Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Tombstone in 1881

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a roughly 30-second gunfight that took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Cochise County, Arizona Territory, of the United States. Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were killed; Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded and survived. Wyatt Earp was the only individual who came through the fight unharmed. It is generally regarded as the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West and has come to represent a time in American history when the frontier was open range for outlaws who were confronted by law enforcement that was often sparse, or nonexistent.

The gunfight was relatively unknown to the American public until 1931 when author Stuart Lake published what has since been determined to be a largely fictionalized biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, two years after Wyatt's death.[1] Lake retold his story in a 1946 book that director John Ford developed into the movie My Darling Clementine.[1] After the movie Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was released in 1957, the shootout came to be known by that name. Since then, the conflict has been portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy in numerous Western films and books.

Despite its name, the gunfight actually occurred in a narrow lot six doors west of the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral on Fremont Street. The two opposing parties were initially only about 6 feet (1.8 m) apart. About thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran from the fight, unharmed. The Earps and Doc Holliday were charged by Billy Clanton's brother, Ike Clanton, with murder but were eventually exonerated by a local judge after a 30-day preliminary hearing and then again by a local grand jury.

On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was maimed in an assassination attempt by outlaw Cowboys, and on March 19, 1882, they assassinated Morgan Earp. This led to a series of further killings and retributions, with federal and county lawmen supporting different sides of the conflict, which became known as the Earp Vendetta Ride.



Southeastern Arizona near Tombstone in 1887

Tombstone, near the Mexican border, was a rapidly growing frontier, mining boomtown. Virgil Earp was for a time both Tombstone's marshal (also known as a police chief) and Deputy U.S. Marshal for the region. Though not universally liked by the townspeople, he tended to protect the interests of the business owners and residents. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan was generally a friend to the interests to the rural ranchers and Cowboys in the surrounding county area. A cowboy in that time and region was generally regarded as an outlaw. Legitimate cowmen were referred to as cattle herders or ranchers.[2]:194

On July 25, 1880, Virgil Earp and others tracked six U.S. Army mules stolen from Camp Rucker to the McLaury's Ranch. They found a brand used to change the government brand from "US" to "D8". To avoid bloodshed, the Cowboys promised and then failed to return the mules. Captain Joseph H. Hurst printed a handbill in the Epitaph newspaper describing the theft and naming the thieves. Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers told Virgil if he printed the handbills it was Frank's intention to kill him. This incident was the first run-in of the Clantons and the McLaurys against the Earps.[3]

On March 15, 1881 a popular stagecoach driver and his passenger were murdered during an attempted robbery. Wyatt Earp tried to persuade Ike Clanton to give up the Cowboys suspected of the murders by offering him the Wells Fargo reward money.[4] In exchange, Wyatt hoped arresting the murderers would help him win the race for Cochise County Sheriff against Johnny Behan. Ike was initially interested, but then feared word of his possible cooperation had leaked, which could compromise his standing among the Cowboys. Ike threatened Wyatt for apparently revealing his willingness to help arrest his friends.[5]

On September 8, 1881, the Bisbee stage was robbed and two of Ike's Cowboy friends were arrested by Marshal Virgil Earp for the holdup. Ike believed the Earps were illegally persecuting the Cowboys and made repeated threats against the brothers.[6]

On the evening of October 25, Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton came to Tombstone to sell beef stock to a local butcher. Later that evening, Ike and Doc Holliday had a confrontation and Morgan Earp intervened. Ike threatened the Earps again. On the morning of the 26th, Virgil "buffaloed" (pistol whipped) Ike and disarmed him after finding Ike illegally carrying a revolver. Wyatt buffaloed Tom McLaury for the same reason shortly afterward. Later that afternoon, alarmed citizens spotted Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury armed in public off Fremont Street. When both Sheriff Johnny Behan and shortly afterward Marshal Virgil Earp demanded they give up their weapons, as required by a city ordinance, they refused.[3]

Conflicting versions of events

Newspaper coverage of the fight

Many of the facts surrounding the actual events leading up to the gunfight and details of the gunfight itself are uncertain. Newspapers of the day were not above taking sides, and their news reporting often editorialized issues the publisher favored.[7] John Clum, publisher of The Tombstone Epitaph, worked to end lawlessness by helping to organize the "Committee of Safety" (a vigilance committee) in Tombstone in late September 1881,[8] leading to his election as the first mayor under the new city charter of 1881. Clum and his newspaper tended to side with the local business-owners' interests, and supported Marshal Virgil Earp. Harry Woods, the publisher of the other major newspaper, the Nuggett, was an undersheriff to Behan. He and his newspaper tended to side with Behan, the Cowboys, and the rural interests of the ranchers.[9]

Much of what is known of the event is based on a month-long preliminary hearing held afterward, generally known as the "Spicer Hearings." Reporters from both newspapers covered the hearings and recorded the testimony at the coroner's inquest and the Spicer hearings. But only the reporter from the Nugget knew shorthand. The testimony recorded by the court recorder and the two newspapers varied greatly.[10]

According to the Earp version of events, the fight was in self-defense because the Cowboys, armed in violation of local ordinance, aggressively threatened the lawmen, defying a lawful order to hand over their weapons. The Cowboys maintained that they raised their hands, offering no resistance, and were shot in cold blood by the Earps (although this account is hard to reconcile with the fact that 2 of the gunmen were already disarmed earlier in the day). Sorting out who was telling the truth then and now remains difficult.[11]

Though usually opposing each other in their reporting of events, both the Epitaph and the Nugget supported the Earp version. This may have been because the pro-Cowboy Nugget's publisher Harry Woods was out of town during the hearings, leaving an experienced reporter, Richard Rule, to write the story, which was essentially pro-Earp. The Nugget staff had a close relationship with Sheriff Behan, but his story as quoted in the Nugget the day after the shootout backed up the Earp's version of events, which varied widely from Behan's and the Cowboys' later court testimony. [11][12][13]:183 Subsequent stories about the gunfight published in the Nugget after that day, though, appeared to support Behan and the Cowboys' view of events.[11]

Origins of the conflict

Earps versus Cowboys

Virgil Earp
Wyatt Earp

The inter-personal conflicts and feuds leading to the gunfight were complex. Each side had strong family ties. James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Warren Earp were a tight-knit family who had worked and served together as deputy marshal, marshal, sheriff, and saloon owners in several towns, among other occupations, and had moved together from location to location. Wyatt, James and Virgil Earp, along with their wives, arrived in Tombstone during the initial period of its chaotic growth on about December 1, 1879 when there were only a few hundred residents.[14] Virgil was named Deputy U.S. Marshal just before their arrival in Tombstone. In the summer of 1880, brothers Morgan and Warren Earp also moved to Tombstone. Wyatt arrived hoping to have left "lawing" behind. Wyatt brought a stagecoach only to find the business was already very competitive. The Earps then invested in several mining claims and water rights.[7]:180[15] The Earps were Republicans and Northerners.

The Earps were confronted by Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy and Ike Clanton, Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius, and others. Ike was prone to drinking heavily and threatened the Earps numerous times. They were part of a group of loosely organized saddle-tramps and "Cowboys", outlaws who had been implicated in various crimes. Tombstone resident George Parson wrote in his diary, "A Cowboy is a rustler at times, and a rustler is a synonym for desperadobandit, outlaw, and horse thief." The San Francisco Examiner wrote in an editorial, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country...infinitely worse than the ordinary robber."[14] At that time during the 1880s in Cochise County it was an insult to call a legitimate cattleman a "Cowboy." Legal cowmen were generally called herders or ranchers.[16] The Cowboys were a loosely organized band of friends and acquaintances who teamed up for various crimes and came to each other's aid. Virgil Earp thought that some of the Cowboys had met at Charleston, Arizona and taken "an oath over blood drawn from the arm of Johnny Ringo, the leader, that they would kill us.'[11] The Cowboys were Southerners, especially from Texas, Confederate sympathizers, and largely Democrats.

Earps' role as lawmen

When the Earps' efforts to invest in various businesses were fruitless, Wyatt became a stagecoach shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo, guarding shipments of silver bullion, until he became Pima County Deputy Sheriff in July 1880 [17] and Tombstone's town marshal. Morgan and James assisted him. Their work as lawmen was not welcomed by the outlaw Cowboy elements who viewed the Earps as badge-toting tyrants who ruthlessly enforced the business interests of the town.[2]

Wyatt Earp's role as the hero in the gunfight has been embellished by popular media.[18] He was an imposing, handsome man: blonde, 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, weighed about 165 to 170 pounds (75 to 77 kg), was broad-shouldered, long-armed, and muscular. He had been a boxer and was reputed to be an expert with a pistol. According to author Leo Silva, Earp showed no fear of any man.[19]:83 He had developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-nosed lawman, but prior to the gunfight in October, 1881, had only been involved in one shooting in Dodge City during 1878. Author Stuart N. Lake wrote the first biography of Earp, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal published in 1931. Lake's creative biography and later Hollywood portrayals boosted Wyatt's profile as a western lawman, when in fact his brother Virgil had far more experience as a sheriff, constable, and marshal.[20] Lake retold his story in 1946 in a book that Director John Ford developed in 1946 for the movie My Darling Clementine.[1]

Among those involved in the shooting, only Virgil Earp had any real experience in combat. Virgil served for three years during the Civil War and had also been involved in a police shooting in Prescott, Arizona Territory. In the summer of 1878, as an assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, Wyatt Earp and Policeman James Masterson, together with several citizens, fired their pistols at several cowboys who were fleeing town after shooting up a theater. A member of the group, George Hoyt, was shot in the arm and died of his wound a month later. Wyatt always claimed to have been the one to shoot Hoyt, although it could have been anyone in the group. Morgan Earp had no known experience with gunfighting prior to this fight, although he frequently hired out as a shotgun rider and stagecoach guard.[21]

Doc Holliday, who had saved Wyatt Earp's life at one time and was a very close friend, had been living in Prescott and making a living as a gambler since late 1879, where he first met future Tombstone Sheriff and sometimes gambler Johnny Behan. In late September, 1880, he followed the Earps to Tombstone.[22] He had a reputation as a gunman, and had been in eight shootouts during his life, although it has only been verified that he killed two men.[23] On July 19, 1879, Holliday and his business partner, former deputy marshal John Joshua Webb, were seated in their saloon in Las Vegas, New Mexico when former U.S. Army scout Mike Gordon got into a loud argument with one of the saloon girls who he wanted to take with him. Gordon stormed from the saloon and began firing his revolver into the building. Before Gordon could get off his second shot, Holliday killed him. Holliday was tried for the murder but acquitted, mostly based on the testimony of Webb.[23][24]

Rural Cowboys vs. Tombstone interests

Ike Clanton

The ranch owned by Newman Haynes Clanton near Charleston, Arizona was believed to be the local center for the Cowboys' illegal activities, while Tom and Frank McLaury worked with the rustlers buying and selling stolen cattle.[14]

Many of the ranchers and Cowboys who lived in the countryside were resentful of the growing power of the new city folks who increasingly influenced local politics and law in the county. The ranchers largely maintained control of the country around Tombstone, due in large part to the sympathetic support of Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan who favored the Cowboys and rural ranchers[25] and who grew to intensely dislike the Earps. Behan tended to ignore the Earp's complaints about the McLaury's and Clanton's horse thieving and cattle rustling. As officers of the law, the Earps were known to bend the law in their favor when it affected their gambling and saloon interests, which earned them further enmity with the Cowboy faction.[26]

Tombstone, a boomtown

Fire insurance map of Tombstone in 1886

After silver was discovered in the area, Tombstone grew extremely rapidly. At its founding in March 1879, it had a population of just 100, and only two years later in late 1881 it had more than 7,000 citizens, excluding all Chinese, Mexicans, women and children residents. The largest boomtown in the America southwest, the silver industry and attendant wealth attracted many professionals and merchants who brought their wives and families. With them came churches and ministers. They brought a Victorian sensibility and became the town's elite. By 1881 there were fancy restaurants, a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, an opera house, two banks, three newspapers, and an ice cream parlor, alongside 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls,[27] and numerous brothels all situated among a number of dirty, hardscrabble mines.[17]

Horse rustlers and bandits from the countryside came to town and shootings were frequent. In the 1880s, illegal smuggling and theft of cattle, alcohol, and tobacco across the Mexico – United States border about 30 miles (48 km) from Tombstone were common. The Mexican government taxed these items heavily and smugglers earned a handsome profit by buying or stealing these products in the U.S. and smuggling them across the border.[16][28]

Relevant law in Tombstone

To reduce crime in Tombstone, on April 19, 1881, the Tombstone's city council passed an ordinance prohibiting anyone from carrying a deadly weapon.[29] Anyone entering town was required to deposit their weapons at a livery or saloon soon after entering town. The ordinance led directly to the confrontation that resulted in the shoot out.[30]

Smuggling and stock thefts

In that border area there was only one passable route between Arizona and Mexico, a passage known as Guadalupe Canyon.[28] In August 1881, 15 Mexicans carrying gold, coins and bullion to make their purchases were ambushed and killed in Skeleton Canyon. The next month Mexican Commandant Felipe Neri dispatched troops to the border[31]:110 and they in turn killed five Cowboys including "Old Man" Clanton in Guadalupe Canyon.[32][33] The Earps knew that the McLaurys and Clantons were reputed to be mixed up in the robbery and murder in Skeleton Canyon. Wyatt Earp said in his testimony after the shootout, "I naturally kept my eyes open and did not intend that any of the gang should get the drop on me if I could help it."[5]

Mule and horse thievery

On July 25, 1880, Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp received a request for assistance from Captain Joseph H. Hurst, who was tracking the thieves of six U.S. Army mules from Camp Rucker. This was a federal matter because the animals were U.S. property. Virgil brought Wyatt and Morgan Earp, as well as Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams, and they found the animals on the McLaury's Ranch on the Babacomari River and the branding iron used to change the "US" brand to "D8".[2] Cowboy Frank Patterson promised to return the mules to avoid bloodshed and the posse withdrew. The Cowboys showed up two days later without the mules and laughed at Captain Hurst and the Earps. Hurst printed and distributed a handbill naming Frank McLaury as assisting with the theft that was reprinted in the The Tombstone Epitaph on July 30, 1880.[2] Virgil said Frank asked him if he had posted the handbills. When Virgil said he had not, Frank said if Virgil had printed the handbills it was Frank's intention to kill Virgil.[3] He warned Virgil, "If you ever again follow us as close as you did, then you will have to fight anyway."[2] This incident was the first run-in between the Clantons and McLaurys and the Earps.[3]

Behan becomes sheriff

Pima County Sheriff Charles A. Shibell

On July 27, 1880, Pima County Sheriff Charles A. Shibell, whose offices were in the county seat of Tucson, appointed Wyatt Earp as deputy sheriff.[34] October 28, 1880, Tombstone town Marshal Fred White attempted to disarm some late-night revelers who were shooting their pistols at the moon. When he attempted to disarm Curly Bill Brocius, the gun discharged, striking White in the abdomen. Wyatt, who saw the shooting, pistol-whipped Brocius, knocking him unconscious, and arrested him. Wyatt would later tell his biographer that he thought Brocius was still armed at the time, and didn't notice that Brocius' pistol was on the ground.[35]

Brocius waived the preliminary hearing so he and his case could be immediately transferred to Tucson. Wyatt and a deputy took Brocius in a wagon the next day to Tucson to stand trial, possibly saving him from being lynched. Wyatt testified that he thought the shooting was accidental. It was also demonstrated that Brocius' pistol could be fired from half-cock. Fred White also left a statement before he died that the shooting was not intentional.[36]

In the November 2, 1880 election for Pima County sheriff, Democrat Shibell ran against Republican Bob Paul, who was expected to win. Shibell was unexpectedly reelected and he immediately appointed Democrat Johnny Behan as the new deputy sheriff for eastern Pima County, a job that Wyatt wanted. A controversy ensued when Paul uncovered ballot-stuffing by Cowboys and he sued to overturn the election.

Paul finally became sheriff in April 1881, but it was too late to reappoint Wyatt Earp as deputy sheriff because on January 1, 1881, the eastern portion of Pima County containing Tombstone had been split off into the new Cochise County.[37]

The position was filled by a political appointment from the governor, and Wyatt and Behan both wanted the job. The Cochise County sheriff's position was worth more than $40,000 a year (about $907,310 today) because the office holder was also county assessor and tax collector, and the board of supervisors allowed him to keep ten percent of the amounts paid.[38]:157

Behan utilized his existing position and his superior political connections to successfully lobby for the position. He also promised Wyatt a position as his undersheriff if he was appointed over Wyatt. Wyatt withdrew from the political contest and the governor and legislature appointed Behan to the job of Cochise County sheriff on February 10, 1881.[39] Behan reneged on his deal with Earp and appointed prominent Democrat Harry Woods instead. Behan said he broke his promise to appoint Earp because Wyatt Earp used Behan's name to threaten Ike Clanton when Wyatt recovered his stolen horse from Clanton.[40]

Stagecoach robbery and arrest

Tensions between the Earp family and both the Clanton and McLaury clans increased through 1881. On the evening of March 15, 1881, three Cowboys attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying USD$26,000 in silver bullion (about $589,752 in 2010 dollars) enroute from Tombstone to Benson, Arizona, the nearest freight terminal.[41]:180 Near Drew's Station, just outside of Contention City, a man stepped into the road and commanded them to "Hold!" Bob Paul, who had run for Pima County Sheriff and was contesting the election he lost due to ballot-stuffing, was temporarily working once again as the Wells Fargo shotgun messenger. He had taken the reins and driver's seat in Contention City because the driver was ill. Paul fired his shotgun and emptied his revolver at the robbers, wounding a Cowboy later identified as Bill Leonard in the groin. The popular and well-known driver Eli 'Budd' Philpot was shot and killed as well as a passenger named Peter Roerig riding in the rear dickey seat. The horses spooked and Paul wasn't able to bring the stage under control for almost a mile, leaving the robbers with nothing. Paul said he thought the first shot killing Philpot in the shotgun messenger seat had been meant for him as he would normally have been seated there.[42][43]

Suspect escapes Behan's jail

Deputy U.S. Marshal and Sheriff Virgil Earp and his temporary deputies Wyatt and Morgan Earp, along with Bat Masterson, who was dealing faro at the Oriental Saloon, Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams, and County Sheriff Behan set out to find the bandits. The Earp posse trailed the robbers to a nearby ranch where they found a drifter named Luther King. He wouldn't tell who his confederates were until the posse lied and told him that Doc Holliday's girlfriend had been shot. Fearful of Holliday's reputation, he confessed to holding the reins of the robbers' horses, and identified Bill Leonard, Harry "The Kid" Head and Jim Crane as the robbers.[44]:181 They were all known Cowboys and rustlers. Behan and Williams escorted King back to Tombstone. Somehow King walked in the front door of the jail and a few minutes later out the back. King had arranged with Undersheriff Harry Woods (publisher of the Nugget) to sell the horse he had been riding to John Dunbar, Sheriff Behan's partner in the Dexter Livery Stable.[45] On March 19, King conveniently escaped while Dunbar and Woods were making out the bill-of-sale. Woods claimed that someone had deliberately unlocked a secured back door to the jail.[2] The Earps and the townspeople were furious at King's easy escape.[42] Williams was later dismissed from Wells Fargo, leaving behind a number of debts, when it was determined he had been stealing from the company for years.[44]

The Earps pursued the other two men for 17 days, riding for 60 hours without food and 36 hours without water, during which Bob Paul's horse died, and Wyatt and Morgan's horses became so weak, that the two men walked 18 miles (29 km) back to Tombstone to obtain new horses.[17] After pursuing the Cowboys for over 400 miles (640 km) they could not obtain more fresh horses and were forced to give up the chase. They returned to Tombstone on April 1.[46][47] Behan submitted a bill for $796.84 to the county for posse expenses, but he refused to reimburse the Earps for any of their costs. Virgil was incensed. They were finally reimbursed by Wells, Fargo & Co. later on, but the incident caused further friction between county and city law enforcement, and between Behan and the Earps.[2]:38[3]

Earp, Behan compete for Josephine Marcus

Wyatt Earp and Cochise County sheriff Johnny Behan were interested in the same sheriff's office position, and also shared an interest in the same woman, Josephine Marcus. It was generally assumed that Behan and Marcus were married, but Behan maintained relationships with other women. Marcus ended the relationship with Behan before April, 1881, when their home was rented to Dr. George Emory Goodfellow. Wyatt Earp was still living with his current common-law wife Mattie Blaylock.[32]:159 After Marcus left Behan, she at some point began a relationship with his rival Wyatt Earp, much to Behan's embarrassment. Earp had a common-law relationship with Mattie Blaylock, who was listed as his wife in the 1880 census, but she had a growing addiction to the opiate laudanum.[48]

Cowboys implicate Holliday

After a particularly nasty, drunken fight with his on-again, off-again mistress, Big Nose Kate (born Mary Katherine Horony), Doc Holliday kicked her out. County Sheriff John Behan and Milt Joyce, a county supervisor and owner of the Oriental Saloon, exploited the situation. Joyce and Holliday had a contentious relationship. In October 1880, Holliday had trouble with a gambler named Johnny Tyler in Milt Joyce's Oriental Saloon. Tyler had been hired by a competing gambling establishment to drive customers from the Oriental Saloon.[22] Holliday challenged Tyler to a fight, but Tyler ran. Joyce did not like Holliday or the Earps and he continued to argue with Holliday. Joyce ordered Holliday removed from the saloon but would not return Holliday's revolver. Holliday returned with a shotgun and fired several shots at Joyce and missed, until Holliday wounded Joyce in the thumb and Joyce's business partner William Parker in the big toe. Joyce then hit Holliday over the head with his revolver. Holliday was arrested and pleaded guilty to assault and battery.[49]

Then Behan and Joyce plied Big Nose Kate with more booze and suggested to her a way to get even with Holliday. She signed an affidavit implicating Holliday in the attempted stagecoach robbery and murders. Holliday was a good friend of Bill Leonard, a former watchmaker from New York, one of three men implicated in the robbery.[44]:181 Judge Wells Spicer issued an arrest warrant for Holliday. The Earps found witnesses who could attest to Holliday's location at the time of the murders and Kate sobered up, revealing that Behan and Joyce had influenced her to sign a document she didn't understand. With the Cowboy plot revealed, Spicer freed Holliday. The district attorney threw out the charges, labeling them "ridiculous." Doc gave Kate some money and put her on a stage out of town.[42]

Wyatt offers Ike reward money

After he was passed over by Johnny Behan for the position of undersheriff, Wyatt thought he might beat him in the next Cochise County election. He thought catching the robbers would help him win the sheriff's office. Wyatt later said that on June 2, 1881 he offered the Wells, Fargo & Co. reward money and more to Ike Clanton if he would provide information leading to the capture or death of the stage robbers. According to Wyatt, the plan was foiled when the three suspects, Leonard, Head and Crane, were killed in unrelated incidents.[11]

Wyatt was left without the publicity he sought to gain office and Ike was left without the reward. Ike also remained nervous about the aborted secret deal and whether Earp would tell anyone he had been prepared to double-cross his fellow Cowboys, damaging his standing among them. Undercover Wells Fargo Company agent M. Williams suspected a deal, and said something to Ike, who was fearful that other Cowboys might learn of his double-cross.[11][32][50]

Ike testifies Earps robbed stage

Ike Clanton later testified at the Spicer hearing that Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, and Morgan Earp had all confided in him that they had actually been involved in the stage robbery. He further claimed that Holliday had told him that Holliday had "piped off" money from the stage before it left and about killing the stage driver.[51] Murder was a capital offense, and given their relationship, it was unlikely Holliday would confide in Ike. Ike testified that Earp had threatened to kill his confederates because he feared they would reveal his part in the robbery. Ike said he feared that Wyatt wanted to kill him because he knew of Wyatt's role. These and other inconsistencies in Ike's testimony lacked credibility.[33]

Earp, Cowboy fallout

The fallout over the Cowboys' attempt to implicate Holliday and the Earps in the robbery,[52]:457 along with Behan's involvement in King's escape, was the beginning of increasingly bad feelings between the Earp and Cowboy factions.[2]

Stilwell and Spence arrests

Tensions between the Earps and the McLaurys further increased when a passenger stage on the 'Sandy Bob Line' in the Tombstone area bound for Bisbee, Arizona was held up on September 8. The masked bandits robbed all of the passengers of their valuables since the stage was not carrying a strongbox. During the robbery, the driver heard one of the robbers describe the money as "sugar", a phrase known to be used by Frank Stilwell. Stilwell had until the prior month been a deputy for Sheriff Behan but had been fired for "accounting irregularities".[47]

Cowboy Tom McLaury

Both Spence and Stilwell were friends of the McLaurys. Wyatt and Virgil Earp rode with the sheriff's posse attempting to track the Bisbee stage robbers. At the scene of the holdup, Wyatt discovered an unusual boot print left by someone wearing a custom-repaired boot heel.[47] The Earps checked a shoe repair shop in Bisbee known to provide widened boot heels and were able to link the boot print to Frank Stilwell.[47]

Virgil Earp was appointed Tombstone's town marshal (chief of police) on June 6, 1881, after Ben Sippy abandoned the job. Stilwell had just arrived in Bisbee with his livery stable partner, Pete Spence, and Virgil and Wyatt arrested them for the robbery. At the preliminary hearing, Stilwell and Spence were able to provide several witnesses who supported their alibis. Judge Spicer dropped the charges for insufficient evidence just as he had done for Doc Holliday earlier in the year.[53] Released on bail a month later, Spence and Stilwell were re-arrested October 13 by Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp for the Bisbee robbery on a new federal charge of interfering with a mail carrier.[54] The newspapers, however, reported that they had been arrested for a different stage robbery that occurred (October 8) near Contention City.

The Cowboys saw the new arrest as further evidence they were being unfairly harassed and targeted by the Earps. They let the Earps know that they could expect retaliation.[26] While Wyatt and Virgil were in Tucson for the federal hearing on the charges against Spence and Stilwell, Frank McLaury confronted Morgan Earp. He told him that the McLaurys would kill the Earps if they tried to arrest Spence, Stilwell, or the McLaurys again.[5] The Tombstone Epitaph reported "that since the arrest of Spence and Stilwell, velied threats [are] being made that the friends of the accused will 'get the Earps.'"[55]:137

Ike Clanton's conflict with Doc Holliday

Wyatt Earp testified after the gunfight that five or six weeks prior he had met Ike Clanton outside the Alhambra Hotel. Ike told Wyatt that Doc Holliday had told him he knew of Ike's meetings with Wyatt and about Ike providing information on Head, Leonard, and Crane, as well as their attempted robbery of the stage. Ike now accused Earp of telling Holliday about these conversations. Earp testified that he had told Ike he had not told Holliday anything. Wyatt Earp offered to prove this when Holliday and the Clantons next returned to town.[5]

A month later, the weekend before the shootout, Morgan Earp, concerned about possible trouble with the Cowboys, brought Doc Holliday back from a fiesta celebration in Tucson where Holliday had been gambling. Upon his return, Wyatt Earp asked Holliday about Ike's accusation.[5]

On the morning of Tuesday, October 25, 1881, the day before the gunfight, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury drove 10 miles (16 km) in a spring wagon from Chandler's Milk Ranch at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains to Tombstone. They were in town to sell a large number of beef stock, most of them owned by the McLaurys.[2]

Seeing Ike Clanton in the Alhambra Saloon around midnight, Holliday confronted Ike, accusing him of lying about their previous conversations. They got into a heated argument. Wyatt Earp (who was not wearing a badge) encouraged his brother, Tombstone Deputy City Marshal Morgan Earp, to intervene. Morgan escorted Holliday out onto the street and Ike, who had been drinking steadily, followed them. City Marshal Virgil Earp arrived a few minutes later and threatened to arrest both Holliday and Clanton if they did not stop arguing. Ike and Wyatt talked again a few minutes later, and Ike threatened to confront Holliday in the morning. Ike told Earp that the fighting talk had been going on for a long time and that he intended to put an end to it. Ike told Earp, "I will be ready for you in the morning." Wyatt Earp walked over to the Oriental Saloon and Ike followed him. Ike sat down to have another drink, his revolver in plain sight, and told Earp "You must not think I won't be after you all in the morning."[5]

Morning of the shoot out

Events leading up to the Ike Clanton court hearing

O.K. Corral after a fire in 1882
Doc Holliday (identity uncertain in this photo)

After the confrontation with Ike Clanton, Wyatt Earp took Holliday back to his boarding house at Camillus Sidney "Buck" Fly's Lodging House to sleep off his drinking, then went home and to bed. Tombstone Marshal Virgil Earp played cards with Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan and a fifth man (unknown to Ike and to history), until morning.[51]

At about dawn on October 26, the card game broke up and Behan and Virgil Earp went home to bed. Ike Clanton testified later he saw Virgil take his six-shooter out of his lap and stick it in his pants when the game ended.[51] Not having rented a room, Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton had no place to go. Shortly after 8:00 am barkeeper E. F. Boyle spoke to Ike Clanton, who had been drinking all night, in front of the telegraph office. Boyle encouraged him to get some sleep, but Ike insisted he would not go to bed. Boyle later testified he noticed Ike was armed and covered his gun for him, recalling that Ike told him "'As soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open—that they would have to fight'... I went down to Wyatt Earp's house and told him that Ike Clanton had threatened that when him and his brothers and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street that the ball would open."[56][57] Ike said in his testimony afterward that he remembered neither meeting Boyle nor making any such statements that day.[51]

Later in the morning, Ike picked up his rifle and revolver from the West End Corral, where he had stabled his wagon and team and deposited his weapons after entering town. By noon that day, Ike, drinking again and armed, told others he was looking for Holliday or an Earp. At about 1:00 pm, Virgil and Morgan Earp surprised Ike on 4th Street where Virgil buffaloed (pistol-whipped) him from behind. Disarming him, the Earps took Ike to appear before Judge Wallace for violating the city's ordinance against carrying firearms in the city. Virgil went to find Judge Wallace so the court hearing could be held.[5]

Ike Clanton court hearing

Morgan Earp

Ike reported in his testimony afterward that Wyatt Earp cursed him. He said Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan offered him his rifle and to fight him right there in the courthouse, which Ike declined. Ike also denied ever threatening the Earps.[51] Ike was fined $25 plus court costs and after paying the fine left unarmed. Virgil told Ike he would leave Ike's confiscated rifle and revolver at the Grand Hotel which was favored by Cowboys when in town. Ike testified that he picked up the weapons from William Soule, the jailer, a couple of days later.[51]

Tom McLaury's concealed weapon

Pete Spence, an alias for Elliot Larkin Ferguson, in a 1893 Yuma Penitentiary prison mugshot.

Outside the court house where Ike was being fined, Wyatt almost walked into 28 year-old Tom McLaury as the two men were brought up short nose-to-nose. Tom, who had arrived in town the day before, was required by the well-known city ordinance to deposit his pistol when he first arrived in town. When Wyatt demanded, "Are you heeled or not?", McLaury said he was not armed. Wyatt testified that he saw a revolver in plain sight on the right hip of Tom's pants.[58] As an unpaid deputy marshal for Virgil, Wyatt habitually carried a pistol in his waistband, as was the custom of that time. Witnesses reported that Wyatt drew his revolver from his coat pocket and pistol whipped Tom McLaury with it twice, leaving him prostrate and bleeding on the street. Saloon-keeper Andrew Mehan testified at the Spicer hearing afterward that he saw McLaury deposit a revolver at the Capital Saloon sometime between 1-2:00 pm, about the same time as the confrontation with Wyatt.[11]

Wyatt said in his deposition afterward that he had been temporarily acting as city marshal for Virgil the week before while Virgil was in Tucson for the Pete Spence and Frank Stilwell trial. Wyatt said that he still considered himself a deputy city marshal, which Virgil later confirmed. Since Wyatt was an off-duty officer, he could not legally search or arrest Tom for carrying a revolver within the city limits-—a misdemeanor offense. Only Virgil or one of his city police deputies, including Morgan Earp and possibly Warren Earp, could search him and take any required action. Wyatt, a non-drinker, testified at the Spicer hearing that he went to Haffords and bought a cigar and went outside to watch the Cowboys. At the time of the gunfight about two hours later, Wyatt could not know if Tom was still armed.[5]

It was early afternoon by the time Ike and Tom had seen doctors for their head wounds. The day was chilly, with snow still on the ground in some places. Both Tom and Ike had spent the night gambling, drinking heavily, and without sleep. Now they were both out-of-doors, both wounded from head beatings, and at least Ike was still drunk.[17][55]:138

More Cowboys enter town

Cowboy and likely cattle rustler Frank McLaury

At around 1:30–2:00 pm, after Tom had been pistol-whipped by Wyatt, Ike's 19-year-old younger brother Billy Clanton and Tom's older brother Frank McLaury arrived in town. They had heard from their neighbor, Ed "old man" Frink, that Ike had been stirring up trouble in town overnight, and they had ridden into town on horseback to back up their brothers. They arrived from Antelope Springs, 13 miles (21 km) east of Tombstone, where they had been rounding up stock with their brothers and had had breakfasted with Ike and Tom the day before. Both Frank and Billy were armed with a revolver and a rifle, as was the custom for riders in the country outside Tombstone. Apache warriors had engaged the U.S. Army near Tombstone just three weeks before the O.K. Corral gunfight, so the need for weapons outside of town was well established and accepted.[59]

Billy and Frank stopped first at the Grand Hotel on Allen Street, and were greeted by Doc Holliday. They learned immediately after of their brothers' beatings by the Earps within the previous two hours. The incidents had generated a lot of talk in town. Angrily, Frank said he would not drink, and he and Billy left the saloon immediately to seek Tom. By law, both Frank and Billy should have left their firearms at the Grand Hotel. Instead, they remained fully armed.[2]:49[52]:190

Virgil and Wyatt Earp’s reactions

Virgil testified afterward that he thought he saw all four men, Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury, buying cartridges.[60] Wyatt said that he saw Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury buying cartridges in Spangenberger's gun and hardware store on 4th Street filling their gun belts with cartridges.[5] Ike testified afterward that Tom was not there and that he had tried to buy a new revolver but the owner saw Ike's bandaged head and refused to sell him one.[51] Ike apparently had not heard Virgil tell him that his confiscated weapons were at the Grand Hotel around the corner from Spangenberger's shop.[51][60]

Virgil initially avoided a confrontation with the newly-arrived Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, who had not yet deposited their weapons at a hotel or stable as the law required. The statute was not specific about how far a recently-arrived visitor might "with good faith, and within reasonable time" travel into town while carrying a firearm. This permitted a traveler to keep his firearms if he was proceeding directly to a livery, hotel or saloon. The three main Tombstone corrals were all west of 4th street, a block or two from where Wyatt saw the Cowboys buying cartridges. A man named Coleman told Virgil that the Cowboys had left the Dunbar and Dexter Stable for the O.K. Corral and were still armed, and Virgil decided they had to disarm them.[60]

Behan attempts to disarm Cowboys

Sheriff Johnny Behan

Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, a friend to the Cowboys,[8] later testified that he first learned of the trouble while he was getting a shave at the barbershop after 1:30 pm, which is when he had risen after the late-night game. Behan stated he immediately went to locate the Cowboys. At about 2:30 pm he saw Ike, Frank, Tom, and Billy gathered off Fremont street in a narrow 15–20 feet (4.6–6.1 m) wide empty lot or alley immediately west of 312 Fremont Street, which contained Fly's 12-room boarding house and photography studio. The lot was six lots removed from the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral. The lot was also adjacent to Fly's, where Doc Holliday rented a room, and also on the route to the Earp's homes two blocks further west on Fremont Street. The position of the Cowboys may have been viewed as a threat to the Earps and Holliday, especially in light of the Clanton's repeated threats.[57]:27

Behan attempted to persuade Frank McLaury to give up his weapons, but Frank insisted that he would only give up his guns after City Marshal Virgil Earp and his brothers were disarmed. While Ike Clanton was planning to leave town, Frank McLaury said he had decided to remain behind to take care of some business. Tom and Frank's brother Will McLaury, who had been a judge in Fort Worth, Texas, served on the prosecution's team. He claimed in a letter he wrote during the hearing that his brothers were planning to conduct business before leaving town to visit him in Fort Worth. Billy Clanton, who had arrived on horseback with Frank, intended to go with the McLaurys to Fort Worth.[61]

Virgil decides to disarm Cowboys

When Virgil Earp learned that Wyatt was talking to the Cowboys at Spangenberg's gun shop he picked up a 10-gauge or 12-gauge, short, double-barreled shotgun[44]:185 from the Wells Fargo office around the corner on Allen Street. To avoid alarming Tombstone's public, Virgil returned to Hafford's Saloon carrying the shotgun under his long overcoat. He gave the shotgun to Doc Holliday who hid it under his overcoat. He took Holliday's walking-stick in return.[62]:89 From Spangenberg's, the Cowboys moved to the O.K. Corral where witnesses overheard them threatening to kill the Earps. For unknown reasons they moved a block north to an empty lot next to C. S. Fly's boarding house where Doc Holliday lived.[2]:4

Virgil Earp was told by several citizens that the McLaurys and the Clantons had gathered on Fremont Street and were armed. He decided he had to act. Several members of the citizen's vigilance committee offered to support him with arms, but Virgil said no.[17] He had previously deputized Morgan and Wyatt and also deputized Doc Holliday that morning. Wyatt spoke of his brothers Virgil and Morgan as the "marshals" while he acted as "deputy."

The Earps carried revolvers in their coat pockets or in their waistbands. Holliday was wearing a pistol in a holster, but this was hidden by his long coat, as was the shotgun. The Earps and Holliday walked west, down the south side of Fremont Street, out of visual range of the Cowboys, toward the Cowboys' last reported location.[5] The Earps saw the Cowboys and Sheriff Behan, who left the group and came toward them, though he looked nervously backward several times. Virgil testified later that Behan told them, "For God's sake, don't go down there or they will murder you!"[60] Wyatt said Behan told him and Morgan, "I have disarmed them."[5] Behan testified afterward that he'd only said he'd gone down to the Cowboys "for the purpose of disarming them," not that he'd actually disarmed them.[61]

When Behan said he had disarmed them, Virgil attempted to avoid a fight. "I had a walking stick in my left hand and my hand was on my six-shooter in my waist pants, and when he said he had disarmed them, I shoved it clean around to my left hip and changed my walking stick to my right hand."[60] Wyatt said I "took my pistol, which I had in my hand, under my coat, and put it in my overcoat pocket." The Earps walked westerly across Fremont street and came into full view of the Cowboys.[5]

Wyatt testified he saw "Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton standing in a row against the east side of the building on the opposite side of the vacant space west of Fly's photograph gallery. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne and a man I don't know [Wes Fuller] were standing in the vacant space about halfway between the photograph gallery and the next building west."[5]

The gunfight

Annotated 1886 fire map of Tombstone indicating the actual shootout location and the O.K. Corral on the other side of the block.
1908 View of Gunfight Site, Left mid photo, marked with a large white patch. The smaller white patch at left marks the corner where Tom McLaury fell. Fly's studio is immediately to the viewer's right of the large white patch; the O.K. Corral office building is at the near corner, between Fly's and the viewer. The two houses that were west of Fly's on the block at the time of the fight in 1881, have both disappeared by the time of this photo.

In the preceding weeks and hours, Ike Clanton had repeatedly threatened Doc Holliday and the Earps. The Earps were tired of the threats. Martha J. King was in Everhardy's butcher shop on Fremont Street. She testified that when the Earp party passed by her location, one of the Earps on the outside of that party looked across and said to Doc Holliday nearest the store, "...let them have it!" to which Holliday replied, "All right."[57]:66-68[63] A drawing Wyatt made in 1924 placed Holliday a couple of steps back in the street.

Physical proximity

When the Earps approached the alley, they found Ike Clanton talking to Billy Claiborne in the middle of the lot. Beyond those two, against the MacDonald house and assay office to the west stood Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton, and two of their horses. Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury wore revolvers in holsters on their belts and stood alongside saddled horses with rifles in their scabbards, possibly in violation of the city ordinance prohibiting carrying weapons in town.[11]

The precise location of the men and animals could not be agreed upon by witnesses afterward.[64] The Coroner's inquest and the Spicer hearing produced a sketch showing the Cowboys standing, from left to right facing Fremont Street, with Billy Clanton and then Frank McLaury near the MacDonald house and Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton roughly in the middle of the alley. Opposite them and initially only about 6 to 10 feet (1.8 to 3.0 m) away, Virgil Earp was on the left end of the Earp party, standing a few feet inside the vacant lot and nearest Ike Clanton. Behind him a few feet near the corner of C. S. Fly's boarding house was Wyatt. Morgan Earp was standing on Fremont Street to Wyatt's right, and Doc Holliday anchored the end of their line in Fremont Street, a few feet to Morgan's right.[64]

Doc Holliday was roughly facing Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton. Morgan Earp was opposite Frank McLaury near the MacDonald house (or assay office). Virgil Earp was at the left end opposite Ike Clanton.[57]:145 Wyatt Earp and his secretary John H. Flood produced a sketch on April 4, 1924 that depicted Billy Clanton near the MacDonald house nearest to Morgan. Frank in the middle of the alley holding the reins of a horse, and Tom was near C. S. Fly's. Virgil was further in the lot opposite Frank and near Wyatt, who was opposite Tom. Doc Holliday hung back a step or two on Fremont Street.[65]

Witness accounts

It is not known who started shooting first. Accounts by both participants and eye-witnesses are contradictory. Those loyal to one side or the other told conflicting stories and independent eyewitnesses who did not know the participants by sight were unable to say for certain who shot first.[39][66]

Spicer decided to interview Addie Bourland, a seamstress who witnessed the fight from across the street inside her store and home. She had presented confusing testimony and he recalled her to the stand to answer his questions, much to the dismay and objections of the prosecution. In her second visit to Spicer’s courtroom, she said a man stepped forward and poked a large, bronze pistol into a unnamed Cowboy's belly, then took a couple of steps backward. She didn't see anyone raise their hands.[67]

Martha J. King was in Everhardy's butcher shop next door to the O.K. Corral's rear entrance when she saw the Earp party walk by four abreast. She saw Holliday, nearest to the building, carrying "a gun, not a pistol" under his overcoat on the left side.[63]

Sheriff Johnny Behan, who had been trying to persuade the Cowboys to give up their weapons, attempted to stop the Earps from confronting them. He testified he "saw a shotgun before the fight commenced. Doc Holliday had it. He had it under his coat." Behan denied hearing either the Clantons or McLaurys make any threats against the Earps or Holliday. He also denied telling the Earps, "I have got them disarmed."[12] Under questioning, he said he did not see Ike Clanton appeal to Wyatt to not shoot him.[61]

Most witnesses reported the first two shots were so close together that they could barely be distinguished. Some witnesses testified that Morgan and Doc fired across one another at Billy and Frank, respectively.[57]:172-173[57]:154 Wyatt said that he and Billy Clanton fired the first two shots.[5] Virgil said one of the first shots was Billy Clanton's.[60] All witnesses agreed that general firing almost immediately commenced. Witnesses could not agree on whether Tom McLaury was armed.[60][61]

C. H. "Ham" Light, a business partner of Pete Spence and a friend to the Cowboys, heard the first two shots from his room at the Aztec House across the corner from the fight, and went to the window in time to see all but the first two shots fired. According to Light, at that time Tom McLaury was already struggling away from the fight, although other eyewitness accounts placed Tom's movement later.[68]

Behan testified that the fight was started from the Earp faction by a man "with a nickel-plated pistol," but did not name the man.[61] Some historians have assumed this was meant to be Holliday, though at least one nickel-plated pistol said to be that of Morgan Earp survives to the present. Billy Claiborne testified that Holliday opened the fight with a shot from his nickel-plated pistol. Thomas Allen said he thought Holliday fired first. He thought it was a pistol shot.[69] These accounts contradicted Wyatt and Virgil's testimony that Holliday was carrying a shotgun and would have required Holliday to fire with his pistol first, switch weapons to a shotgun to shoot Tom McLaury, then switch back again to his pistol to continue firing. The smoke from the gunpowder may have added to the confusion and bedlam of the gunfight in the narrow space.[11]

Gunbattle begins

Wyatt Earp 19 months after the famous gunfight.

Virgil Earp was not planning on a fight. He had given Doc a short, double-barreled shotgun and carried Holliday's cane in his right hand. He immediately commanded the Cowboys to "Throw up your hands, I want your guns!" But he said the Cowboys reached to draw their guns. Virgil and Wyatt testified they saw Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton draw and cock their six-shooters.[60] Virgil yelled: "Hold! I don't mean that!"[57]:172-173 or "Hold on, I don't want that!"[60] The single-action revolvers carried by both groups had to be cocked before firing.

According to one witness, Holliday drew a shotgun from under his long coat and shoved it into Frank McLaury's belly, then took a couple of steps back. It is not known who started shooting first; accounts by both participants and eyewitnesses are contradictory.[70] Those loyal to one side or the other told conflicting stories, and independent eyewitnesses who did not know the participants by sight were unable to say for certain who shot first.

Virgil Earp reported afterward, "Two shots went off right together. Billy Clanton's was one of them."[60] All witnesses generally agreed that two shots were fired first, almost indistinguishable from each other. General firing immediately broke out.

Wyatt testified, "Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me, but I did not aim at him. I knew that Frank McLaury had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man, and I aimed at Frank McLaury."[5] Virgil and Wyatt thought Tom was armed. When shooting started, the horse that Tom McLaury held jumped to one side. Wyatt said he also saw Tom McLaury throw his hand to his right hip. Virgil said Tom followed the horse's movement, hiding behind it, and fired once, if not twice, over the horse's back.[60]

At some point fairly early, Holliday stepped forward and fired his shotgun into Tom McLaury's chest.

Despite having bragged that he would kill the Earps or Doc Holliday at his first opportunity, once the shooting broke out, Ike Clanton ran forward and grabbed Wyatt, exclaiming that he was unarmed and did not want a fight. To this protest Wyatt said he responded, "Go to fighting or get away!"[57]:164 Clanton ran through the front door of Fly's boarding house and escaped, unwounded. Billy Claiborne also ran from the fight.

Wyatt Earp testified that he shot Frank McLaury after both he and Billy Clanton went for their revolvers. After shooting Tom, Holliday tossed the shotgun aside, pulled out his revolver, and continued to fire[61] at Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. Witness C. H. Light saw Tom running or stumbling westward, away from the gunfight, while Frank and Billy were still standing and shooting. Light testified that Tom fell at the foot of a telegraph pole on the corner of Fremont and 3rd Street and lay there, without moving, through the duration of the fight.[68]

According to the chief newspaper of the town, The Tombstone Epitaph, "Wyatt Earp stood up and fired in rapid succession, as cool as a cucumber, and was not hit." Morgan Earp fired almost immediately after, hitting Billy Clanton, probably in the right wrist, rendering that hand useless. Billy shifted the revolver to his left hand and continued firing until he emptied it.[57]:154

The Earps testified afterward that Tom McLaury fired one or two shots over the horse he was hiding behind. Doc Holliday stepped around Tom McLaury's horse and shot him with the short, double-barreled shotgun.[44]:185 Mortally wounded, Tom McLaury then half-ran and half-staggered across Fremont Street, where he died.

Virgil and Wyatt were now firing. Morgan Earp tripped over a newly buried waterline and fired from the ground.[11]

Frank McLaury was shot in the abdomen, and taking his horse by its reins, struggled into the street. Frank tried to grab his rifle from its scabbard on his horse, and fired his revolver, only to lose the horse before he could withdraw the rifle from the scabbard. A number of witnesses observed a man leading a horse into the street and firing near it, but Wyatt in his testimony thought this was Tom McLaury. Claiborne said only one man had a horse in the fight, and that this man was Frank, holding his own horse by the reins, then losing it and its cover, in the middle of the street.[71] Wes Fuller also identified Frank as the man in the street leading the horse.[72]

Though wounded, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury kept shooting. One of them, perhaps Billy, shot Morgan Earp across the back in a wound that struck both shoulder blades and a vertebra. Either Frank or Billy shot Virgil Earp in the calf (Virgil thought it was Billy). Virgil, though hit, fired his next shot at Billy Clanton.

Frank and Holliday exchanged shots as Holliday moved into the street, and Frank hit Holliday in his pistol pocket,[73] grazing his skin. Frank lost control of his horse and crossed to the sidewalk on the opposite side of Fremont Street. Holliday followed Frank across Fremont Street, exclaiming, "That son of a bitch has shot me, and I am going to kill him." Morgan Earp picked himself up and also fired at Frank. The smoke from the gunpowder added to the confusion of the gunfight in the narrow space.[74]

Frank, now entirely across Fremont street and still walking at a good pace according to Claiborne's testimony, fired twice more before he was shot in the head under his right ear. Both Morgan and Holliday apparently thought they had fired the shot that killed Frank, but since neither of them testified at the hearing, this information is only from second-hand accounts. A passerby testified to having stopped to help Frank, and saw Frank try to speak, but he died where he fell, before he could be moved.[75]

Billy Clanton was shot in the chest and abdomen, and after a minute or two slumped to a sitting position near his original position at the corner of the MacDonald house in the alley between the house and Fly's Lodging House. Claiborne said Billy Clanton was supported by a window initially after he was shot, and fired some shots after sitting, with the pistol supported on his leg. After he ran out of ammunition, he called for more cartridges, but C. S. Fly took his pistol at about the time the general shooting ended.[57]:174

A few moments later, Tom was carried into the Harwood house at the corner close to him, where he also died without speaking.[32]:234

Passersby carried Billy to the Harwood house, where Tom had been taken. Billy was in considerable pain and asked for a doctor and some morphine. He told those near him, "They have murdered me. I have been murdered. Chase the crowd away and from the door and give me air." Billy gasped for air, and someone else heard him say, "Go away and let me die."[32]:234 Ike Clanton, who had repeatedly threatened the Earps with death, was still running. William Cuddy testified that Ike passed him on Allen Street and Johnny Behan saw him a few minutes later on Tough Nut Street.[32]:236

Wounded and dead

Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne, both unarmed, ran from the shooting unwounded. Wyatt was not hit in the fight, Doc Holliday was bruised, and Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury lay dead. No gun was found on Tom McLaury after the gunfight. The Cowboys claimed he was unarmed. Behan testified that when he searched Tom McLaury for a weapon prior to the gunfight, he was not thorough, and that Tom might have had a pistol hidden in his waistband.[57]:164 Wyatt had buffaloed Tom earlier that morning when he spotted him carrying a weapon. Both Wyatt and Virgil believed Tom was armed and testified that he had fired at least one shot over the back of a horse.[5][60]

Outcome of the battle

During the gunfight, Doc Holliday was grazed by a bullet fired by Frank that struck his holster and grazed his hip, Virgil Earp was shot through the calf; he thought by Billy Clanton. Morgan Earp was struck across both shoulder blades by a bullet. Morgan thought Frank McLaury had shot him. Wyatt Earp was unhurt. As the wounded lawmen were carried to their homes, they passed in front of the Sheriff's Office, and Johnny Behan told Wyatt Earp he was under arrest. Wyatt paused two or three seconds and replied very forcibly: "I won't be arrested today. I am right here and am not going away."[76]:27 Behan's sympathy to the Cowboy was well known, and during the trial he firmly denied he had contributed money to help Ike with his defense costs.[77] Documents were located in 1997 that showed Behan served as guarantor for a loan to Ike Clanton during the Spicer hearing that followed.[11]

Ike Clanton, who had been threatening to kill the Earps for more than a day, and Billy Claiborne both ran from the fight and were not shot.[2] Wesley Fuller who had been at the rear of the alley left as soon as the firing begin. Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury were killed.

Cowboy wounds

Dr. H. M. Mathews examined the dead Cowboys late that night. Frank McLaury had two wounds: a gunshot beneath the right ear that horizontally penetrated his head, and a second entering his abdomen one inch to the left of his navel. He stated that the wound beneath the ear was at the base of the brain and caused instant death.[75] When he examined Tom McLaury's body, he found a single shotgun wound: twelve buckshot wounds on the right side under the arms, between the third and fifth ribs. The wound was about four inches across. His wound indicated that it could not have been received if his hands were on his coat lapels as the Cowboys later testified.[78] A few minutes after Tom was carried into the Harwood House at the corner near him, he died without speaking.[39]

Dr. George Emory Goodfellow testified at the Spicer hearing that the angle of wrist wound indicated that Billy's hand could not have been raised over his head.[39] Dr. Mathews found two other wounds on the body. The first was two inches from Clanton's left nipple, penetrated his lung. The other was in the abdomen beneath the twelfth rib, six inches to the right of the navel. Both were fired from the front. Neither passed completely through his body.[75]

Weapons carried by the Cowboys

Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne both said they were unarmed when they fled the gunfight. Billy Clanton was armed with a revolver that was found in his hand. Cowboy witness Wes Fuller said he saw Frank in the middle of the street shooting a revolver, and trying to remove a Winchester from the scabbard on his horse. Frank's revolver was recovered with two rounds remaining in it by laundryman B. E. Fellehy on the street a few feet from his body. He placed it next to Frank's body. Frank was moved to the Harwood house where Dr. H. M. Mathews laid Frank's revolver on the floor while he examined Billy and Tom. Both Frank and Billy were armed with Colt Single Action Army revolvers which were identified by their serial numbers at the Spicer hearing. The two Model 1873 rifles were still in the scabbards on the two horses when there were found after the gunfight. Billy's empty revolver was taken from him by C. S. Fly.[64]

The Cowboys testified that Tom McLaury was unarmed. No revolver or rifle was found near Tom, and he was not wearing a cartridge belt. The Cowboys claimed that the Earps murdered a defenseless Tom. Tom McLaury's personal revolver was at the Capital Saloon on 4th Street and Fremont about a block away. The saloonkeeper testified Tom had deposited it sometime before the fight, between 1 and 2 p.m., and about the time he was "buffaloed" (pistol-whipped) by Wyatt.[11] Wyatt testified that Tom had been armed when he buffaloed him that morning.[5]

Wyatt, Virgil and Holliday believed that Tom had had a revolver, though they were not certain of this. In his testimony, Behan stated that he had not searched Tom McLaury for a weapon very thoroughly prior to the gunfight, and that McLaury might have had a revolver hidden in his waistband.[57]:164 Behan's testimony was significant, since he was a prime witness for the prosecution but had equivocated on this point. Both Virgil and Wyatt stated that Holliday had shot Tom, which the coroner's exam supported. The coroner's report does not mention Billy's arm wound, but witness Keefe, who examined the arm closely, testified later that Clanton was shot through the right arm, close to the wrist joint and "the bullet passed through the arm from "inside to outside," entering the arm close to the base of the thumb, and exiting "on the back of the wrist diagonally" with the latter wound larger. This indicated to the judge that Tom's arm could not have been positioned holding his coats open by the lapels or raised in the air, as the Cowboys testified.[7]:218

Though saloon-keeper Andrew Mehan had seen Tom deposit his pistol after his beating by Earp and before the gunfight, none of the Earps had any way of knowing that Tom had left his revolver at the saloon. Wyatt Earp believed until he died that the revolver Tom used in the gunfight was removed from the scene by a Cowboy confederate. Hotel keeper Albert Billickie saw Tom McLaury enter Everhardy's butcher shop about 2:00 p.m. He testified that Tom's right-hand pants pocket was flat when he went in but protruded, as if it contained a pistol (so he thought), when he emerged.[79] However, the bulge in Tom's pants pocket may have been the nearly $3,300 in cash and receipts found on his body, perhaps in payment for stolen Mexican beef purchased by the butcher.[13]:182

Even if Tom wasn't armed with a revolver, Virgil Earp testified Tom attempted to grab a rifle from the scabbard on the horse in front of him before he was killed. Wyatt thought Tom fired a revolver over the horse. Judge Spicer ruled afterward that "if Thomas McLaury was one of a party who were thus armed and were making felonious resistance to an arrest, and in the melee that followed was shot, the fact of his being unarmed, if it be a fact, could not of itself criminate the defendants [Earps], if they were not otherwise criminated."[78]

The Nugget story, without attribution, stated, "The Sheriff stepped out and said: 'Hold up boys, don't go down there or there will be trouble; I have been down there to disarm them.'"[12] In his testimony, Behan repeatedly insisted he told the Earps that he only intended to disarm the Cowboys, not that he had actually done so. The article states that Behan "was standing near by commanding the contestants to cease firing but was powerless to prevent it." Given the Nugget's close relationship to Behan (it was owned by Behan's deputy sheriff), it is likely they interviewed him. By Williams' account, Behan told Virgil Earp immediately after the gunfight a story that corroborated the Nugget report, before changing to the story Behan later told at the coroner's inquest.[11]

Public reaction

Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton (left to right) in the window of the undertakers. This is the only known photo of 19 year-old Billy.

The bodies of the three dead Cowboys were displayed in a window at Ritter and Reams undertakers with a sign: "Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone."[80] The Tombstone Nugget proclaimed:

The 26th of October, 1881, will always be marked as one of the crimson days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water, and human life was held as a shuttle cock, a day to be remembered as witnessing the bloodiest and deadliest street fight that has ever occurred in this place, or probably in the Territory.[81]

The Tombstone Epitaph was more restrained in its language:

The feeling among the best class of our citizens is that the Marshal was entirely justified in his efforts to disarm these men, and that being fired upon they had to defend themselves which they did most bravely.[82]

The funerals for Billy Clanton (age 19), Tom McLaury (age 28) and his older brother Frank (age 33) were well attended. About 300 people joined in the procession to Boot Hill and as many as two thousand watched from the sidewalks.[2] The Coroner's Jury ruling neither condemned or exonerated the lawmen for shooting the Cowboys. "William Clanton, Frank and Thomas McLaury, came to their deaths in the town of Tombstone on October 26, 1881, from the effects of pistol and gunshot wounds inflicted by Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, Wyatt Earp, and one—Holliday, commonly called 'Doc Holliday'."

The initial public reaction was largely favorable to the Earps, but began to change when rumors began to circulate that Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury were unarmed, and that Billy Clanton and Tom McLaury even threw up their hands before the shooting. Within a few days, Phineas "Fin" Clanton arrived in town, and some began to claim that the Earps and Holliday had committed murder, instead of enforcing the law. Clara Spalding Brown, the wife of mining engineer Theodore Brown, was a correspondent for the San Diego Union and other California newspapers. She wrote that Tombstone residents were divided about the justification for the killings. Referring to the initial testimony offered by Ike Clanton, she wrote, "Opinion is pretty divided as to the justification of the killing. You may meet one man who will support the Earps, and declare that no other course was possible to save their own lives, and the next man is just as likely to assert that there was no occasion whatever for bloodshed, and that this will be 'a warm place' for the Earps hereafter. At the inquest yesterday, the damaging fact was ascertained that only two of the cowboys were armed, it thus being a most unequal fight."[83]

Even the Governor of the Arizona Territory, John C. Frémont, reported after the gunfight, "Many of the very best law-abiding and peace-loving citizens [of Tombstone] have no confidence in the willingness of the civil officers to pursue and bring to justice that element of out-lawry so largely disturbing the sense of security...[The opinion] is quite prevalent that the civil officers are quite largely in league with the leaders of this disturbing and dangerous element."[26]

Spicer hearing

Wells Spicer in 1875

On October 30, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against Doc Holliday and the Earps.

Earps and Holliday arrested

Wyatt and Holliday were arrested and brought before Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer. Morgan and Virgil were still recovering at home. All four were required to post $10,000 bail, which was paid by the Earps, local mining men, Wells Fargo undercover agent Fred Dodge, and other business owners appreciative of the Earps' efforts to maintain order.[13]:194 Virgil Earp was suspended as town marshal pending the outcome of the trial.[84]

Preliminary hearing

Justice Spicer convened a preliminary hearing on October 31 to determine if there was enough evidence to go to trial. In an unusual proceeding, he took written and oral testimony from a number of witnesses over more than a month. Coroner Henry Matthews was the first to testify. He stated that the dead men had been killed by "gunshot or pistol wounds," and that Tom McLaury had been killed by a shotgun and not a revolver. When the Cowboy's case gained strength, Spicer ordered Wyatt and Doc Holliday jailed on November 7, and they spent the next 16 days in jail.

Prosecution testimony

The next witnesses were Billy Allen and Sheriff Behan. Allen testified that Holliday fired the first shot and that the second one also came from the Earp party, while Billy Clanton had his hands in the air.[69] Sheriff Johnny Behan was the prosecution's last witness and chief accuser. During two days testimony,[2]:103 he gave strong testimony that the Cowboys had not resisted but either thrown up their hands and turned out their coats to show they were not armed.[85] He told the court that he heard Billy Clanton say, "Don't shoot me. I don't want to fight." He also testified that Tom McLaury threw open his coat to show that he was not armed and that the first two shots were fired by the Earp party.

Behan testified that from the time the Earps passed him by to confront the Cowboys, he had watched them closely. Under cross-examination by attorney Thomas Fitch, he admitted seeing Holliday carrying the messenger shotgun towards the confrontation. All the witnesses testified that Holliday had been seen with a shotgun. Behan also testified he was concentrating on the Earps during the gun fight, but he did not see the shotgun used. He insisted that Holliday fired the first shot from a nickle-plated revolver.[61] But the coroner had already testified that Tom McLaury was killed by a shotgun blast. For Behan's "testimony to make any sense, the court would have to believe that Holliday marched down Fremont Street carrying a shotgun; put it aside in order to pull out his pistol; fired the first shot, presumably at Billy Clanton; and then picked up the shotgun in order to kill Tom McLaury—all in the space of a few seconds."[2]:95

Modern writers including Paula Mitchell Marks and Alford Turner have advanced the theory that Holliday somehow managed to hold and accurately fire two weapons ambidextrously, but none of the witnesses including Behan reported observing this. Firing even a short messenger shotgun is a two-handed effort. Author Allen Barra pointed out that that this sequence is unbelievable. Holliday was fighting for his life and switching weapons twice in the first few seconds doesn't make sense.[2]:96

Behan's views initially turned public opinion against the Earps. His testimony portrayed a far different gunfight than had been first reported in both of the Tombstone papers. The prosecution's witnesses testified that Tom McLaury was unarmed, that Billy Clanton had his hands in the air, and that neither of the McLaurys were troublemakers. They portrayed Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury as being unjustly bullied and beaten by the vengeful Earps on the day of the gunfight.[61][69] On the strength of the prosecution case, Spicer revoked the bail for Doc and Wyatt Earp and had them jailed on November 7.

Ike Clanton took the stand on November 9. He repeated in his testimony the story of abuse that he had suffered at the hands of the Earps and Holliday the night before the gunfight. He denied threatening the Earps. He testified that the Clantons and Frank McLaury raised their hands after Virgil's command, and Tom thrust open his vest to show he was unarmed. Clanton said Wyatt shoved his revolver in his belly, telling him, "You son-of-a-bitch, you can have a fight!"[51] Ike testified that the first shots were fired by "Holliday and Morgan Earp."[51]

Ike reiterated that Holliday and Morgan Earp had fired the first two shots and that the next several shots also came from the Earp party. Under cross-examination, Clanton told a story of the lead-up to the gunfight that did not make sense. He said the Benson stage robbery was concocted by the Earps and Holliday to cover up money they had "piped off" to pay bribes. Ike also claimed that Doc Holliday and Morgan, Wyatt, and Virgil Earp had separately confessed to him their role in the Benson stage holdup, or else the cover-up of the robbery by allowing the robbers' escape.[51] By the time Ike finished his testimony, the entire prosecution case had become suspect.

Cowboy Wesley Fuller, who had initially been at the back of the empty lot near the rear of Fly's studio, corroborated Ike's version of events. He testified that he heard the Earps say, "Throw up your hands!" He said Billy Clanton threw up his hands, saying, "Don't shoot me! I don't want to fight!" and the shooting began immediately.[72]

The prosecution asked Fuller if on November 5 he had told Wyatt that he intended to "cinch Holliday." He responded, "I don't say positively I might have used words, 'I mean to cinch Holliday.'"

Billy Claiborne, who had run from the fight, supported Ike Clanton's testimony as well. "They came within ten feet of where we were standing. When they got to the comer of Fly's building, they had their six-shooters in their hands, and Marshal Earp said, 'You sons-of-bitches, you've been looking for a fight, and you can have it!' And then said, 'Throw up your hands.'" Claiborne also backed up the version of events that placed a nickel-plated pistol in Holliday's hands, and that Holliday used this pistol to fire first.[71]

Defense testimony

The Earps hired Thomas Fitch as their defense counsel. He was an experienced trial lawyer and a terrific speaker and was nicknamed the "silver-tongued orator of the Pacific."

The Earps raised defense funds from E.B. Gage and others. Gage was part owner of the Tombstone-based Grand Central Mining Company and superintendent of the Grand Central Mine. He was also a prominent Republican and a member of the Citizens Safety Committee.[86] The Earps hired as defense counsel an experienced trial lawyer, Thomas Fitch, who had gained a reputation as the "silver-tongued orator the Pacific."[2] He was one of the best-known legal and political figures on the American frontier in the 1880s.[2]:80 Fitch carried impressive credentials: he was a former state legislator from California, had been Nevada's Representative to the United States House of Representatives, was former general counsel for Brigham Young and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Utah Territory, and a close friend of Arizona's governor John C. Frémont.[87] Virgil and Morgan remained bedridden throughout the trial and did not testify.

Fitch had Wyatt Earp prepare a written statement, as permitted by Section 133 of Arizona law, which would not allow the prosecution to cross-examine him. On November 16, when Wyatt was called to the stand and began to read his statement, the prosecution vociferously objected. Although the statute wasn't specific about whether it was legal for a defendant to read his statement, Spicer allowed his testimony to proceed.[25][88]

Wyatt, reading from his written statement, said that he drew his gun only after Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury went for their pistols. He said that he knew Frank was a better shot, so he aimed for Frank first. He detailed the Earps' previous troubles with the Clantons and McLaurys and explained that they intended to disarm the cowboys. He said they fired in self-defense. After the defense had established doubts about the prosecution's case, Judge Spicer released Holliday and Wyatt from jail to rejoin their families in time for Thanksgiving.[5]

Doc Holliday was defended by United States Court Commissioner Thomas J. Drum. Given Doc Holliday's reputation as a hothead, the defense decided to not call him to the stand.

Three witnesses gave key evidence that swayed Justice Spicer to hold that there was not enough evidence to indict the Earps and Doc Holliday for murder. One of the most notable witness was H. F. Sills, an AT&SF RR engineer who had just arrived in town and knew none off the parties involved. On November 22, he testified that he had arrived in Tombstone only the day before and had no knowledge of any of the events or any of the Cowboys or the Earps prior to the day of the gunfight.[89] He could only report what he saw and heard since his arrival.

Because his view of events was so neutral, some thought he was a plant, or part of a conspiracy, to discredit the Cowboys. Little information can be found today on Sills before he came to Tombstone and he vanished afterward, except for a brief mention in one newspaper three months later. Grilled by the prosecution, he corroborated virtually all of the defense's testimony.[89] He testified,[90]

I saw four or five men standing in front of the O. K. Corral on October 26th, about two o’clock in the afternoon, talking of some trouble they had had with Virgil Earp, and they made threats at the time that on meeting him they would kill him on sight. Some one of the party spoke up at the time and said: “That they would kill the whole party of Earps when they met them.” I then walked up the street and made inquiry as to who Virgil Earp and the Earps were. A man on the street pointed out Virgil Earp to me and told me he was the city marshal. I went over and called him one side, and told him of the threats that I had overheard this party make. One of the men that made the threats had a bandage around his head at the time, and the day of the funeral he was pointed out to me as Isaac Clanton.[90]

Testifying about the gunfight itself, he said he saw "the marshal go up and speak to this other party. I ... saw them pull out their revolvers immediately. The marshal had a cane in his right hand at the time. He throwed up his hand and spoke. I did not hear the words though. By that time Billy Clanton and Wyatt Earp had fired their guns off."[90]

The second key witness was Addie Bourland, a dressmaker whose residence was across Fremont Street from Fly's Boarding House.[57]:207–211 She testified that she saw both sides facing each other, that none of the Cowboys had held their hands up, that the firing was general, and that she had not seen Billy Clanton fall immediately as the Cowboys had testified.[67]

The third witness was Judge J.H. Lucas of the Cochise County Probate Court, whose office was in the Mining Exchange Building about 200 feet (61 m) from the shootout.[57]:214–216 Lucas' corroborated Addie Bourland's testimony that Billy Clanton was standing throughout the fight, which contradicted prosecution witnesses who maintained he went down immediately after being shot at close range in the belly. Spicer noted that no powder burns were found on his clothing.[78] Only when he went down at the end did the general firing cease.[57]:222–223

Another influential witness for the defense was Deputy District Attorney Winfield Scott Williams. He testified that Sheriff Behan had inaccurately reported a conversation he had with Virgil Earp the evening after the gunfight during which, according to Williams, Behan told Virgil that one of the McLaury brothers drew his gun first, and "You did perfectly right."[11][91] Behan denied that he said anything resembling this.

These witnesses' testimony, especially that of H.F. Sills, a disinterested party, discredited much of the testimony given by Sheriff Johnny Behan, Ike Clanton and the other Cowboy witnesses.


After extensive testimony, Justice Spicer ruled on November 30 that there was not enough evidence to indict the men. He noted that doctor who examined the dead Cowboys established that the wounds they received could not have occurred if their hands and arms had been in the positions that prosecution witnesses described. He said the evidence indicated that the Earps and Holliday acted within the law and that Holliday and Wyatt had been deputized temporarily by Virgil.

In his ruling, he noted that Ike Clanton had the night before, while unarmed, publicly declared that the Earp brothers and Holliday had insulted him, and that when he was armed he intended to shoot them or fight them on sight. On the morning of the shooting he was armed with revolver and Winchester rifle. Spicer noted that:[78]

He also noted that Ike Clanton had claimed the Earps were out to murder him, yet even though unarmed the Earps had allowed him to escape unharmed during the fight. He wrote, "the great fact, most prominent in the matter, to wit, that Isaac Clanton was not injured at all, and could have been killed first and easiest."[78] He described Frank McLaury's insistence that he would not give up his weapons unless the marshal and his deputies also gave up their arms as a "proposition both monstrous and startling!" He noted that the prosecution claimed that the Cowboys' purpose was to leave town,[78] yet Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne did not have their weapons with them.[51][71]

Witnesses for the prosecution state unequivocally that William Clanton fell or was shot at the first fire and Claiborne says he was shot when the pistol was only about a foot from his belly. Yet it is clear that there were no powder burns or marks on his clothes. And Judge Lucas says he saw him fire or in the act of firing several times before he was shot, and he thinks two shots afterwards.

Prosecution witnesses maintained that Billy Clanton was shot at close range and went down immediately, but Spicer noted that no powder burns were found on his clothing.[78]

Spicer did not condone all of the Earps' actions and criticized Virgil Earp's use of Wyatt and Holliday as deputies, but he concluded that no laws were broken. Spicer said that Virgil in "calling upon Wyatt Earp, and J. H. Holliday to assist him... committed an injudicious and censurable act, and although in this he acted incautiously and without due circumspection," in the end "the Earps acted wisely, discretely and prudentially, to secure their own self preservation." "He needed the assistance and support of staunch and true friends, upon whose courage, coolness and fidelity he could depend..."[78]

Spicer noted that if Wyatt and Holliday had not backed up Marshal Earp, then he would have faced even more overwhelming odds than he had, and could not possibly have survived. He invited the grand jury to confirm his findings, and two weeks later, it agreed with Spicer's finding and also refused to indict the men.[78]

Even though the Earps and Holliday were free, their reputations had been tarnished. Supporters of the Cowboys in Tombstone looked upon the Earps as murderers.


On about December 14, Judge Spicer received a threatening letter from "A Miner," which told him that he should leave Tombstone or lose his life. He responded with a defiant letter published by The Tombstone Epitaph, stating he would not bow to threats from the rabble of the city. Wells Fargo Agent Marshall Williams, Mayor John Clum, attorney Tom Fitch, Oriental Saloon owner Lou Rickabaugh, and the Earps were also threatened.[92]

Ike refiles charges

In December, Ike Clanton went before Justice of the Peace J.B. Smith in Contention City and again filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday. A large posse escorted the Earps to Contention, fearing that the cowboys would try to ambush the Earps on the unprotected road. The charges were dismissed by Judge Lucas because of Smith's judicial ineptness. The prosecution immediately filed a new warrant for murder charges, issued by Justice Smith, but Judge Lucas quickly dismissed it, writing that new evidence would have to be submitted before a second hearing could be called. Because the November hearing before Spicer was not a trial, Clanton had the right to continue pushing for prosecution, but the prosecution would have to come up with new evidence of murder before the case could be considered.[93]

Earp vendetta

After the attempted murder of Virgil, Wyatt requested and was made Deputy U.S. Marshal by U.S. Marshall Crawley Dake on December 29, 1881.[94] In late January, Dake, unable to obtain funds from his superiors, borrowed money from Wells, Fargo & Co. on behalf of the Earps, variously reported as $500[52]:238 to $3,000.[52]:238

Dake received $3000 from Wells Fargo, but only deposited $300 to Wyatt's account, and authorized him to employ a posse to track down the Cowboys.[46]:123 In February, Ike Clanton filed charges of murder against the Earps once again, this time in Charleston, but the judge refused to indict the Earps unless the Clantons could supply new evidence.[93]

On March 18, Morgan was killed while playing billiards. During the coroner’s inquest on Morgan's murder, Pete Spence's wife Marietta Duarte testified that her husband, Frank Stilwell, Frederick Bode, Florentino "Indian Charlie" Cruz, and an unnamed half-breed Indian had turned up at her home an hour after the shooting, and that Spence threatened violence if she told what she knew.[11] The five men were named as suspects in Morgan Earp's assassination and the coroner's jury issued warrants for their arrest. Spence turned himself in so that he would be protected in Behan's jail, but his attorney successfully blocked his wife's testimony. Lacking evidence, the prosecution withdrew its charges.

On Sunday, March 19, the day after Morgan's murder, Wyatt, his brother James, and a group of friends took Morgan's body to the rail head in Benson. They put Morgan's body on the train with James, who accompanied it to the family home in Colton, California. There, Morgan's wife and parents waited to bury him. The next day, the still-convalescing Virgil Earp and his wife also left by rail for the safety of California. Wyatt Earp felt he could not rely on civil justice and decided to take matters into his own hands.[17] He concluded that only way to deal with Morgan's murderers was to kill them.[11]

Over the next several weeks Wyatt and his posse tracked down and killed four of the men they believed were responsible for their brothers' ambush and murder. The Tucson sheriff issued arrest warrants for them for killing Frank Stilwell. The ride for vengeance came to be called the Earp vendetta ride. Wyatt and Doc left the Arizona Territory for Colorado in April, 1882 and parted company after a minor disagreement. Although they may have remained in contact, they never saw each other again. Holliday said in 1882 that he thought Behan was behind the assassination of Morgan Earp.[45] When Holliday died of tuberculosis on November 8, 1887, Wyatt Earp did not learn of Holliday's death for several months afterward.

The participants in later history

Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury are buried in Boot Hill Cemetery, Tombstone, Arizona. The McLaury brothers were buried side-by-side in the same grave, and Billy Clanton was buried next to them, in a different grave.

Morgan Earp was killed by a shot in the back while playing billiards at 10:50pm on Saturday, March 18, 1882, less than five months after the O.K. Corral fight. He was 30 years old. His assailants fired from a darkened alley through a window in an outside door. Wyatt was also shot at, but the bullet went high and missed.[21]

Billy "the Kid" Claiborne was killed in a gunfight in Tombstone in late 1882, by gunman Franklin Leslie. He was 22 years old.[95]

Ike Clanton was caught stealing cattle June 1, 1887, and shot dead by lawman Jonas V. Brighton while resisting arrest.[47] He was about 40 years old.

Doc Holliday died of tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, November 8, 1887, at age 36.[52]

Virgil Earp was ambushed on the streets of Tombstone on the evening of December 28, 1881, by hidden assailants shooting from the second story of an unfinished building. The wound eventually left him without use of his left arm. Virgil left Tombstone for California after Morgan was killed. He served as the "Town Marshal," hired by the Southern Pacific Railroad, in Colton, California. He lived without use of the left arm, continuing as a lawman in California. He died of pneumonia at the age of 62 in 1905, still on the job as a peace officer.[96]

Johnny Behan was not re-nominated by his own party for the sheriff race in 1882 and never again worked as a lawman. He spent the rest of his life at various government jobs and died in Tucson of natural causes at age 67, in 1912.[97]

Wyatt Earp, the last survivor of the fight, traveled across the western frontier for decades in the company of Josephine Marcus, working mostly as a gambler, and eventually died in Los Angeles of a chronic cystitis in 1929 at the age of 80.[98]

In popular culture

The shootout was described by Breakenridge in his 1928 book Helldorado: Bringing Law to the Mesquite as "The Incident Near the O.K. Corral." Stuart Lake titled his chapter about the conflict, "At the O.K. Corral." But it was the popular movie Gunfight at the O.K. Corral that cemented the term in popular consciousness. The movie and accompanying mythologizing also altered the way the public thought of cowboys. In media depictions afterward, the Earp's actions in Tombstone were often criticized. In the movies, they became the good guys, always ready to stand for what is right.[99]

The incident has become a fixture in American history due to the personal nature of the feud between the Earps and the McLawry and Clanton brothers and the symbolism of the fight between lawmen and the outlaw Cowboys. When the Cowboys maimed Virgil and murdered Morgan, Wyatt's actions in taking revenge captured people's attention. The gunfight and its aftermath stand for the change overcoming American as the Western frontier ceased to exist, between a modern nation that was rapidly industrializing, pushing out what had been a largely agrarian economy.[100]:206

With the widespread sales of televisions after World War II, producers spun out a large number of western-oriented shows. At the height of their popularity in 1959, there were more than two dozen "cowboy" programs on each week. At least six of them were directly or indirectly connected with Wyatt Earp: The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Tombstone Territory. Broken Arrow, Johnny Ringo, and Gunsmoke. Hugh O'Brien portrayed Earp on the namesake show, Wyatt Earp, which ran for six seasons.[99]

The public perception of the Earp brothers' actions, and especially those of Wyatt, were controversial. Even today, they have strongly opinionated admirers and detractors.[101]

An episode of Discovery Channel's Unsolved History[102] used modern technology to attempt to re-enact the shotgun shooting which was part of the incident. However, the re-enactment did not use 19th century period technology (a late 19th century shotgun messenger type short shotgun, brass cases, black powder). The episode concluded that Doc Holliday may have triggered the fight by cocking both barrels of his shotgun, but was likely not the first shooter.

In April 2010, original transcripts of witness statements were rediscovered in Bisbee, Arizona, and the county said they would be preserved and digitized. Photocopies of these documents have been available to researchers since 1960, and new digitized records of the originals have been made available for online access.[103][104]

Daily reenactment at the O.K. Corral

The town of Tombstone has capitalized on widespread interest in the gunfight. Portions of the town are a historical district that has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. National Park Service.[105] A local company produces daily re-enactments of the gunfight.[106] On October 9, 2010, a sketch of the gunfight produced on April 4, 1924 by Wyatt Earp and his secretary John Flood sold at auction for USD$380,000.[107]

Film and television

The stories about the gunfight written in the 20th century affected American culture. Numerous dramatic, fictional, and documentary works have been produced about or referencing the event. These works include:

In print


  • Warlock (1958), a novel by Oakley Hall prominently features a fictionalized version of the gunfight, known as the "Shootout at the Acme Corral."
  • Mister Blueberry (1995-2005), a 5-volume story arc of the comics series Blueberry by French artist Jean Giraud aka Moebius combines multiple plots including one about the gunfight.
  • Frontier Earth (1999), a sci-fi/western novel by actor Bruce Boxleitner, about the events leading up to the gunfight.
  • Gunman's Rhapsody (2001) by Robert B. Parker
  • Telegraph Days (2006), a novel by Larry McMurtry, includes a representation of the gunfight, told by a fictional journalist and eyewitness
  • Territory (July 2007), a novel by Emma Bull offers a fantasy retelling of the events leading up to the fight.


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Further reading

  • Steve Gatto (2000). The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography. Silver City: High-Lonesome Books. ISBN 0-944383-50-5. 
  • Allen Barra (1998). Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0-7867-0685-6.  Contains a thorough analysis of the O.K. Corral fight.
  • Casey Tefertiller (1997). Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-18967-7.  Contains extensive discussion of the police issues and moral issues relating to the O.K. Corral shootings.
  • Paula Mitchell Marks (1989). And Die in the West: the Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight. New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-671-70614-4.  Extensive examination not only of the gunfight and vendettas, but of the myth-making that took place surrounding the OK Corral incident. Marks writes from a socioeconomic perspective.
  • Grace McCool (1990). GUNSMOKE: The True Story of Old Tombstone. Tucson: Treasure Chest Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-918080-52-5. 
  • Alford E. Turner (1981). THE O.K. CORRAL INQUEST. Creative Publishing Co.,. ISBN 0-932702-14-7. 
  • Jeffrey J. Morey (October–December 1994). "The Curious Vendetta of Glenn G. Boyer". Quarterly of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History (NOLA) XVIII (4): 22–28.  This piece is full of astute analysis and treatment of primary documents.
  • Glenn G. Boyer, editor (1998). I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp. University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-0583-7.  (Largely discredited by later historians and researchers.)

External links

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