Monday, October 18, 2010


by Ben Small

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 made of 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, 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.

Yee haw.

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 Tombstone year -- every year. Tombstone is a town that lives by tourism, and Helldorado is the best time to experience the best and worst of "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 brothel -- 20 bucks for the balcony room, more for the girl -- or the basement brothel with the double beds, where the room-and-girl rates doubled.

Sadie gave Johnny Behan this picture, which was 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.

Good times...

At the entrance of the Bird Cage hangs a famous painting of Fatima. If you look closely at her picture, 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.

As I said, the furniture is original; everything inside the Bird Cage is original. So here is the Faro table the Earps owned, the site of the famous "duel" between Johnny Ringo and Doc Holiday, where Ringo twirled his pistol and Doc answered with a shot glass. Huckleberry, indeed...

Here's a picture of the interior of the Bird Cage, with a craps table in center 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.

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.


Anonymous said...


Helldorado sounds like a lot of fun. I visited Tombstone years ago when I moved from Texas to California. My mother was with me and the only side trip we made was to Tombstone where we went to Boot Hill.

Arizona was so beautiful that I decided if I didn't like California I would come back and settle in Arizona, but, of course-- I loved California.

Enjoyed your post and the great photos!

Pat Browning

Ben Small said...

Thank you, Pat. Some time ago, I invested in a professional camera. I'm still learning how to use it, but even so, the pix it takes are fantastic. As I learn more about the camera, hopefully, they'll get even better.

Helldorado is a hoot. I've been to Boot Hill three times. I grew up with Tombstone TV shows, Bat & Wyatt & all, so it holds a special place in my heart.

Bat's cane, which he used to bop bad guys, is at the Bird Cage. He only killed one man in a gun fight, and the guy he killed shot him in the pelvis, hence the cane. From what I understand, Bat became very good at handling that cane. Bat went on to become a sportscaster in NYC, and I believe he called the famous Dempsey fight. He and Wyatt were lifelong friends.

Anonymous said...

Your photos are really professional. Looks like you have a talent for photography and the camera was a good investment.

Interesting note about Bat Masterson. I never knew what happened to him. Didn't he get killed in the movie about the OK Corral? So much for learning history from Hollywood, eh?

Pat B.

Ben Small said...

Thank you, again.

No, Bat wasn't there. Funny thing about that. Bat left Tombstone to become sheriff of Pueblo, CO. Some McLaury relatives on a crusade to try and hang the Earps and Doc Holiday, paid a bounty hunter to track down Doc in Denver. He was put in jail awaiting transfer to Arizona, where times had changed and he likely would have hung. Bat learned this and rode over to Denver, made up a Colorado charge that would trump Arizona's, took custody of Doc, and then rode out of town with him only to release him as soon as they'd left. Doc went on to Glenwood Springs for treatment of his Consumption, and he died there. After Bat left Colorado, he went to NYC where he changed professions. He was very popular everywhere he went, and quite a guy with the ladies.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info about Bat Masterson. Looks like the TV people picked the right guy when they picked Gene Barry to play Bat Masterson in the series from 1958-61. I also loved him in Burke's Law. He was so elegant! I just read that Barry died this year at age 95. Gulp.

The movie I remember was My Darling Clementine starring Henry Fonda as Earp and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. Another golden oldie.

Pat B.

Ben Small said...

From what I've seen and read, Bat was very much like Gene Barry. Good casting.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Great article, Ben. I used to write historical articles for the Tombstone Epitaph and was present for one of the Helldorado parades, where people were fake fighting on the floats. It was hilarious.

Visiting Boot Hill was quite an experience as well.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Fun post, Ben. I'll have to place visiting Tombstone during Helldorado on my bucket list:)

Ben Small said...

Jean, I remember that. What history there... You know, the Epitaph swung from being an Earp supporter to a Clanton supporter upon a change of ownership about 1882.

Mark, you will enjoy that bucket content.

Jean Henry Mead said...

What surprised me most was that the OK Corral is so small for such a bloody battle.

Very good photos, by the way.

Ben Small said...

Me too, Jean. For all the buildup it's quite striking that it all occurred in such a small space. I'm surprised anybody survived.