Edward Lawrence Schieffelin’s story seems like something made up by a Hollywood writer long on cliche and short on imagination, for his silver strike epitomized the hopes and dreams of every sourdough prospector who ever wandered the lonely mountains, valleys, and streams of the American West. For years he searched in vain, living on the edge of starvation while nourishing hopes of discovering a bonanza.
In the summer of 1877 Schieffelin was in southern Arizona, still the haunt of bronco Apaches lifting scalps, prospecting the San Pedro Valley. When he came in to Fort Huachuca to get supplies, the soldiers would ask if he had found anything. When he replied that he had not yet made a discovery, they told him all he would find would be his tombstone.
The result of his search was his fabulous mine discovery the following year. Some of the ore assayed at $12,000 to $15,000 a ton in silver and $1,200 to $1,500 in gold.
What followed was predictable—it had happened many times before in the West. There was a boom that brought thousands to the region. In 1879 a city arose, its 15,000 residents making it the largest community between San Antonio and San Francisco. And with the wry humor for which the West was noted, the town was named Tombstone, and its leading newspaper was dubbed the Epitaph.
The Tombstone district was a place of hard-rock mining, which required large capital investment to erect the necessary crushing mills and sink shafts through granite. The miners in the region were company employees, men whose toil was monotonous and back-breaking—a ten-hour shift below ground mucking and drilling for $3.50 a day. When they got off work, they returned to their primitive shacks for uninviting meals of coffee, beans, and greasy pork. Under such conditions they suffered from many diseases, among them diarrhea, dysentery, chills, fever, and malaria.
Men who led such lives could not find sufficient relaxation by sitting around and playing cards with each other, for most of them were young, vigorous, and single. So they went where the lights were bright. There they drank and gambled and lied, and many sought the brief company of “doves of the roost,” the girls who plied the most ancient of trades—and who died all too soon of disease or whiskey or opium.
However, most residents of Tombstone were respectable, family people who hoped for and dreamed of a better future for themselves and their city. They established churches, erected schools, formed fraternal organizations, opened stores, voted funds for a town library; some even met to read each other their literary endeavors.
Tombstone’s day in the economic sun was brief. In 1886 the mines, which were down about 500 feet, began to flood, and gradually they shut. In 1901 there was a resurgence of mining activity as better pumps were able to handle the water, but the deeper the mines went, the greater the problem. By 1911 the bonanza was over.
Thereafter, as the business activity of the town moved ever slower, there was more time for talk, for remembering, for reminiscing. The economy might be anemic, but the legends improved with age. The heroes and villains of the old-timers’ stories—the Earps, the Clantons, the McLowrys—had moved away or else had died, and thus there were few participants still in Tombstone to contradict the accounts and anecdotes that were told and retold, embellishments growing on each like desert flowers on a cactus after a rain.
There was “Rotten Row,” that part of town inhabited by Tombstone’s legal fraternity, and there was the “Tenderloin District” wherein lived Blonde Marie, French Lil, Nosey Kate, Lizette the Flying Nyhiph, and a host of others. And who could forget China Mary, who sold cheese, Chinese foods, imported knickknacks, and opium, and who was widely famous for her generosity to miners down on their luck? Tombstone could even celebrate an 1884 lynching, when it seemed justice had miscarried; a mob broke into the jail and hanged the miscreant from a telegraph pole, and the coroner declared his death resulted “from emphysema of the lungs—a disease common in high altitudes.” Yes, Tombstone had a host of memories, but that was cold comfort to a town that was dying, that would, in fact, have joined the ranks of other ghost towns in the West had it not been the seat of Cochise County.
Then in 1928 one old-timer, a deputy sheriff named Billy Breakenridge, published Helldorado and received national attention for the stories he told about lawlessness in the “good old days.” This book caused some residents to decide to try to lure visitors with a “pioneer” celebration. In October of 1929 they staged “Helldorado Week.” This took place during the week of October 26, the date of the famed gunfight at the OK Corral between the town thugs, the Earp brothers and their cohorts, and the country thugs, the Clantons and the McLowrys. Nineteen twenty-nine seemed an appropriate year to begin this celebration, for it was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the town.
Several blocks of the old business district were roped off for Helldorado Week. Twenty Yuma Indians with varying degrees of musical talent were imported to serve as the “Helldorado Band.” Dressed in gaudy, feathered Plains Indian headbonnets, Navajo shirts, and Hopi turquoise jewelry, they smiled and played as their conductor used a six-shooter for a baton.
The parade consisted of covered wagons, buggies, and buckboards with women and children dressed in relics from trunks and attics. There were prospectors and cowboys in beards, flannel shirts, high-heeled boots, and broadbrimmed hats, all carrying sufficient hardware for several wars.
Daily there was a daring holdup of the stage followed by a charge of a sheriff’s posse to interrupt the robbery. This ended in a heroic gun battle in which the forces of good triumphed. Another daily feature was the killing of a prospector by a drunken desperado and his prompt lynching by a righteous mob. And the Bird Cage Theater and the Crystal Palace resounded in the evenings as of old with skits and blackouts—and whiskey flowing briskly.
Free entertainment during Helldorado Week included baton twirling, fancy shooting, boxing, wrestling, and open air dances, while a carnival that had come to town provided sideshows, fortune-telling, and bearded ladies.
The highlight of the celebration was a reenactment of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. And the next day everyone could read the details in the Epitaph, which during this week once again became a daily paper.
One old-timer who came back for the celebration was John Clum, the founding editor of the Epitaph. He viewed the celebration in company with aging rancher Billy Fourr. As they discussed what was transpiring, they agreed that they had no idea what the word “Helldorado” meant, but from the cover on the program and the literature associated with the event, they concluded it meant something “lurid—and alluring.”
Clum later wrote that he and Fourr failed to find in the presentation “any semblance of the youthful Tombstone we had known so well.” In fact, as Clum noted, in Tombstone’s 50-year history there had been only one gun battle on the city’s streets. In 1881, the year when most of the excitement had occurred, only six men had met a violent death within the city’s limits, and the lynching party of 1884 had been organized in the town of Bisbee, not Tombstone.
Clum was incensed by Helldorado Week. “Criminals and crime existed in Tombstone during those so-called ‘hectic days’ when it was a booming mining camp,” he wrote. “But dissipation and disorder and lawlessness and murder were not the chief occupations of the citizens of Tombstone when I was a resident there in the early ’80s—although that impression was emphatically conveyed by the high spots in the Helldorado publicity and the Helldorado program. This is not fair simply because it is not true.”
Fourr likewise was incensed, asking Clum, “Don’t you remember that away back there in 1881, when you were mayor, the men seldom grew anything but a mustache, and there was a city ordinance forbidding anyone but a peace officer to carry firearms within the city limits?”
“Well, Billy,” Clum replied, “you must remember that we were not giving a HELLDORADO show away back there in 1881.”
In 1929 the citizens of Tombstone were fortunate that Helldorado Week was a success as entertainment if not as truth, for that same year the residents of Cochise County voted to move the county seat to Bisbee.
Also fortunately for Tombstone, Billy Breakenridge’s success spawned other literary efforts. Walter Noble Burns produced Tombstone, in which he began erecting the pedestal on which Stuart Lake would place Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall. This piece of fiction gave the public a hero, a Galahad, a pasteboard character fit to take the lead in that uniquely American morality play, the Western. His Earp was shy, unassuming, courteous to women, modest, violent only when forced into it, and deadly in his righteous wrath.
The moviemakers likewise discovered Tombstone, seeing commercial potential in the emerging myth of the city. Like the fictioneers of the pulp magazines, they transformed the town into King Arthur’s England. Earp became Sir Galahad and his friends the knights of the Round Table, while his enemies were the wicked earls to be destroyed. Consider, for example, a less-than-epic feature in 1941 from Paramount entitled Tombstone: The Town Too Tough To Die. This starred Richard Dix, Victor Jory, and Edgar Buchanan, and began with a statement superimposed over the opening scenes:
I am the voice of the past
Of the days when I was a territory
Overrun with bad men of all kinds
Outlaws and gamblers
The bad men of Arizona were strangling me with their lawlessness
For my existence, I am indebted to one man
He became a living symbol of respect for the law
When such books and films began to appear, there were old-timers who remembered that Wyatt Earp had fled Arizona under indictment for murder. But gradually the old-timers died or else began remembering themselves as participants in those epic battles of yore, heroes basking in reflected glory. And the money brought to Tombstone by the annual flock of tourists wanting to see the actual sites of those battles-for-the-right made a new crop of believers.
Promoters came to the city to cash in on the glories of a West that never was. Artifacts long since abandoned suddenly became pioneer treasures to be viewed for a fee. Pistols acquired anywhere in the West became, if not Wyatt’s own handgun, at least that of Doc Holliday.
The residents of Tombstone may be partially responsible for this packaging of plastic history, but in their holding of Helldorado Week each year they are close in spirit to the pioneers who founded the town—they are mining the only vein of ore left.
Thereby they have become different. Most cities in the western United States, once they achieved a certain maturity, not only turned their backs on their frontier heritage, but deliberately tried to hide the crudities associated with their birth. They downplayed the violence and the raw conditions of their past and stressed a cultural heritage more evident to them than to their ancestors. Descendants of pioneers transformed their forebears into gentlemen, ladies, and philanthropists, and they created historical societies whose function, all too often, was to launder history.
But not Tombstone. It glories in its frontier beginnings. Barroom brawls, robberies, beatings, a lynching, even murder became fit subjects for local chroniclers and a loose outline for reenactments. In this depiction and presentation. Tombstone’s history has become as false as the fronts of Tombstone’s stores—and by city ordinance all new structures must be built in Territorial style.
If in the grand tradition of the Western there is a villain in the corruption of Tombstone’s history, the bad guys are not those presenting the city as something extraordinarily lurid. Rather it is the public, which pays to see this distortion. The average tourist comes to see what he wants to believe was the past. But part of that is gone, never to return, and the rest never existed. He can only see a false representation—and in the process be separated from his money. If he is willing to pay to see a plastic replica of what he wants—even needs—the Old West to have been, it is difficult to blame the people who give it to him.
And the average tourist goes to places such as Tombstone, deny it though he may, to see the lurid and the violent, not the prosaic and the ordinary. There is some dark strain in the human character that attracts us to evil men and dark deeds. We identify with the man with the gun, and we lust to do battle—at least vicariously. Why else the emphasis on violence that is so much a part of the literature, movies, and TV shows about the West? Our heroes’ deeds have become part of our folklore until the myth has become reality and the truth is lost.
Symbolic of the myth and reality of Tombstone is Boothill Cemetery, which greets the visitor as he drives into town via the Benson highway. When the process of sprucing up the town for the first Helldorado celebration was underway, it was discovered that most of the original headboards there had rotted and many of the graves were unmarked. Some members of the restoration committee worked to check the records before new headboards were erected, but the records were so sketchy that some of those buried there could not be identified. This did not prevent the erection of a full slate of headboards, however. Some names were coined from thin air, along with colorful epitaphs either made up or else borrowed from other cemeteries in the West.
This was the same Boothill Cemetery in which the better element of the Tombstone of 1881 did not want their dead buried, so they started a new cemetery for themselves and their loved ones. Yet today no tourist pays to see that second cemetery, which can be viewed for free. No, the cars stop at the first cemetery—Boothill—the one filled with men “who died with their boots on!”
Somehow this seems fitting. Perhaps this is part of the price we pay for insisting on living in a world of simultaneous myth and reality.