The Gunfight at the OK Corral is legendary. And as with so many other legends, the lines between fact and fiction are blurrier than my vision without corrective lenses! (FYI: I’m not exactly known for my eagle eyes, though I’m reasonably certain the first letter on the eye chart is an “E”. Or maybe that’s an “F”.) So much has been written about this gun slingin’ event that it’s difficult to know where the truth ends and embellishment begins. But I aim to sort that out!
At the time of the gunfight, Tombstone, AZ was home to two newspapers. The Tombstone Epitaph and The Tombstone Nugget and were sort of Tombstone’s version of Fox News and CNN. They were known for reporting the same stories, but usually not with the same perspective. However, when initially reporting about the shootout, the two sources were oddly in agreement about most of the event. In homage to those newspapers of old, this is my attempt to break out my journalistic skills and give you “just the facts, Ma’am”. Excuse me while I dust off my “Who? What? Where? When? And Why?” I’ve got a story to report!
On one side of the conflict, there were the Earps. Even though they weren’t all present at the time of the shootout, they’re all worth a mention. James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Warren Earp were a band of brothers who believed that blood is thicker than water. James and Warren were not present for the gunfight, but let’s just say that the Earps tended to move around as a group and were extremely influential, and I do not mean just socially.
The Earps were a pretty powerful family in Tombstone. Virgil Earp was the Marshall of Tombstone, and Wyatt had previously served as Deputy Sheriff. They were also involved in several local businesses and brother James was the owner and sole proprietor of the local saloon. In short, residents of Tombstone were wise to stay on the good side of the Earps. I probably would have baked them a spice cake and resisted the temptation to make fun of their last name. URP.
The legendary Doc Holliday – dentist, gambler and gunfighter – joined forces with the Earps at the gunfight. Holliday was a close friend of the Earps, and the events at the OK corral are a testament to exactly how close they were. I’ve got to tell you that if I had heard the word “gunfight,” I would have been hiding in a root cellar!!!
On the other side of the conflict, there was a group of shiftless local cowboys, known as The Clanton Gang: Ike Clanton, Bill Clanton, Tom Mc Laury, Frank Mc Laury and Billy Claiborne. It should be noted that, in those days, a “cowboy” was the equivalent of an outlaw. What we would call a cowboy today would have been called a “cattleman” in the Old West. There was a building tension over a longstanding feud between the Earps and The Clanton Gang, and one day, all hell broke loose in the town of Tombstone.
The gunfight is said to have lasted only thirty seconds, which, I will grant you, probably seemed like much longer to the participants! But, thirty seconds was long enough period of time to kill Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne fled the scene. Maybe they were headed for a root cellar?!! No one seems to know for sure. Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp and Morgan Earp were all wounded, while Wyatt Earp escaped unharmed.
Wyatt Earp claimed that the Earps acted in self-defense. In the beginning, the public was mainly supportive of the Earps and Holliday, although public opinion shifted when rumors about unarmed cowboys began circulating.
The Earps and Holliday were arrested and jailed a few days after the gunfight. The legal inquiry was sensational, but it ended with no indictment. Even the stories of eyewitnesses differed so much that it was difficult to separate the facts from the fiction. It has largely been accepted that the Earps (particularly Wyatt) and Holliday were the good guys in the gunfight.
They were standing on a corner in Tombstone, Arizona. It was such a fine sight to see. (Well, they were really standing in a vacant lot, but The Eagles’ pun was just too much for me to resist.)
Contrary to what we may imagine, Tombstone wasn’t some backwards dustbowl. In fact, it was quite sophisticated. In the 1880s, thirty-seven million dollars worth of silver came out of the Tombstone mines. People had money to spend on the finer things in life, and they spent it freely. Back in the day, Tombstone was a city that didn’t sleep.
The gunfight took place on October 26, 1881, but the powder keg of tension had been building for some time. Ike Clanton was known for his drunken escapades and he had gotten royally snockered on the evening of October 25th. At that time, he had started an argument with Doc Holliday and had weaved down the street threatening to kill the Earps. Hmmmmm. . . methinks he should have made a spice cake instead!
In addition to their “professional” differences, the Earps were Yankee Republicans and the cowboys were Confederate Democrats. Lawdy! Something was bound to happen. Those two groups were never destined to become close friends, even under the best of circumstances. And for sure, the circumstances were far from the best.
When Wyatt implicated some of the cowboys in a couple of stagecoach robberies, the cowboys tried to turn the tables and blamed the robberies on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Yeah, at that point, it was pretty much all over but the shooting! Ike Clanton had been threatening the Earps and Doc Holliday for weeks before the gunfight actually occurred.
And there you have it. The facts. As best they are available. And no matter how you slice it, it’s a grand story. Maybe that’s why it has been told so many times, and in so many different ways.
And, by the way. . . if I messed up on some of the facts, please remember that it really would be a shame to let the facts get in the way of a ripping good story about the Old West! And just for a little thrill, watch the gunfight scene from the film Tombstone here!
Happy Trails, y’all!