My interest in him revived with the arrival of two movies twenty-five years ago or so. "Wyatt Earp" starring Kevin Costner and "Tombstone" with Kurt Russell. While the former told the entire life story of the man (a very LONG movie), Tombstone focused on the events surrounding the famous gunfight. I found the former a bit more informative while the latter more interesting, especially with Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holliday.
In our Tuesday evening class at church, our pastor, at one point, used Earp as an illustration of courage. This resulted in an impromptu discussion of "Tombstone" and the lawman. Renewing my interest in Earp, I've decided to post a couple of articles on significant events in his career based on my historical understanding of those events. This post is the first in that series.
The "Gunfight at the O. K. Corral" has risen to legendary status. Unfortunately, none of us were in Tombstone for those few seconds. Over the years, various books, articles, and movies have appeared providing differing views of this battle. But, what really happened? Well, I don't know. However, historical research of that moment in our history has been closely studied, especially over the past twenty years. The testimonies of Wyatt Earp and Ike Clanton are known as are several eyewitness statements. Also, the newspaper article written by a man at the scene is also available. Obviously, there are some contradictions (especially between Earp and Clanton). This is normal even for honest eyewitnesses. No one sees an incident quite the same way as another.
I've tried to read as much as I can on the gunfight, but I can't be certain my account is any more accurate than someone else's. Nevertheless, here is my take on what happened in 1881.
Cattle rustling was occurring on our southern border, certainly in Cochise County in the far southern portion of the Arizona Territory. These "cowboys" would steal cattle from Mexico, bring them across the border, and resell them. The local word was that the McLaury and Clanton families were very much involved in this activity.
The county sheriff was John Behan, considered by many historians as being inept at best and corrupt at worse. He took few steps to reign in the rustlers. Virgil Earp was the United States Marshal as well as the Tombstone city marshal. Virgil focused his efforts on Tombstone and much of his federal responsibility was in the hands of his deputy and brother, Wyatt Earp. Wyatt had his eyes on Behan's job and intended to face him in the 1882 fall election.
In March of 1881, some of the cowboys held up a stagecoach in Arizona Territory. The driver and one passenger were killed. Wyatt, seeing the potential benefit to his political ambitions to capture the robbers, presented a deal to Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury, two of the cowboys who, at the time, were approachable. He asked them to use their "inside" knowledge to help him capture the three robbers.
But, before an agreement was reached, two of the robbers were killed in New Mexico by bartender brothers. The cowboys subsequently killed them. Also, in August of that year, Mexican officials killed five rustlers including the third robber and Newman Clanton, father of Ike and Billy Clanton.
These events left Ike Clanton in a tenuous situation. Wyatt knew that Ike had agreed to help him and, if word of this agreement reached the cowboys, he would likely be a target. Meanwhile, the Earps became the major law enforcement figures in the area and took a hard stand against criminal activity. Because of their firm position, the cowboys vowed to kill them.
Twenty-Four Hours Before
On October 25, 1881, Ike confronted Wyatt and accused him of having shared their secret agreement with Earp's friend, Doc Holliday. Wyatt denied the charge and sent for Holliday in Tucson. The latter, an often, drunk dentist with a strange sense of humor, road from Tucson to Tombstone. Holliday was incensed over the false accusation and, once reaching Tombstone, argued with Clanton. Clanton, who was unarmed at the time, was challenged by Doc to get his gun and fight. The Earp brothers (Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan) intervened, attempting to cool things down.
While Holliday was in his hotel, Clanton got his gun. Then, he joined Virgil Earp, Tom McLaury, and John Behan in a poker game! This game ended around 7 a.m. on the morning of October 26. Ike, under the influence of whiskey, told Virgil to tell Holliday he had to fight. When Virgil refused to carry the message to the dentist, Ike threatened the Earps.
Throughout the day, Ike continued his drinking and, while doing so, threatened the Earps in whatever saloon he happened to be. Around noon, Virgil and Morgan saw Ike with a gun. Virgil cracked his head and hauled him before the local judge. Threats continued between Ike and the Earps. Clanton was fined for carrying a gun within city limits and released.
Outside these proceedings, Wyatt argued with Tom McLaury. Earp slapped the man and then hit him over the head with his gun. Billy Claiborne, another cowboy witnessing these events, found Frank McLaury and Billy Clinton, drinking in a saloon, and told them about the beatings. The cowboys decided to meet later at the O. K. Corral. Their threats against the Earps continued.
Several witnesses overheard the threats of the cowboys against the Earps in the vacant lot on Fremont Street just behind the O. K. Corral. They reported these threats to Virgil Earp who request Sheriff Behan's help in disarming the men. Around 2 p.m., Behan said he would go down to the gang and convince them to surrender their guns. The Earps and Holliday waited over fifteen minutes when they received word from another witness that the gang was still armed in the vacant lot.
With that, Earp handed a short-barreled shotgun to Doc Holliday who hid it under his long coat. Virgil took Doc's walking stick and the four men began their trek down Fremont Street. Behan caught them in route and said, "For God's sake, don't go down there or you will get yourself murdered." Virgil indicated he intended to disarm the cowboys. Behan's response led the Earps to believe he had already disarmed them, so Wyatt holstered his gun into his coat pocket.
The vacant lot was roughly fifteen feet wide with Fremont Street on the north, a fence to the corral on the south, the Harwood House on the west and Fly's Lodgings on the east. At least four cowboys and a couple of horses were in the lot with their backs somewhat towards the west. From left to right: Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, Ike Clanton, and Billy Clanton. Some reports claim Billy Claibourne was there as well but fled when the Earps arrived.
The Earps stepped somewhat into the lot with their backs toward Fly's Lodgings. Opposite Tom McLaury was Doc Holliday, with Morgan to his left, Wyatt on his left, and Virgil on the far end. The men were extremely close to one another at this moment.
Virgil Earp shouted, "Throw up your hands, boys, I intend to disarm you." At this point, things became very confused. Within twenty-five seconds, thirty shots were fired. The McLaurys were dead as was Billy Clanton. Morgan, Virgil, and Doc were wounded. Ike Clanton had fled the scene and only Wyatt Earp was left untouched.
Of course, almost every account of the actual shooting differs. The account which I find most convincing goes something like this.
Frank McLaury made a motion for his gun. In response, Wyatt pulled his weapon from his coat pocket and wounded him. As he did, Billy Clanton fired at Wyatt and missed. Then, there was a brief pause. Doc Holliday blasted Tom with the shotgun, who crawled onto Fremont Street.
At some point during the chaos, Ike Clanton ran forward and grabbed Wyatt. He later claimed he was trying to protect him. Wyatt yelled at him, "The fight has commenced, get to fighting or get away." Ike fled across the street into a saloon and was later arrested.
Reports say Billy Clanton shot Morgan Earp in the shoulder and he collapsed to the ground. Billy also hit Virgil in the calf and he went down. Both Virgil and Morgan hit Clanton with multiple gunfire and Clanton would die in the vacant lot an hour later.
When the shooting ended, Ike Clanton was in a nearby saloon, Tom and Frank McLaury were both dead on Fremont Street, and Billy Clanton was dying, lying against the wall of the Harwood House in the vacant lot. Virgil Earp, also in the lot, was down and wounded in the calf. Morgan Earp was wounded in the shoulder and down on Fremont Street. Holliday was also wounded and standing in the street. Wyatt Earp had remained virtually in his same location where he was when the fight began.
The ramifications of this showdown would continue and even escalate over the coming months.
Some of the resources I have used in the formulation of my description of the shooting follow:
Glenn Boyer’s “I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp”, a novelized account, not completely factual.
Stuart Lake’s “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal”, the work which made Earp a legend.
Casey Tefertiller’s “Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend”, a more recent publication which I find to be the most compelling account.
Frank Water’s “The Earp Brothers of Tombstone”, which has been found to have some credibility problems.
Various articles found in “Real West” and “Wild West” magazines online.