Virgil Earp, Tombstone and a Shot of Whiskey

Do any photos exist of Virgil Earp’s damaged arm after being shot in Tombstone in December 1881?

Bill Haines – Nashville, Tennessee

I’m not aware of any photos taken of the injured limb. He took three shotgun blasts, maiming his left arm. Dr. George Goodfellow, Tombstone’s “Gunshot Physician,” performed surgery, managing to save the arm, but he had to remove almost six inches of bone above the joint. Virgil lost complete use of the arm.

Virgil Earp never had an undressed close-up of his mangled arm photographed, but the image above shows his damaged left arm hanging down at his side. True West Archives


Is Tombstone the greatest Western of all time?

Ronnie Bishop – Tulsa, OK

There are many great Westerns, including Shane, The Searchers, Fort Apache, True Grit, new and old, and High Noon. Like a beauty contest, it’s in the eyes (and taste) of the beholder. When you factor in television films like Lonesome Dove and 1883, it’s even more difficult. What makes Tombstone so good is the authentic costuming, firearms, saddles, etc. The cast was also great. The movie dropped the ball several times in getting the facts right. Maybe if they had stuck with Kevin Jarre’s original script it would have been an epic. As it was, Kurt Russell did a great job keeping it all together. 

The famous walk-down in Tombstone (1993) is one of the most iconic scenes in the ever-popular Western. L.-r.: Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp. Courtesy Buena Vista Pictures


Could you offer any insight into how tribal cultures viewed mental illness?

Shawn Cote – Fort Fairfield, Maine

By and large, the hundreds of different cultures and customs of the Amerinds viewed a person with mental illness with respect and kindness. Several believed the mentally ill had been touched by the Great Spirit and thus were very special people—something far better than beliefs among the White cultures who emigrated from the UK and Europe. Among the Apache and Navajo people, mental disease is identified as the consequence of breaking taboos. Thus, when individuals do not respect restrictions and expectations, problems may surface. In general, it is understood that illness will occur when the clockwise rotating wind within an individual (“wind soul”) is out of harmony with other spiritual forces in the universe.


I read that John Wayne was a pallbearer at Wyatt Earp’s funeral. Is that true?

Jason Clark – Boston, Massachusetts

John Wayne was not a pallbearer at Wyatt Earp’s funeral. The Duke hadn’t even starred in a film when Wyatt died. It has been said the two met in 1928 and became friends, but that story has no provenance. It’s also said that Wayne learned about Earp from John Ford. That’s doubtful. Regardless, Wayne was a great admirer of Wyatt.


How many Slavic/East European Indian fighters were there? 

Ales Simakou – Gomel, Belarus

I don’t know if such data exists, but the Frontier Army was full of immigrants, especially Irish, German and northern Europeans. The large immigration of Eastern European and Slavic immigrants came later in the 19th century, when the Indian Wars were on the decline. 

Arizona had a large number of Slavic miners, especially Serbs who were working in the copper mines beginning in the 1890s. 


Did the term, a “shot of whiskey” originate in Tombstone and refer to miners using an actual bullet to pay for their drinks? 

Mark Manning – Mesa, Arizona

It’s a tall tale. Those claims that in the Old West one could belly up to the bar and trade a bullet for a glass of whiskey aren’t true. A saloon wouldn’t remain in business very long if it traded bullets for shots of whiskey. A .45 bullet would cost about 2 cents a round, but a saloon couldn’t pay a distributor or even a bootlegger in bullets. A glass of beer might cost you one bit, 12½ cents, or two bits, or a quarter for a shot of whiskey.

Shot glasses have been around for some 200 years, and far as I know, they’ve always been an ounce. There are also many versions of the origin of “shot.” I believe the most believable was that it gave the imbiber a jolt or a shot. 

Cowboys in Tascosa, Texas, enjoy whiskey in shots and beer in glasses in this famous and rare interior photo of cowpunchers drinking at a bar. True West Archives

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