In these modern times, death is portrayed as uncommon and tragic, often hidden from daily life. Contrast that to the rollicking days of the Wild West, where gunfights and hangings were common occurrences in the town square, and it’s easy to see how a place like Boothill Graveyard would seem curious now.
A rocky burying grounds atop a hill in the historic Old West town of Tombstone, Arizona, Boothill Graveyard is a looking glass through which we can see a time and place where death came casually, and even humorously. Weathered wooden signs mark the graves of about 250 men, women, and children who passed, literally, through Tombstone, mostly between 1879-1884.
Although this cemetery and the town that surrounds it are now known as tourist attractions due to their authentic Old West appeal, and because the town was the site of the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, an interesting aspect of the town’s history that isn’t discussed as much is the cemetery’s integregation of a variety of races and stations in life represented in the same cemetery. Cowboys, Vaqueros, Chinese immigrants, South American immigrants, miners, former slaves, business folk, soldiers, mothers, children, soiled doves, drunks, cattle ranchers, lawmen, and outlaws are all buried, side by side, in Boothill.
One of the most attended funerals in Boothill’s history was actually held for “China Mary”, Sing Choy. A competent businesswoman and well liked by the community.
There is also the Jewish Memorial on site that was set aside especially for Jewish Pioneers. This is interesting, because most western cemeteries of that date range will be absent of Jewish internments alltogether.
Many of the graves are marked as “unknown”. Miners and drifters who’s names have been lost to time. Graves that are marked mostly tell a blunt tale of how a person came to be deceased. “MURDERED,” reads one in outraged capital letters, while another says “Found dead in his cabin with bullet wounds,” solemnly giving more detail. It’s up to the visitor to examine the distinction between terms like “Hanged” and “Legally Hanged.”
But the main reason this cemetery has become the stuff of legend is its often humorous take on death. One patterned after the popular dome store novels of the 1920’s. The name Boothill, was never even used until the mid 1920’s. One grave marker famously reads “Here lies Lester Moore. 4 slugs from a .44. No Les. No More.” Others imply a certain savagery of the time, like the one indicating two women who came to murderous blows over a man, or another that marks the grave of a man who simply “died in a dispute.”
Since many of the original grave markers were wooden, very few remnants have actually remained throughout the graveyard. Most of what visitors see there now are recreations of the originals for the sake of being able to be read and allowing the continuation of the historical mystique. But a few of the stone markers still stand proudly in the Sonoran Desert sun, reminding all who visit here of what once was.
Know Before You Go
Boothill Graveyard is located off Hwy. 80 in Tombstone, Arizona. It's open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission costs $3. Though this has become a tourist attraction, be sure to exhibit standard levels of respect for burial places.
No dogs are allowed in the graveyard unless they are certified service animals.