On Allen Street in Tombstone, Arizona, "the town too tough to die,"
stands the Bird Cage Theatre, a combination brothel, gambling hall, theater, and
saloon. Back in the 1880s, it was a favorite night spot for many of the West’s
most legendary characters, including Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat
Masterson. This one-stop sin shop was described by the New York Times as “the
wildest, roughest, wickedest honky tonk between Basin Street and the Barbary
Coast." This reputation was well earned: the Bird Cage was the scene for
twenty-six deaths during its eight years of business.
Since closing its doors in 1889, laughter and music from another time still echo
from the inside of the Bird Cage at night, its resident spirits caught in
another dimension they often make visible to the living.
Prospector Ed Scheffelin’s discovery of silver in Goose Flats in 1877 brought
white adventurers to the Apache-dominated land in the Arizona Territory. A
soldier stationed at Brunckow’s cabin had warned Scheffelin: “The only thing
you’re going to find out there foolin’ around amongst those Apaches is your
own tombstone.” Scheffelin displayed his ironic sense of humor by naming his
mining claim in Goose Flats the "Tombstone Mine," from which grew the
Word of Scheffelin’s silver discovery spread quickly across the West and
beyond, and crowds of fortune seekers came to the booming mining camp in
Arizona, dreaming of the big strike. The town became a haven for outlaws, as
federal marshals had no jurisdiction in Arizona at the time. Beneath the streets
of Tombstone were countless silver mines, holding millions of dollars in riches.
The population jumped to 15,000. Saloons and brothels, operating 24 hours a day,
opened up all over town-101 saloons on Allen Street alone.
In 1881, the future Bird Cage Theatre was opened by William Hutchinson. First
known as the Elite Theater Opera House, it had a short stint as a legitimate
theater. The Elite had 14 “cribs”-small brothel rooms, furnished with only a
bed and table. The cribs were suspended from the ceiling, seven on each side,
and in these booths the ladies of the night plied their trade.
The name of the Elite Theater was changed after Arthur J. Lamb penned his famous
melody, "A Bird in a Gilded Cage," while standing at the bar one
night. Lamb was inspired while observing the ladies in the cribs, wearing
feathers in their hair, and plying their male clients with champagne, kisses,
and other favors of the trade. “They look like birds in a cage…they
haven’t got a chance,” Lamb remarked. He gave the song to Lillian Russell,
who premiered it onstage at the Elite. The crowd begged for eight encores. Each
performance of the song moved the ladies of the evening to tears. “A Bird in a
Gilded Cage” became one of the most popular songs of the nineteenth century,
and William Hutchinson was inspired to change the name of his club to “The
Bird Cage Theatre.”
A Wild, Swingin’ Bird
The Bird Cage Theatre operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week-even on
holidays. The notorious Doc Holliday was known to deal a game of faro at the
theater occasionally. The longest running card game at the Bird Cage was a poker
game that was played 24 hours a day, for eight years, five months, and three
days. The game had a minimum buy-in of $1000.
A total of 10 million dollars changed hands during the poker marathon, and the
house took ten percent. Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and
entrepreneurs such as Adolph Busch, and George Randolph Hearst, all participated
in the eight-year game at one time or another.
The Bird Cage was a wild and untamed place, not for the weak of heart. During
its eight years in business, 16 gun and knife fights took the lives of 26
people. The walls, floors, and ceilings of the Bird Cage are still riddled with
bullet holes, a silent testament to its violent past.
During the latter part of the 1880s, ground water began to flood the silver
mines of Tombstone. Men worked night and day in a hysterical frenzy to pump
water out of the mines, to no avail. With their treasures still buried deep
within, one by one the silver mines closed. Silver prices became depressed, and
people began leaving Tombstone.
Without the silver mines to fuel the town’s economy, it eventually became
impossible to keep the doors of the Bird Cage Theatre open. On Christmas Eve,
1889, William Hutchinson reluctantly shut down the theater. Hoping, perhaps, to
reopen in a few months or years, he left all the fixtures intact as he boarded
up his club. As it turned out, the building sat abandoned for 46 years.
Haunted Palace of Sin
The first rumors of supernatural activity at the old Bird Cage began to surface
in 1921, when a high school was built across the street for Tombstone’s few
remaining residents. School children began to report hearing laughter and music,
and smelling stale cigar smoke from the inside of the abandoned building. Many
were afraid to walk near it on their way to school.
In 1934, the Bird Cage Theatre was reopened as a tourist attraction by the
Hunley family. All of the furnishings and artifacts sealed inside were kept in
their original state-even the coin-operated music box still works. The theater
is currently owned by Bill Hunley, the fourth generation in his family to run
the theater. The Hunley family has done an excellent preservation job-the
original wallpaper and red velvet draperies still hang in the brothel cribs, and
the grand piano still stands unmoved from the position it held in the orchestra
pit over a century ago. The Black Mariah, the funeral carriage that was used
from the late 1800s to early 1900s to carry the deceased to Boothill, now rests
upon the Bird Cage Theater’s hand-painted stage. But some of those individuals
carted off by the Black Mariah have returned for another round. As the owner and
many locals will tell you, the Bird Cage’s 26 murder victims remain, and
continue their social rites from another time, as if unaware that they have
Hunley himself has experienced bizarre, poltergeist-like activity inside the
theater. The most significant of his paranormal experiences occurred one morning
about a decade ago. A dice table weighing several hundred pounds was somehow
moved the night before, while the theater was vacant. It was placed in front of
a door featuring a sign reading: “Don’t Disturb Our 26 Resident Ghosts.”
The table appeared to have been levitated over a craps table. It took eight men
to move it back to its former position.
Poltergeist activity runs rampant at the Bird Cage, and Bill Hunley has many
stories about things from another time suddenly materializing.
Once, a valuable antique poker chip, missing from a gaming table for years,
inexplicably and mysteriously reappeared in its former place. After finding the
chip, Bill Hunley locked it away in a bank vault while awaiting the arrival of
Western scholars to authenticate it. When the scholars arrived, Hunley was
greatly chagrined to find the chip had disappeared again. He searched
frantically for it, without any luck. Later, after the disappointed scholars had
left, the poker chip materialized in a locked desk drawer.
No Rest for Wyatt Earp
Several years ago, a Native American artist created a statue of Wyatt Earp that
was placed in one of the cribs that overlook the main room of the Bird Cage.
These cribs are screened off, so that no one can disturb the fragile artifacts
inside. Over a period of about six months, Earp’s hat was continually knocked
off and thrown out into the casino-sometimes for several days in a row. At one
point, the statue of Earp was turned completely around.
This activity continued until Hunley was informed by a local historian that the
crib in which Earp’s statue was displayed was the same crib that the Clantons
rented when they came to the Bird Cage. Billy Clanton, an enemy of the Earp
brothers, was shot and killed by one of them at the OK Corral, just a quarter
mile from the Bird Cage. After learning this, Hunley had the statue moved (in
respect for the Clantons) to the crib Earp frequented while he was alive. After
this, the poltergeist activity ceased.
In the basement of the Bird Cage, there is a high-stakes poker table and a few
bordello rooms where the high-priced call girls plied their trade. Once, a
perfect cigar ash was found near the basement poker table-after the floor had
been swept clean and the door locked for the night. Near the ash was a burned
antique match, of a type manufactured in the late 1800s. Coated with a lacquer
to keep it burning long enough to get a cigar going, it was the kind of match a
high roller would have used in that era. These matches today are considered
extremely valuable, and not something that would be burned and thrown away.
Employees of the Bird Cage Theatre have also reported unusual or bizarre
happenings over the years. Often, when the coin-operated music box is opened, it
will smell of cigar smoke. Quite frequently, smells of cigar smoke will waft
through the building when no one has been smoking. Sounds of laughter and music
from a bygone era are often heard. Many people, including tourists, have heard
the faint sounds of a woman singing to old-time music. Though the voice is
clear, the words of the song are not. There have also been many reports of a
phantom stagehand who walks across the stage wearing a visor and carrying a
Many employees admit they are afraid to be alone in the theater at night because
of the abundance of spirit activity. One employee reported that after the Bird
Cage had closed for the evening, he turned off the central sound system for the
building, and went down into the basement with another employee. They went
inside one of the bordello rooms-the same room where Wyatt Earp had a steamy
affair with high-priced courtesan Josephine Marcus (a.k.a. "Shady
Sadie"), while he was still married to his second wife, Mattie. Once the
two employees were inside the room, an unintelligible voice came over the sound
system, which then began blaring the song “Red River Valley.”
The two frightened employees were the only living people inside the building
that night. One of them stated: "You never want to be in here after nine
o’clock at night, that’s when stuff really starts happening."
Window to the Wild West
The most common story about the Bird Cage Theatre is being able to hear music,
laughter, smelling cigar smoke, and whiskey, all coming from inside the empty
building at night. Ghosts of old gamblers still place their bets at the faro
table around midnight, and you can hear the clinking of glasses, shuffling of
cards, and rolling of poker chips.
Some people who have peered through the front windows at night have seen a
spectral vision of the Bird Cage in the 1880s. These visions of another time
include apparitions of old-time people dancing, sitting at tables, and listening
to music. These apparitions laugh and make merry as if the silver days of
Tombstone had never come to an end. It comes as a shock to realize that the
theater and main floor of the Bird Cage, as they are today, are no longer
visible through the front windows, or any other windows in the building. A
dividing wall has been built between the front bar and main floor of the
theater. Back in the 1880s, this wall did not exist-you could see the entire
main floor from the front windows. The fortunate individuals who witness these
apparitions are given a rare, realistic glimpse into Tombstone’s illicit past.
The Tombstone Epitaph, the local newspaper since 1881, has reported many ghost
sightings in the area, and also at the Bird Cage Theatre. In a recent report,
the Epitaph stated that the son-in-law of one of the employees of the Bird Cage
became spellbound by a baby coffin on display in the theater’s museum. He saw
that the coffin was vibrating, and shot twelve rolls of film of the incident,
but none of the pictures came out. (See the website http://journalism.arizona.edu/epi/990924/birdcage.html
for an article on the Bird Cage Theatre.)
It was reported that some of the paranormal researchers who have come to the
theater in hopes of studying the ghostly phenomena inside have ended up leaving
in the middle of the night, saying that the place is just “too active.”
As you walk through the doors of the Bird Cage Theatre, you are transported back
in time and filled with the sights and smells of a distant era. In its days of
operation, there were few pleasures it failed to provide, and, perhaps because
of this, it retained a hold on many of its patrons forever. The Bird Cage
Theatre is considered by the locals to be the most haunted place in Tombstone,
which is very impressive, considering the fact that the entire town is full of
The Bird Cage Theatre is open to the public year-round, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00
p.m. daily. It is highly recommended for those who have an interest in
witnessing ghostly phenomena.