Tucson to Tombstone: through Arizona below
We are not big fans of theme parks. We were afraid to find little more than one in Tombstone. In any case, through the ages, Tombstone has always inspired fear. Aware of its epic and fascinating Western past, we give it the benefit of the doubt and leave Tucson pointed that way.
Less than half an hour from the border with the Mexico, soon we have to stop at a police checkpoint. The officers find the context in which they found us strange: a couple with Portuguese passports – she with more Mexican than Portuguese features – aboard an old and classic Buick Le Saber, not rented, with California license plate and signs of having recently traveled many kilometers in a way semi-domicile.
Even Americans, the agents themselves have obvious Mexican genetics and looks. They check ownership of the car and inquire about the relationship we had with the owner. After confirming that the Buick was not on the list of stolen vehicles and explaining to them that the owner was an uncle of ours, they tell us to move on. They say goodbye with warm smiles.
We passed Sonoita, Whetstone and Fairbank. An hour and a half of driving along the edge of the Sonoran Desert later, we enter a surreal colonnaded redoubt.
Tombstone's Western Ways
Stages cross the main street of the city, delimited by two rows of ground-floor wooden buildings, extending to a long communal walkway formed by successive porches. A multitude of commercial establishments occupy the shaded ground floors.
Craft and souvenir shops, bars, breweries and restaurants but also saloons and the theater are identified by signs that reinforce the peculiarity of the place: “Politicians wipe their shit off their boots before they go inside." or "Prohibited Weapons. The cemetery is already full."
The various characters from the West that we come across are so trustworthy that, more than leaving us perplexed, they convince us that we have retreated to the bellicose closing of the XNUMXth century of these inhospitable and marginal places.
Even at the end of a so-called winter, the desert heat tightens. We drank cold beers in the shade of one of the porches, in the company of what appeared to be the village's bearded gravedigger. Unexpectedly, rival groups of gunmen charge from opposite ends of E. Ellen Street until they come face to face, in front of a store identified as “Outlaw Outfitter".
A crowd of onlookers gathers on both sides of the road and follows the course of the duel. On that occasion, as in all the more recent ones, the shooting and the killings followed a theatrical script, but since its troubled gestation, for decades to come, Tombstone was the scene of countless of these confrontations, as real as they were deadly.
How Ed Schieffelin's Luck Originated the City
Tombstone was founded by Ed Schieffelin in 1879, 15 years after the end of the American Civil War. Schieffelin was a scout in the army of the USA parked at Camp Huachuca. I used to roam the desert vastness around in search of valuable ores. By that time, three other superintendents had been killed by Indians.
When a colleague and friend found out about the places that Schieffelin had started to prospect, he said: “The only stone you'll find around these parts will be your own tombstone” or, in another version: “You'd better take your coffin with you; you'll only find your tombstone around there, nothing else” (Tombstone, in English).
Schieffelin ignored him. In 1877, he found silver samples in a plate called Goose Flats. It took months to ascertain its origin. When he got it, he estimated that the lode would be 15m long by 30cm wide. He hurried to register the land plot of “Tombstone".
Even far from other cities, propelled by the 40 to 85 million dollars of silver that made it the largest mining district in Arizona, the place has become one of the last mining hubs in the American West.
Just two years later, Tombstone had 110 saloons, a bowling hall, 14 games, several dance halls, an ice house and an ice cream parlor, a school, two benches, a church and several brothels. These establishments and buildings were erected on a series of mines deepened by the greed of newly arrived miners.
Due to hasty, neglectful construction and non-existent structural fire precautions, Tombstone was devastated by two major fires in consecutive years. The first, in 1881, began when a lit cigarette burned a whiskey barrel in one of the saloons. It devastated sixty-six businesses, the entire eastern section of the city's commercial area.
Saloons, theaters and the like: reliving the past in Tombstone
They may not be the 100% original, but they should live up to the status achieved by the city, in 1961, of National Historic Landmark District. As such, the authorities and the inhabitants of Tombstone (today circa 1300) strive to preserve several of its iconic buildings.
These were the cases of the Birdcage Theatre, the Saloon and the Schiefflin mine, the Longhorn restaurant, the Cochise district court, the City Hall, the Big Nose Kate saloon and, for events that we are yet to discuss, the most famous of all remaining together OK Corral, this despite the second fire only leaving the raised sign intact.
The sun was already descending from its apex but the temperature hovered well above 30º. Accordingly, visitors stayed inside establishments, determined to avoid the turret that was felt. We took refuge in the Big Nose Kate saloon.
There, we are served by two young ladies of pleasure extras, in short black satin dresses, with high breasts and corsets to match the voluptuous lacy legs. And, right next door, a middle-aged visitor crawls into a coffin. Photographs are taken holding a small sign that reads “hooker” with a noose around his neck, which a sheriff helps to hold.
We didn't know what to think about the fact that most of the serious customers wear snake clothes, have a posture like a snake, and most likely are. We were in the near-Mexican confines of Arizona, one of the American states most faithful to the nation's conservative, gunslinging past. In Tombstone, the threshold between past and present, between fiction and reality, was increasingly blurred.
The Reenacted Slaughter of OK Corral
To confirm it, 15:30 pm arrived, the time of the last re-enactment of the day of OK Corral's duel. We moved to the small bench set up facing the gaudy scenery and let the action unfold. Every year, more than 400.000 outsiders watch this neat little theatre.
If we take into account the cinematographic and television re-enactments spread all over the world, the number of spectators and those familiar with the events that precipitated from March 15, 1881 to April 15, 1882 increases exponentially.
The confrontations between good and evil, law and outlaws, had such bloodthirsty and moving endings that they entered like piercing bullets in the profuse Western historical imagination of the USA.
Democrats, Republicans and the Outlaw Cowboys
In the wake of the American Civil War, shrouded in greed, resentment and treachery, Tombstone had seen various tensions escalate from his early days. Most of its cobols, semi-exiled earth men, were “Democrats” from the South, especially from Texas, attached to the Confederate and defeated side of the conflict that had just begun to heal.
Mine and business owners, miners, inhabitants and law enforcement officers were almost all Republicans. More ideologically receptive and resourceful capitalists from the northern states.
From 1880 onwards, the Mexican government severely taxed US imports of alcohol, cattle and tobacco. The smuggling of these goods has intensified. It spread the criminal action of outlaw gangs who called themselves “Cowboys”.
So much so that, in Cochise County to which Tombstone belonged, it was considered insulting to use the term to refer to men who handled cattle. Instead, they should be called “Stake".
The Earps vs Pack McLaury, Clanton and Claiborne
Part of this picture, on the night of March 15, 1881, three cobols tried to steal a stagecoach carrying $26.000 in bar silver. They killed their popular driver and another passenger. Sheriff Virgil Earp and his brothers and temporary deputies Wyatt and Morgan Earp set out on the criminals' trail.
The persecution turned out to involve a familiar and rival clan of Cobols who despised the Earp brothers' ancestry in Tombstone and the legal and moral counterpower they represented. It triggered a sequence of ambushes and counter-ambushes, murders and revenge, which, in turn, led to the confrontation of OK Corral.
Then, in thirty seconds, the Earp brothers, and their physical friend Doc Holliday, shot down Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton. Even though they were fatally wounded, the latter two still managed to fight back and wounded Virgil, Morgan and Doc. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne fled.
Wyatt, an Earp Doomed to Revenge
Despite the impact and notoriety of this particular duel, the conflict would continue. The new Sheriff Beham who had watched the duel detained the Earps and Holliday, who were accused of murder. A month later, after Tombstone legal authorities ruled that the killings had been justified, he released them.
Meanwhile, Virgil Earp was trapped, shot by wildebeests hiding in a street in Tombstone. After another three months, his brother Morgan succumbed to a bullet that hit his spine while playing pool. In both cases, the responsible gunmen escaped justice.
Frustrated by the growing cowardice and inefficiency of the city's Law, Wyatt, the surviving Earp, organized a squadron on horseback that chased and slaughtered the four wildebeests who had fired at the brothers. This ultimate chase went down in history as Earp Vendetta Ride.
The Hollywood Versions of Tombstone
Since 1939, Hollywood has reinforced Tombstone's media firepower. “Frontier Marshall”, “Sheriff of Tombstone","My Darling Clementine” by John Ford with Henry Fonda, “Gunfight at the OK Corral","hour of the gun","Tombstone"and "Wyatt Earp”, these feature films and several other television works addressed the bloody sequel.
Kevin Costner was expected to star in "Tombstone” by George P. Cosmatos, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, but he was displeased by screenwriter Kevin Jarre's refusal to give more weight to Wyatt Earp's character. Kostner abandoned that stage. He teamed up with Laurence Kasdan (the director of the epic “Silverado” from 1985) in the rival project “Wyatt Earp".
According to Kurt Russell, he also did everything to prevent the big Hollywood studios from distributing “Tombstone”. However, the Buena Vistas boycotted his boycott. The two films premiered six months apart in their own commercial duel.
As for Tombstone village, the censuses of USA they showed that, once silver mining had ended, the population had dropped from 1900 inhabitants in 1890 to less than 700 in 1900.
As of October 26, 1881, Billy Clayton, Tom McLaury and Frank McClaury who, as we have witnessed, have their headstones just below the OK Corral, among cacti and under a blanket of pebbles, no longer contribute to local demography.
Tombstone, however, remained the county seat of Cochise county until 1929 and saved itself from becoming a ghost town. Ten years later, its media coverage via Hollywood began to encourage the intense tourism that now sees it. Nearly 140 years after its founding, the tormented Tombstone endures.
More tourist information about Tombstone on the website visit Arizona.