The world of stage drama has always been friendly to the idea of the paranormal. Not only are ghost stories very popular theatrical entertainments; theatres are commonly long-established buildings which have played host to generations of strong-willed and charismatic individuals.
One building that certainly claims to have a ghostly presence that is nothing to do with the special effects man is the Bird Cage Theatre. Beyond any theatrical connections to the other side, the Bird Cage is in a very special place, Tombstone Arizona, one of the most famous towns of the Old West – a lawless boomtown getting rich on silver and going wildly astray in the process, scene of Shoot Out at the OK Corral. The town, now a major tourist attraction, has a rich historical seam of violent deaths and famous gunslingers, outlaws and rogues.
The Bird Cage most recently made the news when an actor in a re-enactment somehow ended up with live rounds instead of blanks in his gun. Fortunately, the wounded gun show participant was not seriously hurt. Many in Tombstone’s heyday were not so lucky.
To call the Bird Cage just a theatre is to play down its role in local life. Visitors to the Bird Cage might come for the show, but they could stay to drink, gamble, and visit prostitutes – the Bird Cage was a hell of a night out.
Tombstone – the founder had been warned his planned mine in the area was a ticket to the graveyard – was just a couple of years old when William “Billy” Hutchinson and his wife Lottie rolled into town with a clear vision and clear consciences.
The Hutchinson’s plans for a nice theatre for nice folk didn’t survive long in Tombstone, however, and their respectable Ladies Nights were soon replaced with entertainments that won the Bird Cage a reputation as “the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast”.
There was drinking – of course – at a once elegant long bar, where customers could gaze at a portrait of Fatima, the theatre’s most famous dancer. Fatima’s charms obviously inspired some serious passions. Her picture, which still hangs in the Bird Cage, attracted six bullet holes and the results of an assault by knife. Elsewhere, dancing girls in outfits that left little to the imagination slung cheap beer to sozzled patrons.
The theatre remained, with a small stage boasting an orchestra pit and gas-jet lighting. Unusually for an establishment for the fine arts of theatre, the boxes in the balcony had curtains to be drawn when the working girls who visited customers there proved more interesting than the stage show.
The entertainment was of a mixed quality but a dazzling variety. A strong woman, the Female Hercules, was one of the first acts to grace its stage. Comedians, novelty music hall acts, dancers, acrobats, even a serious opera singer entertained the silver miners who worked in appalling conditions never far from death or serious injury.
There was danger in the theatre too: the “human fly” act was cancelled after one of the female flies fell from the ceiling to her death. Those bullet holes in Fatima’s picture were just six out of 120 (140 say some sources, there are certainly a lot!) in the building – you wouldn’t want to get a bad review at the Bird Cage.
Underneath the stage, was the gambling room. Poker was the main entertainment here, and the Bird Cage lays claim to the record for the longest running game in history. The lights never went off and the dealer never stopped handing out cards for a reported eight year, five month and three day session. The game is said to have been worth a cumulative $10,000,000 and legendary western figures like Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and George Hearst reportedly put their feet up on the table.
The end of the silver boom was the end of the Bird Cage. It closed as a going concern in 1889.
When new owners bought it in 1934 they were thrilled to find that once the doors had shut, the theatre had been left to rot – nothing had been touched in five decades and they had an authentic Wild West legend on their hands just as the movies were making Americans aware of their frontier past.
Ever since then, the Bird Cage has been a tourist attraction. Among the thousands who flock to see where the blood and the whisky was spilled are many ghost hunters and paranormal investigators.
Tales of the Old West can be overdone, but it’s undoubtedly true that life was hard and by modern standards cheap in those parts of America that were at the edge of law and order, and even civilisation. Disputes really were settled with six guns, what passed for organised justice was swift, often violent and paid little regard to the modern courthouse niceties.
The Ghost Hunters show in 2006, Ghost Adventures in 2009 and 2015, a 2009 episode of Ghost Lab, and Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files in 2011 have all trained camers and ghost- spotting equipment on the spirit residents of the Bird Cage.
And they tend to find plenty. Those bullet holes weren’t all from shots to let off steam. At least 26 people met premature ends in the Bird Cage.
One of the most famous killings in the Bird Cage was of a prostitute called Margarita, who was stabbed by a fellow working girl called Gold Dollar. Gold Dollar managed to get rid of the blade, however, and without a weapon the investigation broke down. A century after the event, the knife was found and now hangs on the wall for tourists to gawp at.
Staff at the Bird Cage often report being grabbed, touched or shoved while they go about their business. Photographs pick up strange lights, shadows and dark figures in the background.
Even the team who visited the theatre for Ghost Adventures encountered tragedy. Their guide on their first visit was killed in a shooting shortly before the show returned to dig for more paranormal happenings.
The Bird Cage theatre put on one of the wildest nights in Tombstone. One-hundred-and-twenty odd years after it closed its ghostly residents are still performing.