The Naked Man of Tombstone

In 1891, a man known only as O Homo bared his soul, and everything else, in the old mining town.

The sidewalks of Tombstone fill regularly with otherwise rational men wearing paste-on handlebar mustaches and carrying hog-leg pistols as they pretend to be Wyatt Earp. Others will put on range hats and bad attitudes in imitation of the famed lawman's worst enemy, the conspicuously unwashed cattle thief Ike Clanton.

Throw in heavily made-up women under parasols running from the sound of fake gunfire and you have Vigilante Days, or any one of the other special weekends intended to draw tourists from near and far.

Absent from the fun, though, will be any mention of another character whose appearance in Tombstone in 1891 spoke volumes about what life was really like in that colorful mining town.

But history has forgotten this man because he carried no gun--in fact, he carried on his person nothing at all but a skull cap and crude leather sandals. He was six feet tall, slightly bearded, blue-eyed, deeply bronzed, of fine physique and intelligent bearing--and virtually naked.

"I take pardonable pride in my cuteness," he said, explaining that a skin disorder prevented him from adopting the uncivilized accouterment of clothing.

Pistol in hand, Frank Broad, constable in the San Pedro River mill town of Charleston, corralled his man, who promptly asked if the newspapers had been writing about him.

"Yes," said Broad, "they are full of it all over the East."

The prisoner puffed up and said, "I suppose you think you have made a big haul, but you will find yourself full for your pains."

Broad brought him to Tombstone, nine miles distant, to stand trial for indecent exposure. The naked man's arrival touched off a sensational month of curiosity, speculation and uproarious philosophy from someone who refused to give his real name and insisted on being called O Homo.

HE HAS been traveling through the country stark naked," reported the Tombstone Prospector on July 27, 1891, "and although he has frightened nearly everyone by his appearance ... he talks perfectly rational and does not appear to be out of reason."

Far from it. O Homo was bright, provocative in his ability to quote Diogenes and other philosophers, and deeply thoughtful about baring every inch of his flesh.

Writing in the Prospector, which gave him virtually unlimited space to air his views, O Homo said, "The idea that poor women in New York chained to the treadmill of a labor-increasing machine, living on the crust of starvation, can make a better suit of clothing than God or nature ... did God almighty make a mistake? ... Zounds!"

In spite of his obvious love of nudity, O Homo was unwilling to give a straight answer to any personal question. When he stood before the judge to plead not guilty, he was asked which state he was from.

"Do you expect me to testify against myself?" he responded.

Authorities had given him a straw hat, flannel shirt and blue overalls, which he wore under protest. He insisted on tossing a blanket over himself so that no sign of the clothing he so dreaded was visible.

The Prospector declared the naked man "the sensation of the year." Reporters dug for every morsel they could find about the cool and charming prisoner.

Following Tombstone's lead, other Western papers took up the story, including the San Francisco Chronicle, which noted that O Homo had the body of a prize fighter, with "flesh hard as iron."

Speculation about him became a summer sport.

One report said he'd been spotted walking west from Deming, N.M., along the railroad tracks "as naked as when born." He carried a canteen, a razor and a piece of white cloth, which he put on when approaching a town.

Another said he'd walked up from Sonora, where Mexicans thought he was doing penance for his sins and advised him to pack a cross. Some theorized he was a crooked state treasurer from Arkansas, running from the law.

O Homo added to the circus atmosphere with various pronouncements, including that he was traveling the world on a $1 million bet.

He also spent a good amount of time chastising Constable Broad. The prisoner revealed that he'd been arrested some 40 times prior to Broad getting hold of him.

But he was never tossed in jail until he came to Tombstone-- and allowed myself to become a victim of fossilized ignorance in the form of a man who is not acquainted with a solitary water hole from the alpha to the omega of liberty."

KNOWING IT WAS SITTING on a mountain of good copy, the Prospector shipped the prisoner a plug of chewing tobacco to keep him happy.

It called him "the wild man of the weird and woolly west," and cracked that his attire "consisted principally of a lead pencil."

The paper also published several of his teasing letters.

"Now, as I have excited a little curiosity in this quiet churchyard, I propose to offer this prize [a valuable jewel] to the man that ferrets out the mystery concerning me," wrote O Homo on July 29.

He addressed his letter to the editor of the Daily Shoot Off, and signed it, Yours Indecently.

On August 1, the Prospector published several guesses as to his identity, written by the jailhouse wag himself.

They included the suggestion that he was Don Quixote looking for windmills and fair damsels; that his washerwoman held his clothes for debt; and that he was Oscar Wilde looking for sunflowers.

A presidential candidate? O Homo even suggested he was the "sockless statesmen from Kansas making a sneak on the White House."

Readers sent letters to the editor positing their own theories.

"Calls himself 'man,' but acts like a beast, entirely devoid of modesty," said one. "Hence my reason for guessing him to be the missing link."

Another reader proclaimed him a tramp seeking notoriety and noted that

she'd come to Arizona to hide away from the world, too. "With my clothes on," the letter-writer emphasized.

O Homo was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days. He spent his time squatting on the floor beneath an oversized Indian blanket, and leaning in picturesque pose against the wall of his cell.

So popular had O Homo become that the Prospector, in effect, made him a columnist. His favorite topic, it seemed, was himself.

During his life in the wilds, O Homo said he survived by eating a "palatable dish of mud and water," mixed with mesquite leaves. He said the

iron in the mud was the reason for his endurance, and promised to perfect his dish and "make known to all mankind the process of its manufacture."

Among the Cheyenne tribe, O Homo was seen as the long looked-for Indian Messiah predicted by Sitting Bull. They followed him in crowds, and he received the blessings of medicine men.

"They all displayed great anxiety to touch me," he wrote, "if only the hem of my blanket, and they offered me clothing which I firmly refused, telling them that it would be an insult to the great spirit to hide the form which he gave me from his sight by a bundle of the white man's rags."

When the Cheyenne asked O Homo to drive the evil from an insane man, he said he took a bottle of chloroform he'd found the previous day and poured some over his cap. He then passed it under the nose of the man, and "saying a few Latin words, I produced a profound slumber. He awoke with reason regained."

HIS WRITINGS ALTERNATED between insulting, rambling and hilarious and wise, such as when he remarked that he was the only man "in Tombstone who can truthfully say, I do not beg, steal, gamble or speculate."

Some samples:

On the sexes: "A man's honor and a woman's virtue are like a fort. No matter how strongly fortified they can be taken."

On infamy: "I avoided settlements as much as possible for I was not seeking notoriety, but rather preferred to remain in the obscure corner of contentment, believing that the famous man is like a dog with a tin can tied to his tail."

On the Prospector's editor, who published one of O Homo's letters, with a portion deleted: "I can overlook the drunken blunders of a tramp printer, especially when he is in the labyrinth of foreign words, but when an editor with ruthless negligence, strips the green leaves of wisdom, tramples upon the delicate flowers of pathos, and crushes the red-cheeked fruit of humor, and then with the stump whips his jaded horse to death, I feel like gently admonishing him to return to his old trade of butchering rotten carcasses and making sausage."

On coffee: "I verily believe coffee causes more sickness, wife beating and cruelty to animals than whiskey, on account of its tendency to derange the digestive organs in its irritating reaction."

On happiness: "Reach to the most distant star and gather together the whole starry cosmos in your apron of wisdom, but know that all is but trash when compared to the brightest gem that ever adorned fair woman's brow, the only jewel worth wearing, the smile of contentment."

O Homo's writings attracted wide notice, and his fame grew. C.S. Fly, known for his photographs of famous Tombstone characters, spotted his chance to make a killing and began selling pictures of him all over southern Arizona.

Even at the outrageous price of $1 apiece, they became a popular novelty.

But the naked one's true identity was never determined. Could it all have been an elaborate hoax?

CERTAINLY THE TOMBSTONE papers were not above having fun with their readers. Barely 15 months before, the Tombstone Epitaph printed a fabulous tale about a winged monster found outside town.

Two ranchers supposedly spotted it on the desert between the Whetstone and Huachuca mountains, and brought it down with their Winchesters.

"The men cautiously approached, their horses snorting with terror, and found that the creature was dead," the Epitaph reported.

The beast was 92 feet long and 50 inches wide at its thickest point. Its head was eight feet long, "the jaws being thickly set with strong, sharp teeth," and protruding eyes the size of dinner plates.

"The wings were composed of a thick, nearly transparent membrane, and were devoid of feathers or hair, as was the entire body," the Epitaph wrote. "The men cut off a small portion of the tip of one wing and took it home with them."

The paper reported that one of the ranchers went to Tombstone that night to buy supplies in preparation for skinning, and plans were underway to send the hide East for examination by eminent scientists.

The finder returned the following day accompanied by several prominent citizens, who planned to bring the carcass to town before it was mutilated.

That never happened. The great monster, even the severed tip of its wing, was never seen by anyone else, its discoverers were never named, and no further mention was made in the Epitaph.

Even though the paper played the story as real, without a hint of doubt or sarcasm, it was plainly a hoax.

But far too much evidence exists--photographs, drawings and nationwide coverage--to make the same claim about 0 Homo. He was absolutely real.

After serving his time in Tombstone, the brilliant stranger was released. He landed in Yuma in late October and "was decently dressed and conducted himself with propriety," according to the Yuma Sentinel.

He told the paper he was headed to Los Angeles to join a German professor on a trip "over the Colorado desert." After departing Yuma, O Homo vanished forever.

But he wasn't forgotten in Tombstone.

For months afterward, drawn by flowery descriptions of his physique, women as far away as California wrote to 0 Homo asking him to take a wife, namely the letter-writer.

If Wyatt Earp ever achieved that kind of adoration, the history books missed it.