Haunted History of Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona

Today, Bird Cage Theater is said to be haunted by former patrons who frequented the place during the boom of the mining industry in the late 19th century.

Visitors of the theater have reported being touched by an unexplainable force. Disembodied voices and raucous laughter can also be heard near the stage, as if someone is enjoying a performance. During the night tours offered by the museum, many have reported a faint smell of cigar smoke and whiskey.

Apparitions of people dressed in late 19th century clothing have also been seen lingering in the empty cribs on the second floor, seemingly watching over the visitors. Visitors have also claimed to have seen the apparition of a young woman in a revealing corset, believed to be Margarita, roaming the hallways of Bird Cage Theater.

One of the strangest paranormal event that have happened in the theater is the inexplicable movement of the life-sized status of Wyatt Earp at a compartment on the second-floor. For six consecutive months, staffs of the museum would find the hat of Wyatt Earp being thrown to the floor of the main hall below. A consultation with a local historian led to the discovery that the ‘cage’ had actually belonged to the Clantons family, not Wyatt Earp. The statue was promptly moved to the right ‘cage’ and the paranormal activity stopped.

Over the years, the paranormal happenings have attracted a slew of paranormal investigators including Ghost Hunters (A&E Network) in 2006, Ghost Adventures (Travel Channel) in 2009 and 2015, and Fact or Fake: Paranormal Files (SyFy) in 2011. All of the investigation have led to conclusive evidence that Bird Cage Theater is indeed haunted.

History of Bird Cage Theater

The historic Bird Cage Theater was a theater in Tombstone, Arizona, that operated from 1881 to 1894. It had gotten its name by the 14 cage-like compartments that hung over the sides of the main hall.

Opened by married couple Lottie and William “Billy” Hutchinson, the theater was originally built to offer family-friendly performances seen in larger cities such as New York and San Francisco. In fact, the duo launched a free Ladies Night as a marketing tactic, inviting respectable women of Tombstone to watch the performances at no charge. However, the performances failed to attract the Tombstone community, who are largely miners working in the silver mines.

Bird cage theater facade
Facade of Bird Cage Theater | Image credits: Bird Cage Theater

The theater eventually turned to offering affordable and entertaining performances that appealed to the rough mining crowd. Some of the performers include “Female Hercules” Mademoiselle De Granville (Alma Hayes), comedian Nola Forest, Irish comic duo John H. Burns and Matthew Trayers, and vaudevillian Eddie Foy. Apart from the performances, the theater also provided food, drinks, and gambling. The second floor operated as a makeshift brothel for prostitutes to ‘service’ men.

Sometime in the mid 1880s, Bird Cage Theater was later sold to Huge Mcrum and John Stroufe and renamed to Elite Theater. However, it wasn’t long before disaster struck the mining community. One day, the miners hit the underground river at the silver mines. While the flooding was not intense enough to halt all mining activities, it had cause much inconvenience as pumps have to be operated 24 hours a day to drain away the excess water. However, it proved to be a temporary solution.

bird cage theater second floor
The “bird cages” on the second floor | Image credits: The Budget Savvy Travelers

Soon, the highly sough-after silver ore deposits were all underwater. Many miners were laid off as a result, leading to the demise of Tombstone and an exodus of its residents. In 1894, Bird Cage Theater sealed up its doors, closing for good.

It wasn’t until 1934 when the Hurley family reopened the iconic theater to the public as Tombstone’s only preserved historic landmark. Many of the furnishings and fixtures—including the piano and the coin-operated jukebo— still sits in the original spot as it was left when it was closed.

Today, Bird Cage Theater is open for visit from 9am to 6pm daily. Visitors can also opt for the nightly ghost tours—twice a day at 6:15pm and 8pm—where one can learn more about the fabled shootouts and ghostly activities that have happened in the historic theater. Visit the Bird Cage Theater official website to find out more.

The Longest Poker Game in History

Bird Cage Theater is perhaps best known for being the venue of the longest poker game ever played in history. The game was played continuously 24 hours a day from 1881 to 1889, for a total of 8 years, 5 months, and 3 days. As the large stake poker game required a minimum deposit of $1000 (today’s equivalent of $30,000) to play, it had attracted a lot of notable players in the region including Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Adolhpus Busch, Doc Holliday, Diamon Jim Brady, and George Hearst.

bird cage theater poker table
Poker Table at Bird Cage Theater | Image credits: casinoz

It is estimated that as much as $10 million dollars changed hand during the eight-year-long game, with the house (Bird Cage Theater) retaining ten percent of the earnings. The table where the record-breaking poker game was played can still be found at a corner of the theater.

While the existence of the game was proven by historical records, the duration of it was widely debated among historians. Some believed that the game could not have lasted so long, as the occasional fistfights and shootouts in the theater would have undoubtedly cause a stoppage.

Infamous Deaths at Bird Cage Theater

Legend has it that 26 deaths have occurred in the theater amidst the tumultuous activities during its eight years of operation.

Bird Cage Theater is famed for the numerous bullet holes that are left strewn across the buildings. It is estimated that 16 gunfights have happened in Bird Cage Theater, leaving 140 bullet holes scattered across the theater walls and the ceilings, and the remaining in the victims who have perished.

bullet holes at bird cage theater
Bullet Holes at Bird Cage Theater | Image credits: Joyce Copeland

One of the supposed death in Bird Cage Theater is the murder of Margarita, a theater performer and prostitute. One night, during a poker game, Margarita sat on the lap of a gambler named Billy Milgreen and gave him a kissed on the cheek. Enraged by what she saw, “Little Gertie the Gold Dollar’, also a prostitute and the supposed lover of Milgreen, grabbed Margarita in the hair and threw her to the ground. With a hidden stiletto from her garter, “Gold Dollar” brutally stabbed Margarita in the heart, killing her instantly.

In 1982, a stiletto believed to be the murder weapon was unearthed during an excavation on an old privy behind the theater; it is now on display inside the theater That said, the killing of Margarita remains a popular legend in Tombstone as there were no historical records to back the validity of the heinous crime.

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