skip to content

Our Media



Lessons from Another Time

October 16, 2015

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a national conference in Tucson, Ariz., for state sheriffs’ association executives. My wife and I arrived a day early, and we had a little time on our hands so we decided to take a trip to historic Tombstone and see the sites.  It was indeed a beautiful drive across the high desert terrain with the landscape dotted with cactus, rocks, tumbleweed, and in the distance, the majestic Dragoon Mountains.

The Dragoon Mountains

When we arrived in Tombstone, we were excited to see that the history of the town and region were on full display. There were cowboys walking up and down the planked sidewalks, dancing girls in the saloons, and stagecoach rides for those who wanted to experience what travel was like in the 18th century. We toured the famous Cochise County Courthouse, the sight of a number of important trials and executions, and eventually ended up at the infamous O.K. Corral.

Now, I must admit I had always thought the O.K. Corral was a ranch, but it turns out it was really a place where you parked your horse and buggy. For the equivalent of a couple bucks you could feed and water your stallion while you transacted your business in town. But this was no ordinary corral, to be sure, as it was the place where one of the most famous gunfights in all of the Old West took place. That’s right, “The Shootout at the O.K. Corral.”

Tombstone Gun Ordinance PosterLegend has it the shootout occurred when the town marshal Wyatt Earp and his brothers tried to arrest one of the Clanton brothers on a warrant for violating the town’s ordinance against the open carry of firearms (see photo of the ordinance on display). So it seems, the open carry of firearms was a BIG issue in Tombstone back in the 1880s.

Another display pointed out the town had actually legalized prostitution and licensed brothels, or as they were known in those days, “Houses of Ill Fame.” The owners of these businesses were always on the lookout for new talent and often turned to unsavory individuals who could supply young women from as far away as Mexico, China and Europe to work in the trade.   

Still another display pointed out that drug addiction was a major problem for the town as well, so much so, that the town passed an ordinance that made it illegal for anyone to convert a building into a place where an individual(s) was allowed to smoke opium. Further, it was widely known the women who worked in the sex trade used illegal drugs. The drug of choice for them was “laudanum” a lethal mixture of alcohol and opium, which was highly addictive and resulted in many overdoses and deaths.

After the tour, I began to reflect on the lessons Tombstone could teach us today. Like us, the residents of the little town struggled with violent crime, drug addiction and human exploitation. Like us, they passed laws to suppress activity that they knew was destroying the quality of life in their town. And, like us, they had mixed success in stamping out these conditions.

Then I began to wonder why these conditions have survived for so long given that everyone universally seems to agree that drug abuse, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and violent crime is bad and should be eliminated.

To understand this we need to understand why Tombstone was established in the first place. Tombstone was a mining town established near the site where a prospector discovered one of the biggest silver deposits in all of the Southwest. Almost overnight, miners from all over the country began arriving to stake out claims.  These miners needed goods and services, and it wasn’t long before businessmen arrived to build the hotels, restaurants, banks, saloons, livery stables, schools, churches and mercantile stores they needed. Then other people arrived to work in these businesses and a town was born to support the mining industry.

These residents formed a government in 1881 and passed ordinances to address the violence, drug addiction and crime that had quickly appeared. The enforcement of these laws was certainly a step in the right direction to control the undesirable aspects of society that appeared in the town.

But exactly why did this criminal activity appear?  Sociologists have a number of theories about what causes crime, but they all agree that left unchecked it will usually lead to dysfunction, which will adversely impact the entire community.

Historic actors in TombstoneProof of such dysfunction can be found in the number of gun fights that occurred on the streets of Tombstone between 1881 and 1887. In fact, as you walk the streets today, you will see signs about who engaged in the fights and who lost their lives. Most of the gunfights were quick and dirty affairs, not what Hollywood plays them out to be with adversaries facing off in the streets at high noon. And there is little disagreement that alcohol, drug abuse and gambling was the cause of many of the disagreements that resulted in the deadly violence.

One way to look at criminal activity is to borrow an analogy from medicine and say that crime is like an infection of the body. All humans experience infection and sickness from time to time. Even when we feel perfectly healthy, we still may be fighting off a minor infection. But, when we have a major infection we know we are sick, and our whole system is impacted to the point that we can’t function well. When that happens we must seek treatment to control the infection so we can regain our health, and the same holds true for us as a society.

When these crimes are minimized our society performs well, but if they are allowed to flourish, it will make us weak and begin to break us down and destroy our quality of life, and eventually our whole society.

The residents of Tombstone understood this and took action to protect themselves, as we must today. Some say we are in a war on drugs, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and violent crime, but I think the right term is we are engaged in a STRUGGLE with these issues, and the best we can do, as with an infection, is to minimize these conditions in our society. As citizens, we each have a role to play in this classic struggle, and as Americans we owe it to our ancestors, like those men and women who established Tombstone, to continue the fight during our time. Will it be easy?  No.  But we must stand up and do the right thing.   

Your sheriffs and their deputies have sworn an oath to uphold our constitution and laws, and when those laws are upheld, our communities will remain safe, our way of life will be protected and our country will stand strong.  While we will probably never totally stamp out criminal activity, we can reduce it greatly if we work together.  Thank you for your support of law enforcement and the actions you take every day to keep our community safe.