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Bird Cage Theatre

After surviving two devastating fires, the flooding of its mines and near ghost-town abandonment, Tombstone has come to bill itself as “The Town Too Tough to Die.” Despite repeated hardship, it continues to thrive after more than 120 years.

Since Tombstone's resurrection as a historic tourist stop, however, the motto has taken on a different meaning. The town's former population, it seems, just won't leave. Countless men and women, many of whom died sudden and brutal deaths during Tombstone's early decades, refuse to give up their

connection to the town they so loved. Phantoms haunt the street corners where cowboys once lived and died, and practically every building in the historic district boasts at least one otherworldly presence.

Perhaps the single most haunted spot in Tombstone is the Bird Cage Theatre. Built in 1881 on the corner of Allen and Sixth, the Bird Cage quickly became one of Tombstone's hottest businesses, serving as a one-stop saloon, opera house, gambling hall and brothel. You could say it was the town's convenience store of iniquity. It wasn't the only one, but it was certainly one of the most frequented, drawing names like Wyatt Earp, Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius. Doc Holliday himself dealt faro at a card table that still sits in the saloon's corner.

According to museum supervisor Teresa Benjamin, the men of the day considered the opera house a place of neutral ground. Regardless, an astounding 140 bullet holes perforate the walls, floors and ceiling as a result of the numerous confrontations that took place here. Slugs more than a century old remain embedded in the walls, and just recently, a stiletto blade was uncovered that's been connected to the jealousy-fueled murder of one of the establishment's prostitutes. In all, 26 people lost their lives under this roof.

As a result, it's not surprising to have at least one ghostly experience a day. Most, according to Teresa, are photographic. “Ninety-five percent of our sightings in this building come from the camera,” she says. “They love having their picture taken.” For example, a mirror in one of the more expensive bordello rooms downstairs often produces the image of a lady in white. The cheaper rooms overlooking the gambling room result in their fair share of spirit images, as well. Teresa herself has caught a “floozy” or two up there. In the main hall, one visitor captured the image of two Civil War soldiers standing in front of the museum's gun case.

One particularly active spot for phantasmal photographs seems to be the poster of Fatima the belly dancer. “Ninety-nine percent of the time,” says Teresa, “you take a picture of Fatima and you will get something.” A woman once had her picture taken beneath the poster and discovered in the camera's preview screen another woman standing right beside her. When the visitor moved over to the mystery woman's spot and retook the picture, the apparition traded positions, as well.

Not only do the spirits show up for still photos, but they've also appeared on video. A family of tourists once marched into the gift shop and complained that they didn't see any ghosts, calling the place nothing

more than a tourist trap. When they got home, though, they called Teresa to apologize. On their videotape, they discovered two frightening specters staring straight into the camera. The family kept Teresa on the phone for half an hour describing the images. One was of a man sitting up inside an antique hearse that was on display. The other was of a woman in one of the bordello rooms, clearly upset at their presence. “They said it was strange,” she recalled, “because they could actually see the expression on her face go from shock to rage instantly.”

Perhaps the most bizarre image was one Teresa witnessed herself while watching the security monitor. She points to a live image of the high-stakes poker room and says, “I seen a pair of boots and spurs walking down this hallway ... with absolutely no legs.” She thought she was just seeing things, but when a couple passed through that same room moments later, they asked why that room alone was kept at such a low temperature. “They said it was so cold they couldn't stand it in there. … And that room's the same temperature as the rest of the building.”

What's really unusual about the events taking place here is that they vary so widely in nature. A manager who has since left always felt somebody shoving him out of the way anytime he walked around the card table. He also once had something buckle his legs out from under him on the stairs. During one particular week, women kept getting pinched. Teresa insists this sort of thing is uncommon, since the ghosts are typically friendly, but it does happen.

Sounds, on the other hand, occur on a regular basis. Girls giggling upstairs and the splash of poker chips are pretty common. The echoes of men's chatter frequently emanate from the main hall just as audibly as if actual people were having a conversation. Smells fill the air, as well, which include the scent of lavender perfume and the stale odor of cigar smoke, sometimes so strong it will make your eyes water. A woman once had a severe allergic reaction while visiting the museum, complaining that someone blew smoke right in her face, though she could never see who it was. “Then there's times,” Teresa says, “where the smell of death is so strong … that you actually have to leave the building for at least a couple seconds to get some fresh air. It is so nauseating and so overwhelming.”

Why so much activity at the Bird Cage? Well, despite the number of murders committed here, the opera house stands basically as it did a century ago. The original lights, draperies, stage curtains, wallpaper and furniture are all still in place. According to Teresa, the Bird Cage is the only place in town that has both its original front and back bars. Little about the place has changed. It's so well preserved that, when the building was reopened in the 1930s, original whiskey barrels were discovered still full of liquor. Perhaps these unaltered surroundings, which stand in contrast to the many renovated and brightly painted buildings up the street, are a major reason why the deceased find the Bird Cage so welcoming.

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