Wyatt Earp: Terrific and Famous Gunfight at OK Corral

Last week’s blog covered the case of Gary Triano, a Tucson, Arizona, real estate developer killed by a pipe bomb placed in his Lincoln Continental. This week, we take a short trip geographically but almost a century and a half in time to Tombstone, Arizona Territory. On October 26, 1881, gunfire erupted in the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral. Although he was only one of the men who took part, Wyatt Earp emerged as the fight’s most famous participant.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp is the stuff of legend, a legend burnished by Stuart Lake’s adulatory (and highly fictitious) 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Books, films, and an eponymous television series built an image of a straight-arrow lawman fighting for justice. The truth is more nuanced. While Earp did serve as a lawman in various capacities, he also gambled and invested money in saloons. One can conclude that money and influence motivated him as much as seeking justice.

Wyatt Earp, age 21
Wyatt Earp, age 21

The man whose reputation rests on his association with the Old West began his life in prosaic Monmouth, Illinois. About two years after his birth, the Earp family joined a group planning to relocate to San Bernardino, California. However, when Wyatt’s sister, Martha, became ill, the family stopped and settled near Pella, Iowa.

Wyatt’s older brothers joined the Union army during the American Civil War. At the same time, his father recruited local men and drilled them as soldiers. At age 13, Wyatt also tried to join the army, but his father stopped him. Rather than fighting, he tended the family farm with Morgan and Warren, his two younger brothers.

Wyatt Earp Moves West

Wyatt’s first foray west was to join older brother Virgil as a teamster in California in the summer of 1865. After the stint in California, he bounced back and forth between the west and the Midwest. He stopped in places like Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas; Peoria, Illinois; and Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Occasionally he served as town constable or assistant marshal. Other times, he found himself in scrapes with the law.

Wyatt Earp and Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson (standing) in Dodge City, Kansas in 1876

Dodge City made a lasting impact on Wyatt. Not only did he serve as a lawman there, but he met John Henry “Doc” Holliday in Dodge. Wyatt and Doc became lifelong friends after Doc saved Wyatt’s life in a Dodge City saloon fight.

Holliday’s distinguished Georgia family saw bleak times after the Civil War. But Doc managed to attend the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia. Diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after graduating, he moved west. He gradually abandoned dentistry and earned a reputation as a gambler and gunslinger.

Wyatt Earp in Tombstone

By 1879, Dodge City started to settle down, no longer the wild cowtown of earlier days. Wyatt left Dodge in company with his common-law wife, his brother Jim and Jim’s wife, and Doc Holliday and his companion, Big-Nose Kate. The Earps and their women arrived in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on December 1, 1879. Doc Holliday and Kate stayed behind in Prescott, where the gambling opportunities appeared more promising.

Tombstone, Arizona Territory in 1881 (photographed by C.S. Fly)
Tombstone, Arizona Territory in 1881 (photographed by C.S. Fly)

Wyatt’s brother, Virgil, became a Pima County deputy sheriff in 1880. He appointed Wyatt as his deputy soon after Wyatt arrived in town. On January 1, 1881, eastern Pima County split into a new entity, Cochise County, with Tombstone as its seat. Wyatt applied to be sheriff of the new county, but so did Johnny Behan. Behan, a wily—some say crooked—political operative, outmaneuvered Wyatt and became sheriff. This inauspicious beginning would have repercussions later.

Wyatt Earp at about age 39

Wyatt Earp and the Cowboys

The Clanton family owned a ranch twelve miles southwest of Tombstone and twenty miles from the Mexican border. The Clantons used the place as a base for their smuggling and rustling operations. The family patriarch, Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton, died when a group of Mexicans out to recover stolen cattle ambushed him and his party in August 1881. His sons, Ike, Phineas “Phin,” and Billy Clanton, carried on.

Clanton clan patriarch Newman Haynes "Old Man" Clanton
Clanton clan patriarch Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton

In the climate of the times, the Cowboys resented the growing influence of city residents on politics and law enforcement. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan sympathized with the ranchers and supported them. The sheriff disliked the Earps and tended to ignore their complaints about the Clantons and their illegal activities.

Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton photographed in 1881 by Tombstone photographer C.S. Fly
Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton photographed in 1881 by Tombstone photographer C.S. Fly

The Earp faction opposed the Cowboys. Behan may have been country sheriff, but Virgil Earp represented the law in Tombstone as a Deputy U.S. Marshal and City Marshal. The Earps, of course, had strong family ties of their own.

The Earps Confront the Cowboys

The infamous gunfight stemmed from Virgil’s decision to enforce a city ordinance against carrying guns in town. He received reports that the Clantons and their allies, the McLaury brothers, left the livery stable and entered town while armed. The Cowboys’ recent (and repeated) threats against the Earps may have influenced his decision. He appointed Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday as special policemen to assist him.

The rebuilt OK Corral in 2004. The original corral was destroyed along with much of Tombstone by a catastrophic 1882 fire (Brian W. Schaller)
The rebuilt OK Corral in 2004. The original corral was destroyed along with much of Tombstone by a catastrophic 1882 fire (Brian W. Schaller)

The OK Corral gunfight didn’t occur in the Corral. It happened near the corner of Fremont and Third Streets. The Earps and Holiday walked west down Fremont Street to where the Cowboys stood near Camillus Fly’s boarding house and photographic studio. Afterward, it proved impossible to ascertain with accuracy where the participants stood. What is known is that the three Earps and Doc Holliday faced six Cowboys: Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller.

John Henry "Doc" Holliday gave up dentistry for whiskey, gambling, and gunslinging. He and Wyatt Earp became friends in Dodge City.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday gave up dentistry for whiskey, gambling, and gunslinging. He and Wyatt Earp became friends in Dodge City.

Gunfight at the OK Corral

Virgil didn’t expect a fight as the two sides faced off. He called to the Cowboys, “Throw up your hands! I want your guns!” When Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton drew and cocked their single-action revolvers, he shouted, “Hold! I don’t want that!”

Virgil Earp was the official representative of the law at the OK Corral
Virgil Earp was the official representative of the law at the OK Corral

Who fired first is uncertain. Partisan witnesses gave versions favorable to their side, and impartial witnesses didn’t know the participants by sight. The dense smoke from black powder weapons added to the confusion. When the smoke cleared, the McLaurys and Billy Clanton lay dead or dying. Virgil and Morgan suffered slight wounds, and a bullet bruised Doc Holliday’s hip when it struck his holster. Ike Clanton, who did so much to stir up the fight, ran from the battle, as did Billy Claiborne. Wyatt Earp suffered no injuries.

Wyatt Earp and the Aftermath

Sheriff Johnny Behan attempted to arrest Wyatt as he walked to his home, but Wyatt rebuffed him. Ike Clanton later filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday. Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer held a hearing on the matter and eventually ruled that Virgil Earp acted within his office as the lawman in charge. He criticized Virgil’s decision to deputize Wyatt and Holliday but decided they were within the law.

Ritter and Reams undertakers displayed the bodies of the McLaurys and Billy Clanton in their window. A sign accompanying the display read, “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.”

Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton (left to right) in the window of the undertakers. This is the only known photo of 19-year-old Billy.
Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton (left to right) in the window of the undertakers. This is the only known photo of 19-year-old Billy.

On December 28, a shotgun blast struck Virgil Earp in the left arm and shoulder, costing him the use of the arm. Ike Clanton’s hat was found near where the shot came from. An assassin ambushed Morgan Earp on Marcy 18, 1882, as he played billiards. Morgan died within minutes. Convinced he wouldn’t get justice, Wyatt hunted down Morgan’s attackers and killed them, using arrest warrants as a fig leaf of legality..

Epilogue

Ike Clanton was indicted for cattle rustling in the summer of 1887 and was killed in a gunfight with lawmen while resisting arrest.

Wyatt Earp continued to live a colorful life. In his later years, he often advised Hollywood cowboy actors and Western film directors. He died in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929, at age 80.

Wyatt and Josephine Earp, in their mining camp near Vidal, California in 1906
Wyatt and Josephine Earp, in their mining camp near Vidal, California in 1906

Countless books, films, and television shows tell the story of Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral gunfight, but only some are accurate. One biography I found to be trustworthy is Casey Tefertiller’s 1999 biography, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. A short book purporting to be a blow-by-blow account of the gunfight itself is Countdown to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, written by K.M. Lassiter and published in 2017. The movies and television shows from the 1950s might be enjoyable entertainment, but their picture of Wyatt Earp is quite distorted.

An older Wyatt Earp ca. 1920s
An older Wyatt Earp ca. 1920s

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