Tombstone’s legendary “two-fisted minister” left a lasting impression
Tombstone’s legendary “two-fisted minister” left a lasting impression.
By Marshall Trimble
During the early days of life in Tombstone the main diversion was playing cards but that soon changed as the business district developed. Folks drank, gambled, frequented bordellos, lied, bragged, and fought. And they went to church.
Nobody was shunned from attending church. Even the so-called Shady Ladies regularly attended the service then departed for the saloons on Allen Street to ply their trade.
Likewise the men thought nothing of stopping by the saloons and having a few drinks before heading to church.
Ominous clouds hung over Tombstone that morning of Jan. 29 in 1882 as the Sandy Bob Stage rambled into town. The grey sky gave warning of a fast-approaching snowstorm. The passengers arriving that morning, with one exception, were typical—a military officer on his way to Fort Huachuca, an elderly Jewish peddler who told funny stories, a self-styled millionaire out to make another fortune, and a tall, strapping 25-year-old man dressed in a rumpled eastern-cut suit named Endicott Peabody, who had come to serve a six-month ministry to the Episcopalian Church.
Following a seven-day trip by rail from Boston to Benson, Arizona, he bought a $2 ticket and took the Sandy Bob Stage south some 24 miles to Tombstone. Peabody stretched his lanky frame and took his first look at notorious silver camp, a place opined by a fellow Bostonian as the “rottenest place you ever saw.”
No wild shootouts or street brawls greeted the young Easterner. Because of the town’s raucous reputation he expected the worst. Instead he was struck by the lack thereof by the locals. His arrival in Helldorado was just three months after the famous street fight near the OK Corral where the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday gunned down Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers. Just a month earlier the Cow-boy (not a complimentary term in those days) crowd had ambushed and nearly killed U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp. The feud between the Cow-boys and the Citizens Safety Committee and their enforcers, the Earp brothers, was at its height.
Peabody checked into the Grand Hotel, located on Allen Street, the town’s “Barbary Coast” and that’s where the church reception committee found him, pondering his tiny temporary quarters, which were well-ventilated thanks to several broken window panes. The committee apologized for their tardiness blaming it on a card game that ran into overtime. They hustled the young parson off to more suitable environs. Peabody was beginning to understand why his predecessor, Reverend Talbot, had remained in Tombstone for only two months before hastily departing.
Reverend Peabody preached his first sermon on Feb. 5. The young minister wasted little time organizing his little congregation. The Episcopal Church had burned down during the town’s first big fire on June 22, 1881 taking with it the church’s building fund so services were held in the courtroom of the Miners Exchange Building until more funds could be raised.
Tombstone opened its arms and it’s pocketbooks to the young preacher from Boston. On his second sermon over a 100 people attended and a record $25 was deposited in the collection plate.
Peabody set out immediately raising funds for a new church. His favorite haunts seeking contributions were the saloons and gambling houses. One time he walked in on a group of the town’s merchants engaged in a game of poker and asked for a donation. On the table was a pot of more than a $1,000. One handed over $150 and the other players followed suit. Other times he’d causally walk in, pass the hat, and walk out a few minutes later with a hat full of money. Should anybody question the dubious source of the money, Peabody would reply, “The Lord’s pot must be kept boiling, even if it takes the Devil’s kindling wood.”
Among the other generous contributors to the church building fund were the working girls and madams on Tombstone’s tenderloin.
Not long afterwards, St. Paul’s Episcopal, the Gothic Revival-style church, was erected on a lot on the corner of Safford and 3rd Street that sold for $5. On June 18, 1882, the church costing $5,000 to build had its first service. The church stands today as the oldest Protestant Church in Arizona.
Among the reverend’s friends was Wyatt Earp and his brothers. Some 60 years later Peabody reminisced that, in his opinion, the Earps were honorable men who were trying to rid the town of its lawless elements. He was horrified at some of the political skullduggery that existed in Tombstone. He once wrote to a friend that corrupt politicians were too busy stealing the public money to deal with the lawlessness in Cochise County.
After the murder of Morgan Earp there was talk of lynching. Peabody made some unusual remarks for a proper Eastern-born parson: “I really think that an example of frontier justice…would be a good thing, for the place is full of desperadoes who hold the lives of others and themselves very cheap!”
Peabody’s superb athletic ability, more than anything else, won lasting respect from the Tombstone citizenry. He organized the town’s first baseball team and was one of its star players. He was also vice president of the Tombstone Baseball Association.
Tombstone competed against teams from Tucson, Bisbee, and Fort Huachuca. Competition was fierce and betting was heavy, as communities’ staked prestige and pride on the outcome. Since the miners worked a six-day week, the Sabbath was reserved for baseball, that is, until the arrival of Endicott Peabody. To find an unbiased umpire to officiate these contests and not be intimidated by the angry crowds was next to impossible. Reverend Peabody was the only man in the area who commanded enough respect to act as chief arbiter. This he did––for a price. The players must first attend church. It’s quite doubtful if the players felt out of place, as the magnetic personality of the parson attracted Tombstone’s wide gamut of frontier society that ranged from gamblers, prostitutes, and saloon keepers to miners, merchants, and the society of the upper-crust.
The Tombstone Epitaph spoke for most when it wrote admiringly of him: “Well, we’ve got a parson who doesn’t flirt with girls, who doesn’t drink behind the door, and when it comes to baseball, he’s a daisy!”
Peabody was also a first-class boxer and of all the sporting events staged in a typical mining camp, pugilism was the one that garnered the most respect from the miners. Not only was this proper Bostonian the kind of man who was not too uppity to drink a bottle of beer in public with the common working man, he could handle his fist with the best of them. More than once he duked it out in the boxing ring and he never lost a match. One time he was matched the local Methodist minister, “Mac” McIntyre, who was considered a pretty good pugilist. Peabody handed his rival a sound threshing. He also handedly defeated the local miner’s champion, something that made him the undisputed hero of the town.
The Tombstone Nugget wrote: “Talk about muscular Christianity, we overheard a miner yesterday say, upon having the Episcopal minister pointed out to him, ‘Well, if that lad’s argument was a hammer and religion a drill, he’d knock a hole in the hanging wall of skepticism.’”
One Sunday he preached a sermon on the 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Cattle”
A cowboy who happened to be a well-known cattle thief took umbrage at the newcomer’s remarks and threatened to “tar and feather” the new preacher. Peabody suggested if they were going to make a fight of it they should build a boxing ring and charge admission, the money going to the local children’s orphanage. A large crowd gathered for the event and for three rounds the cowboy came at the preacher with fists flying but none of his windmill punches landed as Peabody backpedaled around the ring. Finally, the cowboy was plum worn out and dropped his arms. Peabody then delivered a roundhouse blow the laid him out cold. The young minister had gained a whole new respect from the rough and ready Tombstonians and the attendance at the Episcopal Church kept increasing.
Billy Claiborne, a self-styled “Billy the Kid,” who was, in reality an ignominious member of the Cow-boy or rustler element, is best-remembered by western historians as the brash young man who talked tough, then high-tailed it for cover when the shooting started at the gunfight near the OK Corral.
Billy usually hung out in the town of Charleston a few miles west of Tombstone and a raucous burg that made the latter seem tame in comparison. When word reached him that Peabody had made another of his 11th Commandment sermons in Charleston he sent word that the next time Peabody set foot in Charleston he would attend and make the preacher “dance” to the music of his roaring six-gun. Peabody sent word that he would be in Charleston in two weeks and would look forward to dancing with Billy. “Billy the Kid” failed to keep the appointment.
Tombstone gladly embraced the young minister but his notes tell of how much he missed his home in Massachusetts. Unfortunately Peabody didn’t remain long, returning to Boston on July 17, six months after his arrival. Parson noted in his diary, “It will not be easy to fill Peabody’s place.”
He returned to the Episcopal Theological School, graduating in 1884. The following year he was ordained and took a wife. He then decided to combine the ministry with teaching and with financial aid from the folks in Boston he established the famed boys’ prep school at Groton. His stated mission was to prepare young men, not for college but for life. One of his students was a bright young man from New York named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He later officiated his former pupil’s wedding to Eleanor.
After Peabody left Tombstone the legend of the “two-fisted” preacher grew, much like that of the legendary gunfighters of the Old West. He found many parts of the myth were hard to dispel. It’s likely the overflowing crowds that attended church were attracted more by the charisma of the man than a desire for religious learning. For whatever reasons, they never forgot him. When the “two-fisted” parson returned to the Town Too Tough to Die to preach a sermon in 1921 and again in 1941 his old flock traveled from all over the state to be present for the occasion.
Tombstone also left its lasting effect on Peabody as well; the generosity, independence, rugged individualism and honest determination he observed there. Years later he wrote of these people: “They could almost fairly be so described (the good old days in Tombstone) for they helped one discover the ideals and generosity which are latent in our people.It has taught me that in America we are all just ‘folks.’”
In 2007, following the 125th anniversary of the building of the St. Paul’s, Peabody was added to the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar, with Nov. 17 becoming the feast day of Endicott Peabody. He is thus regarded as the “patron saint” of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and venerated as one of its most important missionaries.
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