Tombstone, Arizona - The Town Too Tough To Die
From VOA Learning English, welcome to This is America. I’m Steve Ember.
The United States has thousands of "ghost towns."
[Wind and prairie sounds]
These are communities that once were successful but all the population moved to other places. Today on our program, we visit a town in the western state of Arizona that was saved from being a ghost town by a violent history.
It is called Tombstone. Come along with us!
The town that is now Tombstone, Arizona was first a mining camp. Silver miner Ed Schieffelin named the town. In 1877, Mr. Schieffelin was searching for silver in the Arizona territory. The area at the time was extremely dangerous. Apache Indians considered it to be their land and were all too ready to fight for it.
Ed Schieffelin used the army’s Camp Huachuca as a base for his search for silver. The soldiers there once asked him why he went out into Apache country every day. He answered: “To collect rocks.” One soldier then told him: “You keep fooling around out there amongst them Apaches and the only rock you’ll find will be your tombstone!” A tombstone is the stone that marks a person’s grave in a large burial place.
One day not long after, Ed Schieffelin finally did discover valuable silver ore in the area. He decided to call his claim “Tombstone” because of the soldier’s warning. Soon, people heard about his silver discovery and arrived in the area. Others found more silver and established other mines. And they used the name Tombstone for the town they built nearby.
The area around Tombstone became well known for its silver mines. And more people came to the town. Some were settlers, storekeepers and miners. But others were looking for easy money. These were gamblers and thieves who drank too much alcohol and settled their disagreements with their guns.
By the end of 1881, the town of Tombstone had a population of more than 5,000. It also had five local newspapers, at least two theaters, a courthouse, hotels and many local drinking places. And a gunfight had already taken place that would forever include Tombstone among the famous stories told about the American Wild West.
[Frankie Laine sings “Gunfight at OK Corral”]
OK Corral, OK Corral
There, the outlaw band
Make their final stand
Oh, my dearest one, must I lay down my gun
And take the chance of losing you forever?
Duty calls, my back’s against the wall
Have you no kind words to say before I ride away?
It was the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
The famous gunfight took place on October 26, 1881 between the town's top lawman, or marshal, and his deputies on one side and an outlaw group called the Cowboys on the other.
Stories from people who saw the fight led to newspaper reports, more stories, books, and later, movies and television shows. Not all these stories are exactly true. For example, the gunfight did not really take place in the OK Corral, but near it in a field just off a main street in town. Here is one generally accepted story.
The town marshal in Tombstone was Virgil Earp. His brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, also lived in the town. In fact, Wyatt was deputy city marshal, and Morgan had been named as a special policeman. The Earps had a long-standing dispute with the Cowboys. They had tried to arrest group members in the past for crimes such as robbery and murder. Members of the group included Billy Claiborne, Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury.
On the day of the famous fight, those men were gathered near the OK Corral, an enclosed area used to keep horses and other animals. They were armed, in violation of a town ban against carrying guns. They were also drinking alcohol and threatening to kill the Earp brothers.
Virgil Earp decided that it was his duty to disarm them. His two brothers and a friend, the gunfighter Doc Holliday, went along to help. The four walked down the street toward the corral. Virgil Earp told the cowboys to surrender their weapons. Billy Claiborne ran away. And the fight began.
It did not last long. Historians say 32 shots were fired in the space of about 23 seconds. No one really knows who fired first. But Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton died of gunshot wounds. Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded but survived. Only Ike Clanton and Wyatt Earp were not hurt.
A 1993 movie called “Tombstone” is one of the most recent attempts to tell this story. Listen to its recreation of the famous fight. Sam Elliott is Virgil, Kurt Russell is Wyatt and Stephen Lang plays Ike Clanton.
Virgil: “We’re here to disarm you. Throw up your hands.”
Voice: “Hold it. It’s not what I want.”
Ike: “Please…please!!! Stop! No! No! Don’t shoot. I got no gun. Please. Don’t shoot me. I got no gun!”
Voice: “Ike…get to fightin’ or get away.”
The Earps and Doc Holliday were arrested for murder and tried in the courthouse. A judge decided they had acted within the law. Wyatt Earp spoke in his own defense at the trial. Here is part of the local newspaper’s report of what he said:
“…I believed then, and I believe now…that these men…had formed a conspiracy to murder my brothers Morgan and Virgil and Doc Holliday and myself. I believe I would have been legally and morally justified in shooting any of them on sight, but I did not do so or attempt to do so; I sought no advantage. When I went as deputy marshal to help disarm and arrest them, I went as part of my duty and under the direction of my brother, the marshal.
“I did not intend to fight unless it became necessary in self-defense and in the performance of official duty. When Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols I knew it was a fight for life, and I drew and fired in defense of my own life and the lives of my brothers and Doc Holliday.”
Some people still dispute this. They say the Earps and Doc Holliday did not fire in self-defense, but used the law as an excuse for murder. Experts say one of the reasons the gunfight is so interesting to many people is that no one knows who shot first or why. But we do know that the violence between the Earps and the Cowboys did not end at the OK Corral.
Two more attempts to kill the Earp brothers took place after the famous fight. The first injured Virgil; the second killed Morgan. Wyatt, Doc Holliday and others decided to hunt down and kill those members of the Cowboys they felt were responsible.
Today, the gunfight at the OK Corral brings visitors from all over the world to the small town of Tombstone. The latest information from the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce says the town has a population of almost 1,400 people. More than 50 thousand people stopped by the Tombstone Visitor Center in 2013. But the town welcomes thousands more each year.
At the OK Corral, actors still recreate the famous gunfight. But other gunfighters are remembered in Tombstone, as well. For years, a restaurant called “Six Gun City” recreated some of the other gunfights that took place in Tombstone. A fire destroyed the restaurant in 2010. But those gunfight reenactments continue.
For example, one recreation plays out the gunfight that killed Billy Claiborne, a member of the Cowboys gang, who ran from the OK Corral. He was killed by gunfighter Frank Leslie on the main street in Tombstone. In fact, a marker near the spot tells what happened. It says: "Buckskin Frank Leslie killed Billy Claiborne here on November 14, 1882.”
[Frankie Laine sings]
Boot Hill, Boot Hill,
So cold, so still
Wyatt Earp, they say, saved Doc Holliday
From old Boot Hill…
Gunfighters and others who died in those early Tombstone years are buried in the local graveyard, “Boot Hill.”
It was named “Boot Hill” because many of those buried there died violently, or, as the saying goes, “with their boots on.” Burials there ended after 1884, but the cemetery was restored in the 1930s. Only a few headstones survive, but small metal signs mark the graves. Many simply say “unknown,” but others include short sayings. One that has been repeated many times says: “Here Lies Lester Moore, Four Slugs from a 44, No Les, No More.”
People from all over the world visit Tombstone to experience a small part of the old American West. They want to imagine what it would have been like to live in a place like Tombstone. It does not really matter if all the old stories are true or not. The people of Tombstone are only too happy to welcome them to a place known as “the town too tough to die.”
Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach. Jim Tedder read the newspaper story, and I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for This is America from VOA Learning English