truth, of course, and she also knew that she didn’t trust the Ford brothers.

Charlie may have helped Jesse rob a train at Blue Cut in 1881, but Robert was as yet untested. Some biographers say the brothers had been avid horse thieves before meeting Jesse, but despite these credentials Jesse never seemed to trust the Fords. He kept a close eye on the two as they shared a house with him in St. Joseph, Missouri.

He was right to mistrust them. Robert Ford had secretly met with Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden and agreed to kill Jesse in exchange for a pardon and the $10,000 reward on Jesse’s head. This was a huge sum at a time when a decent horse went for $100 and a good farm sold for a few thousand. The Fords kept quiet and waited their chance. Days stretched into weeks as they stayed under the watchful eye of the famous outlaw. They knew they were no match for him in a face-to-face fight, yet they got no chance to surprise him.

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Jesse was planning a bank job with the Fords when on April 3, 1882, the news came that Dick Liddel, a former gangmember, had been arrested and given a full confession. Jesse’s suspicions of the Fords grew as he wondered why the Fords hadn’t told him the news before he read it in the newspaper. As Robert Ford later recounted, he knew he had to kill Jesse now or never. Jesse had killed gangmembers before, and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

Then the Fords witnessed a miracle. It was a hot day, and Jesse removed his coat. This revealed the revolvers strapped to his belt. Not wanting to arouse the suspicions of his neighbors, he did something the Fords had never seen him do before: remove his weapons. Even better, he got up on a chair to dust a picture.

With Jesse’s back turned, the Fords had their chance. Both drew their weapons. Robert was faster and shot Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Leaving Jesse’s family to mourn his death, they hurried to a telegraph office and sent a message to Crittenden saying the job was done. Much to their chagrin they were arrested, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to hang. The governor quickly pardoned them, but they never received their full share of the reward money.

Public reaction was mixed. While Jesse James’ popularity had dropped, most people thought the Fords were cowardly for shooting him in the back. A popular song called Robert Ford a “dirty little coward”. In all fairness, the Fords could have never taken Jesse in a fair fight, and Jesse had killed his share of unarmed men.

Jesse became even more of a legend after his death, while the Fords went down in history as traitors. Jesse James books and photographs sold like mad. The one above is a stereoscopic image of Jesse in his coffin. Stereoscopic photos could be put in a special viewer and appeared as 3D images. Many families had one in their living rooms with images of foreign lands and natural wonders. Now people could buy images of the dead outlaw for a bit of grisly after-dinner entertainment.

The Fords went on tour re-enacting the scene of Jesse’s assassination, but sometimes they were booed. Charles later killed himself and Robert moved to Creede, Colorado, a mining town where he opened a saloon. There on June 8, 1892 Edward O’Kelley, a local criminal who had had a couple of fights with Ford, walked into his saloon with a shotgun and killed him. He served several years in jail but was eventually pardoned. O’Kelley himself was killed in Oklahoma City in 1904 with police officer Joe Burnett. The policeman died a peaceful death, thus ending a cycle of killing stretching back more than twenty years.

The Jesse James home is now a museum displaying memorabilia from his life. There’s also a bullet hole high up on the wall that was supposedly made by Robert Ford’s gun. This is yet another bit of myth-making that’s grown up around Jesse James. The coroner’s inquest clearly stated that the bullet lodged just above his eye. Still, it’s a fascinating museum for any fan of the Old West.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The unquiet grave of Jesse James

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

Jesse James’ greatest escape

Jesse James, Northfield, old west, wild westJesse James was riding high. After the end of the Civil War he had rocketed to fame by committing a string of daring robberies in Missouri and neighboring states. In a region where ex-Confederates still felt bitter over losing the war, this former Confederate guerrilla earned sympathy and support. One of their own was striking back at the Yankees, and it didn’t matter that some people got hurt in the process.

The James gang is an early example of political spin. Jesse James wrote angry letters to the press, claiming he had been persecuted by the government and forced into a life of crime, while at the same time insisting he was innocent. He was helped by newspaperman John Newman Edwards, a former Confederate officer who wrote laudatory articles about the James boys and their friends.

So as the James gang robbed trains, banks, and stagecoaches, part of the population cheered. Soon dime novel writers began to write books about them, describing exploits that never occurred, and their fame grew even higher. But in 1876 Jesse James finally went too far.

He had a bold plan. The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, was supposed to have a lot of money, but even more important was that it held the savings of Adelbert Ames, a former Union officer and Northern politician who had tried (and failed) to give blacks equal rights in Mississippi during Reconstruction. Ames was the kind of Yankee Jesse and his friends hated.

Jesse and Frank James set out with a group of fellow ex-guerrillas: Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell, and the Younger brothers Cole, Jim, and Bob. After riding hundreds of miles from Missouri to Minnesota, they scouted the area and on September 7 they struck. Frank, Jesse, and one other entered the bank while the rest guarded the entrance. One robber, probably Jesse, vaulted over the counter and pulled a gun on the three employees.

%Gallery-108420%Then everything went wrong. The bank employees insisted the safe was locked with a time lock and couldn’t be opened. Actually it was unlocked, but the bandits never checked. Instead they rummaged around the counter and found less than thirty dollars.

Meanwhile, the guards outside stopped a citizen from going into the bank, roughing him up in the process. Another man saw this, put two and two together, and started shouting that the bank was being robbed.

Now the James gang’s own fame defeated them. Everyone in those days feared the gang would come to their town and so kept their guns handy. Soon the bank robbers standing guard outside found themselves being sniped at from windows and doorways. Miller and Chadwell fell mortally wounded, and the others got shot as well. They opened up with their six-shooters, but the citizens kept firing. The local sheriff, caught without a weapon, even threw rocks. As a group of drunks fled a nearby saloon, one of the robbers took careful aim and killed one of them.

The fight set off a panic inside the bank. One cashier got shot in the head, and another ran for a side door and got away with only a minor gunshot wound. The robbers ran out to their friends outside and galloped off.

Soon several posses were in hot pursuit. In a running battle that lasted more than a hundred miles and several days, the James gang tried to shake off their pursuers, but the telegraph sent the news all around the countryside and everyone kept watch. Frank and Jesse split off from the rest of the group. The stole a series of horses and at one point had to crawl across a railroad bridge right under the noses of a posse that was guarding it. Eventually they got away, but the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts got cornered in a stand of trees by a large posse. In a furious gunfight Pitts was killed and all the Younger brothers seriously wounded. Half dead and low on ammunition, they gave up. Luckily for them Minnesota didn’t have the death penalty. All received long prison sentences.

Every year, on the weekend after Labor Day, Northfield celebrates The Defeat of Jesse James Days with reenactments, a rodeo, parade, and carnival. The citizens of Northfield are as caught up with Jesse James fever as much as the modern-day rebels of rural Missouri, but in a very different way. They’re proud of their motto, “Jesse James slipped here”.

It was the second-to-last time he slipped.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The assassination of Jesse James!

[Photo courtesy user Elkman via Wikimedia Commons]