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.
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.