“I had my pistol in my overcoat pocket….when I saw Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury draw their pistols, I drew my pistol. 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. The first two shots were fired by Billy Clanton and myself, he shooting at me, and I shooting at Frank McLaury. I don’t know which was fired first. We almost fired together. The fight then became general.”
– Wyatt Earp in his testimony at the inquest into the gunfight at the “OK Corral”.
“I heard Virgil Earp say: “Give up your arms or throw up your arms!” There was some reply made by Frank Mc Laury, but at the same moment there were two shots fired simultaneously by Doc Holliday and Frank Mc Laury, when the firing became general, almost thirty shots being fired. Tom Mc Laury fell first, but raised and fired again before he died…… Wyatt Earp stood up and fired in rapid succession as cool as a cucumber.”
– R.F. Coleman in the Tombstone Daily Epitaph, Oct. 27, 1881.
The gunfight at the “OK Corral” has become perhaps the most legendary of all the gunfights that took place in the lawless days of America’s old west. It has been the subject of countless books and essays, and the subject of at least seven Hollywood feature films. In the films, the gunfight tends to go on for several minutes or more. In truth however, the actual event was over in less than one minute. And the poetic beauty as well as the fine performances of the best of the films – John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine”
(1946) notwithstanding, the father of the Clantons was not present, “Doc” Holliday was not really a doctor, and Wyatt Earp never danced at the Church social with Doc’s fiancee’ – although he did mix it up with one of the enemy’s girls.
The Towns of the Old West – A None Too Comfortable Melting Pot
The towns of America’s old western frontier were gathering places for all kinds of people – miners, cowboys, prospectors, railroad men, soldiers and a host of others all could be found there. Whether there on business – banks, merchants, blacksmiths, all had their place, or on pleasure – saloons, dance halls, bordellos, and gambling establishments all had their place too, they all brought their troubles and resentments with them. One of the key conflicts that developed was that which arose between those who lived in towns and those who lived out in the country. To those who lived and worked on ranches – and many of them had been there for two generations or more – the townspeople were squatters, and their towns were a blight upon what had once been a vast and wide open landscape. To the citizens of the towns, these cowboys who frequently showed up were nothing but lawless trouble makers, there to stir-up whatever hell they felt like at the expense of their property, their businesses, and their peace. The recklessness, the violence, the gun play would all too frequently get out of hand, and the townspeople were none-too-picky about whom they hired to keep these rowdies under control.
The Earps and the Clantons – A Lethal Combination in Tombstone
Such was the cauldron of potential for lethal violence which greeted the Earp brothers when they arrived at Tombstone, Arizona in December of 1879. Hopes for financial gain had brought Wyatt, 31, Virgil, 36 and James 38 to the fledgling western boom town. James hoped to be not only a bartender as he had been, but a saloon owner. Virgil prospected for silver, but he had recently been a deputy-sheriff in Kansas and had been sworn in as a deputy U.S. Marshal. The youngest of the trio, Wyatt had the most colorful background. An accused horse thief, Wichita policeman, and Assistant Marshal from Dodge, he had added to his marshal’s pay as a card dealer – dealing faro and Monti at the Long Branch Saloon. In Tombstone, he hoped to cash in as he had in Dodge – taking a cut of the gambling profits as a dealer, and expediting the departure from town of any angry losers in his role as a lawman. The fourth of the brothers, Morgan, 28 arrived in town in early 1880, and Wyatt secured for him employment to ride shotgun on the stage ride to Tuscon. Shortly after Morgan, a friend of Wyatt’s from his Dodge City days, John “Doc” Holliday, 28 years old arrived.
Holliday (pictured, above) was called “Doc” not because he had a medical degree, but because he occasionally took on the duties of a dentist. Alcoholic, and suffering from Tuberculosis – a deadly infection of the lungs which caused bloody coughing from its sufferers, Holliday had a reputation as a quick tempered, cold-blooded killer. A similar reputation attached to the Earp brothers. This was a common situation in the old west – wherein “lawmen” frequently had pasts on both sides of the badge.
Already in Tombstone and operating within and sometimes around the law when the Earps arrived were two sets of brothers from that rough-hewn ranchers breed. The Clantons and the Mc Laurys had been friends since the 1870’s and as with many of these men of the country, had been there working long before Tombstone had even been built. Ike, 34 and Billy Clanton were of different types. Ike was one of the hell-raisers the townspeople so hated. But Billy, at a mere 19 in 1881 was more mature. He took a paternal role, looking after his older brother, and did not have a reputation as a gunfighter. The father of the Clantons, played with such sinister elan in the movie by Walter Brennan was in fact killed in an ambush by Mexican outlaws in August of 1881. Frank Mc Laury, 33 and his brother Tom, 28 had like the Clantons been in the cattle trading business, and were cut from essentially the same cloth. The Clantons and the Mc Laurys had an ally in the sheriff of the newly formed Cochise County, John Behan. Behan had to rely on votes from all over the county to remain in his post whereas Virgil Earp, as city marshal of Tombstone itself did not. So Behan already naturally favored the cowboys.
And as if this was not enough, Behan’s mistress, the beautiful young actress Josephine Marcus (pictured, left!) had been courted and won over by Wyatt Earp.
Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, and Ike, Billy, and Frank Mix it Up!!
So these two factions quickly clashed. There were reports that the Clantons and the Mc Laurys had been saying that the town would be better with the Earps out of the way. In September Virgil as marshal arrested one of Behans deputies and a Clanton friend for a stage robbery. Ike Clanton posted bail for them, and while in town saw Morgan Earp on the street. “If you ever come after me,” he growled, “you’ll never take me.” The gauntlet having thus been flung down in public, a bloody confrontation was certain. On October 25, Frank Mc Laury and Ike Clanton arrived in town to collect payment on some of their cattle. Ike spent the night drinking and playing poker which left him tired and ready for a fight. Wyatt was awakened at 11:30 on the morning of the 26’th and told by bartender Ned Boyle that Ike had declared that “As soon as those damned Earps make their appearance on the street today, the ball will open!” Never one to decline such a challenge Wyatt rushed out and found Virgil. They went searching for Ike, whom Virgil saw in an alley carrying a rifle and his six shooter. Approaching him from behind, Virgil quickly disarmed him of the rifle and pistol-whipped him when he attempted to draw his six shooter. Arresting Ike for carrying a gun within city limits, Virgil, with Morgan who had just arrived, marched him to the Justice of the Peace. Wyatt arrived at the court and after a verbal exchange with Ike, stalked off, running into Tom Mc Laury, who had come to look after Ike. “If you want to make a fight, I’ll make a fight with you anywhere!” Billy Clanton, who was plainly determined to get Ike out of this trouble saw him and said “Get your horse and go home!” Ike agreed and together the men headed for Fremont Street to get their horses and go. Sheriff Behan who had been nearby saw the Earps and Doc Holliday gathering, all of them armed. He tried to intervene but to no avail. The four men – the three Earps with Doc Holliday, were headed down the street to “disarm” the cowboys.
The Legendary (But VERY Quick) Gunfight (Near) the “O.K. Corral”
They found them down Fremont Street in a lot which was directly next to, but not IN the “OK” Corral. The cowboys literally had their backs to the walls of the Harwood home in a lot some twenty feet wide. No more than six feet away from the cowboys stood from left to right, Virgil and Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Morgan Earp. Facing them from left to right were Billy and Ike Clanton, and Frank Mc Laury. Down the street a short distance with his brother’s horse was Tom Mc Laury. Sheriff Behan had ducked into Fly’s Photo Studio which was across from the cowboy’s position. “Hold! I want your guns!” Virgil yelled to the cowboys. Somebody shouted “Son of a bitch!” and the shots rang out. As he said in his testimony at the inquest quoted above, Wyatt fired not at Billy Clanton who had aimed at him, but at Frank Mc Laury and felled him. Billy’s shot at Wyatt missed. Tom Mc Laury, seeing his brother hit called out “I have nothing”, but tried to grab the rifle from his brother’s horse, as he moved to take cover behind it. Frank’s horse suddenly bolted down the street towards the Earps. Exposed, Tom was felled by Doc Holliday’s shotgun blast. He fell to the street and died soon after. Billy was hit in the chest and wrist by shots from Morgan and fell back against the Harwood House, still firing.
At this point, Ike – the cause of the immediate confrontation lunged towards Wyatt – whether to try and give up, or to grab Wyatt’s guns is not known. Seeing that Ike had no gun, Wyatt pushed him aside saying “Go to fighting or get away!” Ike promptly took the latter part of Wyatt’s advice and fled the scene. Virgil stepped forward and was shot through his calf by Billy, who was still firing. Frank, fired at Doc and the two men got off shots almost simultaneously, but it was Holliday who went down with Frank’s bullet to his hip. But almost at that moment, Frank himself was hit for the last time by a shot from Morgan, who was then shot by Billy as he faded. Morgan, hit in the shoulder turned and fired at Billy along with Wyatt, their two shots finally finishing off the young man, whose primary purpose that night had been to avoid the fight. His brother on whose behalf he had sought to intercede, had safely run to a dance hall on Allen Street, a full block away.
Epilogue: Ike Gets His, Wyatt Does Not
(Pictured, right – Wyatt Earp, circa 1923) In approximately 36 seconds or so, this most famous of all gunfights in the history of the West had run its course. The cowboys had been annihilated. The “lawmen” had been wounded, but prevailed for that evening anyway. In the inquest which followed, the actions of the Earp brothers were declared to have been “injudicious”, but justified. Two months later, Virgil was shot and badly wounded in his left arm as he crossed the street. The assailant got away, unseen. Virgil survived. Three months after that, Morgan was shot in the back and killed by blasts fired through the window of the billiard parlor on Allen Street where he and Wyatt were having a game. “Doc” Holliday died in Colorado on November 8 of 1887 at age 36, of tuberculosis. His last words were said to have been: “I’ll be damned. This is funny.” Charged with cattle rustling, Ike Clanton was felled in a shoot-out on June 1, 1887. Wyatt Earp later moved to California with Josephine Marcus with whom he lived until his death in 1929. And in all of his years as a gunfighter/lawman, he was never once wounded.
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“The OK Corral Inquest” (Early West) edited by Alford E. Turner._Creative West Publishing, Jan., 1981
“The Gunfighters” – By the editors of Time Life Books, with text by Paul Trachtman. Time Life Books, 1974, pp. 15 – 33.