Tombstone, Arizona had a short, eventful life before it became a ghost town. Ten years from its founding to a ghost town, all built on a mound of silver. But during that period, Tombstone left a legacy both sordid and romantic, one that's celebrated every year in Helldorado.
No, Helldorado is not the name of an Eagles' song. Rather, it's a three day celebration of Tombstone's wild and sordid past, complete with get-ups, stage coaches and lots of blank cartridges going off. Sorta like the old days, maybe, except this time the only missiles flying through the air are paper wads. Most everybody has heard of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. But that's just part of the Tombstone story.
Helldorado celebrates it all, from the discovery of silver to the shooting of Marshall Fred White by Curly Bill Brocius, the most notorious Southwest outlaw of his time. Johnny Ringo, arguably the fastest gun in the Southwest outside of Wild Bill, is also a main character. And then there are the Earps and Clantons and Doc Holliday, icing on the Wild West cake.
Most people are not aware that the importance of these events rose to such a level that three presidents -- two U.S., one Mexican -- got involved; there was a threat of war, and permanent changes to our law enforcement structure resulted.
While the truth is there were really no "good guys" in either the Earp or Clanton bunch, history, television and the movies have dictated that Wyatt Earp be crowned a hero and the Clantons, McLaurys, Curly Bill, Johnny Ringo and the rest of the Cowboys be branded villains. And there may be some truth to these labels, although there's plenty of exaggeration to go around.
Helldorado is the biggest event of the modern Tombstone year -- every year. Tombstone is a town that lives by tourism now, and Helldorado is the best time to experience the best and worst of what was and is called "the town too tough to die." Folks come from all over the country, don their getups and make-up and prance around, some participating in re-enactments of significant Tombstone events. Earp-alikes, Clantons -- descendants of the participants, still attempting to convict the Earps of murder -- and pretend Curly Bills, Doc Holidays, Johnny Ringos and John Behans abound. And there are period ladies, both proper and improper...if you get my drift.
And there are other characters as well, hundreds of them, all decked out in period costumes.
It's hard to tell how many people attend the three day Helldorado celebration. On the Sunday my wife and I were there, there were gobs of people, hundreds if not thousands, spread all over town. Unfortunately, my wife and I stood out: We wore tee shirts and shorts.
There are stagecoach rides, mine tours, good food in the local saloons, and re-enactments all over town.
Of course, no visit to Tombstone would be complete without a tour of the world famous Bird Cage Theater, one of the few original buildings left in its original condition, bullet holes, furniture, brothel-rooms and all. All the great actors and actresses, from Lilly Langtrey, Sarah Bernhardt, Fatima, Eddie Foy, Lillian Russell, Lotta Crabtree, Florence Roberts, Richard Mansfield, Joe Bignon, Maude Adams, Margarita Silva and others played the Bird Cage, the nightly hangout for the Earps, Behan and the Clantons, and of course, the best brothel in town. The Bird Cage was where Wyatt slipped to when he wanted to escape his common law wife and diddle Sadie Jo Marcus, John Behan's eighteen year old girlfriend -- the runaway daughter of Neiman Marcus -- and later Wyatt's third wife. In her spare time, Sadie Jo worked in the brothel, both upstairs in the cheap one -- 20 bucks for the balcony room, more for the girl -- or the basement, where the double-bed room and girl rates doubled.
Sadie Jo gave Johnny Behan this picture, which only re-surfaced after Wyatt died.
One glance, and it's easy to see why Sadie didn't want Wyatt to see this photo. There was already enough bad blood between Behan and Wyatt stemming from Behan's political screwing of a trusting, naive Wyatt Earp. See, the feud -- and the events leading up to the great gunfight -- were really about politics. The Earps were the gambling, swindling Republicans, Behan and the Cowboys the cattle rustling, drunken Democrats, and at play was the lucrative position of Deputy County Marshall, the tax collector, who got to keep much of the tax-take. Earp dropped out of the County Marshall race upon Behan's promise to give him the tax collecting job, then once Behan was appointed, he named someone else, perhaps because of Earp's cuckholding.
At the entrance of the Bird Cage hangs a famous painting of Fatima. If you look closely, you may notice Fatima has more than one navel. Yes, it was patched, but the bullet holes in the painting are still visible, a few of the one hundred-forty bullet holes, many of them .44 caliber, lodged still in the walls, ceilings and floors of the theater. Many came from drunken patrons just having a good time, like when one drunk didn't like a song and put three rounds into the wall of the stage. But there were also gunfights, sixteen of them, and twenty-six dead patrons, not including those killed by brawl or knife.
Here's a picture of the interior of the Bird Cage, with a craps table centered in front of the stage, and the cheap balcony-brothels above. One can just imagine a drunken cowboy enjoying the show while he also enjoyed a bit of the nasty...
Along the walls of the Bird Cage are memorabilia of the times, pictures of those involved in the famous events of 1881. Here's a picture of Johnny Behan, and below that... Wyatt Earp.
After Tombstone, Wyatt lived with Sadie for the rest of his life. He died in 1929.
Many people associate Bat Masterson with Tombstone, and indeed, he was there periodically, but he wasn't a regular resident and he wasn't there for the famous gunfight. But after the fight, after the Earps and Holliday fled, Masterson played a significant role in saving Doc's life. Politics changed in Tombstone and the Earps and Holliday became wanted men. A McLaury brother hired a bounty hunter who had Doc arrested in Denver. Masterson, by then Sheriff of Pueblo, learned of the arrest, and he trotted over to Denver to trump up a Colorado charge to trump Arizona's claim. Then, when Bat took custody of Holliday, he released him as soon as they left the city limits.
Smart guy, Bat Masterson. He went on to be a celebrated sportscaster in New York City. Bat called Dempsey's most famous fight.
Heldorado is held yearly, in October, of course, the month of the great gunfight. As a growing city -- indeed the fastest growing city in the country during the 1880s, Tombstone had a short life. Ironically, Tombstone, a city with no water, became a ghost town after the great 1887 earthquake, which flooded all the silver mines. Still, its legacy lives on, and nowhere more so than during Helldorado.
And the Clantons now have a website. Doesn't everybody? Check here for their latest effort to once more win the argument who started the gun battle and who was at fault. It's a good read, even if their arguments still fall on deaf ears. Clanton Website
I invite you to come see for yourself. Helldorado is a throw-back to days gone by. And it's a rollicking good time.