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The Spirit Of Tombstone

Gunslingers, saloon gals and perhaps even a ghost or two roam the sandy streets of an Arizona town that's too tough to die.

October 30, 2005|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Tombstone, Ariz. — THEY say ghosts walk the streets of this dusty desert town. It's easy to understand why.

With a name like Tombstone and a frenzied history of bloodshed, this outpost near the southwestern edge of the United States has a reputation that's ... well, haunted. And it doesn't help to see a dozen gunslingers die each day in the town's sandy red dirt.

The fights are staged, but Tombstone's checkered past is real, I learned when I spent a few days here earlier this month searching for ghosts. Tombstone, which advertises itself as "The Town Too Tough to Die," surprised me. So did the spirits of its past.

Nearly half a million people -- many of them European -- make their way to this wind-swept corner of the Sonoran Desert each year, jogging 60 miles southeast from Tucson to relive the bittersweet pleasures of the frontier West. They find a three-block Old Town, where saloons outnumber restaurants, stagecoaches still rumble down the street, and locals often wear six-guns along with their Stetsons, kerchiefs and rawhide boots.

"It's amazing how many people here never grew past the age of 10 or 11," said local historian Hollis Cook. "They just keep on playing cowboy."

But in this town of Old West legend and fantasy, that's considered a plus.

Tombstone owes its notoriety to the media, particularly Hollywood, which immortalized it in more than a dozen sagebrush sagas, including the bloody 1993 film "Tombstone," starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. Ronald Reagan, Burt Lancaster and Henry Fonda were among other actors who brought fame to the streets of Tombstone.

The cinematic tales are based on the exploits of Wyatt Earp, who, with brothers Virgil and Morgan and comrade Doc Holliday, made history in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on Oct. 26, 1881. When the 30-second fight was over, three of their adversaries -- Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton -- lay dead. Tombstone residents call it the most famous shootout in history.

Although the gunfight has garnered all the attention, it is only one of many deadly encounters that took place in a town where lawlessness often was the rule rather than the exception.

And modern Tombstone, which owes its livelihood to tourism, makes sure visitors take notice: Stroll through the Boothill Cemetery, where graves are marked with legends such as: "Margarita, Stabbed by Gold Dollar" and "Here lies Lester Moore, four slugs from a 44. No Les, No More." Or walk down Allen Street, where signs point out murder locations: "Curly Bill Brocius killed Marshal Fred White here on Oct. 28, 1880."

Given that so many of Tombstone's inhabitants have met a violent end, it's not surprising that shadowy tales of apparitions and phantoms swirl on the desert wind.

"A lot of people came to live here 100 years ago and never left," said Bill Huntley, chuckling. "They're all still here, no doubt about it." Huntley, who has lived in Tombstone for 64 years, owns the Bird Cage Theatre, one of the few remaining original buildings in town. Some say the spirits of its bawdy past still celebrate there.

A parapsychology team from Duke University in Durham, N.C., studied Tombstone's haunted sites nearly half a century ago, Huntley said. Others have conducted paranormal studies since, including the History Channel, which recently released a DVD called "Haunted Tombstone."


NOT everyone believes the stories. Historian Cook, for one, thinks they're nonsense: "I never saw anything that would make me believe in ghosts."

Unlike Cook, I do believe in them. Well, maybe I believe in them. At least, I have no reason to disbelieve. I've always thought about them the same way I think about Bora-Bora: I don't have go there to believe it exists. But it's much more interesting to see it for myself.

So why not try to meet a ghost or two, as long as I was going to Tombstone? It seemed as good a place as any for a close encounter with a spirit.

I thought about the prospect as I drove south from Tucson, through ranchland, farmland and sagebrush. The trip should have taken an hour, but for me it was two: I spent an extra hour with my motor idling while I waited for construction delays to clear on Arizona 80.

I thought about it when I went to the motel where I had a reservation. But there was a mix-up, and no room was available for me after all. I thought about it when I tried to rendezvous with a Times photographer and found that my cellphone, which works all over the world, wouldn't work in Tombstone.

And I thought about it when I took a seat at the daily reenactment of the shootout at the O.K. Corral and a cloudburst struck.

Perhaps the local specters didn't share my eagerness to get acquainted.

"Things like that always happen in Tombstone," I was told by frequent visitor Ellen Bilbrey of Phoenix.

So, for the moment, I put aside my plan to meet a ghost and concentrated on the town instead.

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