Psalm 90, Verse 10 tells us that “the length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength”. Yet, in my mid-seventies, I rarely find myself troubled by thoughts of mortality. However, in January 2011, we visited a place where the mention of death is omnipresent. That place is Tombstone, Arizona.
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Its famous cemetery is Boot Hill. Its famous newspaper is The Tombstone Epitaph. Its famous name, Tombstone, is in itself an apt reminder of man’s mortality. Tombstone is located in a very empty part of the United States, just a few miles to the north of the Mexican border. The surrounding desert is flat and uncultivated, yet high mountain ranges rise up on every far horizon. Who would build a town here and why would they call it Tombstone?
In 1879, Ed Schieffelin was prospecting for silver in this empty land and finally got lucky. Had he lived in 2011 with silver at around $30 an ounce, he would have been even luckier. When time came for Ed to file his claim, he was told that the area was so lawless that his proposed silver mining activities would quickly put him under a tombstone. Not only would he be faced by murderous outlaws, specializing in horse rustling and stagecoach holdups, but the hostile Apache Indians were not gentle with those whom they perceived to be taking over their ancestral lands.
Led by strong leaders, such as Geronimo and Cochise, the Apaches were quick to kidnap or kill any strangers passing through this empty territory. With these dangers in mind, Ed filed his claim under the name “tombstone” and the area then took its name from that. The town of Tombstone grew fast. By 1882, estimates of its population varied from between 5,000 and 15,000. It became the seat of newly formed Cochise County in Arizona Territory. However, on October 26th1881, dramatic events occurred at The OK Corral in Tombstone which made the town famous. Before relating those events, let me firstly admire the authenticity of the Tombstone of today. This place is no film set or artificial Disneyworld exhibit. It is instead a real town from the old “Wild West”, with its streets and buildings from that time carefully preserved for posterity. Consequently, we drank at The Four Deuces Saloon. We ate at The Crystal Palace Saloon. We visited The OK Corral, the site of the famous gunfight now immortalized by several Hollywood movies. We visited the old silver mine and The Bird Cage Theater. Meanwhile, stagecoaches roll down the dusty streets. Tombstone is nothing if not authentic.
The 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral occurred at the climax of a struggle for the control of Tombstone between lawmen and cowboys. The former were led by Marshall Virgil Earp, who deputized his brothers Wyatt and Morgan and their friend Doc Holliday. The cowboys, led by the brothers Clanton and McLaury, were waiting to confront Doc when he was returning to his rented room at C.S. Fly’s Boarding House and Photo Studio. The Fly premises still stand to this day next to the OK Corral. Shooting broke out when the two factions met. 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds, after which three cowboys lay dead.
They were buried in Boot Hill Cemetery, where we visited their graves. Most of the occupants of Boot Hill had died with their boots on. Few had died of natural causes. Many of the gravestones are simply marked “unknown” and some of those buried were even the victims of lynchings.
One simply has to sympathize with George Johnson, who was hanged by mistake in 1882. His gravestone reads “He was right. We was wrong. But we strung him up and now he’s gone”. Not so funny for the thoughtful visitor is the gravestone of Frank Bowles (1828-1880) which warns that “As you pass by, remember that as you are so once was I; and, as I am, you soon will be. Remember me”.
Both Virgil and Morgan Earp were badly wounded in the shoot-out at The OK Corral and Doc Holliday suffered a superficial hip wound. Wyatt Earp walked away unharmed. In fact Wyatt Earp was in his eighties, when he died of old age in 1929. He had obviously studied the verse in the Book of Psalms quoted at the beginning of this article and determined that he had “the strength”. Yet Wyatt Earp still had some more killing to do before leaving town. A few weeks after the events at OK Corral, both Virgil and Morgan Earp died as a result of further shootings in Tombstone, which Wyatt was quick to avenge. He killed Frank Stillwell, the alleged assassin of Morgan Earp, in Tucson Railway Station. These and other killings by Wyatt Earp were beginning to make him a target for criminal prosecution, so he wisely left Arizona Territory in April 1882 never to return. When we visited Boot Hill, we asked to see the graves of Virgil and Morgan, but we were told that they had been buried in California. Clearly they had no intention of spending eternity close to the Clantons and the McLaurys.
Tombstone today claims for itself the motto “The Town Too Tough to Die”, but it survives with a population of only about 1,500, which is a tiny fraction of its population during its boom days. Those days were ended by major fires and flooded mines. With the exception of the tourist industry, there are now few job opportunities here. Millions of Mexicans recently entered the United States illegally to search for work. Many of them passed through Southern Arizona, but they found no reason to stick around in today’s Tombstone. Yet, 130 years ago, it was a very different story.