By MICHELLE FLOYD
Arizona Sonora News
In the town that billed itself as being “Too Tough to Die,” the women were even tougher. Everyone has heard of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday and John Ringo . But have you heard of Big Nose Kate, Sadie Jo, China Mary, Margarita, and Dutch Annie?
Tombstone, 30 miles from the Mexican border and 70 miles southeast of Tucson, was one of the last boom towns in the fabled old American West. The 1881 “Gunfight at O.K. Corral” put the town on the publicity map after big city newspapers, looking for colorful narratives out of the exotic Old West, widely wrote about it and edged that thirty-second shootout into the history books.
But just up the street, the female workers in the town’s busiest business, the extensive red light district, may have an even more enticing story, and one that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as gunfights in the street or in bars. Maybe they should, some historians say.
At the far end of Allen Street from the O.K. Corral, stands the Birdcage Theater, which in its heyday during the silver-mine boom was a riotous combination of saloon, gambling hall, dancehall, theater, opera house, and brothel. But many desperate young women who couldn’t get a gig at the Birdcage stationed themselves in pitiful streetside shacks called “cribs.”
Tombstone history reenactor, James Zuvela, described these shelters as “double the size of an outhouse.”
One still stands today, located off of Allen Street.
These cribs lined a 12-block span of Allen Street. In the town’s heyday, 106 cribs were recorded (prostitution was legal and licensed). Pockets full of cash, scores of men — miners, cowboys in town for a bender — would be lined up on Allen Street to patronize the cribs.
Tombstone doesn’t hide that part of its past. In the Birdcage, there is a room that displays photos and memorabilia of the best known local prostitutes, including their town-issued licenses. But Tombstone in general does not highlight that ugly aspect of its past as it markets itself with reenacted gunfights and faux westernalia.
There are several museums in Old West towns that cogently highlight the era and its settings, while providing educational context about the exploitation of poor girls who had no other options and the role of prostitution in an Old West town. One of them is the Old Homestead House Museum in the historic gold-mine mecca of Cripple Creek, Colorado, where women in period garb conduct well-informed tours and the admission price is $5. One recent visitor raved on TripAdvisor.com: “The ladies who give the tours are superb! It feels like they knew the working girls personally. …The furnishings were so beautiful and they even gave their history!”
The Birdcage, by contrast, charges $10 admission.
The prostitution business boomed on sordid levels with prices often determined by perceptions of race, “Chinese, African American, and Native American women cost 25 cents; Mexican women were 50 cents; women billed as being “French” 75 cents, and American women went for $1.00,” according to Ben T. Traywick’s book, Behind the Red Lights (History of Prostitution in Tombstone).
Lacking freedom and money in big cities, some women journeyed to the Wild West for the same reasons as men —money, adventure, desperation to flee an old life and start a new one. But for women, becoming a cowboy, a miner or a sheriff wasn’t an option. Instead, thousands of women were drawn, and in some cased lured, to the Old West to work as prostitutes.
Many became trapped in wretched, desperate conditions where abuse and disease were rampant, and suicide was not uncommon. But some willingly chose to stay in the profession, and became prototypes for the kinds of Old West female characters often depicted as dancing girls or saloon keepers in cowboy movies and TV shows that coyly avoided mentioning the fact that the saloon keeper Miss Kitty in the long-running radio and later television series Gunsmoke would, in real life, have been a prostitute or a madam.
Many also took up residence in the Birdcage and several other venues, performing as both actresses in the limelight, and whores in the dim crIbs and tiny rooms downstairs or, as in the case of Tombstone’s venerable Birdcage theater, in balcony stalls in the theater itself.
The Birdcage was a gambling hall, a saloon, a whorehouse, a theater, and even a regional performing arts center that drew nationally touring acts, including opera singers and vaudeville hoofers. While culture was served, so were the demands of the male patrons, many of them cowboys or miners with pockets full of money on a night in town. There were 14 cribs or “bird cages” where the women would entertain men at all hours of the day, some downstairs by the poker tables and others in curtained off boxes above the theater itself.
Given that Tombstone has a well-documented problem drawing new tourists, especially young visitors who may not be especially enthralled by reenactments of gunfights, has the town neglected emphasizing one of its more compelling, and even colorful, historical legacies, though a sordid one — Old West prostitution and the ugly business it fostered? Why keep that aspect of its history from exploration at a time when few people under the age of 50 even know who Wyatt Earp was?
Susan Hawksworth, an employee of the Birdcage Theater, said the building’s racy past isn’t a secret to locals.
“Some people are shocked, but most people know about the prostitution,” she said.
Meet some of the ladies
Big Nose Kate, or Mary Katherine Harony, was one of the first madams to arrive in Tombstone, where the men admired her for her curves and her moxie. She caught the public’s eye as the on-again, off-again girlfriend of Dr. John Henry Holliday, A.K.A Doc Holliday.
Kate stayed in Tombstone for a time until a fight with Holliday had her packing her bags and bloomers. She later went to work at a brothel out of town, but still came back to Tombstone to visit Holliday. The last time she visited Tombstone was the day of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which she actually watched from Holliday’s bedroom while Holliday himself was shooting it out on the street.
Another woman who was involved with one of the men in the gunfight was Josephine “Sadie Jo” Sara Marcus. When she came to Tombstone, she became smitten with Wyatt Earp, the deputy marshal. Despite later movie and television depictions of Earp as a noble, steadfast lawman, Earp was a heavy drinker and a gambler who enjoyed the company of prostitutes.
Sadie Jo worked out of the Birdcage Theater as a prostitute between acting jobs. Before her and Earp’s love affair, Earp actually wrote her prostitution license, which had to be displayed above her bed for customers to see. These permits, issued by the city of Tombstone at the cost of $7.50, allowed women to run a “House of Ill Fame,” which was the actual wording on the document. They eventually fell in love and later on, Earp worked hard to hide her shady history.
Earp may have run the law in Tombstone, in the boomtown days, Mrs. Ah Lum, who was known as China Mary, was also a major figure. Her house still stands in Tombstone today. Many Asian prostitutes were known as “China Marys” at the time, but she was the China Mary of Tombstone.
She did not necessarily live a virtuous life. After all, she commanded prostitutes and even sold Asian slaves. But China Mary was well liked. Her funeral was attended by a big crowd. Her grave is in what is known as the Chinese section of the Boothill Graveyard, in the corner of Row 10.
One of the prostitutes whose life was marked by violence was called Margarita. As a Birdcage theater performer, she favored the poker-playing men, particularly Billy Milgreen. But Milgreen was the prostitute Gold Dollar’s man. When Margarita kissed Billy during a poker game, Gold Dollar stabbed her. She died that evening: Row 2 at Boothill graveyard.
Dutch Annie was a prostitute who earned the title of “Queen of the Red Light District.” She ran a house of “ill-fortune” in Tombstone, which was the designation for a prostitution house without a license. There is also evidence that she may have purchased one of her prostitution houses from Wyatt Earp.
Although she made a disreputable living, she was also admired kindness and charity, including taking care of miners when disease broke out through the camp. When she died, people from high social standing to those of red light world. mourned her death at Boothill, where she still rests today: Row 7.
This history of Tombstone is still visible in town today, for those willing to dig a little deeper beneath the gunfights and simulated bar brawls. But to many tourists, and even some in town who depend on tourism as a livelihood, Tombstone “is all about a 30 second gunfight to most people — and the history here is far richer than that,” said Tim Fattig, the manager at the O.K. Corral. manager.
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Michelle Floyd is a senior Journalism Major at the University of Arizona, where she also plays softball. In her free time, she likes to be out hiking, hanging out with friends, and creating new media projects.