Tombstone, Arizona, 1881
Two years ago, this was a patch of Arizona desert, patrolled by roving bands of Apaches.
A prospector strikes silver and, two years later, Tombstone is a boomtown with 67 saloons, shops selling the latest fashions, 2 ice cream parlours, a population, topping 5,000, of miners and camp-followers, and, among other professions, a dozen doctors.
Enter Dr George Goodfellow; soon to become the US’s leading authority on gunshot wounds. Within weeks, he is present at the shooting of the town sheriff, an episode that will lead inexorably in the course of a troubled year to the notorious ‘OK Corral gunfight’.
The play opens with a flashback to moments just after that event, with a gut-shot Billy Clanton dying in pain; it ends with the offstage sound of the fusillade of 30 bullets that brought Billy’s life to an end – that’s him on the right.
In between, this better-known story takes a back seat, because this is the story of the doctors tasked with pulling out the bullets so frequently put into their patients, and notably the young, combative and charismatic Goodfellow.
The play shows him dealing with everything from boils to burns to birth; but rather too many gunshot wounds – victims of stage hold-ups, gambling disputes, wronged husbands and in-fighting outlaws. Through Goodfellow, we get a portrait of a town lurching messily towards civilisation, with the ‘Citizens Safety Committee’ and the Tombstone Epitaph at odds with more law-shy rural ‘cowboy’ elements.
Then, in July, there are two significant shootings. In a waiting room at Washington station, US President Garfield is shot and seriously wounded by one Charles Guiteau. In a Tombstone street, the adulterous Frank Diss is shot by a jealous husband.
Largely because Goodfellow is ahead of his time in understanding the new ‘germ theory’ of Joseph Lister, he and his colleagues perform a pioneering operation (laparotomy), scalpelling open their patient’s torso and performing a successful puncture repair on his intestine. Meanwhile, in Washington, up to 16 leading physicians, less convinced of the sterilising power of carbolic, probe the President’s wound with unwashed fingers, leading to his demise 80 days later, with a bellyful of pus. If only they’d taken note of Goodfellow’s letter...
Meanwhile, the trail of gunpowder that was lit shortly after Goodfellow’s arrival and has sizzled away discreetly in the background, finally explodes in a vacant lot just around the corner from the OK Corral. Doctors urgently required….
This play takes a fresh slant on the events surrounding the famous ‘OK Corral’ gunfight, covering scenes from a year's build-up to that violent episode, but foregrounding a pioneering trauma surgeon (George Goodfellow), who successfully ventured into the entrails of gunshot victims where predecessors (with unsterilised hands and instruments) had feared to tread. There is historical irony in his marriage to the cousin of gun-maker Samuel Colt; and in the slow death by sepsis of an assassinated president whose life could have been saved if only Goodfellow’s innovation had been recognized at the time.
The play is essentially a drama-documentary which draws on a rich variety of historical sources, including: the diaries of Goodfellow’s friend George Parsons, the Pepys of Tombstone; the reports of events in the columns of The Tombstone Epitaph and The New York Tribune; and the articles written by Goodfellow himself for medical journals.
This is a play (with songs) about guns, guts and germs in a frontier culture that has left a bloody legacy that continues, controversially, to blight a nation enslaved by its 2nd amendment.