The Gunfight Of All Gunfights

It was on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in the rough-and-tumble frontier town of Tombstone, Arizona, that The Earp Brothers: Wyatt, Morgan, and Federal Marshal Virgil, and their good friend Doc Holliday confronted “The Clanton Gang” in the widely renowned “Shootout at the OK Corral.” The Clanton Gang consisted of five men: Billy Claiborne, Billy Clanton, Ike Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury.

The events leading up to the gunfight are a bit complex, but suffice it to say that Tombstone had been a dangerous place before the Earps and Doc Holliday showed up with their brand of rough justice. In more than a dozen major screen portrayals of the famous fight, Hollywood has usually portrayed the Earps and Holliday as the vanguard of justice and civilization in a lawless town; those who support the Clantons claim that the Earps and Holliday were just the paid stooges of the town’s business and mining interests, trying to intimidate the local cowboys.

The local newspaper, the lugubriously yclept “Tombstone Epitaph,” reported the following day:

Stormy as were the early days of Tombstone nothing ever occurred equal to the event of yesterday. Since the retirement of Ben Sippy as marshal and the appointment of V.W. Earp to fill the vacancy the town has been noted for its quietness and good order. The fractious and much dreaded cowboys when they came to town were upon their good behavior and no unseemly brawls were indulged in, and it was hoped by our citizens that no more such deeds would occur as led to the killing of Marshal White one year ago.

Since the arrest of Stilwell and Spence for the robbery of the Bisbee stage, there have been oft repeated threats conveyed to the Earp brothers – Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan – that the friends of the accused, or in other words the cowboys, would get even with them for the part they had taken in the pursuit and arrest of Stilwell and Spence. The active part of the Earps in going after the stage robbers, beginning with the one near Contention, has made them exceedingly obnoxious to the bad element of this country and put their lives in jeopardy every month.

The gunfight itself lasted about 30 seconds. when the smoke had cleared, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury had been killed and Tom McLaury lay mortally injured. Morgan and Virgil Earp were badly wounded, and Doc Holliday was winged as well. A pretty bloody morning’s work, all in all.

When Hollywood retells the tale – or any tale of the Old West – it seems that no one ever is called to account in the wake of such a battle. Yet that just isn’t so. Lawless though those old frontier towns may have been, they nevertheless never took homicide lightly, justifiable or otherwise. Few folks today are aware that all three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday were immediately charged with murder and all had to post bond with the local court.

About a month later, the court ruled that there simply was not enough evidence to proceed to trial, and so the Earps and Holliday were “no-billed,” not exactly exonerated. To this day the matter is hotly debated: should they have been tried? Were they guilty of murder?

Morgan Earp was assassinated not long after the famed gunfight, Virgil was crippled in another attack. Doc Holliday “died with his boots OFF” after a long and chronic case of tuberculosis (which is why he came to Arizona in the first place.) Wyatt Earp roamed about the West, usually pursuing mining-related opportunities such as running gambling in boom towns. He and his third wife Josie operated a saloon in Nome, Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, and they returned to California reasonably wealthy. Wyatt Earp worked various mining claims in the Mojave Desert until his death in Los Angeles in 1929. Wyatt Earp befriended many of the notables in early Hollywood, and is said to have consulted on some early Westerns. He is buried in Colma, south of San Francisco.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

This is the West. When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.

— “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”


There are a great many works about or touching upon this gunfight. Of recent interest is Jeff Guinn’s:

The last Gunfight: Simon & Schuster, 2012; ISBN-10: 1439154252

A wonderfully detailed account that is resolutely NOT romanticized. Well worth reading.

Voting With La Guillotine

It was on this day in 1793 that Queen Marie-Antoinette of France was beheaded by guillotine at the command of France’s revolutionary government which had convicted the royal family of treason the previous year. Marie-Antoinette was especially hated by the revolution’s adherents, for she epitomized everything that was wrong with Le Ancien RĂ©gime: inept governance, indifference to the plight of the populace, arrogance, and extravagance. Although some writers have portrayed her as a hapless victim of circumstance and bad press, for once, the revolutionaries did not need to create or exaggerate the facts against the queen: Marie-Antoinette really was guilty as charged.

Marie-Antoinette was the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and the Queen of Austria-Hungary, Maria-Theresa. Through Marie-Antoinette’s veins flowed the bluest, most regal blood in all of Europe, and she was raised to believe that her birthright entitled her to the very finest of everything. Her father considered her the loveliest of his daughters, and he spoiled her shamelessly. Marie-Antoinette was ill-prepared to take on the duties of a queen, and she had a life-long preference for gaming rather than governing.

When Marie-Antoinette married the future Louis XVI in 1770, France’s finances were already a shambles due to the long and hugely expensive war with England which had cost France all of its North American territories. Louis ascended the throne in 1774 as tensions were about to spark into flame in England’s North American colonies. The Americans immediately recognized an opportunity: France, England’s traditional enemy for more than seven centuries, would surely be pleased to see England lose her colonies. Despite the shakiness of its funding and the disarray of its financial affairs, France’s royal government decided to support the American Revolution with both huge loans and outright gifts of France’s much-needed gold reserves. As the revolution dragged on, France committed troops and ships, and then even more troops and more ships, further draining the nation’s malnourished treasury.

In retrospect, this was a fatal decision. The monetary outlay to support America’s change of regime strained France’s already overburdened financial system to the breaking point, and revolution proved to be rather like an infectious disease: unleashed upon one’s enemies, it can quickly spread and turn upon those who foster it. (Even in the 1770s, the spectacle of France’s indolent aristocracy supporting revolution, liberty and republicanism in North America was regarded as fairly bizarre.)

As France’s financial situation worsened, more and more of the nobility retreated into stark denial, and no one embodied this behavior more completely than the despised queen. Marie-Antoinette is today remembered for extravagances such as her fantasy play place, Le Hameau, an inconceivably lavish rendering of a shepherdess’ cottage. Built of Marble and exotic woods, adorned with gilded moldings and richly painted walls, Le Hameau bore as much resemblance to a true shepherdess’ cottage as a pair of $700 designer jeans does to a pair of workaday Levis. (Except that Marie-Antoinette’s indulgence at least had intrinsically expensive materials in it!)

Marie-Antoinette built other enormously expensive amusements as well, and she held sumptuous banquets with rare delicacies for her circle of favorites even as food became scarcer and scarcer for commoners. Her feasts were legendary: the food, the wine, the fireworks, the music, the bejewelled gowns of silks and exotic furs and feathers. The spendthrift queen spent enough money on parties and grand entertainments in the year 1779 alone, according to one historian, to have completely restored the decrepit main road from Paris to Lyon to Marseilles. It would be rather as if today a US President spent 35 billion entertaining at the White House one year! So Marie-Antoinette genuinely earned her infamous reputation, though she almost certainly never uttered that most famous of lines used against her: “If the people have no bread, let them eat cake!”

For all her failings, the civilized world was nevertheless horrified when the revolutionary government of France executed Marie-Antoinette, and if history has usually viewed her in a rather negative light, fiction, drama, and Hollywood have tended to render her as a more sympathetic character. Yet Marie-Antoinette has symbolized the very essence of incompetent, uncaring government for the last 220 years.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.

— George Santayana

Further Reading:

Citizens: A Chronicle Of The French Revolution, Simon Schama; Alfred A. Knopf, 1989: ISBN: 0394559487

This is the most accessible and enjoyably readable major account of the French Revolution that I know of. Schama has an engaging narrative style, and he tells a good story. A must read on the topic.