535 E Allen St, Tombstone, AZ
In 1882, the New York Times declared that Tombstone’s Bird Cage Theatre was the “roughest, bawdiest, and most wicked night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” 26 deaths and 140 bullet holes later, this American icon is packed with poltergeists. Gunslingers, gamblers, prostitutes, poker players – Who’s haunting this spooky saloon?
In the “Town Too Tough to Die,” the Bird Cage Theatre may be the most gruesome attraction. Twenty-six people allegedly died within the building in shootouts, stabbings, and suicide. The most infamous murder involves “Painted Lady” Margarita, whose heart was chiseled from her chest with a double-edged stiletto.
Featured in Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab, and Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, it’s no secret that it’s a top spot for supernatural activity. What’s haunting Bird Cage Theatre?
Today, travelers and staff allege to see the specters of courtesans and cowboys, even smelling cigars in the no-smoking saloon. Some claim to catch the whiff of whiskey whenever there’s no one around.
Melodies are played on phantom pianos; laughter is overheard whenever the brothel is barren. Spectral stagehands are seen walking across the stage. Are these residual energies from the Western Frontier?
The grisliest murder at Bird Cage Theatre involved two madames. One, Little Gertie the Gold Dollar, was employed at Crystal Palace – a rival brothel. Margarita was her competing Painted Lady, the belle of Bird Cage.
In 1882, Billy Milgreen was caught entertaining the “tall, dark, and willowy” Margarita. Milgreen was a regular of Gold Dollar, Margarita’s competitor; some even allege that Milgreen was Gold Dollar’s live-in lover.
Margarita wasn’t afraid of Gold Dollar despite Gold Dollar’s reputation as a gutsy, gritty woman. Perhaps it was because of Gold Dollar’s size: Gold Dollar was known as Little Gertie due to her petiteness. Did Margarita underestimate her rival of ill repute?
Gold Dollar didn’t attack Margarita until she crawled into Milgreen’s lap. Gold Dollar felt slighted, thinking that Margarita had stolen a tried-and-true customer. Or worse, that Margarita had stolen her man.
Grabbing a handful of Margarita’s hair, Gold Dollar stabbed her with the double-edged stiletto stashed in her garter. She hacked at Margarita’s heart.
It was a macabre moment, too morbid for Gold Dollar to stick around. She fled the scene as soon as the Marshall arrived.
Little Gertie the Gold Dollar was eventually apprehended, yet was discovered without a weapon.
Curiously, no charges were filed. If there was no murder weapon, there was “no evidence” – despite escorts, eavesdroppers, and eyewitnesses.
Visitors allege to see the murdered madam today, catching glimpses of this scandalous specter. Is this the naked woman that Nova Fleury found and wrote about?
“I saw an apparition of a young woman who opened the curtain; she was between the ages of eighteen and twenty. She was leaning on the balustrade, and when she looked at the balustrade, she seemed to say that the place was unoccupied and there was no one in the alcoves. She was only wearing a bloomer, so she stood out.”
Margarita may not be the only madam lurking about the building.
Gold Dollar’s stiletto was discovered a century later behind the Bird Cage Theatre. You can find it there on display today, perhaps near Margarita’s poltergeist. Is Gold Dollar’s residual energy attached to the relic?
If a location or an object undergoes trauma, that location or object may “record” the energy of the experience, repeating or replicating it later. Some explain residual hauntings as trauma imprinting itself upon the atmosphere. Maybe that explains paranormal phenomena at Bird Cage Theatre.
Bird Cage Theatre’s most peculiar poltergeist is the “Woman in White.” This apparition is said to appear as a “proper lady,” a rarity for a brothel. One employee reported:
“Almost everyone who works here has had an experience of some kind with the ‘Lady in White.’ I have seen her. She came down the stairwell and into the poker room. She wore a white dress and a white bonnet. She stood in front of me for a very long time without reacting to my presence at all – it's like she didn't even know I was there. She’s what they call a ‘residual haunt.’ No one has ever identified who she is. A bonnet indicates she was a proper lady, and no proper ladies ever came in here. Most of us who work here think she came in with the hearse and is now trapped here.”
Cody Polstone of Haunted Tombstone believes that this is a woman named Michelle, an apparition who appeared in a photo taken by Donovan’s Ghost Patrol in 2006. The image depicts a woman descending a staircase, gripping the hem of her dress tightly in her hand. Does Michelle lurk about, looking for Tombstone’s “Ladies Nights”?
There seems to be no end to the unexplained and disturbing activity that continues to happen inside the walls of the Tombstone’s notorious hotspot.
In the 1980s, William Hunley conducted a seance at the Bird Cage Theatre. Hunley was the proprietor at the time and hired a prominent psychic medium. She suspected that there was foul play about, likely from the poltergeist inhabiting the structure.
During the seance, one spiteful spirit began to strangle William Hunley. Attendants were aghast, struck by frightful fits. The violence only ceased once the bustle broke the medium from her trance. William’s neck was bruised for six weeks afterward. Who was this strangling specter?
Once, an antique poker chip would appear and disappear, materializing only to vanish into thin air. Bill Hunley, son of William Hunley, began to lock the chip in a bank vault. He had hoped this would keep the relic safe.
Yet once a group of antiquarians came to authenticate the relic, the poker chip again disappeared. The relic only materialized once the antiquarians had left.
Are these paranormal ongoings the work of playful poltergeists? Or sinister specters? Could that poker chip have a connection to (in)famous gambler and gunslinger Doc Holliday? Perhaps Doc Holliday doesn’t want his memento mishandled.
Bill Clanton, an employee and descendant of the sharp-shooter by the same name, claims that spirits are “always moving around in there.” “There’s laughing and carrying on you can’t explain. You can smell smoke around the dice table. I tell them, ‘You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone,’” Clanton smiles, speaking of the property’s poltergeists.
One haunting occurs outside the theatre. Carmelita Gimenes, a Bird Cage entertainer, poisoned herself by two teaspoons of arsenic. On August 17 of 1888, Carmelita’s boyfriend recalled
“A few nights ago after we got through work at the Bird Cage Theatre, where we are both employed, after the show we came home. After we had retired for the night, she commenced crying. I asked her the cause of it. She answered it was not concerning me what she was crying about… I was in the kitchen at the time she took the poison. After rehearsal yesterday I saw her vomit alongside the washstand… I thought it was an emetic… The next thing I know Josephine, her niece, asked me if I knew what was the matter with Carmelita. I said she’s only a little sick. She said No! She has poisoned herself, go get the doctor.”
Dr. Willis gave Carmelita an emetic, but it was too late. Carmelita died at five o’clock the next day. She poisoned herself with a concoction of arsenic called “Rough on Rats.” The Bird Cage Theatre shut their doors that night out of reverence for Carmelita.
Does Carmelita haunt the theatre? While painted ladies were popular within the walls of the bordello, they were ostracized outside. Perhaps Carmelita lurks about the property, bound to the brothel that drove her to death.
December 24, 1881, Lottie and William Hutchinson opened Bird Cage Theatre to the public. It would stay open for eight years, operating continuously twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Inspired by the family shows of San Francisco, Lottie and William had intended to host “Ladies Nights” to Tombstone’s genteel. They quickly recognized that this was unprofitable. It was more lucrative to cater to Tombstone’s mining crowd – a rowdy, roughneck congregation.
Bird Cage Theatre began to triple as a brothel, gambling parlor, and saloon. It even hosted masquerade balls where entertainers donned drag, singing bawdy ballads in cross-dress.
Polite society was out, “painted ladies” were in. Sometimes referred to as “soiled doves,” these women would take clients into private boxes suspended from the ceiling. Creative census takers even referred to these women as “ceiling experts,” or those “horizontally employed.”
In 1882, Bernard Sobel interviewed Annie Ashley, a performer of the theatre. It was two months after the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and Annie was eager to chat about her working conditions:
“Earning money was exciting, to say the least. Every night the feudists would come to the theatre; sometimes meet each other, and shoot it out then and there. The boxes were built in a ring like a horseshoe, and one gang would sit on one side and the other opposite. As fickle as the barometer was the change in conditions. One morning the feud would be on, then a dead quiet intended to deceive the enemy. Suddenly another feud was on.”
They could watch the shootout from their suspended setup, safely stowed above the stage.
Arthur Lamb later referred to the balcony boxes as “birdcages,” composing “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” on-site. Lamb even claimed that the women reminded him of birds. Clad in skimpy, feathered stitches, Lamb immortalized these “scarlet ladies,” “fallen angels,” “frail sisters,” “fair belles,” and “painted cats.”
“She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” was such a hit that Lottie and William capitalized on the success, renaming the brothel the Bird Cage Theatre.
October 19, 1882, the Arizona Daily Star reported that,
“From its name, anyone would be led to believe it was the abode of canaries, but to the contrary, it is the ‘cats’ retreat. I have heard of the cats capturing the canary, but these cats capture bald heads and guileless youth.”
The correspondent continued, recording how he,
“Entered a hall filled with old age, middle age, bald head age (next to stage) youthful age and boy age all sitting around tables drinking promiscuously with the ‘cats.’ I seated myself at one of them and was surveying the gallery when a dizzy dame came along and seated herself alongside me and playfully threw her arms around my neck and coaxingly desired me to ‘set ‘em up.’”
Although the correspondent found the variety of performance “very good,” he complained of the “manner in which the girls dressed.” He piqued that they looked “too much on the order of mother Eve while in the Garden of Eden,” yet admitted that their ensemble appeared “to please high-forehead gentlemen occupying the seats next to the stage.”
The colorful characters that spent so much time inside of the Bird Cage have left their unique mark in history.
One private room is exceptionally remarkable. This bordello was reserved for Wyatt Earp, who used it to conduct an affair with Josephine Sarah Marcus. Marcus worked at the Bird Cage Theatre, making the cubbyhole convenient and covert.
A poker room was later established in the basement, witnessing the longest-running high-roller’s game in history. This marathon was allegedly played twenty-four hours a day for eight years, five months, and three days. With a minimum buy-in of one thousand dollars, stakes were high.
Over ten million exchanged hands throughout the course of ten years with Bird Cage Theatre retaining ten percent. Notable “hands” include Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, George Hearst, and Adolphus Busch of Busch Brewery.
In 1886, Joe Bignon bought Bird Cage Theatre from Lottie and William Hutchinson. Bignon supplemented the saloon with ventriloquists, magicians, and trapeze acts.
Bignon’s main attraction was his wife, Big Minnie. Minne was described as “six feet and 230 pounds of loneliness in pink tights.”A woman of many hats, Big Minnie was also the building’s bouncer. Once, the Prospector recorded:
“On May 11, 1889, an intoxicated woodchopper from the Dragoon mountains brandished a pistol when bartender Charley Keen asked him for an additional nickel for his next shot of Munn’s Extra Dry. Charley looked at the man, and he had his eyes fixed on Charley. At this moment, Mrs. Bignon entered, and Charley asked her to stay there while he went after the sheriff, Bob Hatch, to put the man out. She answered that she would put him out herself, and proceeded to put the objectionable visitor out the front door. “
Despite her comedic character, Big Minnie was a no-nonsense gal.
Other astonishing acts include the “human fly,” which involved women walking upside down. These women, dressed in theatrical costumes, wore shoes with special clamps fitted into the ceiling.
One performer met her untimely end once one of the clamps slipped. She fell to the stage, struck dead upon impact. Does her specter stalk the saloon?
Bird Cage Theatre, like Tombstone, began to decline in the 1890s. Bignon sold the establishment in 1892.
In 1900, it briefly served as a storage unit for Charles L. Cummings, Tombstone’s mayor. By 1929, Bird Cage Theatre was again opened to the public – this time for the first Helldorado celebration.Preserving Bird Cage Theatre
Charles L. Cummings passed away in 1931, and Bird Cage Theatre began to show its age. Margaret Cummings was resolved to renovate the establishment. She succeeded, and sold the theatre to Minnie and Harry Ohm.
Although Minnie and Harry supplemented the structure with restrooms, they were intent on preserving the theatre’s original foundation. Perhaps that’s why employees allege that Bird Cage Theatre isn’t a restoration or a reconstruction, but a preservation.
In 1967, Bird Cage Theatre passed to William Hunley. It’s open to the public year-round, making it a popular spot for paranormal enthusiasts.
Admission to Bird Cage Theatre Museum is priced at fourteen dollars. Military and senior discounts are available. Bird Cage Theatre is located at 535 E Allen St, Tombstone.