Wild West prostitutes, gamblers and gunfighters loved Irish angel

Irish men and women have made their mark all over the world and this page has often shared their stories, past and present, from the islands of the South Pacific to Asia, Africa, the U.S. and Canada.

Friday, 9th April 2021, 6:00 am
Nellie Cashman in the early 1920s, after retiring to Victoria, Canada

Some, like Belfast-born stained-glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes, have even made their mark far beyond Planet Earth, with a crater named after her on Mercury!

Offering a short pause from the ongoing 80th anniversary commemorations here of the Belfast Blitz is a lesser recounted heroine of one of history’s most-told stories.

Ballycastle-born journalist Mitchell Smyth, now retired after a lifetime in newspapers in Ireland and Canada, once told me that when he roamed the world as travel editor of the Toronto Star he was fascinated to find stories of Irish people “here, there and everywhere.”

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Tombstone Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp

He says watching the old movie ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ recently reminded him of an Irishwoman who became known as the Saint of Tombstone.

Tombstone is, of course, the former silver-mining boom-town in southern Arizona.

It became famous as the site of the gun battle between Wyatt Earp and his law-enforcement friends on one side, and the stagecoach robbers and cattle rustlers led by Ike Clanton on the other, on the afternoon of 6 October 1881.

Smyth visited Tombstone to walk Fremont Street as Virgil Earp, the town marshal, his brother Wyatt, deputy marshal, and their friend, the dentist and gambler Doc Holliday, walked on their way to the most famous gunfight in the history of the U.S. west.

A formal studio photograph of Nellie Cashman in Tombstone

It was all over in less than a minute; three men, all members of the outlaw gang, lay dead: Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton.

The leader, Ike Clanton, was unscathed. But this story isn’t about the Earps and the Clantons/McLaurys.

It’s about Nellie Cashman, from County Cork, who is as big a name in Tombstone as are the Earps.

Though the Earps and Ike Clanton have a place in her story.

Mitchell writes: “I had lunch that day in a restaurant called Nellie Cashman’s. The manager filled me in on part of the Cashman story and I researched the rest of it later.”

Here’s what he found.

The ‘Angel of Tombstone’ was born in Midleton, Cork, around 1845.

She emigrated in her teens with her parents, who settled in Boston.

But Boston couldn’t hold her; she was fascinated by the tales of silver and gold strikes in the far west.

She knew that miners needed to eat, so she first set up a diner in Pioche, Nevada, then one in Virginia City, Nevada.

She loved making money and she was very good at it. Then she heard of the silver strike in Tombstone.

She arrived there in 1880, around the same time as the Earps, and it was in Tombstone that she earned the title of ‘angel’.

A devout Roman Catholic, she was appalled at the godlessness of the boom town, with its 20 saloons, 30 bordellos and a dozen gambling houses.

Nellie Cashman, who had used her accumulated savings to open the Russ House Hotel and the Arcade Restaurant, was determined to bring God to the miners.

To this end, she enlisted the aid of deputy marshal Wyatt Earp.

Earp was co-owner of the Crystal Palace saloon and he let her use it for Sunday services while she launched a fund to build the town’s first church.

Nellie was an equal-opportunity fund-raiser and among the benefactors were the madams and the ‘soiled doves’ (prostitutes) of the town’s red-light district.

Nellie also persuaded Ike Clanton to contribute.

The effort paid off and Nellie opened the Sacred Heart Church.

A tireless fundraiser, she also raised money for the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, and led a campaign to build a county hospital.

She was generous to anyone down on their luck.

And so the title ‘Angel of Tombstone’ was bestowed on her.

The Earps are reported to have eaten lunch in Nellie’s Arcade restaurant before setting off to the fatal meeting. (The gunfight took place on Fremont Street, near the back entrance to the corral, and not - as popularly believed - in the corral). The Clantons and the McLaurys, who lived out of town, had come into Tombstone the day before the fight, and Ike, the leader, stayed in Nellie’s Russ House.

Nellie Cashman lived in Arizona for about ten years, during which she made several fortunes in the restaurant trade and by buying and selling prospecting claims, and gave away much of it.

Then she swapped the desert for the ice and tundra of the Klondike gold-rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 1898 and the strikes in Fairbanks and Koyukuk, near the Arctic Circle in Alaska.

With every move she kept up her philanthropic work and the newspapers came up with new titles: Angel of Klondike, Saint of the Sourdoughs, Angel of Fairbanks, Angel of Koyukuk.

She moved south, in her 70s, to Victoria, British Columbia, where she died in 1925.

She never married.

Asked once, in her later years, why this was, Nellie Cashman replied: “Why child I haven’t had time for marriage. Men are a nuisance anyhow, now aren’t they? They’re just boys grown up.”

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