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By Vali Benson
The Old West holds a distinctive place in the annals of American history. It was an optimistic time when the western frontier encapsulated opportunity itself. Of all the legendary settlements that popped up along the Wild West, none was more infamous than Tombstone, Arizona. Founded in 1877, Tombstone was soon dubbed “The Town Too Tough to Die”, because of the many crises it weathered and the number of gunfights it hosted. More than 140 years later, it still holds that moniker.
Tombstone featured over 100 saloons, 14 gambling halls, the first real “red light” district in the American Southwest and a livery stable called the O.K. Corral. The old west will always be remembered as the era of the Cowboy but during its peak years, Tombstone was controlled by a female immigrant. Her name was China Mary and she was the person who ran “The Town Too Tough to Die”.
The woman known as China Mary was born Sing (aka Ah Chum) in Zhongshan County, China in 1839. Little is known about Mary’s background before her life in Arizona but it has been surmised that she most likely secured passage to San Francisco via the Chinese Six Companies organization. She arrived in Tombstone sometime in late 1879. At that time the Chinese population in Tombstone was eleven people. Within eighteen months, the Chinese population had grown to over two-hundred fifty. Mary was drawn to Tombstone because she was an astute businesswoman. She recognized the unprecedented profits waiting in the western “boomtowns”; and Tombstone was one of the most prolific boomtowns in the history of the west. China Mary got in on the beginning of the boom.
Due to the unprecedented silver production, the town of Tombstone grew in population from 100 to around 14,000 in less than 7 years. By the mid 1880s, it was larger than San Francisco and was the fastest growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco. According to actress Josephine Marcus, “The grimly humorous phrase about our town was that Tombstone had a man for breakfast every morning”. Despite its tough reputation, Tombstone was the most cultivated city west of the Mississippi and China Mary was the most powerful person in it. This is because she created her own little corner in Tombstone called “Hoptown”.
Hoptown, where all the Chinese lived, took up one square block on one end of town, and was honeycombed with alleys and tunnels. It was so named because it appeared to the townspeople that the Chinese “hopped” in and “hopped” out. It was where all of her business transactions were conducted.
China Mary, who was usually adorned in fine silk robes and brilliant jade jewelry, owned and operated a general store located in the heart of Hoptown. Mary’s store dealt in both American and Chinese merchandise. She quickly gained a reputation as a universal accommodator. Everyone knew that nothing in Hoptown was done without China Mary’s go ahead so she was held in high esteem throughout Tombstone society. She was an organized and shrewd business operator who had the attitude that discourse was bad for business. Her private police force, called the “Tong”, handled any problem that arose within her community and was much feared by the “round-eyes”, as they called the whites.
Mary enjoyed the highest level of respect. As a result, she could act as a sort of intermediary between the Asian community and other ethnic groups. In addition to dealing in customary goods of the day, Mary also controlled several industries that were commonplace, if not essential, to a town on the frontier. For example, Mary was a prolific money lender who had her own methods of both approving customers and collecting delinquent debts. She also controlled the laundry business. Mary had a virtual monopoly on hand laundry commerce in the dusty desert town because she was the bridge to the desired Chinese workforce.
She brokered the employment for every Chinese worker in Tombstone and personally guaranteed their honesty and quality of work. Her assurance was simple, “Them steal, me pay!” Their paychecks went to China Mary and she generously took care of her people. Her talents lay somewhere between a local politician, adjudicator, and translator. However, when Mary saw opportunity, like any good businesswoman, she exploited it.
The vice trade was big business in Tombstone and China Mary was its biggest purveyor. In addition to running a gambling hall and opium den behind her general store, she was also the preeminent broker for opium, laudanum and Chinese prostitutes. Mary and her husband, Ah Lum, also owned several businesses in the town, including three high-end restaurants.
Mary did not discriminate. She recognized the benefit of catering to markets of all nationalities. She also ensured that the terms of every business deal or vice arrangement would be performed to her stipulation. Tombstone may have had its share of violent killers, but nobody was as feared as the one who reigned over Hoptown and her team of loyal enforcers. Law and order was at best a blurred line, but not in the kingdom of China Mary.
Mary was a hard woman because she had to be. Her times demanded it. But that is not to suggest that she was without compassion. It was said that in Hoptown, any person in need of medical attention would never be turned away at Mary’s door. Her charity was not limited to the Chinese contingent either. On one particular occasion, a cowboy named Andy Darnell suffered a badly broken leg after falling from his horse. Tombstone did not have a hospital so other arrangements had to be made. Darnell had to heal at a local boarding house operated by a woman named Mary Tack. China Mary insisted on paying for all costs associated with the injured cowboy’s recovery. Mary was well known for many reasons but among them was the consideration she showed to those in need. She had a sincere care for others and hers was an unbiased capacity for empathy.
The “Town Too Tough to Die” survived its infancy because the diverse community was able to coexist. It was allowed to thrive due to the collaboration if its citizens. China Mary was the conduit that made that cooperation possible. She provided necessary services to a burgeoning frontier society and supplied the means of vice demanded by many of its inhabitants. She was not only a cunning businesswoman, but a sympathetic humanitarian and a calculating capitalist. Mary’s was a genuine immigrant success story and even as a woman in the old west, she wielded real power.
Mary died in December, 1906 of heart failure. She was 67 years old. Over one thousand people attended her funeral. She was buried at Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone, so named because most of the people interred there died with their boots on. Her grave remains a top tourist attraction in Tombstone to this day.
Although China Mary came from the Far East, she will always be remembered as a great woman of the West. Her popularity continues to gain traction since her death. In 1960, Mary was portrayed by actress Anna May Wong in an episode of the television series, “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”. In 2020, the novel “Blood and Silver” was released by author Vali Benson. The work is a fictional account of her actual influence. It details Mary’s supremacy in Tombstone as an honorable woman of standing who was feared, admired, and respected.
By author Vali Benson from her first novel, Blood and Silver, whichdetails life in Tombstone, AZ, in 1880. http://valibenson.com/