“Do you know how I know I’m old?” my father is fond of asking. “Wyatt Earp was alive when I was born.” My father was born in 1926. Earp died in 1929. (Do you know how I know I’m old? There was a Civil War veteran still alive when I was born. Civil. War.)
I spent part of my childhood about 30 miles from Tombstone and back then, Tombstone was a tiny, shabby town trying to eek a living out of its one claim to fame: a gunfight that was given the Hollywood treatment in the 1950s. There was one viable commercial street – Allen – that was a dusty road lined with a wooden sidewalk, trinket shops and shaggy cowboys.
I was in Tombstone last month for the first time in many years, and it hasn’t changed much. It seems a little cleaner and brighter – trying, it seems, to capture some of the artsy, latte vibe of nearby Bisbee. But Allen is still its one commercial street and it’s still lined with a wooden sidewalk and trinket shops. And it’s still trying to eek a living out of the gunfight at the OK corral.
The 1957 film that started it all — Gunfight at the OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp — simplified the gunfight into a tale of good (town marshall Virgil Earp and his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, and their friend Doc Holliday) against evil (outlaws Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claibourne). They shoot it out and the good guys win.
The real story is much more complicated, as real life generally is. Tombstone in 1881 was a silver mining boom town with the usual cast of western characters — lawmen, outlaws, prostitutes and miners — and there wasn’t a clear difference amongst them. The Earps were the law but they weren’t all that good, and the events leading up to and following the shootout involved personal, business, political and even Civil War grudges. I don’t know the intricacies well enough to explain it succinctly, but you get the general idea.
“The town too tough to die,” is Tombstone’s slogan. “The town too stupid to know that it’s dead,” we’d taunt the Tombstone Yellow Jacket football team, who were our high school rivals. What can I say: we were teenagers. But secretly (because I was wayyyy too cool to admit to being a history nerd), I loved it, because it was the location of an 1877 courthouse turned museum that was my home away from home.
The museum hasn’t changed much either. There’s objects used by locals — dresses, saddles, china, mining equipment — and stories about colorful town folk. The original courtroom is still set up, as is a reproduction gallows. One interesting item: an invitation to a hanging.
Coming down the courthouse staircase, I noticed something that I hadn’t remembered: ceiling light fixtures that were very frilly and quite incongruous with their austere surroundings. I asked the only staffer around — the woman at the reception desk — if they were original. “Oh, no,” she said. “There weren’t any lights here, originally.”
She explained: the light fixtures came from the Crystal Palace Saloon. The saloon came upon them in storage (I don’t remember when) and were going to thrown them away! The courthouse took them and put them up. What’s not to love about a town where the bordello and the courthouse can share.