During Tombstone's boom years, from 1881 to 1889, the Bird Cage Theater was the
town's favorite night spot. It offered gambling, liquor, risque entertainment,
and women "of the night". It was rated the "wickedest" night club in America by
the New York Times.
When boom turned to bust in 1889, the Bird Cage was sealed and boarded up with
all its furnishings intact. It re-opened in 1934 as a unique historic landmark,
the only spot in Tombstone preserved in its original state. All the fixtures,
furnishings, and gambling tables date from the days of the Earps. The business license issued in 1881 to "Dutch Annie" Smith by Cochise County to run a "House of
Ill Fame" still hangs on the wall.
Today, the Bird Cage functions as a museum, not a honky-tonk. In addition to the theater's original contents, many other relics from old Tombstone are on display.
The photo, (right), is Doc Holliday's faro table. This was Doc's favorite game of chance,
and he often served as the dealer. The note in the lower right of the photo says:
"This is the original faro table where Doc Holliday played and dealt faro over
118 years ago. Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo had their famous duel between the
faro table and the grand piano." Apparently, no gunfight took place during this "duel".
It was actually (allegedly) the drunken posturing of the town's two most feared gunmen.
There were however 16 real gunfights within this building. The walls and ceiling are
decorated with about 140 bullet holes. If you enlarge the photo, (left), a couple
bullet holes are visible in the wall above the grand piano. The piano was
custom-built in Europe, shipped around South America to San Francisco, then
delivered to Tombstone by rail. It has stood in this spot since 1881.
The most valuable antique on display is the infamous Black Moriah (photo, right),
the town hearse. Apparently, it was decided that the departed ought to take their
final ride to Boothill in style. The hearse is trimmed in 24k gold and sterling
silver. The McLaury brothers rode the Black Moriah to Boothill together after
the shootout. There wasn't enough room for Bill Clanton who had to settle
for a lesser ride.
The most compelling exhibit was the poker room. Located in the back room basement,
it is said that this room and all its contents and furnishings are exactly as they
were the day the Bird Cage closed. This includes the positioning of the chairs.
The mannequins are wearing the original uniforms of the employees. (The coins
on the tables were added by "modern" visitors.)
The table in the foreground hosted the longest poker game in western history. The game
ran non-stop for 8 years, 5 months, and 3 days. (The theater was open 24 x 7.)
Buy-in was $1,000 minimum. Many of the old west's most famous personalities
participated at one time or another.
A wooden floor has been added to the basement during the modern era. However
note in the photo, (left), that the original dirt floor has been preserved
beneath the poker table. The tipped chair is said to have been exactly
in that position when the last game ended.
The name, "Bird Cage", was derived from the 14 cages suspended from the ceiling
in the main hall (right). The "ladies of the night" were put on display in these
cages so the men could make their selections. The popular song refrain from that
era, "she's only a bird in a gilded cage", was actually about the ladies at
the Bird Cage Theater. Today, the main hall houses display cases full of
fascinating artifacts from Tombstone's early days.