The Messed Up Truth About The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a shoot-out that has come to represent the glamour and

gore that defined the Wild West.

Pitting the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against the so-called Cochise County Cowboys

in Tombstone, Arizona, here's the messed-up truth of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

The O.K., for "Old Kindersley," Corral was a livery business that operated

on Tombstone's Fremont Street from 1879 to 1888.

Weirdly, the fight itself didn't take place in or next to the Corral as its name would


Instead, it happened in a vacant lot next to C.S.

Fly's Photographic Studio and Boarding House, six doors down from the corral.

Doc Holliday, the iconic dentist-turned-tubercular gunman, was a resident of the boardinghouse.

One of the fight's main instigators, Ike Clanton, took cover in the studio while shots were

being fired.

So did the one man who might have stopped the carnage, the sheriff of Cochise County,

John Behan.

Incidentally, C.S.

Fly's photographs of late nineteenth century Tombstone have become indispensable to our

understanding of life in the Wild West.

Fly did not, however, take any pictures of the battle or its aftermath, but he did participate

in one way: he disarmed the dying Billy Clanton.

Why the shootout became associated with the O.K. Corral is still a bit of a mystery, but

maybe it's because "the gunfight in the vacant lot next to C.S.

Fly's Photography Studio and Boarding House" doesn't quite roll off the tongue.

At the time of the fight, Tombstone, Arizona was a powder keg of warring factions and tensions

about to explode.

It was also a den of iniquity.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, it had two dance halls, a dozen gambling parlors,

twenty saloons, and, in the words of one resident, quote, "two Bibles."

Tombstone began as a single silver mine.

Prospector Ed Schieffelin left an Arizona Army post in 1877, hoping to strike it rich

in the Dragoon Mountains.

His friends warned him, that, thanks to the large Apache presence in the area, he was,

in effect, digging his own grave.

He proved them wrong, though, and discovered a rich silver vein he named "Tombstone."

A town sprung up around his good fortune, and by 1880, the place was teeming with horses

and stagecoaches, with countless other prospectors, sex workers, and aspiring politicians.

Saloons and brothels did very good business.

So did miners.

People continued to pull riches from the ground for seven straight years until a rising water

table put an end to operations.

Tombstone survived plenty of booms and busts, and it eventually earned the name "The Town

Too Tough To Die," because it rode out the Great Depression in typical stiff upper lip


The Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan, and John Henry "Doc" Holliday have long been

cast as the good guys in the shoot out, whereas their opponents, the Cochise County Cowboys,

have been written off as riff-raff.

The truth is a lot more complex than that.

In fact, the most revered player of all, Wyatt Earp, was a fugitive from the law when he

moved to Tombstone hoping to make his fortune in silver.

As a young man, he stole a horse in Indian Territory.

Then he escaped jail and went on the run, moving from town to town, and brothel to brothel.

Two of the most powerful Cowboys, Tom and Frank McLaury, came from Iowa in search of

cheap land for their cattle, and they weren't any better or worse than the thousands of

other cattle rustlers who moved west in the 1870s and '80s with their eye on Manifest


One of the main conflicts between the Earps and the Cowboys was actually pretty mundane.

The Cowboys were aligned with Sheriff Behan.

Wyatt wanted Behan's job.

Meanwhile, Wyatt's brother Virgil, the acting police chief, had spearheaded a campaign to

enforce restrictions on firearms.

Cowboys liked their guns.

Tensions arose as they are wont to do, but there are no villains in this tale, and no

heroes, either.

Just self-interested men bent on amassing power and wealth on the frontier.

"You know, Wyatt, you and I are pretty much alike, actually.

Both of us live with a gun.

Only difference is that badge."

In March 1881, just seven months before the shoot-out, the Sandy Bob stagecoach was robbed

by a group of masked men.

The Earps suspected the McLaury brothers were behind the robbery; the McLaurys were just

as convinced it was the Earps, aided and abetted by Doc Holliday.

In the meantime, Virgil Earp was busy cutting a deal with Ike Clanton, one of the Cowboys.

Virgil, eager to look like a tough lawman in advance of the local elections, agreed

to give Ike all the reward money, no questions asked, if Clanton turned in outlaws and suspects.

Clanton took the deal, but it was moot.

King, Leonard, and Crane all ended up dead before Virgil could capture them.

Later, Wyatt Earp, also running for office and knowing Ike Clanton to be of a persuadable

nature, approached the cowboy, suggesting they fake a stage coach robbery.

He and Doc Holliday would scare away the so-called robbers, and no one would get hurt.

Clanton refused to take part, and bad blood continued to accumulate between the two factions.

When, in early October, the Earps arrested Cowboys Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence for

robbing a stagecoach out of Bisbee, the Cowboys vowed revenge.

They didn't have to wait long.

In films and other retellings of the shoot-out, it's Wyatt Earp who usually gets all the glory,

but according to most scholars, the real stand-up guy in this Wild West drama was Virgil Earp.

Virgil served as an infantryman in the Union Army in the Civil War before heading west

to join his younger brothers, Wyatt and Morgan.

He quickly made a reputation for himself as an effective, no-nonsense lawman, earning

badges in both Prescott, Arizona and Tombstone.

Virgil's goal in Tombstone was to put a halt to the rash of stagecoach robberies that were

terrorizing the populace, and his skills as a sharpshooter went a long way toward helping

him accomplish his goal.

On that fateful day in October 1881 when a bloodbath seemed inevitable, Virgil attempted

to get the Cowboys to drop their weapons.

"Throw up your hands.

I want your guns."

They didn't, of course, and a firefight ensued, with Virgil continuing to unload his gun even

as he took a bullet to the leg.

No one knows for sure what guns were actually used in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, although

it's almost certain that they were all black powder weapons, the smoke of which would have

added to the confusion of an already chaotic scene.

Over the years, a number of antique gun dealers have profited handsomely from the sale of

guns supposedly deployed at the scene.

One Colt .45 single action revolver rumored to have belonged to Wyatt Earp sold at auction

for $225,000, and a shotgun reportedly used by Holliday went for $150,000.

But the authenticity of those weapons is still up for debate.

Lawmen at the time often carried single action revolvers.

Holliday supposedly used a 10-gauge, double-barreled shotgun given to him by Virgil.

The Cowboys all claimed to have been unarmed at the time of the shootout, but with the

exceptions of Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne, who fled the scene, that obviously turned

out to be untrue.

Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were found dead at the scene with Colt Frontier revolvers

in their hands.

Tom McLaury was almost certainly a victim of Holliday's gun.

His body was riddled with at least 12 buckshot wounds.

So much for Virgil's gun control crusade.

As enemies of the Earps, the Cochise County Cowboys have sometimes been portrayed as evil

men bent on killing, but for the most part, they were considered by the locals to be more

of a nuisance than a group of real villains.

The posse, which boasted up to 300 members in its heyday, specialized in cattle rustling

and small-time heists.

They rode through towns in the Arizona territory, brandishing their pistols and putting the

fear of God into women, children, and preachers, and they became sworn enemies of the Earps,

who wanted to bring the so-called Cowboys to heel.

"I'll see you soon.

I'll see you soon."

A number of petty incidents of horse theft and retribution between the Earps and the

Cowboys took place between 1879 and the shoot-out in 1881, the bulk of which put the McLaurys

and Clantons and other Cowboys in a bad light.

But Hollywood and historians may have actually gotten it wrong.

Ike Clanton, the most demonized figure in the story, ran a lunch counter.

And Tom McLaury was unarmed at the time of the shoot-out.

Maybe the Cowboys weren't so dastardly after all.

Most versions of the O.K. Corral story put the blame for the gun fight squarely on the

shoulders of Cowboy Ike Clanton who, Wild West lore suggests, repeatedly threatened

to kill the Earps for getting in his cattle rustling way.

In the days leading up to the shoot-out, the Cowboys, the Earps, and Doc Holliday were

all quite busy drinking and trading barbs and threats, and Clanton was overheard in

more than one Tombstone saloon telling patrons that he planned to shoot the Earps as soon

as he could get his hands on a weapon.

But Clanton was known for talking a big game, and, according to his surviving relatives,

the Earps and Doc Holliday were the real instigators, robbing stagecoaches and getting away with

it and harassing the Clantons and McLaurys whenever they got a chance.

The truth most likely lies somewhere in between.

What we know is that, after an evening of drinking and bragging, the Earps and Holliday

faced off against Clanton and his Cowboys in a historic firefight that killed Ike's

brother, Billy, and stained Ike's reputation forever.

He is now often described as a coward and a blowhard because, having boasted about his

gunslinging prowess, he fled the scene of battle, later bringing charges against the

Earps and Doc Holliday.

All four men, incidentally, were acquitted, and Ike Clanton was killed by police in 1887.

Wyatt Earp described the Cochise County Cowboys as, quote, "low lifes and cow thieves."

Regardless, the town mourned Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury in spectacular style,

with 2,300 people paying their respects over the course of the day-long memorial.

The funeral procession wound for two blocks and was comprised of three hundred people

on foot, 22 carriages, and several men on horseback.

A brass band led the way to the cemetery.

And the cemetery where the men were buried, Boothill, is so-called because the people

interred there often died with their boots still on.

"If you happen to see this gentleman, tell him I'll be waiting for him at Boothill.

There's only one direction to travel from there."

Some tales of the Wild West are greatly exaggerated in their wildness, but in the months leading

up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as well as in the months following, no one, no

one, was charged with a crime.

Masked men robbed stagecoaches and got away with it.

Or, in the case of the outlaws suspected of the Sandy Bob stagecoach robbery, they were

killed before they could stand trial.

Men simply took justice into their own hands, meaning that, after the Earps and Doc Holliday

were exonerated for the killings of Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, Morgan Earp

was shot dead in a saloon.

Wyatt, vowing vengeance for his brother, assembled a posse and unleashed a vendetta, gunning

down Frank Stilwell and his accomplices in cold blood.

Newspaper accounts of the gun battle varied greatly, depending on the individual publication's

alliances with the fighters.

The Tombstone Epitaph sided with the Earps and the Nugget was with the Cowboys.

The Epitaph's name had many joking that it would be dead within a year, but the newspaper

proved to be resilient and relevant, partially because of founder John P. Clum's mission

to use its pages to rid Tombstone of corruption, as well as those pesky Cochise Cowboys.

Clum wasn't entirely pure in his motives.

The Epitaph, in addition to aligning itself with the Earps, was also in the pocket of

mining interests in the town.

The Nugget, in contrast, championed the Cowboys and was, in its coverage of the gunfight,

unabashedly biased against Holliday and the Earps.

"I guess if you're a sheriff cutting deals with local cattle thieves, it does well to

keep their favorite paper sweet."

In one article about the battle's aftermath, the writer strains credulity with regard to

the Clanton boys, stating:

"They did not bear the reputation of being of a quarrelsome disposition, but were known

as fighting men, and have generally conducted themselves in a quiet and orderly manner when

in Tombstone."

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