The southern Arizona town of Tombstone was founded in 1877 by a prospector named Ed Schieffelin. Ed was staying at Camp Huachuca (wa-CHU-ka) as part of a scouting expedition against the Chiricahua (chir-i-COW-uh) Apaches. From this safe place, and ignoring the warnings of the soldiers, he ventured out into the desert “looking for rocks.” Their warnings were graphic: “Ed, the only stone you’ll find out there will be your tombstone.”
Well, Ed did find his stone, and it was full of silver. It didn’t take long for Ed’s find to draw attention – other prospectors, homesteaders, lawyers, cowboys, speculators, gunmen and businessmen flocked to the area.
In 1879 a town site was laid out on the nearest level spot – Goose Flats. The town, obviously, was properly named by Ed himself. By the mid-1880s the population stood at 7,500. This figure counted only the white male men who were registered voters over 21-years of age. Had they taken into account the women, children, Chinese, Mexicans, “ladies of the evening”, and any other minorities, estimates of the population was between 15,000 to 20,000. There were over one hundred saloons, numerous restaurants, a large “red-light” district, schools, churches, newspapers, and one of the first public swimming pools in Arizona (which is still used today!)
There were a few real theaters in town, the most famous of them being Schieffelin’s Hall and the Bird Cage Theatre. The first of these was where the respectable people of Tombstone went for entertainment. It opened in June, 1881 and was built by Ed’s brother Al. It is still the largest standing adobe structure in the southwest United States and was built to be a performance theatre, recital hall and meeting place for Tombstone citizens. Wyatt and Morgan Earp attended a performance there the evening Morgan was killed by an assassin’s bullet. It’s still in use today.
The “Bird Cage” Theater is another story. It was a saloon, theater, gambling hall and brothel. Legend has it that no self-respecting woman in town would even walk on the same side of the street as the Bird Cage. It opened its doors on Christmas Day 1881 and ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year until it closed in 1889. The New York Times reported, in 1882, that “the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” Evidence of this can still be seen in the 140 supposed bullet holes that have been found in the walls and ceiling. The Bird Cage was named for the cage style crib compartments suspended from the ceiling. It was in these “Bird Cages” that the “ladies of the evening” entertained their customers. The story goes that they were the inspiration for the song: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage” that was quite popular in vaudeville in the early 1900s.
Two major fires swept through Tombstone during the 1880s. Legend has it that in June, 1881, a cigar ignited a barrel of whiskey at the Arcade Saloon. The subsequent fire destroyed over 60 businesses in the downtown area. In May of 1882 another fire ripped through downtown destroying a large portion of the business district, but in both accounts “the town that wouldn’t die” rebuilt itself.
Today Tombstone is home to 1500 year-round residents who enjoy the wonderful climate that the high desert has to offer and they believe in preserving the history and heritage of the Wildest Town in the West.