Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Updated: May 11
NOTE: This popular story is RE-posted from last October during the anniversary of the event.
It was only 30 seconds of fury, flying lead and fame 139 years ago, October 26, 1881. But it is one of the most iconic moments in the history of the Wild West and came to symbolize justice through the muzzle end of a gun. The shootout between ten men was in a back alley of Tombstone, one of the West’s most notorious towns. It captured spectacularly the essence of frontier life: violent, untamed, where guns were the law, and justice went to the fastest guns. Two of the men involved were the West’s most famous gunfighters—Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Good guys, bad guys, flashing firearms, and lots of blood after the dust cleared. In a land of legends, where gunslingers were king, even Hollywood itself could not have written a more dramatic scene. No wonder the 30-second shootout was a seminal moment in American frontier history that inspired dozens of movies and infinite books.
But, as with most iconic moments in history, the facts of the matter were not so black and white, right and wrong. In fact, the facts are....well... messy. (For example, the shootout wasn’t’ even AT the OK corral but a back alley!) The facts are muddied by jealousies, a woman, a Free Masons mystery, a turf war, possibly gold, whiskey, and good ole-fashioned Wild West testosterone. Volumes of writing and miles of film footage have been produced trying to explain the complicated story that culminated in the shootout. We can’t unravel all those vagaries here. I’ll just present the basic story, with some crazy ironies thrown in!
In a nutshell, the shootout was the 1881 culmination of a long-simmering feud between lawmen, Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and a gang that came to be known as the “Cowboys:” Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. (In those days, the term “cowboy” had negative connotations and meant rustlers or desperadoes. The San Francisco Examiner wrote in an 1880s editorial, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country ... infinitely worse than the ordinary robber.”)
Tombstone was a young, raw frontier town, established just two years before in 1879 when silver was discovered. In two years, it had exploded into a population of 7,000 white men, mostly outlaws, miners, gamblers, and merchants. It had grown so fast that, by 1881, there were 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls, two banks, an opera house, three newspapers, and too many brothels to count.
Old Man Newman Clanton, the father of Billy and Ike, was a big area rancher and patriarch of an extensive group of cowboys, ranchers, and rustlers. His ranch was the local center of illegal activities that were much of the basis of his wealth. The Cochise County Sheriff, John Behan, was sympathetic to the ranchers and Clanton’s interests.
So when three Earp brothers came to town in 1879 (there were six Earp brothers, but only Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan became lawmen) and hired BY Tombstone to keep the peace, they were not welcomed by Clanton, the other ranchers, and Sheriff Behan. To be fair, the Earps and Doc Holliday were not angels themselves. Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp both had many notches on their belts of men killed in gunfights. Holliday had saved Wyatt’s life and they had become close friends.
As Tombstone’s population and business community exploded, business leaders decided to found a Freemason lodge. The Freemason connection as it related to the shootout at OK corral is fascinating. Freemasons are a mysterious secret fraternal organization generally of powerful men who align with each other in business and vow to protect each other in life and death. It is believed that Wyatt Earp, Warren Earp and Doc Holiday were Masons of the King Solomon Lodge in Tombstone in 1881, its first year of being established. Virgil Earp, however, applied for membership and was initially looked upon favorably but was ultimately rejected by the lodge, which caused hard feelings among the Earps and Doc. To complicate matters, Old Man Clanton, archenemy of the Earps and Doc and father of Billy and Ike Clanton, two of the opposing “cowboys” in the shootout, was a Mason. So was County Sheriff John Behan, enemy of the Earps and Doc, who testified against them after the shootout. So was the judge presiding over the trial, Wells Spicer, as well as Doc Giberson who announced three men dead after the shootout, and the undertaker, Andrew Ritter, who prepared the three victims for burial.
As the Earps and the Cowboys came to loggerheads, the town began to take sides, split in alliances. Some were profiting from the existing status quo and some wanted more law and order. The newspapers lined up on opposing sides. The publisher of The Daily Nugget was an undersheriff of Behan and sides with the cowboys and ranchers. The publisher of The Tombstone Epitaph had organized the “Committee of Safety” and sides with business owners and U.S Marshall Virgil Earp and his contingent.
A series of incidents that led to the explosive event on October 26 started with six Army mules being stolen from nearby Camp Rucker. The three Earp brothers tracked them to the McLaury ranch, where they found their “US” brands had been changed to “D8!”
Then a stagecoach was robbed. The Earps and Holliday suspected Ike Clanton was involved and offered him a big reward if he would implicate the other suspects. But fearful that he would be killed as a traitor to the Cowboys, he implicated the Earps and Holliday in the robbery instead. Behan, too, seemed to be working behind the scenes to derail the Earps.
There was more bad blood when Behan refused to give Wyatt Earp an undersheriff position. To make matters worse, a woman entered the scenario. John Behan was living with Josephine “Sadie” Marcus, whom the town believed to be his wife. But when she came home and found him in bed with a friend, she ended the relationship and started a relationship with Wyatt. They stayed together for the rest of their lives—47 years.
The last straw was another stage holdup in which Virgil Earp arrested two friends of the Clantons and McLaurys. They provided alibis for the two suspects and Judge Spicer (the Freemason judge who would later preside over the trial of the Earps and Doc Holliday) ordered the charges dropped. County Sheriff Behan saw an opportunity for mischief when Doc Holliday’s common-law wife had a fight with Doc. Already exceedingly drunk, Behan plied her with more alcohol and got her to sign a document implicating doc in the stagecoach robbery and murders. When the Earps were able to offer alibis for Doc, Judge Spicer threw out those charges as well.
The night of October 25, 1881, the evening before the gunfight, the Clantons and McLaurys and Billy Claiborne were in Tombstone to sell a herd of cattle. Near midnight in the Alhambra Saloon after considerable drinking, Doc Holliday confronted Ike Clanton about the many lies he had told about the Earps robbing and murdering. All the Earps were there, too, and Virgil intervened. But, when Wyatt left to go to the Oriental Saloon, Ike followed him and threatened him, saying a lot of fighting talk had been going on for a long time and he was going to put an end to it once and for all. Ike told Earp, "I will be ready for you in the morning." Wyatt told Ike to go home but Ike leaned into Wyatt, saying "You must not think I won't be after you all in the morning."
By most accounts, most all the men involved in the OK corral shootout had been up all night playing poker and drinking until dawn. (Although, many accounts claim that Wyatt Earp was a non-drinker.) Some went home to get some sleep. Some kept drinking. During the morning, there was a commotion in the streets when Virgil publicly pistol-whipped Ike Clanton and Wyatt Earp pistol-whipped Tom McLaury for violating the city ordinance by carrying guns when they were supposed to have checked their arms at the Grand Hotel. Later, in retaliation, the Clanton and McLaury brothers were seen at Spangenberger’s gun and hardware store buying arms and filling their gunbelts. Some townspeople overheard them threatening to kill the Earps and Doc. There was sure to be trouble. The town was electric with tension and shop keepers began closing up shops and people disappeared off the streets.
It was early afternoon when the Earps met Sheriff Behan in the streets near the corner of Fourth and Fremont Streets past the rear entrance of the OK Corral. Wyatt Earp testified afterward that Behan had told him he’d disarmed the cowboys. But he also warned Earp: “For God’s sake, don’t go down there [toward the Cowboys] or they will murder you!”
Mrs Martha J King was on her way to the butcher's when she sensed trouble. "I saw quite a group of men standing on the sidewalk with two horses, near the market," she told the inquest later. "I inquired what was the matter, and they said there was going to be a fuss between the Earp boys and cowboys."
The Earps and Holliday walked in a line toward a lot where they believed the Cowboys were. Wyatt Earp carried a Colt .45 or a .44 caliber American 1869 Smith & Wesson revolver. Holliday carried a nickel-plated pistol in a holster and a shotgun, both concealed by his long coat Virgil and Morgan most likely carried single-action revolvers, most likely Colts, although they could have been Remingtons or Smith and Wesson Schofield revolvers. (Debates have raged for nearly a century and a half over what arms each carried, but many experts agree that since the arms were not identified during the inquest, it’s unlikely any claims can be made for certain. A Colt .45 was sold in April 2014 for $225,000 as supposedly the gun Wyatt Earp used in the gunfight, but that has since been widely contested.)
The Earps and Holliday confronted six men standing in an alley or lot between the C.S. Fly boarding house and the Harwood House. Who shot first will never be known for certain. Eyewitness accounts were contradictory and some said they could not see for all the smoke from the black powder. What is certain is that about 30 shots were fired in about 30 seconds.
When the smoke cleared, three men were dead: Billy Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury. And Virgil, Morgan and Doc were wounded. Ike Clanton, who had arguably started the whole thing, scuffled with Wyatt Earp before the gunfight, then ran away, supposedly unarmed and escaped unscathed. Billy Claiborne and another man, Wes Fuller, were unarmed and ran from the fight as soon as the shooting began.
Billy Clanton shot Morgan Earp across his back, striking both his shoulders and a vertebra. Virgil was shot through the calf. Holliday was grazed on his side. As the wounded lawmen passed in front of the Sheriff's Office, and JohnBehan told Wyatt Earp, "I'll have to arrest you." Earp replied tersely: "I won't be arrested today. I am right here and am not going away. You deceived me. You told me those men were disarmed.” Earp was not arrested.
The day after the gunfight, the Tombstone Nugget newspaper reported the gunfight as ”one of the days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water.” And the Tombstone Epitaph wrote a pithy headline: “Three Men Hurled into Eternity in the Duration of a Moment.”
But within 48 hours, the coroner’s inquest looked as if the Earps and Holliday might be end up on the wrong side of the law. Ike Clanton filed murder charges, Sheriff Behan testified the Earp party fired the first shots, and the cowboys claimed the murdered had tried to surrender with their arms in the air when they were shot down. The Earps and Holliday, on the other hand, claimed self-defense, that they had gone to disarm the cowboys when they refused to hand over their guns and shot instead.
One turning point in the Earp party fortunes was the testimonial of a dressmaker named Addie Bourland, who saw the gunfight from her shop across the street. She testified that she clearly saw that none of the Cowboys had their hands in the air, as Behan and others had testified. Two other witnesses corroborated her account. H.F Sills, a railroad testified that he saw "the marshal go up and speak to this other party. I ... saw them pull out their revolvers immediately...By that time Billy Clanton and Wyatt Earp had fired their guns off.” Judge J.H. Lucas of the Cochise County Probate Court had offices about 200 feet from the shootout. The judge corroborated Addie Bourland's testimony also.
Behan’s credibility was further questioned because he had served as a guarantor of a loan to Ike Clanton during the hearings, and sought to ruin Wyatt Earp, who was running for his seat in the next election.
The Earps and Holliday were finally acquitted. Judge Wells Spicer concluded they acted within the law. Less than a month after the shootout, a local newspaper headlined a story, “Gunfight at The O.K. Corral,” and the name stuck. The incident—and the reputations of the Earps and Doc Holliday—remained controversial for many years until Hollywood movies began to lionize the Earps and Doc Holliday as heroes in good guys vs. bad guys dramas. But one thing is certain: the 30-second drama on October 26, 1881 in a Wild West town between gunslingers will continue to capture the imagination of Americans and the world.
PHOTOS: (1) Tombstone in the 1880s. (2) The scene of the famous gunfight today in Tombstone. Reinactments of the shootout are portrayed daily for tourists. (3-12) The main players involved in the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. On one side--the lawmen: Doc Holliday, and brothers Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp. On the other—the Outlaw “Cowboys:” Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborner. Cochise County Sheriff John Behan was an ally of the Cowboys, but was not involved directly in the shootout. (13) An ironic photograph showing the Earps, Clantons and Sheriff John Behan, who would later be moral enemies. (Back row, l to r) Behan (after the OK Corral shootout he testified against the Earps), Wyatt and Morgan, (front row) Old Man Newman Clanton and his son Billy, who was later killed in the shootout. There has been much conjecture about if the Earp brothers had originally been in cahoots with Old Man Clanton, who was the town patriarch and ruled the roost before the Earps came to Tombstone. But what is certain, however, is that however their relationship started, it ended in animosity that resulted in the deaths of several men. (14) When the dust cleared after 30 seconds of flying lead, three men were dead: Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton. (15) Josephine “Sadie” Marcus was believed to be the wife of Cochise County Sheriff John Behan. But when she came home and found him in bed with a friend, she ended the relationship and started a relationship with Wyatt Earp, which only heightened tensions between the two men. Earp and Sadie stayed together for the rest of their lives—47 years! (16-23) Many movies and numerous books have been based on the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. (16) Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die (1942) with Richard Dix. (17) My Darling Clementine (1946) starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford. (18) Gunfight at The O.K. Corral (1957) starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. (19) Hour of the Gun (1967) starring James Garner. (20) Doc (1971) Starring Stacy Keach and Faye Dunaway. (21) Tombstone (1993) starring Kurt Russell. (22) Wyatt Earp (1994) starring Kevin Costner. (23) Tombstone Rashomon (2017) depicts the Shootout at O.K. Corral from multiple and differing perspectives in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s famous 1950 film, Rashomon.
You may find these related posts interesting:
-Myth of the Gunfight
-Girls with Guns
"Gunfight at O.K. Corral" first posted on Facebook October 26, 2019
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