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Camera - Vintage Photos IconIMAGES OF THE AMERICAN WEST

Tombstone, Arizona Vintage Photographs



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The Bird Cage Theatre

Birdcage Theater, 1933

Photo by Frederick D. Nichols, 1937.

This image available for photographic prints HERE!


The Bird Cage Theatre today

The Bird Cage Theatre today, Kathy Weiser, April, 2007

This image available for photographic prints HERE!



The famous Bird Cage Theatre opened its doors on December 25, 1881 and for the next eight years would never close, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Also called the Bird Cage Opera House Saloon, the establishment featured a saloon, gambling parlour, theatre, and a brothel.  In no time, the “theatre” gained a reputation as one of the wildest places in Tombstone, so bad that the few self-respecting women in town refused to even walk near the place. The New York Times reported in 1882, that "the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast."

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During the years that the theatre was open the wicked little place witnessed a number of gun and knife fights that took some 26 lives, and left 140 bullet holes in the ceilings, walls, and floors, many of which can still be seen today.

The theatre was called the “Bird Cage” because of its 14 crib style compartments suspended from the ceiling. Here, the painted ladies would pull the drapes and “entertain” their customers at some of the most exorbitant prices ever heard of in the Old West.

For one of these unfortunate souls, prostitution would not be her worst fate; instead she would succumb to one of the hazards of the business – murder. When “Margarita” was sitting on the lap of a gambler named Billy Milgreen, in flounced one of her co-workers, who went by the name of “Gold Dollar.”  Seeing Margarita on the lap of her best customer and “boyfriend,” Gold Dollar stuck a double edge knife into her chest, intending to cut her heart out. Having almost completed the task, she was interrupted by the sounds of the marshal coming and ran out the back door. Covered in blood, she hid the knife somewhere out back. Because the murder weapon couldn’t be found, no murder charges were filed. Amazingly, more than a century later, the stiletto was found behind the Bird Cage Theatre and is now displayed at the museum.


Within these walls once drank and played the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and members of the Cowboy faction, and Doc Holliday, who dealt faro in the gambling parlor. On one occasion, while Doc was dealing, one of his hated rivals, Johnny Ringo, passed by the table. Doc then murmured, “Care to buck the tiger, Johnny? It's the gustiest game in town."

Upon hearing this, a drunken Ringo wheeled around, removed his bandana and said to Holliday,

"Care to grab to the other end of this bandanna?  This is the deadliest game in town."


In those days when two men grabbed the opposite ends of a bandanna, they would then fire at each other at point-blank range, generally with both men winding up dead.


Undaunted, Doc simply stood smiling, ready to accept the challenge, but ready to use knives, rather than guns.

Doc Holliday

Doc Holliday was one of the most deadly shootists

 in the American West.

This image is available for photographic prints HERE!


Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo was thought to have been killed by either

 Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday.

This image is available for photographic prints HERE!


Curly Bill Brocius then interceded, grabbing Ringo and yelling, “Hell, Doc, he’s drunk!”

Doc, who had also been drinking, like usual, answered, “Brocius, I drink more by 10:00 a.m. than he can all day."  Doc then turned and walked away.

One of its most famous distinctions was one of the longest running games of poker ever played. Seating seven players plus a dealer, the minimum buy-in was $1,000.00 and was played around the clock for, 8 years 5 months and three days.


Sitting at this table were some of the countries most famous businessmen, such as Adolph Busch and George Randolph Hearst, as well as history’s famous poker players, including Diamond Jim Brady and Bat Masterson. During that eight year period, more than ten million dollars changed hands, with the house, of course, taking its 10%.


It was also here, that Wyatt Earp carried on his affair with Josephine Sarah Marcus, who ‘"worked" at the Bird Cage, allegedly as a singer and dancer, though others suspect a “sideline” as “painted lady.”

In 1889, the Bird Cage closed its doors as a brothel and a saloon forever, left with all of its original contents. For the next three decades it would sit languishing in the desert sun. Amazingly, during this time, its bar, furnishings, fixtures, and drapes were not sold.

In 1934, the Hunley family reopened the Bird Cage Theatre as a tourist attraction, keeping all of the original fixtures and furnishings in place. Today, the Bird Cage Theatre stands as a museum, still run by the Hunley family, and providing a dusty and accurate picture of the 19th century.

The hand painted stage, which once featured the likes of Eddy Foy, Lotta Crabtree, Lillie Langtry, Lola Montez, and Lillian Russell still stands, along with the orchestra pit and its massive Grand Piano.

The gambling parlour continues to feature the actual table where Doc Holliday once dealt faro, and lining the walls are photographs of the many who passed through its doors, as well as original paintings that hung in the establishment. The original bar still stands and on display is Tombstone’s famous horse-drawn hearse called the Black Moriah. The first “vehicle” to ever have curved glass, it is trimmed out with gold and reportedly worth nearly two million dollars. Ruffled-up beds and scattered clothes are authentic, as well as the original faded carpets, drapes, and furniture.

The Bird Cage Theatre is Tombstone's most authentic attraction, one of the Old West's most famous landmarks, and a definite “must stop” while in Tombstone. It also allegedly one of the most haunted places in Tombstone. But that’s another story. See HERE!



Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, © May, 2007



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