Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Haunted Crime Scenes

Tombstone Tales

Map of Arizona with Tombstone locator
Map of Arizona with Tombstone locator

Considered to be among the most haunted areas of the American Southwest, Tombstone, Arizona is the site of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. While one story has it that Wyatt Earp was merely cleaning up a nest of outlaws, there's also some truth to the tale that under the protection of his badge he'd made a grab for power and revenge, and that his actions were a good example of corruption in law enforcement. In any event, the sudden violence from that fateful day seems to have left some residual energy behind.

On the afternoon of October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp and two of his brothers armed themselves and went over to the corral. A lifelong friend and skilled gunslinger, Doc Holliday, joined them. They were prepared to confront four rough men who were reputedly part of a dangerous group of cattle rustlers known as 'The Cowboys.'

Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp

The Earp brothers had come to the lawless town of Tombstone in 1879 to get rich from silver mining. Virgil Earp became a deputy marshal and then served locally as the town marshal, while Morgan Earp assisted him. They were asked to go after the Cowboys, who'd robbed many stagecoaches and disturbed the tenuous peace between Mexico and the U.S. by going over the border at night to rustle cattle and kill Mexicans. During this time, Wyatt decided that he wanted to be sheriff of Cochise County, which meant animosity between him and Sheriff Johnny Behan, who hoped to retain his employment. And Wyatt not only went after the Behan's job but also his wife, Josephine, and a feud soon developed between the Earp brothers and the sheriff, who had befriended the Clanton clan — believed to be part of the Cowboys.

OK Corral sign
OK Corral sign

The Cowboys grew in strength, number, and violent incidents, so the marshal in Prescott, AZ, asked Virgil Earp to arrest them. He deputized Wyatt, Morgan and Doc Holliday to help him confront the Clantons. That's how the confrontation took place in the O.K. Corral. The Earps and Holiday approached via the vacant lot next to the infamous corral. Virgil used his authority to charge the Clantons with the illegal act of bringing handguns into the city limits. Without checking to see if they were even armed, Wyatt opened fire. (In fact, two of the men were unarmed and were thus gunned down in cold blood.)

In the next thirty-one seconds, everyone started to shoot. Wyatt later claimed that Frank McLaury went for his gun first, so Wyatt had killed him. Then Doc fired at Tom McLaury, hitting him in the gut, while Ike ran for cover. Virgil and Morgan both shot at Billy. Frank went after his horse as he held his wound closed, while Tom collapsed and died against a telephone pole. Morgan took a shot in the shoulder from Billy, and Morgan shot at Frank, shattering the top of his skull. Billy fired at Doc, hitting his gun holster and bruising his leg. Billy then fired at Virgil and hit him in the leg. Wyatt and Virgil shot back, killing Billy. Wyatt was the only one to escape unscathed.

Birdcage Theater
Birdcage Theater

According to historians, the Tombstone city fathers considered the gunfight an outright homicide and Virgil was terminated as a marshal. Then Morgan was murdered two months later so Wyatt went after three other men in revenge. To avoid being arrested, he then fled to Colorado.

But something remained behind from that day. It's said that several people have seen the figure of someone who resembled Billy Clampett walk across the corral, a trouble soul, both victim and perpetrator. Others have seen spirits that they associate with the Earp brothers, although none of them died there. That would be a "residual haunting" or place memory — an image apparently caught in time to repeat itself on occasion.

Inside the Birdcage Theater
Inside the Birdcage Theater

Also in Tombstone is the Birdcage Theater, a bullet-ridden Old-West saloon that has stood in place since 1881. According to the History Channel's Haunted Tombstone, a jealous woman murdered another who was flirting with her man by using a stiletto to cut out the offending woman's heart. The victim is among the reported 31 spirits that haunt the place, and with at least 26 deaths in the building, that's no surprise. The former saloon is now a museum, and staff members there have reported seeing apparitions, while many people both inside and out have heard the ghostly echoes of music and laughter.

Even the streets of Tombstone, formerly scenes of frequent violence, are haunted. Residents and tourists alike have seen a former madam, reportedly hanged in her nightgown, and a man dressed in fancy western gear leaning against a post.

Now let's head to Missouri where another restless soul associated with killing appears to be wandering around.

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