Friday, June 7, 2019

Boot Hill, Boot Hill, Boot Hill

by Patti Sherry-Crews
Boot Hill, Tombstone, AZ

Did you think Boot Hill was located in a specific place. A spot on a map you could stick a pin in. It’s in one of those fabled Old West towns, right? Tombstone. Or were you thinking of Dodge City? Deadwood? Wait, where is Boot Hill?

Well, you better get a box of pins, because there isn’t one graveyard with a weathered, old sign creaking in the wind. In reality Boot Hills, plural, are a type of place in many towns. Wikipedia lists 40 cemeteries who've earned the moniker Boot Hill scattered across the American west from Tombstone, Arizona to Skagway, Alaska. The reputation being its residents  "they died with their boots on" or in other words, probably didn't die in their sleep in a warm cozy bed with some angel of mercy wiping their fevered brow. If they died with their boots on, they probably didn’t expect dying was on the agenda that day. Fell where they stood.

To put Boot Hills in the context of time and place, understand how towns sprang up almost overnight starting in the late 19th century America. Towns built around the mining or cattle industry swelled with those heading west seeking a quick fortune. Men made up a majority of the tide of people pouring in. Lacking the taming influence of wives and families, though having plenty of saloons and weapons, the scene was ripe for trouble. Things being what they were, people started dropping before you could finish the sentence “do you want to say that to my face?”. Where to put the growing number of bodies?

Dodge City, Kansas, situated on the Santa Fe Trail, claims the first Boot Hill. One day a black man called Tex was minding his own business, watching an exchange of gunfire in front of the saloon, like you do, when for no reason someone shot him dead. The shooter said he did it "just to see him kick". Case in point: tough places, these boom towns. The body lay in the street for a time while folks figured out what to do with this man who left behind nobody to mourn him or pay for his burial.

A nearby hill seemed like a good spot to bury Tex. Other such deaths followed and Boot Hill became a pauper's cemetery. Some bodies, buried without the benefit of even a pine box, suffered further indignity when coyotes dug them up.

But then someone noticed there was a nice view from that hill. Too nice a view to be wasted on dead paupers. The hill suddenly had potential. All the bodies were relocated. But people proved skittish about building on a former graveyard and the land didn't sell according to plan. Instead they put a grade school there (of course, they did. Kids were finding human bones in the playground for years). Today, though the original cemetery no longer exists, the Boot Hill Cemetery Museum in Dodge City is a tourist attraction.

Boot Hill and Hangman's Tree, Dodge City, Kansas

One of the best known Boot Hill cemeteries you can visit today is in Tombstone, Arizona. The rise and fall and rise again of this cemetery in a mining town typifies the cycle of a boom-town and its accompanying Boot Hill in the west.

It was in 1879 when the people of Tombstone starting using a dry, dusty, cactus-filled patch on the edge of town for burials. There was even a Chinese and a Jewish section. Among its most famous residents are the Cowboys who were on the losing end of the conflict known as shootout at the OK Corral. The Cowboys, Bill Clanton and the McLaury brothers, are buried here. The victors, Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers lived to fight another day, moved on, and eventually died to be buried elsewhere.

The last burial in this cemetery took place in 1884. Of those 300 burials, about 40% are of those who died before their expiration date. So noteworthy was a peaceful death that one grave marker reads, "M.E. Kellogg 1882, Died a Natural Death."

Number and causes of “premature” deaths in Tombstone Boothill:

2 Died in childbirth  
5 Suicide                  
7 Apaches                
10 Hanged                
21 Accident (mainly mining related or drownings)
21 Disease                
52 Gunshot, knife, or blunt instrument  

Of course, the cemetery wasn't called Boothill back in the day. It was simply the Tombstone Cemetery. Then in 1884 a new cemetery was built, and that other place with graves was called...the old cemetery. The old cemetery wasn't called Boothill until the 1920's when Dime store westerns became popular.

After the new City Cemetery was built many townspeople with money had their loved ones moved to where they weren’t spending eternal slumber alongside gunslingers and prostitutes. The old cemetery was neglected. The wooden slab markers were taken as souvenirs or used for firewood by vagrants, cattle roamed through, and in general the place became a dump, reverting back to nature.

But then the town of Tombstone got a second wind thanks to the interest in westerns and tourism. In the 1920’s there were enough old-timers around who knew where the bodies were buried. Literally. Well, they remembered where most of them were buried. Some had to have “Unknown” inscribed on the new wooden slabs, but they may have gone to the grave as unknowns the first time around as well.

So the old cemetery was recreated for the sake of tourism and called Boothill (one word here). And I hate tell you this but some of the more colorful epitaphs may have been embellished with the tourist trade in mind.

Not all boom-towns survived the decline of the industries that built them. Some morphed into ghost towns, which are kind of cool in their own way. Towns like Deadwood, Tombstone, and Dodge City with their Boot Hills and remaining structures have value. We can read about the events of the old west in books, but seeing the relics of those days adds a flavor you get from the sometimes dry pages of history. And how a people bury their dead often tells us more about the people who buried the bodies than about the dead themselves. Walking through boot hills you meet not only the major players such as Wild Bill in Deadwood.

But we also meet the lesser characters. Men and women from all walks of life and parts of the world who helped settle the west. People who would otherwise be lost to us such as two from China who died in Tombstone, Arizona a long way from home.

You can find Patti Sherry-Crews books set in the old west and more on Amazon:

Images from Wikicommons


Agnes Alexander said...

So interesting, Patti. I have visited Boothill in Tombstone and found it fascinating. Some of the tombstones actually gave me a chuckle and I don't doubt some were put there for tourist. It may be morbid, but I like to walk around in old graveyards. There are several on the NC coast that date back to some of the first setters in our country. I distinctly remember one in Bath, NC where a man from a ship wreck was buried standing up and another who was buried in a whiskey barrel. Thanks for posting.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Agnes. I also love cemeteries. When I travel I like to visit the old graveyards to see what stories they tell. I've been to Tombstone and Deadwood myself. I'm intrigued that someone was buried standing up! What was that all about? I'm going to have to look that one up. Thanks for stopping by.

GiniRifkin said...

What an interesting Post. thank you. I walked the cemetery in Central City, Colo. very fascinating, mournful, and (of course) haunted!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Gini! If there's one thing I'm a sucker for it's a haunted cemetery. I had to look up Central City Cemetery to find out about the Lady in Black. The pictures of the cemetery you mention are awesome: looks like a desolate place with loads of atmosphere.

Andrea Downing said...

Well, fancy that!! So interesting Patti! Thanks for this post. Like others, I find cemeteries fascinating, partially because of the time spent living in the UK where there are some great ones and they date wayyyyyyy back. Even here in East Hampton, the local cemetery is a tourist attraction with graves from the 1600s. No boot hill though! Newe York City has a paupers graveyard they just recently uncovered, too. Way to go!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Andi! I love cemeteries. We have some big ones in Chicago I like to visit just to enjoy the architecture and artwork as well as being interested in the stories the headstones tell. I was interested myself to read about the history of Tombstone's Boothill.

Elizabeth Clements said...

Your excellent article brought back memories of a Calgary author and newspaper columnist, Nancy Miller, who I met when she gave a talk about her travels in Canadian graveyards. I bought two of her books because of the fascinating pictures and history surrounding some of the graves. She traveled across Canada visiting graveyards. It's amazing the money some people spent on headstones. And I'm amazed at myself that her name popped right into my head, not taking minutes or hours to remember. I know you would enjoy browsing through her books and perhaps one is in a library near you. Now I wonder where my copies are? I copied this info from a Google search: Nancy published three books on the topic of graveyards, starting with "Remember Me As You Pass By: Stories from Prairie Graveyards" (Glenbow Alberta Institute, 1994). She spent the summer of 1994 travelling across Canada visiting graveyards and published two further books as a result of this research: "Once Upon a Tomb: Stories from Canadian Graveyards" (Fifth House, 1997) and "The Final Word: The Book of Canadian Epitaphs" (Brindle and Glass, 2004).

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. My mother always took us to graveyards when we were little. Free entertainment! I've always had a thing for them and what they tell us about history and changing times. I couldn't find those books you were talking about but the title Remember Me As You Pass By: Stories from Prairie Graveyards
gave me goosebumps! Thanks for stopping by.