Nellie Cashman, the Angel of Tombstone
Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought you might like to hear about some noted women in Arizona’s history. When I started looking for women to feature, I didn’t have to search far. Nellie Cashman is one of the most fascinating historical figures I’ve ever come across.
If you just said, “Nellie Who?” you aren’t alone. Apart from diehard Western history buffs, few people have heard of her . . . and that’s a shame.
In doing research for Love in Disguise, I went through stacks of books on the history of southern Arizona, where I came across tons of information on the Earps, Doc Holliday, and other names familiar to us all through the many movies about Tombstone and the O.K. Corral. But there was another name that kept popping up—Nellie Cashman.
Hollywood has a tendency to alter historical events to make them more “dramatic.” But Nellie’s story doesn’t need embellishment. It had drama aplenty, just as it was.
Born in County Cork in 1844, this Irish lass seemed an unlikely candidate for a citizen of the wild and wooly West. She and her family joined the multitudes of Irish immigrants who came to America’s shores during the 19th century. When the death of her father left his wife and two daughters on their own, Nellie took on a variety of jobs. While working as a bellhop in a Boston hotel during the Civil War, she chanced to meet General Ulysses S. Grant, who encouraged her to go west. Several years later, Nellie and her sister headed for Sacramento by rail. After her sister married, Nellie set out for the mining camps of Nevada and British Columbia.
Her thirst for adventure eventually led her to rough-and-tumble Tombstone in 1880, where she opened a combination boarding house and restaurant she named the Russ House. She was there throughout Tombstone’s heyday and counted the Earps and Doc Holliday among her customers.
During one research trip to Tombstone with my family, we ate several meals at the restored Nellie Cashman’s Restaurant, which looked much the same as it did in Nellie’s day. The cozy atmosphere inspired the Beck House, where Steven took Lavinia to lunch in Love in Disguise.
The building still stands at the corner of 5th and Toughnut, although the restaurant has changed hands and now operates as Café Margarita.
One biographer said Nellie was “pretty as a Victorian cameo and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails.” That seems to sum her up well. In an era when society expected women conform to a certain standard, Nellie didn’t just break that mold—she stomped it into a thousand pieces. Here are a few examples:
- While prospecting in the British Columbian gold fields, news came about a group of miners who were stranded in the Cassiar Mountains, suffering from scurvy. Wasting no time, Nellie organized a rescue party, collected food and medicine, and set off on a 77-day trek through as much as ten feet of snow to deliver the supplies and save the miners’ lives.
- When five cold-blooded murderers were scheduled to hang in Tombstone, Nellie visited them at the jail before the execution to share her faith.
- When word of a new gold strike in Mexico reached Tombstone, Nellie joined a company of nearly a dozen men to go off in search of treasure. When their water supply was exhausted, and the group faced the possibility of dying from thirst, guess who volunteered to go off on her own in search of water? And she found it, too.
Prospector, adventurer, and entrepreneur—Nellie’s accomplishments didn’t line up with society’s expectations for a woman of that day . . . and a single woman, at that! But despite stretching the boundaries of propriety, she never lost her reputation as an upright woman of deep faith.
Isn’t it good to know that God gives us the freedom to be ourselves–the people He created us to be?
I’d love to hear about a woman who has inspired you! Want to share with us?
Until next time . . .