George Johnson’s mouth landed him in Boothill.
In Tombstone, whose name beckons visitors to come see the graves of the denizens of the West, Johnson left his wife a widow when he got himself hanged as a liar in 1882. An innocent man, who attempted to bolster his image by pretending to be a horse robber and a murderer, never once tried to recant before his death.
Highway 80 leads to Tombstone from the north, passing first by the bustling Boothill Graveyard. The tourist trap of the dead offers a face for the town, and a way of framing the present using the past.
Originally a mining town, Tombstone was made famous by gang-style shooting and movies that made myth and mystified a violent time.
Dressed re-enactments bring Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp to life daily, but none of the heroes of the shooting at the O.K. Corral are buried in Tombstone. Boothill only kept the losers as memories of the battle – Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury.
Tombstone’s official town historian, Ben T. Traywick, who retired in 2010, helped shape and tell the stories of many of early Tombstone residents whose bodies now lie in Boothill. Among these, George Johnson, under a wooden headstone bearing the epitaph, “HANGED BY MISTAKE.”
Also under Boothill, the bodies of six men hanged for their crimes during the Bisbee Massacre, a bank robbery gone south that led to the murder of a number of residents.
Also, two men who were killed when wagons ran over their heads.
Also, Foo Kee, the owner of a candy store, who was stabbed with a dagger during a robbery, by accident, by his best friend who was trying to defend him.
Also, victims of mine explosions.
Also, James Tully, forced to jump from an elevator.
Also, Mrs. Stump, a mother poisoned by her doctor after childbirth.
Also, Lester Moore, “FOUR SLUGS FROM A .44, NO LES NO MORE.”
Boothill, a graveyard with a gift for gab, has a gift shop for an entrance, and is one of the few cemeteries that’s managed by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
For Tombstone, Boothill is a necessity. The gift shop took in $48,387 in donations last year. The amount was low. In previous years, visitors gave more. In 2008, more than $100,000 in donations were given to keep the cemetery going.
At a City Council meeting this month, one council member blamed the disparity on the training of employees. “If we don’t ask for it, we’re not going to get it,” Council Member Bill Barrow said, referring to requests for donations.
Legally, as a graveyard, Boothill can’t charge people to come in. A suggested donation of $3 (which comes out to a price at about a penny per grave) was raised within the last few years from $2.
A third of the graves in Boothill hold unidentified bodies. Almost everyone was buried during a span of time between 1878 and 1884. Afterward, the unattended graveyard dilapidated, before residents began to restore what they could.
Wooden stakes in the ground with black lettering look like props from the spooky section of Disneyland. The design of Boothill isn’t original.
Mounds of rock, added later, imply corpses, helping visitors imagine the bodies underneath. However, the mounds appear smaller than a person would be.
Prickly pear, agave and ocotillo grow out of graves. Their roots grip the dead.
Names and epitaphs written in memory of some seem more like accusations than elegies: “3-FINGERED JACK DUNLAP, SHOT BY JEFF MILTON,” and “ROOK, SHOT BY A CHINAMAN.”
The cemetery’s 11 rows leave space between almost every grave, so tourists can walk by. A fence made of ocotillo separates the dirt parking lot, and the occasional revving of motorcycles, from burial sites and headstones.
A path leads to a gated monument, “DEDICATED TO THE JEWISH PIONEERS AND THEIR INDIAN FRIENDS.” In a backyard next to the memorial, a small billboard for Nellie Cashman’s Restaurant stands, “Homemade, Pies, Desert, & Food.” The location is appropriate, considering the restaurant closed years ago.
In the gift shop, a woman sells fudge behind a counter. Another takes donations and explains that the historical tour is self-guided. A sign (“Please Remember That This is a Cemetery and Should be Treated With Respect”) sits eye-level with Les Moore coffee mugs for sale on a shelf.
Devon Confrey is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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