The Bird Cage Theatre was the most famous saloon in America between 1881 and 1889. In 1882, The New York Times once referred to it as the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast. During the late 1800s, Tombstone was at the height of its existence.
This is when the area experienced its largest mining boom. For travelers that don’t get the opportunity to experience a tour, this insider guide will answer all your questions about this iconic Tombstone brothel.
Owned by Lottie and William “Billy” Hutchinson, the Bird Cage Theatre opened on December 26, 1881. Hutchison was a variety performer and his intention was to bring in large crowds by offering family-friendly shows and entertainment. In fact, soon after the theatre opened, a free Ladies Night was offered for the respectable women of Tombstone.
Unfortunately, the economics of the city could not support their aspirations. Therefore, Ladies Night was eventually canceled and the entertainment shifted to performances that would appeal to the rough and rugged mining crowd.
The Bird Cage Theatre Legacy
One of the legacies of the Bird Cage Theatre is that for nine years, the brothel never closed its doors. This lusty den of sin was open 24 hours a day, for 3,285 days straight. Before the operation closed in 1889, it was the sight of 16 gunfights that left 140 bullet holes in the walls and ceilings.
It’s All in the Name
The Bird Cage was aptly named for the 14 crib style rooms suspended from the ceiling, hung over the casino ad dance hall. It was in these “cages” that the prostitutes, or ladies of the night as they were called, pursued their trade. $25 dollars a night would buy a gentleman a bottle of whiskey and a lady for the evening. All of the red velvet drapes and trimmings are original.
Initially, the acts included performers such as Mademoiselle De Granville (Alma Hayes). She was known as the “Female Hercules” and “the woman with the iron jaw” who would pick up heavy objects with her teeth.
Other performers included an Irish comic duo, opera singers, and comedic singers and comedians—many of them female. Sometimes there were masquerade balls featuring cross-dressing entertainers. Miners would stay all night, drinking and dancing.
The entertainment on stage ranged from nightly French circuit can-can dancers and risque performances for the male patrons to national headliners of the time such as Eddie Foy, opera tenor Caruso, and Lotta Crabtree. The few ladies who lived in Tombstone never entered the Bird Cage Theatre or even walked on the same side of the street as the scandalous bar. Interestingly enough, the handpainted stage with the original stage curtain remains intact today.
Longest Poker Game in History
The Bird Cage Theatre is probably best known for hosting the longest poker game in western history. It was a house game that required players to buy a minimum of $1,000 in chips for a seat in the game. The game ran continuously for 8 years, 5 months, and 3 days.
It is estimated that approximately $10 million was exchanged in the game and that the Bird Cage retained ten percent of the earnings. It was someone’s job to go and get the next person on the list to play when someone left the game. Today, the poker table still stands as it was left, with its chairs resting on the old dirt floor.
Some of America’s most famous cowboys came here to let loose and be entertained by the Bird Cage’s lovely ladies. For example, Wyatt Earp, Johnny Ringo, and Doc Holiday drank and played cards there. Many murders took place here, as well. Interestingly, Wyatt Earp met his third wife Sadie Marcus at the theatre.
Sarah Josephine Marcus “Sadie Joe” had her own bordello room. Here she had many romantic liaisons with her future husband Wyatt Earp. This was ongoing while she was engaged to the Tombstone Sheriff who frowned upon her working as a prostitute. Wyatt was living nearby in a covered wagon with his common-law wife Mattie. When Wyatt left her for Sadie Jo, Mattie ended up being a prostitute in Prescott, Arizona. Later, she committed suicide.
Recreating a traditional shootout in Tombstone, Arizona.
A bartender, wearing a classic red bartender’s jacket, poured the very best liquor at the custom-made cherrywood bar and back bar. This bar and mirror were shipped around the Horn of South America to San Fransico by boat and carried to Tombstone by mule train. Next to the bar, there is a dumb waiter that sent drinks upstairs to the ladies of the night and their clients. Today, it is the only bar that is authentic to 1800s Tombstone, that remains in its original building.
Look for the Famous Painting
Peek in the windows to get a glimpse of the famous bar painting of Fatima. This work of art has been hanging in the same location since 1882. Fatima was an entertainer at the Bird Cage Theatre. She gifted this painting of her likeness to the theatre. When her shows were deemed too provocative, she went to Europe and changed her name to “Little Egypt.” She actually became highly famous. The painting is 9-feet long and has the scars of 6 bullet holes.
If inside, some suggest pointing your camera toward the original back bar French mirror to capture a great photo.
Frozen in Time For 50 Years
The unfortunate closing of the Bird Cage occurred when diaster struck Tombstone from the flooding of the mines. Initially, the flood wasn’t big enough to stop the mining work. However, with time the desired silver ore deposits were underwater. Many miners were laid off and most residents left Tombstone for good. Eventually, the theatre was sealed and boarded up with all of its fixtures and furnishings still intact. For almost 50 years the building remained closed, with its contents only touched by the passing of time.
Becoming a Historic Landmark
In 1934, the Bird Cage Theatre became a historic landmark of the American West when it reopened to the public. This is Tombstone’s only historic landmark still in its original state, preserved from 1881. The light fixtures, chandeliers, drapes, and the casino floor gambling tables are all authentic and still intact. Additionally, the original massive grand piano still sits in the orchestra pit. The coin-operated jukebox still plays as it did in 1881. Travelers from around the world love coming to tour the building and feel the nostalgia of its past.
Tombstone’s Most Valuable Artifact
In addition to thousands of other pieces from this era, the building’s most valuable antique is The Black Moriah. This original Boothill hearse is trimmed in 24K gold and sterling silver. The hearse took all but six bodies to Boot Hill. The original coffin that sits to the right of the hearse was used in the movie, “Tombstone.”
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According to the saloon operators, 26 ghosts still love to hang out at Tombstone’s famous saloon/brothel. In fact, this is a popular stop for ghost hunters from all over the world. Rumors are that shouting and loud music can sometimes be heard late at night.
Others claim that they get whiffs of cigar smoke and whiskey in the air. The night tour is probably the best way to get a feel for the building’s spookiness and try experiencing the paranormal phenomena. Tourists can experience over 100 years of wild west history at the Bird Cage Theatre.