Endicott Peabody: Religion Arrives in Helldorado
Excerpt from In Old Arizona by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
Ominous clouds hovered over Tombstone that January morning in 1882, as the Sandy Bob Stage rambled into town in a cloud of dust. The grey sky gave forewarning of a fast-approaching snowstorm. The passengers arriving that morning were, with one exception, 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 named Endicott Peabody in a wrinkled, Eastern-cut suit who had come to serve a six-month ministry to the Episcopalian Church.
Peabody stretched his lanky frame and took his first look at notorious Tombstone, a place opined by his fellow Bostonians as the “rottenest place you ever saw.” No wild shootouts or street brawls greeted the young Easterner. Because of Tombstone’s wild and woolly reputation, he had expected the worst. Instead, he was struck by the lack of rowdyism by the locals. Tombstone was not without its violence, however. Three months earlier the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday had shot it out with the Clanton-McLaury crowd, and in late December, Virgil Earp had been ambushed in downtown Tombstone. The political-economic feuding between county officials, “the cowboys” and the Citizens Safety Committee, (i.e. the Earp brothers), was at its height. The storm clouds over Tombstone that marked the arrival of Endicott Peabody that day were more than just weather patterns.
Peabody checked into Tombstone’s Grand Hotel, a two-and-one half-story structure on Allen Street, the town’s bibulous business district. The reception committee from the church found him there pondering his tiny temporary living 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, and then hustled the young parson off to more suitable environs. Peabody was beginning to understand why his predecessor had remained in Tombstone for only two months before hastily departing.
The young minister wasted little time organizing his little congregation. There was no Episcopal Church, so services were held in the courtroom of the Miners Exchange Building. Peabody believed the best way to reach the working class of hard rock miners was to organize a bible class. He later wrote that he hoped to attract ten or twelve miners and a couple of “respectable people.” Instead, the class was filled with men from the upper crust society. The frustrated minister noted that the only time he got a chance to address the irreverent miners was when he spoke at a funeral for one of them.
Still, Arizona’s greatest boom town opened its arms, and its pocketbook to the young preacher from Boston. On his second sermon, over a hundred people attended and a record $25 was dropped on the collection plate.
Tombstone’s Epitaph spoke for most when it said, “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.” Tombstone’s other clarion, the Nugget, which hardly ever found itself on the same side of the fence as the Epitaph was in agreement. ‘Talk about muscular Christianity” the Nugget said, “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…”
Peabody had attended school in England, where he was an outstanding athlete. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1880, and returned to the States where he entered a three-year program to train as a minister. He left the seminary after only three months to accept the job in Tombstone. His friends liked to say the town’s notorious reputation and foreboding name provided enough inspiration for the venturesome lad to go forth into the wilderness after only three months’ training.
Endicott Peabody might have had a formal Eastern upbringing, but he quickly won the respect of the wide gamut of Tombstone society in which he mingled freely. The church building fund had gone up in smoke when the town had its first great fire on June 22, 1881, and he immediately set about raising funds for a new building. His favorite haunts to seek contributions were the saloons and gambling houses. Once he walked in on a group of town merchants in the midst of a card game and asked for a contribution. On the table was more than a thousand dollars. One merchant handed over a hundred and fifty dollars and the other players followed suit. Other times, Peabody would casually stroll into a saloon, pass the hat and walk out a few minutes later with a hat full of money. Old timers like to tell of the time when local attorney Mark Smith, who later became one of Arizona’s first senators, won $20 off Asa Stebbins in a Saturday night poker game. Asa also passed the collection plate at church. The next morning Asa paused in front of Smith with tray extended. Smith dropped in a couple of coins and turned his gaze towards the window. Undaunted, Asa shook the plate under Smith’s nose, stubbornly refusing to budge until the lawyer reached deep into his trouser pockets and dropped the entire previous night’s winning into the offering. Should anyone question the dubious source of the contribution, Peabody would reply “The Lord’s pot must be kept boiling, even if it takes the Devil’s kindling wood.”
Endicott Peabody was not the first man of the cloth to capitalize on the generosity of gamblers. One preacher entered a saloon on a Sunday afternoon and preached a sermon on the evils of gambling. Afterwards the players took up a collection of $40 in chips, then invited the preacher to sit down and play a few hands of poker to see if he could win a few more dollars with The Lord’s grubstake. The preacher, choosing to quit while he was ahead, declined the offer, cashed his chips and took leave of the place. Another time, a former professional gambler who had seen the light and taken up preaching, entered a raw frontier town one snowy winter’s day and found that the place possessed all the amenities of a good and decent society except for a church and a jail. He liked the place and decided to build the former. First, he must raise funds, and what better place to do that than the local saloon district. He interrupted a poker game asking for donations. “Why don’t you take a hand in the game and win enough for your godforsaken church,” one of them suggested.
“Mock not lest ye be smitten,” the reformed gambler replied, then added, “give me some chips.” Taking the cards and doing a slick shuffle, he dealt himself an ace. “Verily, there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. I open with $50.”
Needless to say, he cleaned out all the players and built his church.
Like many judges, doctors, lawyers and lawmen who Wested in the 19th century, not all preachers were the righteous pillars of society they were supposed to be. A story is told about one such parson who sat down at a poker game to justify his sinful behavior with a self-styled proverb: “gambling is God’s way of rewarding the righteous with winning and punishing the sinful with losses.” After opening the game with a prayer, he proceeded to win all their money, that is, until he was caught with an ace up his sleeve. The quick-thinking reverend assured the gamblers they had been witness to a miracle—the Good Lord himself had planted the card on his person. The only thing that saved the preacher’s hide from a swift dose of earthy retribution was his clerical apparel and something else. Who could wreak vengeance upon the purveyor of such an imaginative alibi when caught cheating at cards?
Well, Endicott Peabody was a cut or two above those doubtful men of the cloth, but he was certainly not above soliciting from the patrons of Tombstone’s illustrious, bibulous district.
Not long afterwards, the church building was erected on a lot, corner of 3rd and Safford Streets, purchased for the tidy sum of $5. The church stands today, the oldest Protestant church in Arizona and a National Historic site.
Among Peabody’s many friends in Tombstone was the legendary Wyatt Earp and his brothers, one of the feuding factions in the Cochise County War. 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 the town. He once wrote to a friend in the East that the corrupt authorities were too busy stealing the public money to deal with lawlessness in the county. After the murder of Morgan Earp and a couple of others, there was talk of lynching. Peabody made some rather 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 first Tombstone baseball team and was one of its star players. He was also vice president of the Tombstone Baseball Association.
Since the miners worked a six-day week, the sabbath was reserved for baseball, that is, until the arrival of Endicott Peabody. Tombstone competed against teams from Tucson, Fort Huachuca and Bisbee. Competition was fierce and betting was heavy, as communities staked prestige and pride on the outcome. To find an umpire to officiate these contests and not be intimidated by the angry crowds was an impossible task. Endicott Peabody seems to have been the only man in the region who commanded enough respect to act as chief arbiter. This he did—for a price. The players must first attend church. It is doubtful if the players felt out of place, as the magnetic personality of Peabody attracted Tombstone’s wide gamut of society from gamblers and saloon keepers to miners to upper-crust society.
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 t his proper Bostonian the kind of man who was not too uppity to drink a bottle of beer in public with the common working man, but he could handle his fists with the best of them. More than once he participated in boxing matches and was never beaten. Once he was matched against the local Methodist minister, “Mac” Mclntyre, who was considered a pretty good pugilist. Peabody handed “Mac” a sound thrashing. He also handily defeated the local miners’ champion, a larger and much more powerful man, something that made him undisputed hero of the town.
Billy Claiborne, a self-styled “Billy the Kid,” but in reality an ignominious member of the “cowboy” or rustler element, is best remembered by Western history buffs as the man who talked brash, then high-tailed for cover at the famous shootout between the Earps and the Clanton-McLaury bunch. Billy usually hung out in the town of Charleston, a raucous burg that made Tombstone seem tame in comparison. Several times during his stay in Arizona, Peabody saddled a horse and rode over to Fort Huachuca or Tucson to deliver a sermon. One day he preached on the evils of cattle rustling in Charleston to a gathering in one of the local saloons. When the young outlaw learned of the sermon, he sent word that the next time Peabody set foot in Charleston, he would come and make the preacher dance. Peabody sent word that he would be in Charleston in two weeks and would look forward to dancing with Billy. Billy failed to keep the appointment.
During his first few weeks in Tombstone, Peabody sorely missed the green-forested and grass-carpeted lands of his beloved Massachusetts. The semi-arid climate and limestone-covered hills with their abundant growth of cactus and other desert flora depressed the homesick Easterner. He wasn’t too keen on the church-going habits of Westerners either, accusing them of lackadaisical attendance during balmy weather. Another characteristic he observed among the Arizonans was their unflappable nature during turbulent times. Many years later he told about an incident that occurred one day when bank manager Milton Clapp noticed one of the customers, a newcomer from the East, lying sprawled out on the floor. Clapp asked one of the bank employees what the fellow was doing and was told the Easterner had reacted to a shooting scrape outside. Clapp merely shrugged and walked back into his office, noting dryly, “Oh, that was five minutes ago.”
When Endicott Peabody left Tombstone on July 17, 1882, it seemed everyone in Cochise County turned out to pay “adios.” Banker Milton Clapp presented him with a bar of silver bullion and the redoubtable George Parsons remarked in his journal, “We will not easily 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 teaching with ministry, and with financial support from the citizens of Boston, organized the famed boys’ prep school at Groton. Peabody’s stated mission at Groton was to prepare boys, not for college, but for life. One of his better-known pupils was a young man from New York named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
After Peabody left Tombstone, the legend of the “two-fisted preacher” grew much the same as the legendary gunfighters of the Old West. He found many parts of the myth were hard to dispel. It is likely that the overflowing crowds that attended church were attracted more by the charisma of the man than a desire for religious teaching. Whatever the reasons, they never forgot him. When the parson returned 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 left its lasting effect on Peabody also: 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.'”
Excerpt from In Old Arizona by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
The story and the myth surrounding Peabody would make an excellent Western novel/film.
Nice job. 🙂
What a great man! I have got to get his journal and do more research in Tombstone.