The Haunted Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone

Posted by junketseo in Tombstone Ghost Tours
The Haunted Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone - Photo

Tombstone, Arizona, is one of the most well-known cities of the American frontier, home to historic events like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Life in the budding town wasn’t always about drawing pistols and striking down one’s enemies, though, as evidenced by the existence of The Bird Cage Theatre. Sometimes, it was nice to take a break from thieving and terrorizing townsfolk to enjoy a delightful production or more depraved live entertainment.


Despite Tombstone’s more colorful and often deadly history, The Bird Cage Theatre still stands today. Though the music and live shows have stopped, the building has been repurposed to house the memories of the 19th-century mining town. Travelers are treated to displays of American history, each piece telling a different story about the Wild West as a gentle tune echoes throughout the auditorium.


But wait, if The Bird Cage’s entertainment ceased many years ago, where would that lively track come from? Whose boisterous laugh is filling what used to be the main space? And who, exactly, is that wispy Lady in White meandering around the poker room? Maybe the fine patrons of The Bird Cage Theatre never actually left, and many who perished in the small town still circle back for an evening of fun and entertainment. 


What exactly happened at The Bird Cage Theatre? 


Life is what happened—every form of it—from the good to the bad and most definitely the ugly. Explore the history of the Town Too Tough to Die on a Tombstone ghost tour, and you just may catch glimpses of the afterlife.


Who Brought Entertainment to Tombstone?


Founded in 1877 by prospector Ed Schieffelin, Tombstone was among the last boomtowns erected in the frontier. Its population grew from a paltry 100 to over 10,000 within a decade. While many sought riches in the nearby mines, others used their talents to provide the residents of the desert city with something unique. 


Enter William “Billy” Hutchinson and his wife, Lottie. In 1881, the couple opened The Bird Cage Theatre in a building constructed by C.S. Fly and William Harwood. As a performer, Billy had a clear vision for The Bird Cage—a space where Variety acts could entertain the masses and help everyone forget the trials and tribulations of the Old West. 


If stage entertainment wasn’t cutting it, patrons could get their kicks from the beautiful ladies waiting within the 22 private bird cage-like boxes along the balcony for which the theatre was named. It may have been a theatre, but the Hutchinsons knew their clientele well and allowed their space to host nightly parties so rowdy the New York Times described it as “The wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” 


From magic shows to musical entertainment, the Bird Cage became a popular hangout for Tombstone locals. It even drew a poker-playing crowd so passionate about the game that some, like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, participated in what’s known as the longest poker session in history. The game ran for seven days straight, 24 hours a day, from 1881 to 1889, uninterrupted by whatever happened on the floors above, even if blood was being spilled.


The Bird Cage Theatre’s Rocky Past


During the Bird Cage’s 11 years running, the Hutchinson’s cultivated a brilliant space that embodied the best parts of the Wild West. Unfortunately, they couldn’t protect their establishment from the worst of the late 19th century, and remnants of that can be seen in the more than 100 bullet holes that pepper the theatre’s walls. Even worse was the story of Little Gertie the Gold Dollar and Margarita, madames of the mining town.


Little Gertie worked at the Crystal Palace, a nearby brothel and rival to The Bird Cage’s own house of turpitude. Entertaining men for The Bird Cage was Margarita, a woman who seemed the exact opposite of Gertie. Only a year after the Hutchinson’s opened their venue, a regular of Gertie’s, Billy Milgreen, became interested in Margarita’s services. 


Slighted by her rival stealing her regular customer, Gertie retaliated most violently, stabbing Margarita in the heart with a double-edged stiletto. Some accounts even say Little Gertie cut Margarita’s heart from her chest.


It was the first shocking and reported case of blood being spilled on the grounds of The Bird Cage, but it was certainly far from the last. Suicides were not uncommon in the theatre’s “Gallows Room,” and brawls sometimes left a patron lifeless on the floor. An estimated 26 people lost their lives in The Bird Cage, their souls inevitably becoming a fixture in Tombstone’s most infamous entertainment space. 


The Hutchinson’s eventually sold their theatre in 1882, but its new owners, Hugh McCrum and John Stroufe, failed to capture the same allure and whimsy. After a productive mine was accidentally flooded and the price of silver plummeted, industry in Tombstone came to a near halt, and the theatre officially closed its doors.


For the spirits trapped within the theatre, it would be a long 53 years before the building was re-opened, first as a coffee shop and several other failed businesses, before being converted into the museum it is today.


What Ghosts Call The Bird Cage Home?


Whether you’re standing in the lobby amidst artifacts salvaged from Tombstone’s past or viewing the 19th-century relics stored in the auditorium, you’ll likely feel an energy pulsating through The Bird Cage Theatre. Not only were lives lost on the theatre’s grounds, but Tombstone was also a riotous city, and the loss of life in violent or sudden ways was frequent. Blood-soaked grounds don’t cleanse easily, and with much of Tombstone’s history locked away in The Bird Cage, it stands to reason that the 140-year-old building is a hotbed for the otherworldly. 


During a visit, open-minded travelers should expect to glimpse Margarita, the slain lady of the night, or a mysterious Lady in White, who some believe to be tied to the theatre’s most unusual exhibit: The Black Moriah hearse. From 1881 to 1917, it’s believed this ornate hearse, decorated in 24k gold and sterling silver, had “A Cowboy for Breakfast Everyday.” 


Between the ethereal cowboy likely gunned down over a poker game and the echoes of laughter from the deceased who once patronized The Bird Cage’s finest services, it’s no surprise that visitors have spoken of shadows moving about the building or noted the faint smell of cigar smoke wafting by. 


Haunted Tombstone


There is so much history behind Tombstone and The Bird Cage Theatre, and you can find more on our blog. Be sure to check our socials on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to see more ghostly hotspots throughout Arizona and to learn more about our haunted tours in Tombstone.