Tombstone Epitaph Special Historical Editions of the Old West's Most Famous Newspaper

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The EpitaphThe Tombstone Epitaph

The Making of the Old West’s Most Famous Newspaper

By Frederick Schoemehl
Editor, National Edition

Note: The author wishes to acknowledge several published accounts used in the compilation of this narrative history. These include a retrospective by Wallace E. Clayton that appeared in The Tombstone Epitaph in May 1980; a special historical edition on John P. Clum, published by The Epitaph in 2006; a special historical edition on the O. K. Corral gunfight reissued by The Epitaph in 2007; several “Hall of Fame” biographies prepared for the Arizona Newspaper Association; Arizona’s Territorial Newspapers by Sam S. Webb; and Newspapering in the Old West by Robert F. Karolevitz. Other material was drawn from The Epitaph files.

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The East Heads West

For their obvious interest in developing the western frontier, newcomers also were interested in transferring Eastern institutions to the West. Settling, the process of physically adapting to new places, was accompanied by settling down, the companion process of bringing order and stability to the West. The goal was to ensure that new settlements would mirror the old through the prompt creation of political forms, schools, churches, stage lines, post offices and newspapers.

Frontier newspapers did several things. By the second half of the 19th century, newspapers were a ubiquitous part of America’s print culture. The development of telegraphic communication permitted information to move quickly from point to point. But there needed to be a means of handing off the “news” to the consumer. Newspapers became the transfer medium in a new information age. In 1886, for example, The Epitaph used its “Telegraphic” and “Special Telegrams” columns to provide readers reactions in Washington, D. C., to Geronimo’s final surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles. At that same time, Old West newspapers were an essential element of political and marketing cultures. Through editorial positions, newspapers communicated with different constituencies on local, regional and national issues. By discussing, dissecting and defending different ideas, they sought to shape public opinion. By carrying advertising, their readerships learned about who did and sold what. This was important information in boom towns where new arrivals needed to know about stage schedules, fine cigars, quality spirits and life’s other necessities. Finally, western newspapers were heralds, often unabashedly so. They were often the chief champions of what their locales were “destined” to become.

John Philip Clum: We Need an Epitaph

Newspapers were hardly beacons of objectivity. News was served up with equal helpings of politics and passion. When The Tombstone Epitaph was founded in 1880, John Philip Clum did not discuss the need to report the goings on in Tombstone without fear or favor, or about being “fair and balanced.” What mattered to Clum were Puritan ethics and the blessings of capitalism. Echoing John Winthrop’s words upon the founding of Massachusetts, Clum called the bustling silver camp “a city upon the hill.” The comment surely captured Clum’s belief that religion was necessary in the process of settling down. Clum said the new paper would be “a representative mining journal,” a vehicle for enhancing Tombstone’s founding industry.

Wyatt Earp and John ClumClum had little need to mask his bias in the biggest story of his newspaper career – coverage of the October 1881 gunfight at the O. K. Corral. The gunfight broke the town’s “quietness and good order,” Clum wrote, a solitude that law enforcement had brought over the previously “fractious” and “dreaded cowboys.” With three cowboys dead and the Earp brothers walking tall, Clum immediately concluded, “EARP BROTHERS JUSTIFIED.” With references to “the best class of citizens” and “all good citizens” and “the better portion of our citizens,” Clum’s view of the matter was settled. That he repeatedly used the word “citizen” conveyed special meaning. To Clum, cowboys were not citizens; citizens had settled down and respected law and order. The cowboys’ decision to come into town while armed was sufficient evidence they were not behaving as citizens in a well-ordered city on a hill. If there was an alternate explanation of the day’s events, a different side to the story, it was not going to be part of The Epitaph’s immediatecoverage.

Why? As a representative mining journal, the paper’s job was to align itself with the forces that were intent on consolidating mining capital in a land that was posed for economic growth.In the leapfrog nature of western development, California’s Sierra foothills represented capital’s first big mark on the West. That was followed by the smaller impression made by Nevada’s Comstock. Did Ed Schieffelin’s silver discovery mean that Arizona was next in line? Moreover, parked in the mind of every person associated with western mining was the idea that livestock and pastoral activities were becoming quaint. Clum was a Republican. And Republicans of the early 1880s believed in several things – an industrial plant and transportation system fashioned of iron and steel, a money supply backed by precious metal, and a laissez fair market economy. This was at some remove from the older, Jeffersonian view of a nation of free-holding agriculturalists who tended crops and animals, bartered face to face in local market towns and whose nature was more communitarian than commercial. To Clum and the western modernizers, that was just so old school.

By the time he reached Tombstone in 1880, Clum knew much about new school. Born in New York in 1851, Clum came to Santa Fe, N. M., in 1871 and initially worked in the new information industry by sending weather observations to Washington, D.C., by telegraph. As a new face in the countryside, Clum was schooled in one of the biggest problems in the West, the continuing unrest between native people and the newcomers. Drawing on his government service and his Dutch Reformed Church faith, Clum decided he might succeed in finding a way to achieve peace between the newcomers and Apaches in the Southwest. Direct orders backed up with physical force, the way of the U. S. Army, had not brought peace to Arizona’s San Carlos Indian Reservation or lands beyond. While Clum was sympathetic to Apache concerns, his was a paternal sympathy. Clum did not believe in Indian rights to self-determination, as the term is used today. He envisioned Indians settling down. The approach was to relocate Indians to reservations where they would have limited self-government under the watchful eye of the Office of Indian Affairs. But the comforting idea of a settled reservation was thwarted by off-reservation Apaches, including Geronimo, who were not ready to give up traditional lifeways just because it fit the agenda of settlers and the federal government.

Clum had been the only government agent – civilian or military – to capture Geronimo, and had recommended unsuccessfully that Geronimo be executed for numerous killings.  Clum, however, was on his way out of the Indian business. In 1875, the Army decided it would take a tougher line at San Carlos. What would happen to the Indian police force that Clum had appointed? Stung by the criticism heaped on his idea of using Apaches to police Apaches, Clum began his move toward the exit, and finally left in 1877. After San Carlos, Clum moved in two directions. He studied law and quickly was admitted to the bar in Pinal County, Ariz. With other businessmen, he purchased a seven-year-old newspaper, the Tucson Citizen, renamed it the Arizona Citizen, and moved it to Florence. It was not Arizona’s first paper – that honor goes to the Weekly Arizonian, which was launched in Tubac, then in New Mexico Territory, in March 1859.

Clum’s first venture into newspaper publishing was not particularly notable, save his use of the Citizen’s pages to justify his paternal approach in dealing with the Apaches – as opposed to the Army’s tougher strategy. Florence did not prove to be the newspaper town that Clum envisioned. Within two years, he moved the publication back to Tucson, took back its old name and switched to daily circulation.By 1879, two years after Schieffelin’s silver discovery southeast of Tucson, Clum’s attention was drawn to the razzle-dazzle of Tombstone. Clum sold his interest in the Citizen in January 1880, moved to Tombstone, and launched the iconic Epitaph with an afternoon issue on Saturday, May 1, 1880. Now more than 130 years old, The Epitaph is the oldest continuously published newspaper in Arizona.

Not that the start-up was very easy. Clum had to purchase printing equipment, land and building material, and support his wife and son. Two partners, both printers, joined him in the new enterprise. In a wonderful turn of a phrase, Clum declared, “no Tombstone is complete without its epitaph.” While true epitaphs are just so much gloss about a decedent’s life, Clum’s first Epitaph read as prophecy. Clum saw Tombstone as a wealth-producing engine of change. “Millions In It!” he exclaimed in the first issue. The town’s underground riches would attract investment capital that would set the stage for continued growth and development. The city would mature to that “city upon the hill” and become a beacon as bright as “ancient Rome.”

The problem with most beacons is that they sometimes flicker or go dark. Tombstone’s early years were marked by mudslinging, gunslinging, murky land dealings, and the ill effects of water and fire in the wrong places at the wrong times. In two years, Clum went from Tombstone mayor to a position in the U. S. Post Office’s inspection department in Washington, D.C. What had gone wrong? Boomtowns moved at a boomtown’s pace – those on the ground floor were anxious to preserve their position at all costs – and Clum wanted to apply the brakes. When Clum arrived, a townsite was in the making under federal land laws. Townsite lots were to be sold by the village of Tombstone to legitimate occupants, with proceeds used to underwrite public services. Clum’s contention was that the mayor, Alder Randall, illegally transferred more than 2,000 town lots to some close chums, James Clark and Michael Gray. In rapidly developing conditions, squatters had taken to some lots, while others had been sold by people who claimed to the rightful owners. Based on the deed from Mayor Randall, “Clark, Gray and Company” asserted it was the only lawful land broker. Clum and others saw the situation much differently. “Tombstone has been handed over to the speculators,” Clum asserted. “Our citizens are being ousted from their homes.”

Now doubling as postmaster and an editor-publisher, Clum ventured farther into the political arena. Having gone to court to end the town lot sales by Clark and Gray, Clum decided to run for elective office. As a mayoral candidate under the newly former Citizens Protective Party, Clum sought a settled town in which he would “defeat corruption” while bringing “peace and prosperity to our city.” He was elected mayor on Jan. 4, 1881.

Now wearing three hats, Clum faced the challenge of what he labeled “the county ring.” When Cochise County was made a freestanding political jurisdiction, several Democrats won covered appointed offices doled out by the territory’s Republican governor, John C. Frémont. In essence, Clum broke ranks with the territory’s best-known Republican figure. In addition, Clum drew a close association between the “ring” and local ranchers who were allied with outlaw elements. Thus, Tombstone cleaved into two factions. In one, Clum, The Epitaph, local Republicans, mining capital and the Earp brothers; in the other, the rival Nugget, local Democrats, the ranch trade and several so-called cowboys, including the Clantons and McLaurys.

If the former group won the battle on a cold afternoon in October 1881, Clum’s vision of a settled and prosperous Tombstone remained elusive. Eight months before the infamous gunfight at the O. K. Corral, The Epitaph reported, “water has been struck in one of the leading mines of the district.” This was not a cause for concern, the experts said, because good water meant good silver could not be far behind. Five years later, Tombstone’s silver mines were silenced by water in volumes too great to pump away. And four months before the shootout, Tombstone’s core – “largely made up of combustible material” – was destroyed by fire. Fire safety ordinances, which Clum had supported editorially, hadn’t been adopted. It took a second fire, 11 months later, to bring fire protection.

By mid-1882, Clum had enough. Whatever role The Epitaph had played in helping Tombstone to settle and settle down, it was not enough to hold Clum’s interest. He had lost a wife, a daughter, and, in an undignified move by superiors, his job as postmaster. With his term as mayor also over, Clum was left with The Epitaph, which he sold – ironically, to interests in the “ring” he had fought since arriving in Tombstone in 1880.

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