How do we know so much about the Old West? There are Western movies, of course. But what of the people behind that popular image of wild frontiers and tobacco-spitting cowboys…?
Messy Nessy Chic looked behind the scenes at Fly’s Photography, based in the legendary location of Tombstone, Arizona.
Vintage photography in Tombstone was done on the Fly
Run by Camillus “Buck” Fly and his wife Mary “Mollie” Goodrich, the business was part studio, part boarding house.
Messy Nessy Chic writes that, as well as “capturing Tombstone’s residents and daily life,” the Flys produced “the only known images of Native Americans before they lost the war to the white man.”
Without the enterprising couple, we wouldn’t have these vintage photos depicting what life was really like back then.
The people of Tombstone, Arizona
Meet Semantha Fallon, from an image taken in 1879. Fallon was a business owner and, according to Messy Nessy Chic, dated the founder of the town himself!
Tombstone historian George Parsons in full, off-duty cowboy mode.
This photo is of Apache May, a Native American child reportedly found and raised by John Slaughter of Tombstone.
Notable names of the Old West associated with the Flys
Doc Holliday and his spouse, the vividly named Big Nose Kate — or Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings — apparently laid their hats at the Flys’ boarding house.
A portrait believed to be of Doc Holliday.
While initially listed at auction as a photo of Josephine Sarah Marcus (Wild West gunslinger Wyatt Earp’s wife), it is now speculated that the photo could be of Big Nose Kate.
Camillus “Buck” Fly was on the scene for the Gunfight At The O.K. Corral
One advantage — if you want to see it that way — of living in proximity to the likes of Doc Holliday is you witness history in the making.
1881’s Gunfight At The O.K. Corral saw Wyatt and Virgil Earp, plus fellow gunslingers, go up against the Clanton boys and their trigger-happy associates. The whole bloody event was over in 30 seconds.
Buck was on hand to take a picture of the losing side. Tom and Frank McLaury are shown here, alongside Billy Clanton. Messy Nessy Chic states that this is the only photographic reference historians have for Clanton, who was 19 at the time of his death.
Was Buck tempted to get in the thick of the action, photojournalist style? Reportedly, there was pressure on him not to.
Legends of America writes that he “did not photograph the aftermath of the shootout, but legend has it that he was threatened by one of the Earp’s if he did.”
Interestingly, Buck found himself taking a more proactive role as Sheriff of Cochise County between 1894-6.
Major peace negotiations between Geronimo and Gen George Crook were captured on film
It wasn’t all shootouts in the Wild West. At times, people tried to avoid reaching for their holsters.
Here we see the famous Apache Chief Geronimo sitting down with his men and those of General George Crook in 1886. There to record the moment was Camillus “Buck” Fly.
What happened to the Flys?
The negotiations didn’t go well. And things didn’t turn out great for Buck and Mollie, either. They eventually separated, with Mollie running things in Tombstone and Buck relocating to the Arizona town of Bisbee.
Fly’s Photography suffered not just one but two fires. Mollie snapped the blaze here in 1912.
Camillus passed away in 1901, aged 52. Mollie passed in 1925. Thankfully, she made a generous donation of photos to the Smithsonian Institution.
You can visit their gallery today, though it’s a modern recreation.
Tombstone made its mark on American history
Another permanent tribute to the Wild West is this statue of Wyatt Earp. It stands in Tombstone next to the house where he lived.
Earp has been brought to life on film by actors such as Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine, 1946), Burt Lancaster (Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, 1957), and Kevin Costner (Wyatt Earp, 1994).
Costner’s Wyatt Earp was not a box office success. More luck was had the previous year with Tombstone.
This time Kurt Russell played Earp, with Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton as brothers Virgil and Morgan. It was also notable for Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday.
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Camillus “Buck” Fly himself had his own brush with the movies, albeit nearly a century after his death. He was featured in the 1989 TV movie Desperado: The Outlaw Wars.
Popular character actor Brad Dourif, better known as the voice of Chucky in Child’s Play, took the role.