It’s the afternoon of October 26, 1881, and menace hangs heavy in the air. Two groups of men – gunslingers and outlaws – are facing off against each other in a vacant lot in Tombstone, Arizona, and things are about to turn ugly. Suddenly, shots ring out, and less than a minute later, three men lie dead in the dust. The day would go down in history as one of the most infamous of the Wild West era. This is the story of what really happened before, during and after the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
We’ll return later to just who those two groups of men were and why they were sworn enemies. But first let’s learn a little bit about the venue of their clash: Tombstone. The town lies in the south of Arizona, some 26 miles from the Mexican border as the crow flies.
Today, the town has a population of some 1,300, and its main source of income centers around the tourism generated by the fact that it hosted the notorious O.K. Corral shootout almost 140 years ago. As many as 450,000 visitors travel to the iconic destination each year, in fact. Tombstone’s second claim to fame, meanwhile, is that it is home to the largest rose bush in the world.
But it seems a safe bet that the O.K. Corral attracts all those tourists to Tombstone considerably more than the giant rose bush does. And the town makes sure to exploit its Wild West history with regular re-enactments of the gunfight and the staging of other theatrical events.
But what of the beginnings of this famous place? Well, a man by the name of Ed Schieffelin established Tombstone back in 1877. And originally, it wasn’t a town that he called Tombstone; it was his prospector’s claim over a 50-foot-long vein of silver. In any case, though, a small outpost of timber shacks grew up in the vicinity around this claim and others, with something like 100 inhabitants living there.
The town proper was subsequently constituted in 1879, and parcels of land went on sale there for $5 each. Then in 1881 Tombstone became the county seat of Cochise County – newly formed from Pima County – and got its own telegraph connection to boot. There was also a luxurious hotel, the Grand, boasting running hot water, chandeliers and genuine oil paintings.
Tombstone was firmly in the grip of a typical Wild West mining boom, with silver bullion the prize for the prospectors’ efforts. And by 1880 the town’s population had already swelled considerably, making it a burgeoning settlement of close to 6,000 people. Consequently, the good folks of Tombstone decided that they required some law enforcement.
Given that Tombstone now had 14 gambling establishments, 110 saloon bars and multiple brothels, it’s easy to believe that the need for some hardened lawmen was pressing. And ultimately, the townsfolk’s desire for law and order led to the arrival in Tombstone of probably the most famous of the O.K. Corral combatants – Wyatt Earp.
Before showing up in Tombstone, Earp had been in Dodge City, Kansas, where he’d served as an assistant marshal. And while he was living there, the now-legendary figure had met another character whose name would become inextricably linked with the shootout: Doc Holliday. Holliday had arrived in Dodge in 1878 with his charmingly named partner, Big Nose Kate.
And Earp and Holliday became acquainted in what can only be described as fraught circumstances. A gang of hoodlums had rolled into Dodge and proceeded to terrorize the citizens. So, Earp then crashed through the door of the Long Branch Saloon in pursuit of the miscreants – only to be faced with multiple pistols aimed straight at him.
But professional gambler Holliday happened to be sitting at a card table in the saloon, and he drew his pistol, putting it to the head of one of the ringleaders of the gang. What’s more, this was enough to convince the hoodlums to back down and holster their shooting irons. And the episode kindled a long-lasting friendship between Holliday and the grateful Earp.
Wyatt Earp and a couple of his brothers, Virgil and James, subsequently arrived in Tombstone in December 1879. Then, Holliday joined them the next year, as did two other Earp brothers – Morgan and Warren. Virgil Earp took the position of Tombstone’s deputy U.S. marshal. And Wyatt became deputy sheriff of Pima County’s eastern area, which at the time included Tombstone.
Now before his appointment as deputy sheriff, Wyatt Earp and two of his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, had had a run-in with a gang who came to be known as the Cochise County Cowboys. A U.S. Army captain, Joseph H. Hurst, asked Virgil Earp, in his capacity as a deputy, to find the whereabouts of six stolen army mules. And Virgil in turn requested Wyatt and Morgan to help him. A fourth man, Marshall Williams, also joined the posse.
The posse tracked down the missing animals to the McLaury family ranch – and the McLaurys were, significantly, closely associated with the Cochise Cowboys. An arrangement was then reached whereby the Cowboys agreed to hand over the mules a couple of days hence. But the outlaws reneged on the agreement, infuriating the Earps, Williams and Hurst.
An outraged Captain Hurst therefore printed up a handbill calling the McLaurys thieves, and a local paper, The Tombstone Epitaph, carried the story. However, one of the McClaurys, Tom, then recruited the services of a rival Tombstone newspaper, which published his report calling Hurst, among other epithets, a coward and a liar.
This and other incidents increased the hostility between the Earp family and the McLaurys. So who were these McLaurys? Well, as we’ve heard, they formed part of the Cowboys gang – a group who owned land near Tombstone. And among their close associates were the Clanton family, one of the most prominent members of whom was Ike Clanton.
But this bitter rivalry between the Earps and their associates and, in opposition to them, the Clantons and the McLaurys was actually part of a wider political divide in Tombstone. On the one side were the Earps, backed by local businessmen. And on the other side were their opponents, the Cowboys – ranchers represented by the likes of the Clantons and the McLaurys. The Cowboys stood accused, furthermore, of being involved in rustling and other law-breaking activities.
Yet the Cowboys had their own lawman as well: the sheriff of Cochise County, Johnny Behan. And tempers weren’t soothed by a murky affair involving a stagecoach holdup, which ended with the Cowboys faction claiming that the Earps had been involved in the crime. The Cowboys themselves were in fact responsible, though.
But in any case, the scene was now ripe for some kind of confrontation between the Earps on the one hand and the Cowboy Clantons and McLaurys on the other. And sure enough, that confrontation soon reared its head. On October 26, 1881, Cowboys Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and an associate named Billy Claiborne were all in Tombstone – and the atmosphere positively sizzled with tension between the two factions.
At this point, Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne and others from the Cowboys gang had been issuing deadly threats against the Earps for some time. And so Virgil Earp’s ears certainly perked up when he heard that the Clantons and McLaurys were in town, that they were armed and that they were to be found near the O.K. Corral.
So it was that Virgil Earp asked two of his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, plus Doc Holliday to accompany him as he went to confront the Cowboys. And the two groups subsequently met in a vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral on Fremont Street. The lot was actually a narrow patch between two properties.
Now when the Earps and Holliday faced their opponents, it appears that Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne thought better of being involved in an armed confrontation, and so they left the scene. In fact, it seems that Virgil Earp didn’t even anticipate gunplay, believing instead that the Cowboys had previously been disarmed by Cochise County Sheriff Behan.
Since he didn’t believe a gunfight likely, Virgil Earp had left his shotgun behind and was holding only a cane – although his pistol was stuck into the waistband of his pants. Holliday, meanwhile, was armed with a short shotgun, which was hidden under the long coat that he wore. And Wyatt’s revolver was in an overcoat pocket of his.
As for Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, both men were armed with holstered pistols and had rifles to hand. Accounts of what happened next were to conflict bitterly. But according to Virgil Earp, at this point he shouted to the three men, Clanton and the two McLaurys, to raise their hands. Wyatt concurred with this recollection.
Later, in court, both Wyatt and Virgil Earp also claimed that McLaury and Clanton had drawn their pistols and cocked them ready for firing. To this day, though, it’s unclear who actually fired first. But gunshots certainly rang out, and dense gun smoke filled the narrow alley in what must have been an extremely chaotic and confused skirmish.
It was all over in about half a minute. The various parties had fired off some 30 rounds between them. And when the smoke cleared, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton lay dead or mortally wounded. Wyatt Earp later said that he’d shot Frank McLaury. Holliday, meanwhile, had fired his shotgun into Tom McLaury’s chest and then started shooting at Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury.
However, Holliday and the Earps had not emerged unscathed from this brief but intense gunfight. Morgan Earp had taken a bullet, possibly from Billy Clanton, that hit both of his shoulder blades and his spine. Yet although he was knocked to the ground, the younger Earp brother was able to regain his feet after 60 seconds or so. Meanwhile, either Billy Clanton or Frank McLaury had hit Virgil Earp in the calf.
Doc Holliday didn’t go unscathed, either. A bullet from Frank Clanton’s gun had hit Holliday’s holster, grazing his hip. Remarkably, though, Wyatt Earp came out of the vicious gunfight without so much as a scratch. But if the Earps thought that this gun battle would finally solve their problems with the Cowboys, they were soon to be proved wrong.
Once the gunfight had concluded, Sheriff Behan threatened to arrest Wyatt Earp. Earp was having none of it, however, pointing out that it was Behan who had earlier falsely claimed to have disarmed the Clantons and McLaurys. But legal action would nevertheless follow.
Meanwhile, Dr. Henry M. Matthews catalogued the injuries of the dead men. Frank McLaury had received two gunshot wounds – one to the stomach and one to the head. The doctor said that the head wound would have been immediately fatal. Tom McLaury, for his part, had suffered 12 shotgun wounds on his side, while Billy Clanton had been on the receiving end of gunshots to the wrist, chest and stomach.
Just three days passed after the events at the O.K. Corral before a coroner’s jury identified the Earps and Holliday as the shooters. However, the jury made no statement on whether or not their actions were justified. And yet the next day, Ike Clanton entered formal charges of murder against the three Earps and Holliday.
Holliday and Wyatt Earp were both arrested and bailed for $10,000, while the other two Earp brothers were left to recover from their wounds. Wells Spicer, a justice of the peace, then called a court hearing on October 31, 1881, to investigate whether charges should be laid. And for over a month Spicer heard evidence, much of which was either inconclusive or partisan.
Sheriff Behan claimed that the three dead men had put up their hands and that they’d been shot down in cold blood. Other witnesses disputed a great deal of the sheriff’s account, though. And after hearing all the evidence, Justice Spicer declared that Holliday and the Earps had acted justifiably. In summary, then, they would face no legal consequences.
However, the Cochise County Cowboys were never going to accept this verdict. So it was that on December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was walking along a Tombstone street at 11:30 at night when he was shot at by three men. The attackers were concealed in a building that was still under construction, and they fired on the elder Earp brother with double-barreled shotguns. The prime suspects were Ike Clanton and others of the Cowboys outfit.
The Sacramento Daily Record-Union reported, “One shot struck him [Virgil Earp] above the groin, coming out near the spine.” He was also severely wounded in the left arm and side. And while Virgil Earp survived this attempt on his life, soon afterwards his brother Morgan was to be somewhat less fortunate.
Late in the evening of March 18, 1882, Morgan Earp was at Tombstone’s Campbell & Hatch Billiard Parlor, shooting some pool with the proprietor, Bob Hatch. A small group, including Wyatt, watched the players. Then, suddenly, two shots rang out, with bullets smashing through the billiard-hall window from an alleyway. And although those in the hall ran out to the alley, there was no one to be seen.
One of the bullets hit Morgan Earp in the back and went clean through his body – and within the hour, he was dead. Wyatt had, then, already seen that nobody had been brought to justice for the shooting of Virgil. So now, he decided, it was time to take the law into his own hands.
The next day, in his capacity as a deputy U.S. marshal, Wyatt Earp quickly gathered a posse that included his brothers Warren and James. The men then rode out of town to hunt down those whom he believed to be responsible for his brother’s murder. However, Wyatt wasn’t about to bother with the formality of a trial. You see, the next morning, the body of one of the Cowboys, Frank Stillwell, was found, with the outlaw having been shot to death.
A couple of days later, the posse then came across another of the Cowboys, Florentino “Indian Charlie” Cruz. They killed him and rode on. And following that, the armed body of men found a Cowboys’ camp, and a gunfight broke out. Wyatt Earp subsequently shot one Curly Bill Brocius dead and fatally wounded another man, Johnny Barnes. As a result, the death toll of the Cowboys at the hands of Wyatt and his posse now stood at four.
The bloodshed was, though, at long last over. In the time spanning from the gunfight at the O.K Corral in October 1881 to the final shootout at the Cowboys’ camp in April 1882, eight men had met violent deaths – seven of them at the hands of the Earps and Holliday. And this episode of history was in many ways to define how American popular culture, and in particular Hollywood, depicted the Wild West for decades to come.