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.

Video: animatronic recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral

I’ve been in a Wild West mood lately. I used to live in Tucson, Arizona, and loved the tales of gunfights, gold strikes, and crooked gamblers. I’ve been rediscovering some of that lately and my thoughts turned to Tombstone, the West’s quintessential tough town. It was here that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against the notorious Cowboys and shot them to pieces just outside the OK Corral.

“Cowboy” was a derogative term in that time and place, reserved for rustlers, brawlers, and other ne’er-do-wells. Honest people who handled cattle were called cattlemen, range men, or by the Spanish term vaqueros. Most were Mexican or black, a fact Hollywood has seen fit to forget. The Cowboy gang that operated near Tombstone loved to steal cattle, shoot up saloons, and do all that other stuff from which legends are made. Americans love their bad guys.

They love cheesy tourist attractions too. I mean, how couldn’t you love an animatronic recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral? It takes place all day, every day in Tombstone. I challenge you to watch this video without smiling. Yes, it’s hokey, yes, it a bit embarrassing, but damn is it entertaining! A much less hokey live show is performed in Tombstone every day of the week at 2pm.

Want more Arizona cheesiness? Have you seen… The Thing?

Undiscovered New York: Famous city cemeteries

This week Undiscovered New York is “digging up” a rather morbid topic: the cemeteries. The New York City metropolitan area has a population of around 18 million residents. However this number only reflects those that still have a pulse. When you’re talking about an urban area with history dating back to the 16th Century, we’re talking about millions and millions of lives that came and went within the confines of the city’s boundaries. And they all had to be buried somewhere.

When one thinks of a cemetery, it’s a place that’s frequently associated with stagnation and death. Yet the constant dynamism and momentum of New York does not allow any site to remain at rest. New York’s many cemeteries remain an important part in the city’s constantly changing patchwork and are filled with not only the stories of the past but also of the city’s future and continued vitality.

After the jump Undiscovered New York will take you inside some of the city’s most famous cemeteries. Interested in learning about New York’s role in the invention of baseball? Want to visit the habitat of a flock of tropical birds living in New York City? Would you be curious to know there’s a cemetery smack-dab in the middle of the East Village? Click below to get the whole story…
Green-Wood Cemetery

Arguably one of New York City’s most famous grave sites, Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838 in an area just southwest of the Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Among those interred at Green-Wood include 1980’s downtown auteur Jean-Michel Basquiat, infamous 1800’s gang leader William “Bill the Butcher” Poole (portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York), as well as hundreds of early pioneers of a new 1800’s sport called baseball.

Visitors to Green-Wood will most certainly want to check out the Gothic Revival entrance gate at the cemetery’s entrance on 5th Avenue and 25th Street. In addition to the beautiful design, it’s also the nesting grounds for a flock of monk parakeets from South America that now call the cemetery home. The birds escaped from a container at JFK Airport in the 1960’s and have populated the area ever since.

New York Marble Cemetery

Hidden in the heart of New York’s happening East Village neighborhood, the New York Marble Cemetery and is the oldest non-sectarian cemetery in the city of New York. First established in 1830, the cemetery was founded to deal with recent outbreaks of Yellow Fever. Though the Marble Cemetery houses a few notable New Yorkers, it’s more impressive for its location. Hidden behind a narrow metal gate on Second Avenue, visitors enter a quiet walled sanctuary surrounded on all sides by the bustling urban life of Manhattan. The cemetery is typically open the fourth Sunday of each month, March through November, for those interested in checking it out.

Trinity Church Cemetery
Directly across from Ground Zero lies one of Manhattan’s most famous cemeteries, and the only active grave site within the borough, at Trinity Church. The church’s graveyard at 74 Trinity Place is the final resting place for some of America’s most famous figures, including Alexander Hamilton and New York fur baron John Jacob Astor and steamboat inventor Robert Fulton.