Historic Tombstone courthouse

The Tombstone Courthouse, built in 1882, was established as a state historic park in 1959.

Clara Spalding Brown detailed the two years she spent in Tombstone, from June 1880 until November 1882, in newsy letters she wrote for the San Diego Union newspaper. In 1998, her correspondence was compiled by Lynn R. Baily and published in a book, “Tombstone From a Woman’s Point of View.”

Initially, Clara did not find Tombstone, or the Arizona Territory, particularly appealing.

Born in Hollis, New Hampshire, in 1855, Clara was in her 20s when she married Theodore M. Brown, 10 years her senior. In 1878, the couple set out for California, eventually settling in San Diego.

The silver boom in Tombstone soon caught Theodore’s attention, and in 1879 he left Clara in California to seek his fortune in the recently established mining community. He and his partners located the Saladin claim, allowing him to send for Clara in June 1880.

Traveling by steamer to Los Angeles before heading across the desert by train for Tucson, Clara was unimpressed with the Old Pueblo. She found it “an odd city, more like an ancient Bible town than anything else, with its narrow streets, and rows of low-walled, flat-roofed adobes.”

She spent the night at the Palace Hotel before climbing aboard the stagecoach for Tombstone.

Clara almost immediately started corresponding with the San Diego Union, describing daily life among the miners, ranchers and homesteaders who populated the growing town. Unfortunately, according to Clara, the only attractive places springing up along Fremont Street were the “liquor and gambling saloons, which are everywhere present.”

“The camp (Tombstone) is one of the dirtiest places in the world,” she wrote in her first letter to the Union. “The soil loose upon the surface, and is whirled into the air everyday by a wind which almost amounts to a gale; it makes the eyes smart like the cinders from an engine; it penetrates into the houses, and covers everything with dust. ... We cannot obtain desirable food for hot weather; fresh vegetables are scarce, and the few fruits in the market require a very large purse.”

By August, she had relented slightly in her dislike of the area as she became fascinated with the ore pouring out of the mines. “The Contention, Tough Nut, Head Center, Grand Central, Vizina, and other properties,” she wrote, “are proving of great value. ... Tombstone will not only endure, but greatly increase for years to come.”

She saw the town grow with the addition of Schieffelin Hall, named after one of the founders of Tombstone. The building “is to be built of adobe,” she wrote, “two stories in height, and will front sixty feet on Fremont street and 120 feet on Fourth. ... It will be the finest adobe structure in Arizona.”

By the following June, however, devastation and destruction permeated the town. In her June 23, 1881, letter Clara reported that it “certainly looked at one time as if the best part of Tombstone was doomed to destruction. A barrel of whisky, combined with tobacco in the shape of a lighted cigarette, was at the bottom of it all. The latter ignited the former, causing an explosion which set on fire a saloon (the Arcade) in the very heart of the business portion of the town; and, before the flames could be checked, four blocks of frame and adobe buildings were leveled to the ground.”

Two months of hard work found the community on the rebound . “Three churches and a school house are now ready for occupancy,” she reported.

Yet tragedy continued to plague the dusty settlement.

“We have been shocked by the most tragic and bloody occurrence which has transpired in the history of the camp,” Clara wrote in her October 29, 1881, letter. Her interpretation of the events that occurred that October paralleled many historical accounts written years later about the OK Corral incident.

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“The inmates of every house in town were greatly startled by the sudden report of fire arms, about 3 P.M., discharged with such lightening-like rapidity that it could be compared only to the explosion of a bunch of fire-crackers. ... ‘The cowboys!’ cried some, thinking that a party of those desperadoes were ‘taking the town.’ ‘The Indians!’ cried a few of the most excitable. Then it was learned that a fight had been engaged in between Marshal (Virgil) Earp, his two brothers (Wyatt and Morgan), a special deputy (John Holliday), and four cowboys (Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy and Ike Clanton), resulting in the death of three of the latter, and the wounding of three of the former, speculation as to the cause of the affray ran riot.”

By December, the town had calmed down and Clara reiterated, “Tombstone is destined to a good degree of permanency,” although she also expressed her concerns about the “element of lawlessness, an insecurity of life and property, and open disregard of the proper authorities, which has greatly retarded the advancement of the place.”

Clara wrote her last letter to the Union in November 1882, but her writing career was far from over.

She and Theodore returned to California, where he died in the early 1890s. Clara tried her hand at fiction and published a novel in 1895.

In 1900, she married Edward Sylvester Ellis, who authored an impressive amount of books including some of the early dime Western novels. The couple moved to Upper Montclair, New Jersey.

Clara wrote several nonfiction books and continued to publish articles in periodicals and newspapers . She became a correspondent for the Detroit Free Press and the Denver Post.

After Edward died in 1916, she returned to the West, and died in Los Angeles on July 25, 1935, at age 80.

Her musings on Tombstone were considered by Clara to be mere notes “from a woman’s point of view” that might interest the ladies of San Diego. Yet her descriptions of the town and the territory were eyewitness accounts of some of the rowdiest times in the West. And in the end, she found the territory “not only endurable, but enjoyable.”

Jan Cleere is the author of several historical nonfiction books about the early people of the Southwest. Email her at Jan@JanCleere.com. Website: www.JanCleere.com