Today is the 140th anniversary of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the most famous shootout in the history of the American West. The main reason it’s so remarkable as that this kind of stand-up gunfight was exceedingly rare in real life, which along with the larger-than-life personalities involved caused it to inspire an endless ream of novels, plays, film adaptations and even a Star Trek episode.
The bare facts: a simmering feud between the Earp family and a loose gang of rustlers known as the Cowboys exploded into violence. The conflict was undergirded by a variety of political and business rivalries: the Earps were Missourians allied with the town’s Republican businessmen while the Cowboys were largely Democrats, most of them from the South. Wyatt Earp had a personal rivalry with County Sheriff John Behan, both over a political deal Behan reneged on and their romantic competition for Josephine Marcus. And lately, Southern-born dentist-gunfighter Doc Holliday had been butting heads with Ike Clanton, who had been loudly and falsely accusing the Earps of carrying out a stage robbery which left two men dead (in fact, it seems likely that the Cowboys carried it out).
Clanton had been arrested by Virgil Earp, the town Marshal, the night before after trying to pick a fight with Holliday. Clanton was released from jail vowing vengeance on the Earps, sending for his 19 year old brother Billy. Tom McLaury and his brother Frank, ranchers associated with the Cowboys, arrived in town, unaware of the simmering conflict. Tom had the bad luck of running into Wyatt, who was in a foul mood over Ike’s threats. He insulted McLaury, disarmed him and gratuitously pistol-whipped him, ensuring that Tom and Frank would back Ike’s play.
Events continued to escalate until Virgil and his brothers, brothers Wyatt and Morgan (who had recently been deputized after a band of Apache appeared in Cochise County) received word that the Cowboys were congregating in the alley between the O.K. Corral and C.S. Fly’s Photography Gallery. By this time, the Clantons and McLaurys had been reinforced by two more cowobys, Billy Claibourne and Wes Fuller. The Earps, fearing that they’d be outnumbered and outgunned (not aware that Ike and Tom McLaury were not armed), deputized Doc Holliday (who carried a shotgun) and strolled down the street to confront the outlaws.
Sheriff Behan, with both of his deputies absent from Tombstone hunting an escaped fugitive, made a feeble effort to defuse the situation. He tried to disarm Ike and his party, but they refused to hand over their weapons unless Behan disarmed the Earps first. Behan then confronted the Earps and lied that he had successfully disarmed the Cowboys; the Earps ignored him and marched down to the alley.
The details of the shootout are confused and contradictory, but eyewitness accounts generally agree that Virgil told the Cowboys to disarm themselves. Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton reached for their weapons immediately (unlike Hollywood depictions, there was no dramatic standoff); Wyatt beat them to the draw and wounded Frank, the only experienced gunfighter among the bunch, while Billy’s first shot went wild. Billy Claibourne and Wes Fuller fled without firing a shot, while Ike Clanton rushed Wyatt insisting that he wasn’t armed. Earp bellowed the immortal words, “The fight has commenced! Get to fighting or get away!”
Cowboy-sympathetic accounts have Morgan, the impulsive younger brother, yelling words to the effect of “You sons of bitches are looking for a fight, and now you can have it!” or Doc Holliday telling him to “Let ’em have it!” before shooting the Cowboys in cold blood. Holiday, apparently remarkably dextrous despite carrying a shotgun and suffering from tuberculous, drew a hidden pistol and shot Billy Clanton, while Wyatt shot Frank as he tried to surrender. While some witnesses corroborated Morgan’s provocative words (which, at the very least, aren’t out of character), most agreed that this version of events was unlikely and preposterous.
The other main controversy involves Tom, who had been disarmed by Wyatt earlier in the day. He was shot in the chest by Doc’s shotgun early in the fight. The Earps accused Tom of producing a concealed weapon and firing over his horse, or trying to pull a rifle hidden on the animal before being shot. The Cowboys insisted that Tom had no weapons and threw his hands in the air when Doc killed him. Again, witnesses and ballistics suggest that the Earp’s account is far more credible; likely Doc thought Tom was armed, even if he wasn’t, and reacted accordingly.
A less important controversy involves the claim that a concealed gunman fired at least one shot at the Earps from behind Fly’s studio; some accounts even that Morgan Earp, who was shot through the shoulder, was injured by this mystery gunman. It’s never been verified whether Claibourne or Fuller offered the Earps a .45 caliber parting gift (Tombstone aside, it could hardly have been Ike, who was running full speed away from the shootout), or if the Earps misinterpreted a ricocheting bullet with a concealed shooter. Or, indeed, if there was any shot at all.
Over the course of the gunfight (which lasted about thirty seconds), Morgan and Virgil were both wounded, while Tom McLaury was killed and Billy Clanton fatally injured, begging pathetically for cartridges after he ran out of bullets. Frank McLaury confronted Holiday, telling him “I have you now” with Holliday responding, “Blaze away! You’re a daisy if you have!” McLaury shot Holiday in the hip, causing a minor wound; Holliday discharged his pistol into Frank’s chest as he fell, while Morgan shot him through the head. Only Wyatt and Ike Clanton escaped the shootout completely unscathed.
Because of its centrality to the Earp legend, the OK Corral tends to invite sweeping judgments based on how one views the protagonists. On the one hand, the Earps were mostly acting within the law that day and the immediate conflict was provoked by Ike Clanton, not the Earps or Holliday. It’s hard to imagine any law enforcement officers reacting differently (though one can certainly blame Wyatt for his rough treatment of Tom McLaury). If the Earps had planned to commit murder, Ike would likely not have emerged unscathed. Even the much-maligned Sheriff Behan’s actions are understandable in the context of the moment; without deputies to call on, he was ill-positioned to forestall violence between two gangs of armed, angry men who had no reason to trut him.
But it’s wrong to treat view the gunfight as a discreet event; neither side was innocent in the tensions leading up to the clash, and certainly the Earps were engaged in a variety of semi-legal enterprises themselves. Perhaps it’s useful to view it as the culmination of a turf feud with many factors than a clash between good or evil.
Of course, the OK Corral gunfight was merely the curtain raiser on the Cowboy-Earp feud. After a failed attempt to prosecute the Earps for murder, the Cowboys wounded Virgil and killed Morgan in separate ambushes. Wyatt raised a posse and unleashed his vendetta ride, leading to a months-long gang war against the Cowboys and their ally, Sherif Behan, that raged across Arizona Territory. Hardly heroic stuff, whatever Hollywood made of it.