Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Joe Bignon and Big Minnie in the Bird Cage

In 1886,  Joseph W. (“Joe”) Bignon and his wife, “Big Minnie, ” reopened the Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona, and created a legendary saloon that provided entertainment, women and whiskey to the overwhelmingly male population of the boom town.  It marked the culmination of Bignon’s long and colorful life.

According to a contemporary biography, Bignon, shown here in maturity, was born in 1851 in Montreal, Canada, the son of French immigrant parents.  Determined to become an actor, he ran away from home at the age of 12 and joined a minstrel show where he learned to sing and dance while traveling throughout Canada and the United States.  Eventually he joined the Grant Brother’s troupe that introduced country clog dancing.  When he was barely out of his teens,  Bignon, who also had management ambitions,  added “impresario” to his credentials.  During the early 1870s he operated several music halls saloons in the American Midwest.

Bignon left those pursuits to return to entertaining by joining a traveling show called The Australian Circus.  After a stint there, he jumped to Doc Hager’s Great Paris Circus and Zoological Aggregation,  a group that toured less-populous frontier towns in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Ontario.  He abandoned life on the road to buying a partnership in a Sheboygan, Wisconsin, saloon.  His biographer wrote:  “Joe has ever been of a restless nature and no matter how well he is prospering, when the desire to satisfy his roving disposition comes on, everything is sacrificed to that end....”

Having traveled over most of the midsection of North America by the age of 28, Bignon determined to make a new start by going West to the Arizona Territory.  In 1879  he found his way to Tombstone, a silver mining boom town of 3,000 people, later made famous by the shoot out at the OK Corral.   Allen Street, the main drag, is shown as it looked in about 1880.  Bignon opened a theater/saloon there but soon decamped for San Francisco to manage another theater.  He left that job for several more circus tours.  It was likely on one of those that he met his future wife, Matilda Quigley. She was a six foot tall, 230 pound, dancer who Joe called “Big Minnie.” Born in England about 1852, she is said to have  “dazzled” audiences by prancing around the stage in pink tights.

During Joe’s absence from Tombstone,  a local entrepreneur named William J. “Billy” Hutchinson had hatched a plan to build a new variety theater and saloon.  Constructed of adobe over wood,  the structure, shown here, at last was opened in 1881. He called the establishment “The Bird Cage.”   After an initial period of success,  an economic downtown likely caused by falling silver prices,  caused Hutchinson to sell the property to San Francisco interests who shut it down.   Sensing an opportunity,  Bignon and his hefty bride returned to Tombstone and reopened The Bird Cage in 1886.  In addition to entertaining, Big Minnie, shown here,  also was said to have been a bouncer at the establishment.

The focal point of Bignon’s “palace” was the highly polished bar at one end.  Shown here in a latter day, the bar boasted two large crystal and brass lamps, a large mirror, and space for a wide variety of whiskeys, wines and other liquor.  Throughout a raucous evening the liquor stock was replenished with supplies from a storeroom below the stage.  At one side of the bar was a hoist-like contraption by which drinks could be sent to the boxes above the theater.
The partition that separated the barroom from the theater held its own attraction, shown here. It held a huge painting of “Fatima,” a well-known West Coast belly dancer who had graced the Bird Cage stage with her bare-breasted presence in 1882.  The stage was small, only about 15 feet wide, 10 feet high and 15 feet deep. Still it was enough for the songs, sketches, acrobats and dances that comprised an evening’s program.  The mental image of Big Minnie swinging her 230 pounds in pink tights around that tiny space is fascinating.

Along two sides of the theater was a one-level balcony that jutted from the wall and seemed to be suspended. It was divided into separate small rooms.  One writer has described the purpose of those rooms at the Bird Cage:  "The smoke-filled establishment was named, with heavy frontier humor, for the 12 tiny balcony boxes where soiled doves plied their trade behind curtains. When uncaged, the painted ladies pursued less profitable sidelines such as shilling drinks and dancing with drunken cowboys, hardhanded miners, and nimble-fingered gamblers and gunmen."  The scene is alleged to have inspired the writing of the well-known 19th Century ballad, “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

In reality what Canadian Joe and Big Minnie were running, in addition a theater and saloon, was a bordello.  A $25 Bird Cage token exists, reputedly from this era, that guarantees:  “Square and Honest Gambling, The Best Liquors and Wine, Always Many Lovely Fancy Women,  Acclaimed the Best Sporting House in the Southwest.”  The flip side of the coin promises that it is “Good in Trade Toward All Favors of the House.  Our Fancy Women Will Fulfill Any Wish.”  It is signed by Joe Bignon.   Wyatt Earp, the famous sheriff of Tombstone is said to have carried one of these coins around in his pocket as a lucky piece.

In addition to running this wide open establishment  where, accurately or not, gunfights sometimes were reported, Bignon may also have been mixing and compounding his own brand of whiskey.  Shown here is a saloon sign for “Moon Castle Whiskey” that noted that the liquor was being served at Tombstone’s Own Bird Cage Theatre.  I can find no reference to this brand in the usual sources and conclude that Moon Castle was Bignon’s house brand.  The picture of the European castle beside a river in the moonlight suggests a level of sophistication that, despite his lack of formal education, may have resulted from the Canadian’s broad experience with people and places.

Meanwhile, Tombstone’s silver-based economy was faltering.  Despite Joe and Minnie’s best efforts to keep the whiskey flowing and provide varieties of entertainment, the dismal financial conditions in that part of the Arizona Territory had doomed their enterprise. Suddenly news came of a gold strike by a man named Pearce in Cochise County, Arizona, at what would become the Commonwealth Mine. In 1892, the childless couple literally “pulled up stakes” and joined a number of Tombstone residents who were already in the new gold camp.  After selling the Bird Cage Theatre they dismantled their wooden Tombstone house, loaded it on a freight wagon, and moved it through South Pass, and reassembled it at the foot of Six Mile Hill at the Pearce mining camp.

In Pearce, now considered an Arizona “ghost town,” the enterprising Bignon set up a saloon, the first in the area.  Known in reference sources variously as the “Pioneer,” or “Palace” this establishment, hailed for being “lavish” in its appointments, opened its doors in 1896.   It advertised that it offered faro, roulette and “the finest spirits.”  Although nothing was said about prostitution,  one suspects that at least some of the Birds in the Cage followed the Bignons through South Pass to the gold fields.

With miners flush with money as his customers,  Bignon flourished in Pearce.  In 1900, however,  his wife, Matilda “Big Minnie,” died.  Buried in Pearce  Cemetery, her blue granite tombstone has a fancy sculptured design.  Her first name, however, appears to have been misspelled.  Although the elegance of her grave marker bespeaks close affection by Bignon, within a year he had remarried.  Her name was Ellen McGrogan (on her death certificate “McGregery), from Patterson, New Jersey, and the daughter of John McGrogan, an Irish immigrant.  Ellen was younger by 13 years than Joe.   The 1910 U.S. Census taker found them living in Pearce.  Bignon's occupation was given as “saloonkeeper.”

Although the coming of National Prohibition shut down Bignon’s establishment in Pearce, the couple continued to live there the remainder of their lives, even as the population ran out along with the gold.  Joe died in 1925 at the advanced age of 85 and is buried near Minnie in the Pearce Cemetery.  Her gravestone is shown here, foreground; Joe’s is the black slab behind.  Second wife Ellen also is believed to be buried in the same cemetery but no marker has been found for her.

The odyssey of Joe Bignon’s life was the stuff of fiction.  Beginning at the age of 12 and encompassing 73 years, his days and nights presented constant challenges to give his audiences and customers what they wanted.  In 1888 “The Cricket,”  a 19th Century general interest magazine did a feature on Bignon.  It provided a summary that seems appropriate to repeat here:  “There are few managers...who are more enterprising and successful than Joe Bignon, and the fallacy of saying ‘that a rolling stone gathers no moss”  was never better shown than in his case.”

Note:  Much of the information for this post came from the April 1935 issue of the Arizona Historical Review, published by the University of Arizona.  The article by C. E. Willson, entitled “From Variety Theater to Coffee Shoppe,” also described the fate of the Bird Cage after the Bignons departed. More recently the Bird Cage has been restored as a tourist attraction in Tombstone.  Photos are from that restoration.


  1. Good write up!
    Before Joe and Minnie owned the Bird Cage it was jointly owned for three years by Hugh McCrum and John Sroufe liquor dealers also with mining interests on the pacific slope. Hugh was my grandmothers uncle, he left Ireland on one of the `famine` boats and became one of the old west coast pioneers, he died a millionaire in San Francisco.
    I`ve been searching for an old photograph of Hugh, anyone know where to search?
    Roy (Ireland).

  2. Dear Roy: Thanks for sharing your information about Hugh McCrum. Had not come across him in my "mining" for interesting whiskey men, of whom he likely should be counted. Have no photo. If you get one, let me know and I will try to get enough information on Hugh for a vignette on this blog. All the best. Jack

  3. Hello Jack, I can send you what info i`ve got here on Hugh McCrum, a lot of it comes from old Newspapers of the time thankfully now digitized and available on the internet. It seems Liquor dealers and mining men were where the money was back then!
    I don`t see your email so drop me a line and i`ll get back roywlyle(at)gmail(dot)com

  4. Roy: I am sending you an email. First one came back and if this one does will give you mine if you do not hear: Would most appreciate the material. Jack

  5. SilverGoldBull is a highly trusted silver & gold dealer. They will provide you with bargain, up-to-minute pricing and make sure your bullion arrives to your door discreetly and fully insured.

  6. This is blasphemous from start to finish.