Tombstones for the World

On October 26, 1881, Lawman Wyatt Earp exchanged gun fire with three outlaws at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. He killed his foes in 30 seconds, shots truly heard around the world. Not only did this encounter become a defining moment in the winning of the American West, law allegedly triumphing over lawlessness, it echoed overseas in many countries that perceived America through the intrepid, fearless, gun-toting Wyatt. More legend perhaps than fact? Doesn’t matter. Wyatt shot his way to fame and took his country along with him. Dusty little Tombstone goes global.

Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp

It had a more modest beginning. In 1877, a mining prospector, Ed Schieffelin, set off for an area where he thought he could find silver. Skeptics scoffed that he would only find his tombstone, a decent burial. But silver was there in abundance. So, he ironically named his new-found town “Tombstone.”

Over the years, thousands flocked to Tombstone, which surpassed all other towns in the region in population and amenities, including lavish hotels, French restaurants, oyster bars and tennis courts. It was a “paradoxical combination of the ramshackle and the refined,” writes Kara McCormack in her book, “Imagining Tombstone.”

The good times, to be sure, did not last. In the 1890’s, the price of silver declined, the population fell by two-thirds, and Tombstone was on its way to becoming a ghost town. What to do?  Why recreate it. Let tourists come to see Tombstone as it was in its glory years. Fix up the OK Corral and other sites, build some new ones in keeping with the past and let ‘er rip.

It worked.  People came as enthusiastically to reborn Tombstone as they once did for silver. They could even witness a reenactment of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. And not just Americans. Europeans and others became fascinated with Tombstone even if they did not actually get there. Among the first was popular German writer Karl May, who filled his novels with the western legends he learned and loved as a child.

Little Tombstones sprouted up here and there. A Tombstone theme park in Japan featured local citizens drawing guns as resolutely as the Westerners. Filmmakers were not far behind. Wyatt Earps, outfitted to suit the nation, brought the lone, defiant and specifically American hero to German, Japanese and Italian films, better known as “Spaghetti Westerns.”

Tombstone even invaded the Soviet Union, though its values were inverted. The American hero became the villain in films produced in Russia, Romania, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Could Tombstone have had a role in ending the Cold War, an unintended infiltration of Soviet life? In 1961, as the Berlin wall was under construction separating East from West Germany, a quarrel of an East German border guard with a U.S. official escalated into a stand-off between American and Soviet tanks in what was described as “a nuclear-age equivalent of the Wild West showdown at the OK Corral.” It ended peacefully with no lives lost.

Today, residents of Tombstone are tolerant of the tourists who after all keep the town alive. Gathering in the Crystal Palace saloon in the afternoons, they say they like to live in history, even as they continually reexamine it, trying to decide whether they are pro- or anti-Wyatt Earp. “The tension between authentic integrity and the need to attract visitors is a constant in Tombstone,” writes Author McCormack. So, come to Tombstone, safe and civil these days, its famed violence confined to museums.

One thought on “Tombstones for the World”

  1. Ed,
    After all this time and I’m just now reading your blog? Funny the things you can find on the Internet in the wee hours of the morning.

    Merry ME

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