A Wild Resting Place For Gunslingers And Cowboys | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

A Wild Resting Place For Gunslingers And Cowboys

Play associated audio

If you're from a state once considered the "Old West," odds are you've heard of a Boot Hill graveyard. Turns out there are a number of Boot Hill cemeteries in the West, so named because many of their inhabitants died violently — with their boots on.

But of all the Boot Hill cemeteries, none is as famous as Boot Hill in Tombstone, Ariz.

It's a tough-looking place. No lawn, just gravel, mesquite trees and cactus. The graves are covered with stones to keep varmints from digging up the bones.

Boot Hill was open only from 1878 to 1884 — it took just six years to fill up with graves. Many of those graves are filled by persons unknown.

As Boot Hill manager Dave Askey points out, people back then didn't carry Social Security cards or driver's licenses.

"Typically, what would happen when someone died was the mortician would put them on a cooling board in front of his office," Askey says. "And people customarily would walk by for two days to see if they could identify the body."

The markers that do contain names offer a catalog of violent death in the Old West. "Killeen, 1880. Shot by Frank Leslie." "Red River Tom, shot by Ormsby." "Marshal Fred White, 1880. Shot by Curly Bill."

And then there's the unfortunate George Johnson, remembered with this inscription:

"Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1882. He was right we was wrong. But we strung him up and now he's gone."

"He was stopped — they thought he'd stolen a horse," Askey explains. "So they strung him up and found out later he'd legally purchased it. So, there's George."

The wooden grave markers fade and decay, so the town of Tombstone replaces them from time to time. The town also sells T-shirts, posters and mouse pads of the graveyard's most famous epitaph: "Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44. No Les. No More."

But while Les Moore's tombstone is famous, he's not one of Boot Hill's most notorious inhabitants. That honor goes to Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, killed at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on Oct. 26, 1881, Askey says.

That shootout, of course, has been featured in dozens of movies and TV shows, from John Ford's My Darling Clementine in 1946 to the 1993 film Tombstone. The fight is re-enacted daily near the actual site in town, and it's what brought Steve Napolitan from California to the gunfighters' graves.

"It's kind of rewarding for me, 'cause it's kind of a fulfillment from all the stories, and seeing the movies, and now seeing the real place," Napolitan says.

Last year, 146,000 people visited Tombstone's Boot Hill — which makes it a big municipal moneymaker. Admission is free, but visitors start at the gift shop. Boot Hill is probably the only graveyard that sells souvenirs and fudge made on the premises.

And it may also be the only graveyard with its own song performed by Johnny Cash, "The Ballad of Boot Hill," immortalizing Les Moore's epitaph in song.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

'Passages' Author Reflects On Her Own Life Journey

Gail Sheehy is famous for her in-depth profiles of influential people, as well as her 1976 book on common adult life crises. Now she turns her eye inward, in her new memoir Daring: My Passages.
NPR

Syrup Induces Pumpkin-Spiced Fever Dreams

Hugh Merwin, an editor at Grub Street, bought a 63-ounce jug of pumpkin spice syrup and put it in just about everything he ate for four days. As he tells NPR's Scott Simon, it did not go well.
NPR

Texas Gubernatorial Candidates Go To The Border To Court Voters

Republicans have won every statewide office in Texas for 20 years, but the growing Hispanic population tends to vote Democrat, and the GOP's survival may depend on recruiting Hispanic supporters.
NPR

In San Diego, A Bootcamp For Data Junkies

Natasha Balac runs a two-day boot camp out of the San Diego Supercomputer Center for people from all types of industries to learn the tools and algorithms to help them analyze data and spot patterns in their work.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.