The Gunfight at O.K. Corral

Part 2: Conflict Turns Violent

The town of Tombstone had been founded in March of 1879. James and Virgil and Wyatt arrived in December of that year, when the town was still quite small.

Living in the county since the 1870s were Ike and Billy Clanton and their father, Newman, who owned a large ranch. The Clantons were involved in rustling cattle and smuggling goods, and helping them often in both of those regards were Billy Claiborne and Frank and Tom McLaury.

In such a concentrated area, all of these men would have known one another well; the respective occupations of the various men would have almost guaranteed that they would have had run-ins with one another, and so it was that the Gunfight was not the first time that these men had traded words or blows. (In fact, the Gunfight was not the end of the bad blood, either.)

It was also the case that the Earps in particular and possibly Holliday as well were known to have acted outside the law themselves on a few occasions, involving saloons and gambling. Holliday was thought to have been involved in shootouts before, and some reports say that a few men he opposed in those shootouts didn't make it out alive.

On April 19, 1881, the Tombstone City Council passed Ordinance 9, which required anyone entering the town to deposit any weapons they might be carrying at a livery or saloon before going about their business. When the Cowboys did not do so on the day of the Gunfight, City Marshal Virgil Earp decided to act.

The day before, October 25, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury had been in Tombstone, seeking supplies. A series of increasingly violent interactions followed, such that on the day of the Gunfight, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne were also in town.

It so happened that about 3 p.m. on October 26, Doc Holliday and all of the Earp brothers were near a vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral and found the two Clantons, the two McLaurys, and Claiborne. Tempers blazed, as did guns. The 10 men fired 30 shots in 30 seconds, and then three men lay dead.

Virgil Earp had killed Billy Clanton straight away; Doc Holliday had done the same to Tom McLaury. Wyatt Earp had wounded Frank McLaury, who died a short time later. Holliday and Morgan and Virgil Earp were also wounded but survived. Wyatt Earp was unharmed and stood among the carnage. Claiborne and Ike Clanton were also unharmed but quickly left the scene.

When the dust settled, Ike Clanton returned and charged the Earps and Holliday with murder. Clanton had an ally in Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, who had witnessed the shootout.

A series of official hearings that took place after the shootout, known as the Spicer hearings (after the presiding legal officer, Justice Wells Spicer), resulted in a decision that the accused had been justified in their actions.

Also open to question was who was doing exactly what and what exactly happened when and why. Different newspaper accounts of the shootout and the events leading up to it paint different pictures. Accounts of the Spicer hearings in Tombstone's two major newspapers, The Daily Nugget and The Tombstone Epitah, differed, not least because the publisher of one (the Epitaph) favored the Earp "clan" and the publisher of the other (the Daily Nugget) favored the Clanton "clan."

Forensic evidence has been able to help in one regard: Autopsies revealed that none of the deceased had been killed while holding their hands up, as had been claimed.

The two "clans" had further run-ins, and some involved trading gunfire. Ike Clanton and other Cowboys shot and crippled Virgil Earp a couple of months later; Virgil died not long after.

Morgan Earp was gunned down on March 18, 1882, in the street outside a theatre house. In response, his brothers James and Warren and Wyatt, together with Doc Holliday and a few other gunmen, went after the assassins. The culprits this time were Cowboys but not the survivors of the Gunfight at O.K. Corral. The leader of the gang that killed Morgan Earp was Frank Stilwell, and the Earp posse succeeded in preventing him from committing any more crimes. Earp and Holliday made a policy of going after every other man known to have shot Morgan Earp, even to the point of chasing them to other state territories.

Ike Clanton continued his rustling ways, eventually being shot by detective Jonas Brighton near Springerville, Arizona Territory, in 1887. Billy Claiborne was killed in a saloon fight with another gunfighter in 1882.

Tuberculosis eventually killed Doc Holliday, in 1887, in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

Wyatt Earp lived the longest, dying in 1929 after a career change to saloon owner, race horse owner, and gold rush chaser. (He even joined the Alaskan Gold Rush.) A biography published two years after his death set out a large part of what has come to be part of the public perception of Earp and his part in the Gunfight at O.K. Corral. The biography was later proved to be largely fictional.

The fracas has come to be known as the Gunfight at O.K. Corral; however, the shootout did not take place at the O.K. Corral but in a 15-foot-wide vacant lot on Fremont Street. The lot was between the Harwood House and Fly's Boarding House and Photography Studio. Subsequent references to the shootout, including several books and a few Hollywood movies, solidified the incorrect geographical placing.

The shootout was not an uncommon occurrence in the frontier days of the American Southwest, when law enforcement was sometimes wanting, either in numbers or in adhering to the law. The Gunfight at O.K. Corral became a famous event as a result of the sensational nature of the events, the number of people involved, and the later media exposure.

As for Tombstone, the town still exists and trades on its Gunfight past. The silver mines dried up, and the county moved its seat (to Bisbee) but Tombstone soldiered on; it has been called "the town too tough to die."

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Social Studies for Kids
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David White