Like so many other places in the Old West with violent histories, Tombstone is said to be one of the most haunted in Arizona.
The streets of Tombstone themselves are said to be the pathways of many a lingering spirit, one of which is the long-dead Marshal Fred White, who was accidentally shot by Cowboy faction leader, Curly Bill Brocius on October 28, 1880. White, the first marshal of Tombstone, had gained the respect of the Clanton Gang, and in fact, had arrested “Cowboy” members on several occasions, rarely having any problems when doing so. In the early morning of October 28th, Curly Bill and several of his cohorts were making sport by shooting up the town.
When White went to disarm the gunman, a shot was accidentally fired, hitting White in the groin. Though it was thought that he would make a full recovery, two days later, he died. Today, he is said to haunt the street in front of the shooting site, which was an empty lot where the Bird Cage Theatre was built a year later.
Another ghostly cowboy, that of a man moving along in a long black frock coat, has also been seen on several occasions. Crossing the road, the apparition is often seen near the site where Virgil Earp was ambushed and shot in the arm, crippling him for life. The spirit never makes it across the street, leading many to believe that this may be the ghost of Virgil Earp himself.
A woman in a long white dress has also been spied on Tombstone streets. One legend tells that she is a fretful mother whose child died from yellow fever in the 1880s and was devastated; she later took her own life. Another version of the tale claims that she was a brothel madam who was hanged and continues to stalk the streets searching for her executioners.
Lawlessness though was not the only cause of numerous deaths during Tombstone’s heydays. Twice it suffered terrible fires, the first in June 1881 and a second in May 1882. During these two infernos, which both wiped out significant business district areas, more than 40 men lost their lives in the crowded saloons and brothels that burned to the ground. These long-dead, suffering men are also said to make themselves known, appearing complete with drastic burns. Others have reported the smell of smoke and burning materials when there is no explainable reason.
Tombstone’s most famous place – the OK Corral, was the site of the best-known gunfight in the Old West. Portrayed in dozens of western films and books, the gunfight made a legend of Wyatt Earp and brought Tombstone, Arizona fame.
After tensions had been building between the Earps and the Cowboy faction in Tombstone, for some time, Marshal Virgil Earp determined to disarm the men on October 26, 1881, resulting in the 30-second shoot out, which left Frank and Tom McLaury, as well as Billy Clanton, dead. Also involved in the gunfight for the Cowboys were Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller. In the Earp party were brothers Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan, as well as Doc Holliday.
Today, the OK Corral is allegedly haunted by the Cowboys’ ghosts over the years. Several witnesses have reported seeing the fading apparitions of men dressed in cowboy attire, often appearing with guns drawn, perhaps locked into a perpetual battle with the Earps. Others have claimed to have felt numerous cold spots in various areas of the corral.
The OK Corral is at 308 E. Allen Street.
Boot Hill Graveyard
At the nearby Boot Hill Graveyard, called such because many of its occupants died with their boots on, more than 250 graves give partial stories of the Tombstone’s lawless past. Used primarily from 1878-1884, the graveyard was originally called the “Tombstone Cemetery.” Men such as those killed at the OK Corral Gunfight, Marshal Fred White killed by Curly Bill Brocius, an unfortunate soul by the name of George Johnson who was hanged by mistake, five men hanged for the vicious killings labeled the “Bisbee Massacre,” gunfighter, Charlie Storms who was killed by Luke Short, and dozens more, ranging from prospectors to outlaws, lawmen, and prostitutes. Of some who were laid to rest here, their names were never known or were only known by a nickname.
Over the years, the old cemetery fell into disrepair, with numerous old wooden tombstones falling or decomposing entirely and others being stolen by souvenir hunters. It wasn’t until the town’s first Helldorado Days, around 1929, the old cemetery began to be referred to as the Boot Hill Graveyard. Still, it continued to sit neglected until the 1940’s when an effort began to restore the cemetery.
Today it is one of Tombstone’s most popular tourist attractions. Evidently, per several legends, it also remains popular with the many dead who lie there. Visitors often report seeing strange lights and hearing unidentifiable noises coming from the old graveyard. Spirits have been spied on numerous occasions, and even more frequently are said to appear in photographs. Billy Clanton, killed in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, is said to rise from his grave before walking along the road back to Tombstone.
The Boot Hill Graveyard is just north of Tombstone on Highway 80.
Bird Cage Theatre
One of the oldest original buildings in Tombstone and most authentic attractions in this once-booming mining camp, the Bird Cage Theatre also has the reputation as being the most haunted place in town, allegedly continuing to host as many as 31 ghosts.
The Bird Cage was named for its 14 small “cribs” hanging from the ceiling that once housed “painted ladies,” dressed as finely feathered birds. After its opening in 1881, it quickly gained a reputation as the wildest place in town, so much so that even the far away New York Times said of it: “the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.
Between 1881 and 1889, the Bird Cage never closed its doors 24 hours a day, as it provided gambling, drinking, and other vices to its many customers. The saloon was the scene of 26 deaths, which can be attested to by the 140 bullet holes, which can still be viewed at the Bird Cage today.
Since 1934, the old building has served as a museum owned and operated by the Hunley family. It still houses the gilded “cages,” hand-painted stage, and the original Grand Piano. Here, where tourists can walk along the floors of this historic honky-tonk, once walked the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
Seemingly, some of these old legends of the past continue to stalk the old saloon as both staff and guests alike have reported seeing ghostly apparitions in the 1800’s clothing. Most often sighted is the figure of a male stagehand that appears wearing black striped pants, a visor, and holding a clipboard as he walks across the stage. Other occurrences include the sounds of raucous laughter and music pouring from the old theatre’s doors at night. Others report hearing the faint sounds of a woman singing, and the museum’s sound system has inexplicably turned on of its own accord, blaring old-time music. Others have reported strange sounds coming from the main floor’s balconies and the sharp scents of cigar smoke and whiskey. After closing time, the staff has reported hearing the sounds of clinking glass and cards shuffling.
The haunting reports date back to 1921, when a school was built across the street and students began to report the sounds of laughter and music coming from the abandoned building, as well as the smell of cigar smoke.
Over the years, the Hunley family, staff, and visitors alike have experienced several strange events. One of the fascinating tales is how a dice table, which weighed several hundred pounds, mysteriously moved the night before. When staff arrived the next morning, the table had been moved in front of a door with a sign that read: “Don’t Disturb Our 26 Resident Ghosts.” The table is so heavy that it reportedly took eight men to move it back to its former position.
Another story tells of a statue of Wyatt Earp that was made and placed in one of the cribs overlooking the theatre. When it was first placed there, staff would arrive in the morning to find “Wyatt’s” hat continually knocked off and thrown into the floor below. This occurred over and over for about six months. On one occasion, staff arrived to find the statue was turned around, with its back facing the view from below. Sometime later, a local historian told the Hunley’s that they had placed the Wyatt Earp statue in the crib that was usually reserved by the Clantons. When the statue was moved to the crib that Wyatt actually frequented when he was alike, the hat tossing finally stopped.
On another occasion, a valuable antique poker chip, which had been missing for years, suddenly reappeared on the poker table. Upon finding it there, it was locked away in a safe until historians could authenticate it. However, when the historians arrived, they were disappointed to find that the chip had suddenly gone missing again. Only after they left did it reappear in a locked desk drawer.
The Bird Cage Theatre has been the sight of several paranormal investigations featured on popular television programs.
The Bird Cage Theatre is located at 517 E Allen Street.
Nellie Cashman’s Restaurant
Nellie Cashman’s Restaurant is another haunted location with spirits allegedly visiting this old building since frontier days. Located in Nellie Cashman’s old restaurant and boarding house, once called the Russ House, today’s quaint little restaurant is said to continue to host a spirit or two.
Its original owner, Nellie Cashman, was one of the Old West’s original female entrepreneurs, as well as a prospector and an “angel of mercy,” known throughout the west for her charity, courage, and determination.
After traveling to mining camps in Nevada and Canada, Cashman made her way to Tombstone in 1880, where she opened the Russ House. Soon, she moved on to other mining camps, but not until she had made her mark on Tombstone.
Though most do not believe that it is the building’s original owner who continues to lurk within its walls, they do believe there is “someone.” Both staff and customers have made several reports of playful spirits who continue to make their presence known.
Often, staff will arrive in the morning to find that objects have been moved during the night. Strange noises, crashing sounds, and even muted voices have been heard in the building. Lights mysteriously turn on and off of their own accord, and sudden temperature changes are felt in various areas. Though these spirits are seemingly harmless, they seem to be sensitive to criticism, making themselves known when people express their non-belief. In fact, on one occasion, when a customer was making fun of the ghosts, a mustard bottle suddenly jumped from the table, leaving her clothing spattered with the yellow gook.
Yet others have actually professed to having seen an apparition of a woman, most presuming it is Nellie herself. However, ghost investigators doubt this, as Nellie actually died in Canada many years after leaving Tombstone. Later, after Nellie had moved on, the building was used as a boarding house, and allegedly a woman who lived there was murdered by a man who was also living there. The investigators believe that it is this woman who continues to lurk within the building.
The restaurant is located at 117 South 5th Street.
At the historic Buford House, an 1880s adobe home, which now serves as a Bed & Breakfast, the ghost of a man named George Buford apparently refuses to leave. In the late nineteenth century, George, a gold prospector, lived in the house with his father when he fell in love with the girl across the street, Cleopatra, more familiarly called Petra.
After returning from a long prospecting trip, George accompanied Petra and some other friends on an outing. For some reason, the girl decided to accompany another man on the walk home. George, sure that he had lost his promised girl, became angry, despondent and reclusive. Soon, when Petra visited him, he shot her twice, then turned the gun on himself. Despite her wounds, Petra recovered, but George died of his self-inflicted gunshot.
Like others who died tragic deaths, George continues to walk the earth, apparently lost in space and time. Both the owners and guests have seen him walking inside the home and along the street in front of the old adobe structure. Often, the doorbell rings in the middle of the night, seemingly, of its own accord. Others have reported hearing knocking on walls, faucets turning themselves on and off, and strange lights appearing. Once in a while, women report that they have felt someone touch their hair or stroke the back of their necks when no one is around.
The Buford House is at 113 E. Stafford Street.
At Schieffelin Hall, a building constructed in 1881 to bring “culture” to Tombstone, more ghosts are thought to remain here. Built by Al Schieffelin, brother to Tombstone’s founder, Ed Schieffelin, the hall was envisioned as a first-class opera house, offering culture to Tombstone’s citizens for the first time. And that it did for the next several decades, offering a theatre alternative to the decadent Bird Cage Theatre, where the “proper” people of Tombstone wouldn’t be seen.
The hall opened in June 1881 to grand applause as the largest and most imposing building in Tombstone and the largest adobe building anywhere in the Southwest.
Attracting theatre troupes from as far away as New York, Tombstone’s finest enjoyed the productions, as well as balls, boxing matches, lectures, and more. According to news accounts of the time, it soon gained a reputation as the most noted theatre between San Antonio and San Francisco.
However, when Tombstone suffered, so did Schieffelin Hall. By the early 1900s, the hall was showing the new “moving” pictures and a few scattered productions. But Tombstone’s heydays were over, and for the next half-century, the hall would be used only by the Masonic Lodge as it gradually fell into disrepair with the rest of the once-booming town.
Fully restored today, it is said to continue to host several spirits; in fact, some say it is one of the most haunted but overlooked buildings in Tombstone. On several occasions, people have heard what sounds like chains or spurs rattling inside the building. In fact, during one ghost tour, an entire group heard the sounds. Several other strange sounds have also been heard in the building, especially during Tombstone City Council meetings that regularly occur in the building. One does wonder if perhaps they protest because seemingly, those meetings are so heated that one might wonder if they have reverted to the 19th century.
Big Nose Kate’s Saloon
This popular saloon of today first got its start as the Grand Hotel in September 1880. Declared as one of the finest hotels in the state, the hotel was luxuriously furnished, provided thick carpeting, and its walls were adorned with costly oil paintings. Providing 16 bedrooms, each with a “view,” they were fitted with solid walnut furnishings, toilet stands, fine fixtures, and wallpaper. The lobby was equipped with three elegant chandeliers and more luxurious furnishings. At the same time, the kitchen boasted hot and cold running water and facilities to serve some 500 people in the span of a couple of hours. The hotel opened with an invitation-only ball on September 9, 1880.
During its first few years, the hotel often housed some of Tombstone’s most famous residents, including Wyatt and Virgil Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton Gang when they came into town. In fact, Ike Clanton and the two McLaury brothers were registered guests the night before the famous OK Corral gunfight.
Another interesting character living at the hotel during its heydays was a man they called the “Swamper.” A janitor and odd job man of the hotel, the Swamper was regarded as an honest employee and was given accommodations as part of his pay. His bedroom, located in a dark corner of the basement, not only served as a retreat from the hotel’s many customers but also his own private mine shaft. The basement, located deep below Tombstone’s streets, was not too far from the many mine shafts that ran beneath the town. Swamper painstaking spent his off-hours tunneling an entrance from his bedroom to the nearby mine shafts for some time. When his tunnel was complete, he could access a thick vein of silver, where he began to “moonlight” as a miner, taking from the vein silver nugget after silver nugget. What he did after hoarding his silver is unknown, but many believe it may still be hidden somewhere beneath Big Kate’s Saloon.
Alas, the Grand Hotel’s luxurious life would be a short one as she did not survive the devastating fire of May 25, 1882. Above ground, the only things that remained standing were her seven graceful arches and her floor joists on the main level. The rest of the building collapsed into the basement.
Today, the building is home to Big Nose Kate’s Saloon. Several changes have been made to the original structure since it burned down and has been rebuilt. The bar area, which was originally housed in the old hotel’s basement, is now located on the main level. In the basement is a gift shop, but the tunnel leading to the mine shafts still exists. The saloon holds the Grand Hotel’s original long bar, the only one of which survived the fire of 1882 and is still available for thirsty patrons. The only other long bar that survived the two infernos is in the Bird Cage Theatre, now a museum. Imagine setting your elbows down on the very place that once did the Earps, Doc Holliday, and the Clantons.
Today, not only does this historic saloon continue to be popular among its new patrons, but it is also said to remain home to a couple of spectral ones as well. Naturally, the most evident is that of the “Swamper,” who allegedly has never left the building. Staff, locals, and tourists have had experiences with this old miner, ranging from photos where he has appeared to several fleeting appearances as he roams the halls, stairways, and especially the basement. Part of the legend claims that the “Swamper” hid his silver somewhere in the building and returns to protect it.
Other appearances have been made by fleeting cowboy spirits seen at the bar, standing in doorways, and by one account, knocking over beer cases in the basement. Perhaps, this is one of our old friends – the Earps or Holliday?
Other witnesses have claimed to have heard phantom people singing and talking in deserted rooms, reported that things fall to the floor of their own accord, doors open and close with unseen hands, lights turn on and off by themselves, and silverware has been known to go flying off tables.
The mannequins on the false balcony have seemingly been moved and sometimes even tossed from the balcony. The sounds of footsteps and muted voices are often heard coming from the basement when no one is down there. Areas in the saloon also experience extreme cold spots and gusts of cold air.
Photographers have made numerous reports of strange hazy forms appearing in images, as well as having numerous camera malfunctions.
One story tells of the building’s owner and several employees exploring an old “Swamper’s” tunnel. They soon discovered that it still led all the way to the old shafts of the Toughnut Mine. Safely, they made their way back to the basement, but as they approached Swamper’s tunnel, they heard a loud moaning sound and heavy footsteps coming down the stairs leading to the tunnel.
Sure that someone had come into the building, they came out of the tunnel, immediately searching the premises, only to find the building empty and the doors still locked. Perhaps Swamper was afraid they were going to find his silver?
Other strange events have occurred on the staircases leading to the basement, including female employees who have felt pushed off the last stair. Another female employee felt cold, clammy hands encircling her throat.
Whatever you do, don’t let the ghosts scare you because the atmosphere and food at Big Kate’s Saloon are wonderful and the place is a “must stop” in Tombstone. The restaurant/saloon is located at 417 E Allen Street.
There are yet more hauntings in Tombstone, such as a ghost who allegedly haunts Room 119 at the old Tombstone Hotel. Sometime in the past, a man evidently hanged himself in the room, and now, guests report hearing voices and witnessing objects moving in the room.
A ghostly man in a frock coat has been seen wandering near the old Wells Fargo Bank Building, while others have reported seeing the apparitions of stage drivers and cowboys. In front of the recreated C.S. Fly Studio, people have reported smelling perfume when there is none present.
At the renovated Crystal Palace Saloon, people say the ghost of Big Nose Kate continues to lurk. Evidently, when she lived in Tombstone, the establishment was one of her favorites. Today staff and customers have reported the unexplainable movement of objects to different locations, lights that turn on and off by themselves, and gambling wheels that spin of their own accord. According to the tales, Kate is not alone in the building, as yet others have spied phantom cowboys at the bar and walking around in the saloon.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2022.
Big Nose Kate-Holliday’s Sidekick
John Henry “Doc” Holliday – Deadly Doctor of the Frontier
Tombstone – The Town Too Tough To Die
Tombstone Historic Buildings – Gallery & Descriptions