The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is generally regarded as the most famous gunfight in the history of the American Old West.
It took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, and is believed to have lasted only about thirty seconds – enough time for the birth of a legend.
The fight has been staged umpteen times, on the silver screen.
Here’s how Hollywood depicted the events, in the movie “Tombstone” – widely considered as one of the more historically accurate portrayals of the event.
Video comes courtesy of YouTube:
And here’s how the historical facts shape up:
Tombstone, near the Mexican border, was formally founded in March 1879 and was a rapidly growing frontier mining boomtown.
The small town was mostly composed of tents as living quarters, a few saloons and other buildings, and the mines.
The Earp brothers – Wyatt, Virgil, and James – arrived on December 1, 1879.
Virgil Earp had been given the job of Deputy U.S. Marshal for the region around Tombstone only days before his arrival. In June 1881 he became Tombstone’s town marshal (or police chief).
In the summer of 1880, brothers Morgan and Warren Earp also moved to Tombstone.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday – who had saved Wyatt Earp’s life at one time and was a very close friend – had been living in Prescott and making a living as a gambler since late 1879, where he first met future Tombstone sheriff and sometime gambler Johnny Behan. In late September, 1880, he followed the Earps to Tombstone.
Though not universally liked by the townspeople, the Earps tended to protect the interests of the town’s business owners and residents – although Virgil’s brother Wyatt helped keep a Cowboy from being lynched after he accidentally killed Tombstone Marshal Fred White.
The Cowboys were a loosely-knit group of rowdies, cattle rustlers and outlaws, known for the distinctive red sashes they wore round their waists. In the extent to which they supported each other’s (often) criminal activities, they represented one of the first recorded instances of organized crime.
In those days, legitimate cowmen were referred to as cattle herders or ranchers. In Cochise County it was an insult to call a legitimate cattleman a “Cowboy.”
Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan was generally a friend to the interests of the rural ranchers and Cowboys.
Earps versus Cowboys
The Earps were a tight-knit family who had worked and served together as deputy marshal, marshal, sheriff, and saloon owners in several towns (among other occupations), and had moved together from location to location. Wyatt, in particular, had helped police the cattle drive destination towns of Wichita and Dodge City in Kansas – where problems were often caused by celebrating cowboys at the end of a cattle drive.
Wyatt arrived in Tombstone hoping to have left law-enforcement behind. He brought a stagecoach, only to find the business was already very competitive. The Earps then invested in several mining claims and water rights.
When the Earps’ efforts to invest in various businesses were fruitless, Wyatt became a stagecoach shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo, guarding shipments of silver bullion, until he was appointed Pima County deputy sheriff on July 28, 1880 – the only official law enforcement position Wyatt would hold in Tombstone before the gunfight.
The Earps were in conflict with Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy and Ike Clanton, Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius, and others, almost from the word ‘go’.
Ike was prone to drinking heavily, and threatened the Earps numerous times.
Virgil Earp thought that some of the Cowboys had met at Charleston, Arizona, and taken “an oath over blood drawn from the arm of Johnny Ringo, the leader, that they would kill us.”
The ranch owned by Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton near Charleston, Arizona was believed to be the local center for the Cowboys’ illegal activities, while Tom and Frank McLaury worked with the rustlers buying and selling stolen cattle.
Ranchers largely maintained control of the country around Tombstone, due in large part to the sympathetic support of Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, who grew to intensely dislike the Earps.
Behan tended to ignore the Earps’ complaints about the McLaury’s and Clanton’s horse thieving and cattle rustling.
As officers of the law, the Earps were known to bend the law in their favor when it affected their gambling and saloon interests, which earned them further enmity from the Cowboy faction.
More Money, More Problems
After silver was discovered in the area, Tombstone grew extremely rapidly. At its founding in March 1879, it had a population of just 100.
Only two years later, it had more than 7,000 citizens, excluding all Chinese, Mexicans, women and children residents.
The largest boomtown in the America southwest, the silver industry and attendant wealth attracted many professionals and merchants who brought their wives and families. With them came churches and ministers.
By 1881 there were fancy restaurants, a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, an opera house, two banks, three newspapers, and an ice cream parlor, alongside 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls, and numerous brothels – all situated among a number of dirty, hardscrabble mines.
Horse rustlers and bandits from the countryside came to town, and shootings were frequent.
In the 1880s, illegal smuggling and theft of cattle, alcohol, and tobacco across the Mexico – United States border about 30 miles (48 km) from Tombstone were common. The Mexican government taxed these items heavily and smugglers earned a handsome profit by stealing these products in Mexico and smuggling them across the border.
In the border area between Arizona and Mexico, there was only one passable route – a passage known as Guadalupe Canyon.
In August 1881, 15 Mexicans carrying gold, coins and bullion to make their purchases were ambushed and killed in Skeleton Canyon. The next month Mexican Commandant Felipe Neri dispatched troops to the border, and they in turn killed five Cowboys including “Old Man” Clanton in Guadalupe Canyon. The Earps strongly suspected that the McLaurys and Clantons were involved in this incident.
To reduce crime in Tombstone, on April 19, 1881, the Tombstone city council passed an ordinance prohibiting anyone from carrying a deadly weapon.
Anyone entering town was required to deposit their weapons at a livery or saloon soon after entering town. This ordinance led directly to the confrontation that resulted in the shoot out.
Tensions between the Earp family and both the Clanton and McLaury clans increased through 1881.
On the evening of March 15, 1881, three Cowboys attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying US$26,000 in silver bullion (about $626,152 in today’s dollars) en route from Tombstone to Benson, Arizona, the nearest freight terminal.
Bob Paul, working as the Wells Fargo shotgun messenger, fired at the robbers, but was unable to stop them.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp, along with temporary federal deputies Wyatt and Morgan Earp, Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams, former Kansas Sheriff Bat Masterson (who was dealing faro at the Oriental Saloon), and County Sheriff Behan set out to find the robbers. Robbery of a mail-carrying stagecoach was both a federal and territorial crime, and the posse consisted of both county and federal authorities and deputies.
The posse trailed the robbers to a nearby ranch where they found a drifter named Luther King. He wouldn’t tell who his confederates were until the posse lied and told him that Doc Holliday’s girlfriend had been shot. Fearful of Holliday’s reputation, he confessed to holding the reins of the robbers’ horses, and identified Bill Leonard, Harry “The Kid” Head and Jim Crane – all known Cowboys – as the robbers.
Behan and Williams escorted King back to Tombstone.
Somehow King walked in the front door of the jail and a few minutes later out the back.
The Earps pursued the other men for 17 days, riding for 60 hours without food and 36 hours without water, during which Bob Paul’s horse died, and Wyatt and Morgan’s horses became so weak, that the two men walked 18 miles (29 km) back to Tombstone to obtain new horses.
They returned to Tombstone on April 1, and submitted a bill for $796.84 to the county for posse expenses – which Behan refused to pay.
They were finally reimbursed by Wells, Fargo & Co. later on, but the incident caused further friction between county and federal law enforcement, and between Behan and the Earps.
Wyatt thought he might beat Behan in the next Cochise County election in late 1882. He offered the Wells, Fargo & Co. reward money (and more) to Ike Clanton if he would provide information leading to the capture or death of the stage robbers.
Ike began to fear that word of his possible cooperation had leaked, threatening to compromise his standing among the Cowboys. Undercover Wells Fargo Company agent M. Williams suspected a deal, and said something to Ike, who was fearful that other Cowboys might learn of his double-cross.
Ike now began to threaten Wyatt and Doc Holliday (who had learned of the deal) for apparently revealing Ike’s willingness to help arrest his friends.
Ike Clanton later testified that Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, and Morgan Earp had all confided in him that they had actually been involved in the stage robbery.
Eve of the Gunfight
On the morning of Tuesday, October 25, 1881 (the day before the gunfight), Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury drove 10 miles (16 km) in a spring wagon from Chandler’s Milk Ranch at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains to Tombstone. They were in town to sell a large number of beef stock, most of them owned by the McLaurys.
Seeing Ike Clanton in the Alhambra Saloon around midnight, Holliday confronted Ike, accusing him of lying about their previous conversations. They got into a heated argument.
Wyatt Earp (who was not wearing a badge) encouraged his brother, Tombstone Deputy City Marshal Morgan Earp, to intervene. Morgan escorted Holliday out onto the street and Ike, who had been drinking steadily, followed them. City Marshal Virgil Earp arrived a few minutes later and threatened to arrest both Holliday and Clanton if they did not stop arguing.
Wyatt Earp walked over to the Oriental Saloon and Ike followed him. Ike sat down to have another drink, his revolver in plain sight, and told Earp “You must not think I won’t be after you all in the morning.”
The Morning of the Shoot Out
After the confrontation with Ike Clanton, Wyatt Earp took Holliday back to his boarding house at Camillus Sidney “Buck” Fly’s Lodging House to sleep off his drinking, then went home and to bed.
Tombstone Marshal Virgil Earp played cards with Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan and a fifth man (unknown to Ike and to history), until morning.
At about dawn on October 26, the card game broke up and Behan and Virgil Earp went home to bed.
Not having rented a room, Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton had no place to go.
Shortly after 8:00 am barkeeper E. F. Boyle spoke to Ike Clanton, who had been drinking all night, in front of the telegraph office. Boyle encouraged him to get some sleep, but Ike insisted he would not go to bed. Boyle later testified he noticed Ike was armed and covered his gun for him, recalling that Ike told him “‘As soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open – that they would have to fight’.
Later in the morning, Ike picked up his rifle and revolver from the West End Corral, where he had stabled his wagon and team and deposited his weapons after entering town.
By noon that day, Ike, drinking again and armed, told others he was looking for Holliday or an Earp.
At about 1:00 p.m., Virgil and Morgan Earp surprised Ike on 4th Street where Virgil pistol-whipped (“buffaloed”) him from behind. Disarming him, the Earps took Ike to appear before Judge Wallace for violating the city’s ordinance against carrying firearms in the city. Virgil went to find Judge Wallace so the court hearing could be held.
At the hearing, Ike was fined $25 plus court costs, and after paying the fine left unarmed. Virgil told Ike he would leave Ike’s confiscated rifle and revolver at the Grand Hotel which was favored by Cowboys when in town.
Outside the court house where Ike was being fined, Wyatt almost walked into 28 year-old Tom McLaury as the two men were brought up short nose-to-nose.
Tom, who had arrived in town the day before, was required by the well-known city ordinance to deposit his pistol when he first arrived in town. When Wyatt demanded, “Are you heeled or not?”, McLaury said he was not armed.
Wyatt testified that he saw a revolver in plain sight on the right hip of Tom’s pants.
As an unpaid deputy marshal for Virgil, Wyatt habitually carried a pistol in his waistband, as was the custom of that time.
Witnesses reported that Wyatt drew his revolver from his coat pocket and pistol whipped Tom McLaury with it twice, leaving him prostrate and bleeding on the street. Saloon-keeper Andrew Mehan testified at the Spicer hearing afterward that he saw McLaury deposit a revolver at the Capital Saloon sometime between 1-2:00 p.m., after the confrontation with Wyatt, which Mehan also witnessed.
It was early afternoon by the time Ike and Tom had seen doctors for their head wounds. The day was chilly, with snow still on the ground in some places.
Both Tom and Ike had spent the night gambling, drinking heavily, and without sleep. Now they were both out-of-doors, both wounded from head beatings, and Ike, at least, was still drunk.
More Cowboys Arrive
At around 1:30–2:00 p.m., Ike’s 19-year-old younger brother Billy Clanton and Tom’s older brother Frank McLaury arrived in town.
Both Frank and Billy were armed with a revolver and a rifle, as was the custom for riders in the country outside Tombstone.
Billy and Frank stopped first at the Grand Hotel on Allen Street, and were greeted by Doc Holliday. They learned immediately after of their brothers’ beatings by the Earps within the previous two hours.
Angrily, Frank said he would not drink, and he and Billy left the saloon immediately to look for Tom.
By law, both Frank and Billy should have left their firearms at the Grand Hotel. Instead, they remained fully armed.
Virgil testified afterward that he thought he saw all four men, Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury, buying cartridges in Spangenberger’s gun and hardware store on 4th Street.
The statute was not specific about how far a recently-arrived visitor might “with good faith, and within reasonable time” travel into town while carrying a firearm. This permitted a traveler to keep his firearms if he was proceeding directly to a livery, hotel or saloon. The three main Tombstone corrals were all west of 4th street, a block or two from where the Cowboys were buying ammunition.
A man named Coleman told Virgil that the Cowboys had left the Dunbar and Dexter Stable for the O.K. Corral and were still armed, and Virgil decided he and Wyatt had to disarm them.
When Virgil Earp learned that Wyatt was talking to the Cowboys at Spangenberg’s gun shop he picked up a 10-gauge or 12-gauge, short, double-barreled shotgun from the Wells Fargo office around the corner on Allen Street. To avoid alarming Tombstone’s public, Virgil returned to Hafford’s Saloon carrying the shotgun under his long overcoat.
He gave the shotgun to Doc Holliday who hid it under his overcoat. He took Holliday’s walking-stick in return.
The Forces Gather
From Spangenberg’s, the Cowboys moved to the O.K. Corral, where witnesses overheard them threatening to kill the Earps. For unknown reasons they moved a block west to an empty lot next to C. S. Fly’s boarding house where Doc Holliday lived.
Virgil Earp was told by several citizens that the McLaurys and the Clantons had gathered on Fremont Street and were armed. He decided he had to act.
Several members of the citizen’s vigilance committee offered to support him with arms, but Virgil said no. He had previously deputized Morgan and Wyatt and also deputized Doc Holliday that morning. Wyatt spoke of his brothers Virgil and Morgan as the “marshals” while he acted as “deputy.”
The Earps carried revolvers in their coat pockets or in their waistbands. Holliday was wearing a pistol in a holster, but this was hidden by his long coat, as was the shotgun.
The Earps and Holliday walked west, down the south side of Fremont Street, out of visual range of the Cowboys, toward the Cowboys’ last reported location.
The Earps saw the Cowboys and Sheriff Behan, who left the group and came toward them, though he looked nervously backward several times. Virgil testified later that Behan told them, “For God’s sake, don’t go down there or they will murder you!”
Wyatt said Behan told him and Morgan, “I have disarmed them.” Behan testified afterward that he’d only said he’d gone down to the Cowboys “for the purpose of disarming them,” not that he’d actually disarmed them.
When Behan said he had disarmed them, Virgil attempted to avoid a fight. “I had a walking stick in my left hand and my hand was on my six-shooter in my waist pants, and when he said he had disarmed them, I shoved it clean around to my left hip and changed my walking stick to my right hand.”
Wyatt said I “took my pistol, which I had in my hand, under my coat, and put it in my overcoat pocket.”
The Earps walked westerly across Fremont street and came into full view of the Cowboys.
Wyatt testified he saw “Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton standing in a row against the east side of the building on the opposite side of the vacant space west of Fly’s photograph gallery. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne and a man I don’t know [Wes Fuller] were standing in the vacant space about halfway between the photograph gallery and the next building west.”
When the Earps approached the alley, they found Ike Clanton talking to Billy Claiborne in the middle of the lot. Beyond those two, against the MacDonald house and assay office to the west stood Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton, and two of their horses. Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury wore revolvers in holsters on their belts and stood alongside saddled horses with rifles in their scabbards, possibly in violation of the city ordinance prohibiting carrying weapons in town.
The Coroner’s inquest and the Spicer hearing conducted after the event produced a sketch showing the Cowboys standing, from left to right facing Fremont Street, with Billy Clanton and then Frank McLaury near the MacDonald house and Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton roughly in the middle of the alley. Opposite them and initially only about 6 to 10 feet (1.8 to 3.0 m) away, Virgil Earp was on the left end of the Earp party, standing a few feet inside the vacant lot and nearest Ike Clanton. Behind him a few feet near the corner of C. S. Fly’s boarding house was Wyatt. Morgan Earp was standing on Fremont Street to Wyatt’s right, and Doc Holliday anchored the end of their line in Fremont Street, a few feet to Morgan’s right.
Virgil Earp commanded the Cowboys to “Throw up your hands, I want your guns!” But he said the Cowboys reached to draw their guns. Virgil and Wyatt testified they saw Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton draw and cock their six-shooters. Virgil yelled: “Hold! I don’t mean that!” or “Hold on, I don’t want that!”
According to one witness, Holliday drew a “large bronze pistol” (interpreted by some as Virgil’s coach gun) from under his long coat and shoved it into Tom or Frank McLaury’s belly, then took a couple of steps back. It is not known who started shooting first; accounts by both participants and eyewitnesses are contradictory.
Virgil Earp reported afterward, “Two shots went off right together. Billy Clanton’s was one of them.” All witnesses generally agreed that two shots were fired first, almost indistinguishable from each other. General firing immediately broke out.
Wyatt Earp testified that he shot Frank McLaury after both he and Billy Clanton went for their revolvers.
Virgil and Wyatt thought Tom was armed. When shooting started, the horse that Tom McLaury held jumped to one side. Wyatt said he also saw Tom McLaury throw his hand to his right hip. Virgil said Tom followed the horse’s movement, hiding behind it, and fired once, if not twice, over the horse’s back.
At some point in the first few seconds, Holliday stepped around Tom McLaury’s horse and shot him with the short, double-barreled shotgun in the chest at close range. Witness C. H. “Ham” Light saw Tom running or stumbling westward on Fremont Street towards Third Street, where he fell at the foot of a telegraph pole on the corner and lay there, without moving, through the duration of the fight.
After shooting Tom, Holliday tossed the shotgun aside, pulled out his nickel-plated revolver, and continued to fire at Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton.
Despite having bragged that he would kill the Earps or Doc Holliday at his first opportunity, once the shooting broke out, Wyatt told the court afterward that Ike Clanton ran forward and grabbed Wyatt, exclaiming that he was unarmed and did not want a fight. To this protest Wyatt said he responded, “Go to fighting or get away!” Clanton ran through the front door of Fly’s boarding house and escaped, unwounded. Billy Claiborne also ran from the fight.
Morgan Earp fired almost immediately as Billy drew his gun right-handed, hitting Billy Clanton in the right wrist. This shot disabled Billy’s gunhand and forced him to shift the revolver to his left hand. He continued firing until he emptied it.
Virgil and Wyatt were now firing. Morgan Earp tripped over a newly buried waterline and fired from the ground.
Frank McLaury was shot in the abdomen, and taking his horse by its reins, struggled into the street. Frank tried to grab his rifle from its scabbard on his horse, and fired his revolver, only to lose the horse before he could withdraw the rifle from the scabbard.
Though wounded, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury kept shooting. One of them, perhaps Billy, shot Morgan Earp across the back in a wound that struck both shoulder blades and a vertebra. Morgan went down for a minute before picking himself up. Either Frank or Billy shot Virgil Earp in the calf (Virgil thought it was Billy). Virgil, though hit, fired his next shot at Billy Clanton.
Frank and Holliday exchanged shots as Frank moved into Fremont street with Holliday following, and Frank hit Holliday in his pistol pocket, grazing his skin. Frank lost control of his horse and, firing his weapon, crossed Fremont Street to the sidewalk on the east side. Holliday followed Frank across Fremont Street, exclaiming, “That son of a bitch has shot me, and I am going to kill him.” Morgan Earp picked himself up and also fired at Frank.
Frank, now entirely across Fremont street and still walking at a good pace according to Claiborne’s testimony, fired twice more before he was shot in the head under his right ear. Both Morgan and Holliday apparently thought they had fired the shot that killed Frank, but since neither of them testified at the hearing, this information is only from second-hand accounts.
Billy Clanton was shot in the chest and abdomen, and after a minute or two slumped to a sitting position near his original spot at the corner of the MacDonald house in the alley between the house and Fly’s Lodging House. Claiborne said Billy Clanton was supported by a window initially after he was shot, and fired some shots after sitting, with the pistol supported on his leg. After he ran out of ammunition, he called for more cartridges, but C. S. Fly took his pistol at about the time the general shooting ended.
A few moments later, Tom was carried from the corner of Fremont and Third into the Harwood house on that corner, where he died without speaking.
Passersby carried Billy to the Harwood house, where Tom had been taken. Billy was in considerable pain and asked for a doctor and some morphine. He told those near him, “They have murdered me. I have been murdered. Chase the crowd away and from the door and give me air.” Billy gasped for air, and someone else heard him say, “Go away and let me die.”
Ike Clanton, who had repeatedly threatened the Earps with death, was still running.
And that’s the way it was.
All that, in 30 seconds.
I hope you’ll join me next time, when we’ll be taking a closer look at three of the principal figures of this affair.