The Gunfight at the OK Corral

The Gunfight at the OK Corral may be the single most famous shootout in history. It has been immortalized in numerous movies, TV shows, and books. But the reality is that we are still not sure exactly what happened.


OK Corral

In 1881, the little town of Tombstone AZ was one of the richest places in the world. Extensive silver veins had been discovered in the nearby mountains in 1877. The mines were seemingly never-ending; in just a few years during the silver boom, a total of $37 million (over $8 billion in today’s dollars) came out of the ground. The economic bonanza attracted a flood of settlers, adventurers and fortune-seekers from the East, who swelled the tiny town’s population.

The influx also quickly led to social and political tensions. The Civil War had ended barely 20 years ago, and it still stirred up passions and resentments. Most of Tombstone’s businesses were owned by staunch Union supporters from cities in the northeast, some of them veterans of the Federal Army. Some wealthy businessman in New York, Philadelphia or Chicago set up large mining companies which quickly drove out all of the individual silver prospectors, hired poor desperate people as wage workers, then shipped all the profits back east.

The local inhabitants, by contrast, tended to be rural, working at ranching and cattle-raising (often supplemented by cattle-rustling from nearby Mexico), and were mostly ex-Confederate sympathizers. Known as “Cowboys”, this faction viewed the Yankees with distrust, and resented the easterners’ domination of the town’s economic life as well as their virtual monopoly on political offices.

In 1879, Virgil Earp, a former Federal Marshal in Dodge City KS, was appointed as the new Marshal for the southern Arizona Territory, and brought his brothers Wyatt and Morgan with him as Deputy Marshals. The Earp brothers themselves had a rather shady past, but now as peace officers they were (mostly) staying on the honest side of the law, and immediately took steps to curtail illegal activities like cattle-rustling, which in turn provoked tensions with the rural ranchers as well as with Sheriff John Behan, who was sympathetic to the local Cowboys.

Tensions rose in 1881, when Wyatt Earp decided to run against Behan for the office of Sheriff. When one of the Wells Fargo stagecoaches was robbed by local outlaws, Earp cut a deal with Ike Clanton, who, along with his brother Billy and the two local brothers Frank and Tom McLaury, ran a cattle-rustling operation with the Cowboys; if Ike would finger the stagecoach robbers for Earp, Clanton would get to keep the Wells Fargo reward money and Earp would get to make an arrest that would help with his campaign for Sheriff. Unfortunately for both, the robbers were each killed in unrelated fights before they could be arrested.

Then in October, a gambler and sometime crook named John Henry “Doc” Holliday, a friend of the Earps, arrived in town. Ike became convinced that Wyatt Earp had told Holliday about their secret deal. It was a deadly danger to Clanton; he knew that if the Cowboys found out he had been willing to betray them, he’d be the target of some local gunman in a very short time.

The events that led up to the gunfight began on the morning of October 25, when Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury arrived in town to buy supplies. That afternoon, Clanton ran into Doc Holliday in a saloon and confronted him; a fight broke out, and all three Earp brothers intervened to pry them apart. Later that night, a now-thoroughly drunk Clanton sat down to a game of poker with McLaury, Sheriff Behan, and Marshal Virgil Earp, during which Clanton told Earp to pass a warning to Holliday that if they met again he would have to pull a pistol and fight. Earp replied that he was an officer of the law and didn’t want to hear talk like that, whereupon Clanton, convinced that Virgil Earp also knew about his secret deal with Wyatt, threatened him too, declaring, “You may have to fight before you know it.”

The next day, October 26, Virgil and Morgan Earp found Clanton on the street with a revolver on his hip and a rifle in his saddle holster. While it was routine for everyone to pack guns while traveling (the Apache natives were routinely ambushing what they considered as intruders into their lands), it was against Tombstone’s city ordinances to carry weapons in town. The lawmen confronted Clanton, and a fight broke out which ended with the Marshal cracking the Cowboy on the head with the long barrel of his pistol and arresting him. Clanton was hustled to the County Court, where he paid his $25 fine and was released. In the meantime, as Earp was leaving the courthouse, he encountered Tom McLaury; another fight broke out, and Earp pistol-whipped him into submission.

By now three more members of the Clanton gang—Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne—had arrived in town. At around 3pm, they had all gathered in an empty lot behind the OK Corral, next to the Fly’s Boarding House where Doc Holliday was renting a room, openly wearing weapons. By some reports, they had been drinking all afternoon. Neighbors heard them angrily talk of killing Holliday and gaining revenge against Virgil Earp for the pistol-whippings.

When word got back to Virgil Earp, he asked Sheriff Behan to come along and help him confiscate their guns. Instead, Behan offered to go talk to them himself. Twenty minutes later, Earp was told that the Clantons were still there and still armed. Earp gathered his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, deputized his friend Doc Holliday (and gave him a shotgun), and set off for the OK Corral. (In one of history’s ironies, the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” did not actually happen in the OK Corral: the shootout took place in the alleyway behind it, which is today, in another irony, an office for the US Marshal Service.)

As the group walked down the street, Sheriff Behan ran up to them. According to Behan’s later account, he told Virgil that he had tried to disarm the Cowboys; according to Earp’s version, the Sheriff told him that he had disarmed them. Thinking that the situation had been defused, Virgil tucked his pistol into his waistbelt, and Wyatt put his gun in the pocket of his overcoat. They expected only to watch the Clantons and McLaurys ride out of town. Instead, when they arrived on Fremont Street, they saw that at least two of the gang still had pistols on their hips, and rifles in their saddles.

What happened next will be forever unclear; many of the witness accounts are tainted by partisan sympathies from both sides, and many details are contradictory. All of the witnesses, though, seem to agree that Virgil told the Clantons, “Throw up your hands, boys: I intend to disarm you.” According to some witnesses, Morgan Earp then yelled, “You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight—now you can have one.” Then the witnesses heard two “clicks” from firearms being cocked: it may have been one of the Clantons, or it may have been Doc Holliday’s double-barrelled shotgun. Virgil Earp apparently heard it too: he raised his walking stick and said, “Hold on, we don’t want that.”

There is still debate over who shot first, with each side accusing the other. But the official investigations at the time concluded that Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols, and Tom McLaury reached for the rifle in his horse’s saddle. Clanton aimed his pistol at Wyatt Earp, but Earp later testified that he aimed at Frank McLaury instead because he knew McLaury was a good shot. So the first two shots were nearly in the same instant: Clanton shot at Earp and missed, and Earp shot at McLaury, hitting him in the stomach. Billy Claiborne ran away down the street without firing a shot. Ike Clanton ran up to Wyatt Earp and yelled that he didn’t have a gun; Earp told him to “get fighting or get away”. Ike too ran away down Fremont Street. In the fusillade of bullets that followed, Billy Clanton was shot in the hand, switched his gun to his left hand, and fired several shots before being hit again in the chest; Tom McLaury was hit in the side of the chest with a shotgun blast; Frank McLaury, wounded by Wyatt Earp, staggered back into the alley and fired a few shots before being fatally struck in the side of the head. Virgil Earp was shot through the calf, Morgan Earp took a bullet that went across his back and hit both shoulder blades, and Doc Holliday had been grazed on the hip. Frank McLaury lay dead in the alley. Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were taken to nearby houses where they both died. The entire fight had lasted about 30 seconds.

Within minutes, Sheriff Behan told the Earps that he would have to arrest them for the shooting. Virgil replied that “we will not be arrested”, but that they would all willingly stand trial. The hearings began just four days later, and on November 7 the judge ruled that the Earps had acted legally within their capacity as law enforcement officers.

One of the local newspapers, the Tombstone Epitaph, was a member of the new “Associated Press” wire service, and its reporting on the gunfight was carried by other papers on both coasts. But the incident was mostly forgotten. The last participant, Wyatt Earp, died in 1929. In the final year of his life, however, Earp had worked with an author named Stuart Lake, presenting a narrative of the Wild West and the Tombstone faction fight in which, not surprisingly, Earp was the heroic honest lawman who was battling the forces of corruption and lawlessness. Lake’s book, titled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, became massively popular and was made into a movie in 1939. But it was the release of “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in 1957, starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, which made Wyatt Earp a legend and the shootout the single most famous event in the history of the American West.

Today the OK Corral is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


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