THE DEADLIEST CORNER IN TOMBSTONE
by Rita Ackerman
Tombstone was a boom and people poured in from all over the country; most hoping to find riches in the silver lode beneath the town. Others realized the real money was to be made in providing refreshment to the hundreds of miners and the droves of gamblers, merchants, soiled doves and others who followed the boom camps throughout .the west.
Jim Vizina and Benjamin Cook built a one story commercial building on the choice lot at the northeast corner of Fifth and Allen Streets. The building was partitioned and soon rented to eager businessmen. Fronting on Fifth Street was the Safford, Hudson & Co. bank; the corner was leased by Milton Edward Joyce &; Co., for a saloon the center store facing Allen was taken by Charles Clover & Co., a men’s furnishing group from San Francisco; and the last section was used by L. Meyer & Co. as a dry goods store.
Milton. Edward Joyce arrived in Tombstone in 1879 with interests in mining but by June 1880 he was working to open a saloon and restaurant. The gaming concession was run by a group of San Francisco sporting men headed by Lou Rickabaugh and William C. Parker and Bill Harris from Dodge.
In her column in the San Diego Daily Union on August 10, 1880 Clara Brown wrote, in part, “Saloon openings are all the rage. The ‘Oriental’ is simply gorgeous and is pronounced the finest place of the kind this side of San Francisco. The bar is a marvel of beauty; the sideboards were made for the Baldwin Hotel; the gaming room connected is carpeted with Brussels, brilliantly lighted, and furnished with reading matter and writing materials for its patrons. Every evening music from a piano and a violin attracts a crowd; and the scene is really a gay one but all for the men. To be sure, there are frequent dances, which I have heard called “respectable”, but as long as so many members of the demi-monder, who are very numerous and very showy here, patronize them, many honest women will hesitate to attend.”
Contrary to the version in the movie Tombstone it was Dr. John Henry “Doc” Holliday who fought with Johnny Tyler at the Oriental. Joyce forced Tyler to leave and tried to reason with the drunk Doc. He gave up and tossed Doc out the front door. Doc came right back in through the side door and demanded his revolver, which was refused. Doc got another gun from his room and returned to open fire. Joyce got off a shot and missed but then bravely beat Doc not realizing he had been shot in the hand. His partner, E. P. Parker was shot in the big toe. Joyce filed a complaint and Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp arrested Doc two days later, Oct. 10, 1880.
The next altercation at the Oriental occurred on Feb. 25, 1881. Luke Short was running a game when he and Charles Storm argued over the turn of a card. They were separated by Bat Masterson and things seemed to settle down. However, Short and Storm met again later when Storms demanded satisfaction and ended up dead. The public opinion was that it was justifiable.
Again, on March 1, a drunk and a sporting man with the gambler receiving a wound. Clara Brown commented in her March 9, article that “it is a marvel that no innocent parties are injured by stray bullets when so many people are constantly on the street, and a little excitement draws a crowd of hundreds.”
In his diary of March 3, Parsons claimed the “Oriental a regular slaughter house now. Much bad blood today. Pistols pulled. Games at Oriental Closed by Joyce.”
On June 22, 1881 the elegance of the Oriental was caught in the fire that took out much of the business district. The fire started at the Arcade Saloon, three doors above the Oriental and burned so fast Joyce was unable to get his cash from the safe. He reported $10,000 in damages and the Rickabaugh Club Room reported $5,000.
The corner was quickly rebuilt and expanded to the full 120 foot length of the lot and storage was set up in the vacated bank building.
In late 1881 Joyce sold the saloon and gambling concession to Lou Rickabaugh who continued the tradition of high-class surroundings. One of the main attractions was Miss Emma Howe a talented piano player from San Francisco. Wyatt Earp had a gaming concession in the Oriental and Virgil Earp was leaving that place on the night of Dec. 18, 1881 when he was ambushed.
Milton Joyce regained his ownership of the Oriental in January 1882 and the Epitaph claimed “Outside of San Francisco there is not a nicer place in the country than the Oriental.” (Jan. 11, 1882.)
The elegance was again threatened in May 1882 when another fire raced through the business district. The firemen pulled the overhang down and kept the building wet so Joyce received only moderate damage to his establishment. He plied the gallant firemen with liquor in thanks. Things were soon back to normal when “Buckskin” Frank Leslie and James Floyd got in to an argument. They were tossed out and Leslie went to beat Floyd over the head when his gun discharged. Leslie was arrested for firing a gun but it appears all charges were dropped when Floyd withdrew his complaint.
Frank Leslie was also involved in an altercation on November 14, 1882 Leslie and others were having a friendly conversation when William “Billy” Claiborne tried to force his way into the group. Leslie told him to leave but soon heard that the hot-headed Claiborne was gunning for him. As Claiborne stood by the front door Leslie slipped out the center side door and walked towards him. Claiborne got off a quick shot with his Winchester and missed. Leslie fired and the self claimed “Billy The Kid” fell to the ground and soon died.
Richard Heitchow took over the Oriental in February 1883 and later that spring another altercation occurred. This time it involved a scorned woman. Mrs. Woodman, alias the “Road Runner” had been living with Billy Kinsman for about two years. It was tumultuous relationship and after an especially violent altercation Woodman promised to kill him. When they met the next morning at the Oriental (some sources say it started in the saloon and others in front) Woodman carried through with her threat. A witness later stated Woodman confronted Kinsman and then suddenly pulled a gun from her cloak and fired. Kinsman turned and headed around the corner when Woodman followed him and fired a second shot just as Officer Coyle tried to grab her. Young Kinsman was taken to his parent’s house where he soon died.
May Woodman was convicted of manslaughter and sent to the territorial prison in Yuma. It was soon learned she was pregnant and a petition was started asking for her pardon. She was released on March 15, 1884 when she boarded a train for California and disappeared.
In the fall, Tombstone gained gas lighting and the Oriental was one of the businesses to take advantage of the new bright lights. In 1885 the saloon again changed hands and long time saloon owner Joseph “Charley” Mellgren took over. He remained in charge until the spring of 1886. The Oriental went through a number of owners until 1888.
The Prospector announced on May 12, 1887 “just received at Nardini’s store, on Allen street, some very stout Limburger cheese. A reporter saw some at a distance to-day and from the odor it was strong enough to stand alone. The lovers of this luxurious cheese had better call at Nardini’s and purchase some before it walks off.”
In September 1888 Nardini moved his store, along with the Limburger cheese, to the Oriental building. The newspaper commented, “This is the first time in its history that it (the Oriental) has been occupied by any other than a saloon man, and if Nardini makes one-half the money that Joyce made out of it, he can rest satisfied.”
G. Nardini & Co. were dealers in liquors, cigars, staples and fancy groceries. Nardini sold out sometime before 1896 when he was reported on his sick bed near Healdsburg, California and not expected to live more than a few weeks.
In 1921 Mr. O. Lillybeck moved his pharmacy business to Tombstone and located it in the Oriental building. He had formerly been in Columbus, New Mexico and the store, was named the Columbus Drug Company. The company handled the Rexall line and, also carried Kodak cameras and supplies, Waterman’s Fountain Pens, Kant-Leak Rubber Goods, Klenze Dental. products and the Coty and Pompeian imported lines of toilet articles.
By 1924 their slogan of “Only The Best” carried over to the soft drink department where they had installed, a modern twelve-foot Liquid Carbonic sanitary fountain, the only one in town. There were fountain tables, and individual booths with a seating capacity of thirty-five people.
In April 1929 there was a bit of excitement when somebody broke the glass in one of the side doors and broke in to steal about $15.00. Although good fingerprints were found the culprit was unknown.
Mr. Lillybeck also owned the Russ’ House and displayed relics found during the rmodeling in the window of the Columbus Drug Store. One of these was “a well worn satin strip, bearing the rules that governed the hotel and the advertisements of many Tombstone firms that are long since defunct.”
On April 20, 1944 the Epitaph reported a reincarnation of “Buckskin” Frank Leslie. A pair of traveling salesmen stopped at the Columbus Drug Store for a drink and then started complaining loudly to the soda jerk, Jack Cook. Insults flew until Cook tried to take himself away to cool off, but the ranting followed him around the store. Cook returned to his post, filled a double-malted glass with water and proceeded to throw it in the face of the abusive peddler. As a group of high school sports stars happened on the scene at that moment the salesman wisely chose to leave. He probably never knew how lucky he was “Buckskin” Frank hadn’t actually reappeared behind the counter.
Excitement of another type occurred on the Oriental corner in 1945. Thursday afternoon, a freakish accident occurred on Main street. A lady from Willcox, driving east down Main street, attempted to turn left at the Drug store corner. She drove up onto the sidewalk, went between three posts and hit the corner of the drug store building, breaking the large window and smashing in the wood part below the window. No damage was done to the truck and no. one was hurt. (Epitaph, Sept. 13.)
Even though the corner of Fifth and Allen Streets doesn’t, get as much fanfare as the O.K. Corral, it was surely the deadliest corner in Tombstone.