Dead Stop
2:40 am
Tue August 14, 2012

A Wild Resting Place For Gunslingers And Cowboys

Originally published on Tue August 14, 2012 8:03 am

If you're from a state once considered the "Old West," odds are you've heard of a Boot Hill graveyard. Turns out there are a number of Boot Hill cemeteries in the West, so named because many of their inhabitants died violently — with their boots on.

But of all the Boot Hill cemeteries, none is as famous as Boot Hill in Tombstone, Ariz.

It's a tough-looking place. No lawn, just gravel, mesquite trees and cactus. The graves are covered with stones to keep varmints from digging up the bones.

Boot Hill was open only from 1878 to 1884 — it took just six years to fill up with graves. Many of those graves are filled by persons unknown.

As Boot Hill manager Dave Askey points out, people back then didn't carry Social Security cards or driver's licenses.

"Typically, what would happen when someone died was the mortician would put them on a cooling board in front of his office," Askey says. "And people customarily would walk by for two days to see if they could identify the body."

The markers that do contain names offer a catalog of violent death in the Old West. "Killeen, 1880. Shot by Frank Leslie." "Red River Tom, shot by Ormsby." "Marshal Fred White, 1880. Shot by Curly Bill."

And then there's the unfortunate George Johnson, remembered with this inscription:

"Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1882. He was right we was wrong. But we strung him up and now he's gone."

"He was stopped — they thought he'd stolen a horse," Askey explains. "So they strung him up and found out later he'd legally purchased it. So, there's George."

The wooden grave markers fade and decay, so the town of Tombstone replaces them from time to time. The town also sells T-shirts, posters and mouse pads of the graveyard's most famous epitaph: "Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44. No Les. No More."

But while Les Moore's tombstone is famous, he's not one of Boot Hill's most notorious inhabitants. That honor goes to Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, killed at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on Oct. 26, 1881, Askey says.

That shootout, of course, has been featured in dozens of movies and TV shows, from John Ford's My Darling Clementine in 1946 to the 1993 film Tombstone. The fight is re-enacted daily near the actual site in town, and it's what brought Steve Napolitan from California to the gunfighters' graves.

"It's kind of rewarding for me, 'cause it's kind of a fulfillment from all the stories, and seeing the movies, and now seeing the real place," Napolitan says.

Last year, 146,000 people visited Tombstone's Boot Hill — which makes it a big municipal moneymaker. Admission is free, but visitors start at the gift shop. Boot Hill is probably the only graveyard that sells souvenirs and fudge made on the premises.

And it may also be the only graveyard with its own song performed by Johnny Cash, "The Ballad of Boot Hill," immortalizing Les Moore's epitaph in song.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's time for another trip to the cemetery for our series Dead Stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This summer, we've been touring unusual gravesites around the country. Today, we visit a graveyard with a famous name: Boot Hill. Turns out, there are several Boot Hill graveyards in the West, named because many of their inhabitants died violently, with their boots on. But none is as famous or visited as Boot Hill in Tombstone, Arizona. NPR's Ted Robbins tells us why.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Tombstone's Boot Hill is a tough-looking place: gravel, mesquite trees and cactus, no lawn. The graves are covered with stones to keep varmints from digging up the bones. Boot Hill was only open from 1878 to 1884. It took just six years to fill up with graves.

DAVE ASKEY: Many of which are unknown.

ROBBINS: Dave Askey, who manages Boot Hill, points out that people back then didn't carry Social Security cards or driver's licenses.

ASKEY: Typically, what would happen when someone died, the mortician would put them on a cooling board in front of his office, and people customarily would walk by for about two days to see if they could identify the body.

ROBBINS: The markers with names on them are a catalog of violent death in the Old West. Killeen, 1880, shot by Frank Leslie. Red River Tom, shot by Ormsby. Marshal Fred White, 1880, shot by Curly Bill. And the unfortunate George Johnson.

ASKEY: Here lies George Johnson, hanged by mistake 1882. He was right. We was wrong. But we strung him up, and now he's gone. He was stopped. They thought he'd stolen a horse. So they strung him up, and later found out that he had legally purchased it. So there's George.

ROBBINS: The markers are wooden. They fade and decay, so the town of Tombstone replaces them from time to time. It also sells T-shirts, posters and mouse pads of the graveyard's most famous epitaph.

ASKEY: Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a .44. No Les. No More.

ROBBINS: But Les Moore, he's not one of the most notorious inhabitants here.

ASKEY: Well, there's the graves of Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury that were killed at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral Oct. 26th, 1881.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

ROBBINS: The gunfight at the O.K. Corral: It's been in dozens of movies and TV shows, from John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" in 1946, through the film "Tombstone" in 1993. It's re-enacted daily near the actual site in town, and it's what brought Steve Napolitan from California to the gunfighters' graves.

STEVE NAPOLITAN: And it's kind of rewarding for me, because it's kind of a fulfillment from all the stories, and seeing the movies, and now seeing the real place.

ROBBINS: One hundred forty-six thousand people visited Tombstone's Boot Hill last year, which makes it a big municipal moneymaker. Admission is free. Start at the gift shop. Boot Hill is probably the only graveyard selling souvenirs and fudge made on the premises. It also may be the only graveyard with its own Johnny Cash song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALLAD OF BOOT HILL")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Here lies Les Moore. Four slugs from a .44. No Les. No more. Out in Arizona, just south of Tucson.

ROBBINS: Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALLAD OF BOOT HILL")

CASH: (Singing) Where tumbleweeds tumble...

MONTAGNE: And you can get a look at some other interesting locations where people are buried at our Dead Stop series at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALLAD OF BOOT HILL")

CASH: (Singing) There's a town they call Tombstone, where the brave never cried. They lived by a six gun, by a six gun they died. It's been a long time...

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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