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The Tombstone Western Heritage Museum Highlights History Behind the Storefronts

By Dave Lauterborn
1/16/2018 • Wild West Magazine

Presents period firearms, photos and a trove of Earp keepsakes.

Small-town Tombstone, Arizona (pop. 1,562), remains defined by the 30-second gunfight that broke out nearly 130 years ago in a vacant lot off Fremont Street. Half a million visitors arrive each year to watch the gunfight show at the O.K. Corral and stroll the boardwalks on Allen Street, pausing for a Tombstone trinket or perhaps a snapshot in Wild West getup and gun. Day visitors may ride the stagecoach or bump past batwing doors for a “whiskey, bartender!” before boarding the bus to Tucson. They have their fun, but few learn much of the true—and truly interesting—history of Tombstone’s silver-boomtown days. One museum, just around the corner from tourist row, aims to fill that gap.

The Tombstone Western Heritage Museum presents an ever-expanding collection of 12,000-plus objects related to Tombstone and the broader Old West. At the heart of the museum are original papers, photos, firearms, furniture, clothing, conveyances and other artifacts relating the history of the town and its citizens. A central display case is devoted to Earp family photos and keepsakes, including snapshots of brothers Virgil and Wyatt and a C.S. Fly–stamped photograph of Josephine Earp at age 18. One shelf holds a locket of Josie’s, with facing photos of her and husband Wyatt. Above it is a personal letter from Josephine, the canceled envelope addressed in Wyatt’s hand.

Adjacent display cases hold official and personal papers, possessions and photos (many by Fly) of such Tombstone icons as prospector and town founder Ed Schieffelin, first Mayor John Clum, gunsmith S.L. Hart, the aforementioned Earps and their McLaury and Clanton nemeses. Here, too, are mementos of the nameless everymen and women— miners and cowboys, actors, gamblers, saloon girls and prostitutes—who lived and died within blocks of this corner. One haunting find from the desert: a discarded six-shooter with one empty chamber (a safety), three rounds and two fired chambers—its owner and his fate lost to time.

Museum founder/curator Stephen Elliott knew little about Tombstone when the onetime actor relocated from California in the 1990s. “I didn’t know if it was a real town or a movie set,” he admits. “I started contacting collectors in town. One guy sold me three [Tombstone] Epitaphs from 1881. All mention the Earps. It really took hold of me.” Elliott befriended collector John Gilchriese, who ran his own museum in Tombstone in the late 1960s showcasing items acquired fromWyatt Earp’s personal secretary John Flood. Elliott bought several objects from Gilchriese, expanded his collection and opened the museum with wife Marge in 2003.

The sheer volume of the collection hits visitors on walking through the door. Above the entrance are the framed Epitaphs that spurred Elliott’s obsession. Beyond lies 3,000 square feet filled floor to ceiling with all manner of Western artifacts. Among the dozens of shooting irons, some with period boxed ammunition, are Wells Fargo coach guns, Sharps and Spencer rifles, a Henry repeater and vaunted “Peacemaker” Colt Single Action Army revolvers. Bolted to a support column is an original Tombstone jail cell door, bearing scorch marks from the June 1881 fire that swept through town. Nearby rest a Tombstone fireman’s leather hat and badge, a desk from City Hall, an 1880s high-wheel bicycle, stamped silver bars and a roulette wheel from the Crystal Palace Saloon. Eclectic outlaw/lawman items include Billy the Kid and James brother displays, leg irons from Yuma Territorial Prison and a collection of more than two dozen badges. And the list goes on.“We could fill the museum half again,” says Elliott of their stored holdings.

An all-day pass ($7.50 adults, $5 ages 12–18, under 12 free) lets visitors get an overview of the collection in the morning, take in the sights, then return for a closer look or to browse the Elliotts’ adjoining Silver Lady Antiques. The Tombstone Western Heritage Museum is on the corner of 6th Street and Fremont (Highway 80 as you enter town). For more information or to schedule a personal tour, call 520-457-3800/3933 or visit www.thetombstonemuseum.com.

 

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.  

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