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Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a gunfight that happened at about 3 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in a vacant lot, known as lot 2, in block 17, behind the corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, United States. Some of the fighting was in Fremont Street in front of the vacant lot. About 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds. Although only three men were killed during the gunfight, it is generally regarded as the most famous gunfight in the history of the west. Many other gunfights of the period resulted in more people killed, such as the Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight, the Going Snake Massacre, the Hot Springs Gunfight, and the Gunfight at Hide Park.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been portrayed in numerous Western films. It has come to symbolize the struggle between law-and-order and open-banditry and rustling in frontier towns of the Old West where law enforcement was often weak or simply nonexistent.

The gunfighters

Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday fought Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Claiborne, Ike Clanton, and Billy Clanton. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne (who later claimed that he had been unarmed, though some reports credit him with shooting one or more times) ran away from the fight, unharmed. Both McLaurys and Billy Clanton were killed; Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday were wounded.


The conflicts leading to the gunfight are complex: the two sides were related in two instances (in both cases by strong family ties), but were in opposition due to politics, business concerns, and other ideological factors. The McLaury's, the Clantons and Claiborne were from a larger group called the Cowboys. The Cowboys were not necessarily hated, but they were loosely organized criminals. They were good for business. However, they enforced their interests in the town as a group, and going against one of them would likely be dangerous. Certainly they did not allow the law to hinder them.

The Earps were viewed by their enemies as badge-toting tyrants who ruthlessly enforced the business interests of the town; the McLaurys, Clantons and their Cowboy crowd were viewed by their enemies as cattle rustlers, thieves, and murderers. "Cowboys" was a term used in the area to identify a band of outlaws — which included the McLaurys and Clantons — who were implicated in such crimes. These Cowboys were affiliated by a combination of blood relatives, friendships and some sources say a sworn oath. The Cowboys did not have the formal structure of a modern gang. Cowboys teamed up in crimes and came to each other's aid based on personal relationships, and a general understanding, not orders from a leader. In addition to this, although known to one another and having worked on cattle ranches together, not all of those considered part of the Cowboy faction were involved in illegal acts. However, the shooting at the OK Corral itself would not have occurred if retaliation was not their MO.

Contrary to popular belief through subsequent films and writings, the Cowboy faction was fairly popular in Tombstone as they had a lot of money to spend. Many members were involved in cattle rustling and probably some in robberies, most were seen as wild but generally easy to get along with, as long as you were not standing in the way of their progress. Many of the businesses in Tombstone saw the "Cowboys" as "job security," since they bolstered the business of saloons and gambling houses around town, and rarely were known to involve themselves in illegal activities inside of Tombstone.

The Clantons themselves were successful ranchers, with their ranch in Charleston, Arizona being one of the most successful in the territory at the time. Definitely they were associated with several outlaws, but there is little evidence that any large-scale planned outlaw operations were underway based at their ranch, as is often indicated in films. Although Ike Clanton was not well liked, due mostly to his boasting attitude when drinking, his brother Billy was quite popular, and considered level headed and hard working. Little is known about brothers John and Phin Clanton, and it appears they simply worked their ranch. It is known that Phin Clanton was arrested several times over the years, for cattle rustling and once for robbery, but he was never convicted, quite possibly due to the Clantons' involvement in the Cowboy group.

The Earp faction, although portrayed throughout history as doing what had to be done as lawmen during the ultimate gunfight, were quite possibly viewed in Tombstone as men who took advantage of their positions as lawmen to improve their market position on gambling, and using their law-enforcement positions against some while choosing not to do so against others. It should be noted there is no documentation to support either position.

The key incident leading up to the shooting was an attempted stagecoach robbery on March 15, 1881, in which two people were killed and a prime suspect escaped from jail afterward. In the aftermath, accusations about who was involved in the robbery floated about, with Doc Holliday made a suspect after his girlfriend Big Nose Kate accused him while jealous and angry after a fight, but later recanted. In reality, the suspects in that robbery were Luther King, who mysteriously escaped after he implicated Bill Leonard, John Crane, and Harry Head.

Wyatt intended to stand for election for sheriff of Cochise County against incumbent Johnny Behan, his eventual rival. Wyatt reported that he (Wyatt) attempted to bribe Ike Clanton with Wells Fargo Co. reward money for information leading to the capture or death of the stage-robbers. Wyatt believed catching the robbers would help him win the sheriff's office. According to Wyatt, Ike later backed out of the deal after the robbers had all been killed in other separate incidents. Ike Clanton, for his part, would later claim that Wyatt and Holliday had actually been the ones involved in the stage robbery, and wanted to kill him because of his knowledge of this. However, Ike Clanton did not explain why Wyatt or Holliday would confide such a thing to him, as he claimed they both separately did, and Ike's testimony on this point was not believed by the presiding justice (or many people in the courtroom).

It can be said with good accuracy that much of the tensions that led up to the gunfight itself were simply rumours told by Ike Clanton about Doc Holliday, and misunderstandings, all of which led to tensions. Although history would eventually slant the events into the favor of the Earp faction, in reality Billy Clanton, as well as Frank and Tom McLaury, had not had any clashes with the Earps prior to the gunfight. All three were detained the night that Tombstone marshal Fred White was accidentally shot and killed by "Curly Bill" Brocius, but were released. Although later portrayed as a murder, that unfortunate incident has since been proven to have been an accident. By Fred White's own admission prior to his death, the pistol had gone off accidentally. In addition, White was actually well liked and respected by Brocius and others of the "Cowboy" faction.

Billy Clanton had also been caught in possession of a stolen horse. However, it was never confirmed whether Billy Clanton knew that the horse was stolen, and when he returned it the matter was dropped. Also, information provided later by William McLaury, the older brother to Frank and Tom McLaury, and a judge in Fort Worth, Texas, indicated that his brothers and Billy Clanton had no idea there would be problems. He said that his brothers had sold their cattle and were coming to Fort Worth to see him for a visit, and Billy Clanton would be coming with them. It is however, at least as likely that they were in fact expecting a showdown. The day of the gunfight, Frank and Tom McLaury were believed to have been in town to do business associated with their small ranch.

Although it has since been proven that Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne, among others, had been pushing for a fight with Holliday and the Earps, ironically the three killed during the gunfight had little or nothing to do with the issues preceding it. They were simply a part of the Cowboy faction and there to defend their fellow members' position. Holliday himself had attempted to instigate a fight with Ike Clanton. The gunfight launched Wyatt Earp to fame, and added considerably to Doc Holliday's already existing reputation. Although some within Tombstone itself viewed the gunfight as unnecessary, many viewed the events as a necessary, something that inevitably would help bring law and order to Tombstone.

Lead-up to the event

Relevant law in Tombstone

Ordinances Relevant in the Preliminary Hearing in the Earp-Holliday Case, Heard before Judge Wells Spicer.
November 1881

Ordinance No. 9:
"To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons" (effective April 19, 1881).

Section 1. "It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any person to carry deadly weapons, concealed or otherwise [except the same be carried openly in sight, and in the hand] within the limits of the City of Tombstone.

Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.

Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance."

Ordinance No. 7, Section 1:
"Any establishment, house of prostitution or other place open to the public and it shall be the duty of any officer to enter such place and at once arrest such persons as he may then find engaged in or causing such breach of the peace." (effective April 12, 1881).

Events up to the Ike Clanton court hearing

On Tuesday October 25, 1881, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury drove the 10 miles into Tombstone from Chandler's Milk Ranch at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains. They were in town to get supplies, and rode in a spring wagon (a light horse-team drawn wagon, often with removable seats to increase cargo-carrying area), arriving about 11 A.M. That evening, shortly after midnight, Clanton had a verbal run-in with Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp.

The previous weekend Holliday had been out of town, gambling at a fiesta celebration in Tucson. Morgan Earp had gone to get him for the trouble with the Cowboys that he saw coming. In the small hours of the morning of the 26th, Clanton was confronted by Holliday who walked into the 24-hour "lunch-counter" where Clanton was eating, and tried to provoke Clanton into drawing his gun; the reasons for this confrontation would vary by the witness.

Wyatt and Morgan Earp watched the confrontation, and Wyatt suggested that Morgan, as a city police officer, do something about it. However, no arrests were made; Virgil threatened to arrest Doc and Ike if they didn't stop, and finally Wyatt got Doc in hand and took him back to his boarding house to sleep it off. Some accounts claim that Ike Clanton ended up threatening Doc Holliday and all the Earps, as soon as he was armed, while other accounts claim that it was Holliday that threatened Clanton. Meanwhile, Wyatt had gone home to bed. Virgil Earp, the City Marshal (Chief of Police), in order to try to calm things down overnight, spent the night playing a long card game with Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, Cochise County sheriff Johnny Behan and a fourth man unknown to Ike Clanton and to history. Ike Clanton later testified that Virgil sat through the game with a pistol on his lap, which caused Ike to be upset.

In the morning, around dawn at about 6 or 7 A.M., the card game broke up and Behan and Virgil Earp went home to bed. Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton were still awake, with nothing to do. For some reason neither of them rented a room to get sleep. Ike was drinking heavily. By later in the morning Ike had reacquired both his rifle and pistol, having gotten them (so he testified later) from the West End Corral, where the wagon was and where weapons brought into the city by Ike and Tom the day before should by law have been left.

By noon on Wednesday, October 26, Ike was publicly bar-hopping while fully armed, still saying he was looking for Holliday or an Earp. Not long after noon, Virgil and Morgan Earp (who had been bothered in their sleep by various people reporting Ike Clanton's threats) came up behind Clanton on 4th Street, grabbed Clanton's rifle, and pistol-whipped Ike. The Earps then took Clanton to court for violating the city's ordinance against carrying firearms after arrival in the city.

The Clanton court hearing and following events

Before the hearing that followed almost immediately, and while Virgil was out looking for the judge, Ike, Morgan, and Wyatt traded death-threats with Wyatt finally matching Ike in dangerous language. When Judge Wallace arrived, Ike Clanton was fined $25 plus court costs, and left sometime after 1 P.M., unarmed. Virgil, ever the calm city peace officer, told Ike he'd leave Ike's confiscated rifle and pistol at the Grand Hotel (a favorite of the Cowboys when in town) and he did so. There Ike's weapons stayed through the gunfight which followed.

Ike's death threats against all the Earps got under Wyatt's skin during the hearing. While extremely agitated as he left the court that was trying Ike, Wyatt almost walked into Tom McLaury, who was headed the other way. Witnesses would agree that Wyatt was headed toward the court while Tom was headed away, but regardless of the directions of the men, the trial apparently had already happened. The two men were brought up short nose-to-nose. Wyatt immediately instigated an argument with Tom. Tom, as an ordinary citizen who had arrived in town the day before, was not supposed to be armed. Wyatt, however, saw that Tom had a pistol under his shirt, tucked into the waistband of his pants. Wyatt was armed in his capacity as temporary deputy for his brother.

At this point the Earps had had enough of armed Cowboys in town, and Virgil, who was the city marshal and also the deputy federal marshal for the area, deputised Holiday, and possibly said something about active service for Wyatt as well, although the latter was never clear. Wyatt said in the deposition that he had been acting as temporary city marshal for Virgil the week before the gunfight, while Virgil was in Tucson for the Pete Spence and Frank Stilwell trial. Wyatt would say that he still considered himself a deputy city marshal, and Virgil would later confirm that. However, it is apparent from Wyatt's behavior at the time that he thought that arresting Tom for the misdemeanor infraction of carrying a firearm within city limits, or searching Tom for a concealed pistol (neither of them federal crimes) would best be done by Virgil Earp in his capacity as city-marshal, or by one of Virgil's paid city-police deputies – which recently had come to include Morgan Earp and possibly Warren Earp, but not Wyatt, who was only a temporary and unpaid deputy with no badge. Wyatt was ready for a gunfight – preferring an open fight when he was ready for it. Under the circumstances, however, the only thing Wyatt could do to provoke a fight was to attack Tom and force him to draw his weapon. Wyatt (according to witnesses) drew his own pistol from his coat pocket (or at least through the pocket from his pants) and pistol-whipped Tom McLaury with it. This put Tom prostrate and bleeding in the street, but it did not accomplish Wyatt's goal: Tom would not draw a weapon, either because he would be immediately killed for doing so or because of a herculean force of will and decision to avoid retribution of violence. Since Wyatt (as an off-duty temporary deputy) could not legally search or arrest Tom for the pistol problem (which would have been a misdemenor), and Tom would not draw a weapon for a gunfight, Wyatt was finally forced simply to walk away. Teetotaler Wyatt, needing something for his nerves by this point, would testify later that he walked directly to the nearest saloon to buy a cigar.

Possibility of a concealed weapon on Tom McLaury

Whether Tom McLaury actually did have a concealed pistol in his pants at the time of his beating by Wyatt remains a historical mystery. It is known from the later testimony of saloon-keeper Andrew Mehan at the Spicer Hearing that at this same time of the beating, between 1 and 2 P.M., Tom McLaury did deposit his pistol at the nearby Capital Saloon on the southwest corner of Fremont and 4th Street. Further, one of the witnesses to Tom's beating (A. Bauer) would testify that he saw Tom AFTER the beating, at the Capital Saloon. Thus, unless Tom visited the Capital Saloon both before and after his beating by Earp, he left the pistol there after the beating and therefore was armed during the beating by Wyatt, just as Wyatt believed him to be. Wyatt, from this actions, thought Tom was possibly carrying a weapon to back up his friend Ike. However, it is possible that Tom was merely carrying the pistol as protection from robbery, since he intended to receive $3000, some of it in cash the next day, from sale of beefstock. Because of Wyatt's beating, he ended up doing this without the weapon, however.

Depositing his pistol at the saloon was an act that, according to city ordinance, Tom should have performed the previous day when he first arrived in town. The fact that Tom left his pistol at the Capital Saloon on the 26th, and not at the West End Corral on the 25th when he arrived in town more than 24 hours earlier, shows that Tom McLaury did indeed carry his pistol as a concealed weapon into town for some time, contrary to city ordinance which required weapons to be deposited immediately upon arrival. Tom's reason for leaving his pistol at the saloon after being beaten by Wyatt would appear that he wished to give Wyatt no further excuse for violence. However, the Earps had no way of knowing that Tom had gotten rid of the weapon.

In any event, Tom's pistol, like Ike Clanton's arms, remained at a nearby saloon during the O.K. Corral gunfight.

By the time Ike and Tom had seen doctors for their head wounds, it was getting into the early afternoon. The day was chilly, with snow still on the ground in some places. Neither Tom nor Ike had slept, but had spent the night gambling. Now they were both out-of-doors, both wounded from head beatings, and at least Ike was still drunk. It is likely that both men were under a great deal of stress and in no shape to organize an ambush.

More Cowboys enter town

At about this time (1:30 to 2:30 pm or so, but after the pistol-whipping of Tom) fresher men with more willingness to fight arrived in town. Ike's younger brother Billy Clanton (aged 19) and Tom's older brother Frank McLaury had heard from Ed "old man" Frink that Ike had been stirring up trouble in town overnight, and they had ridden into town on horseback to back up their brothers. They had come from Antelope Springs, 13 miles east of Tombstone, where they had been rounding up stock with their brothers and had had breakfast with Ike and Tom the day before. Both Frank and Billy were armed with pistol and rifle, as was the custom for lone riders in the wild country outside Tombstone. Apache warriors had fought with the U.S. Army near Tombstone just three weeks before the O.K. Corral gunfight, so the southeast Arizona Territory country was far from tame.

Billy and Frank stopped first at the Grand Hotel on Allen Street, being greeted there warmly by practical joker Doc Holliday, where almost immediately they were told of the beatings of both of their brothers by Earps within the previous two hours – an item which was the big news in town. Immediately, Frank and Billy left the saloon without drinking.

By law and custom, both Frank and Billy also should have left their firearms at the first corral or hotel at which they stopped in town, in this case the Grand Hotel. Instead of doing that, they remained fully-armed about the Western part or "horse end" of town. At some point, they even ventured up to Spangenberger's gun and hardware store (on 4th Street) to buy ammunition, where they were observed by Wyatt Earp who was smoking his cigar outside Hafford's saloon nearby.

Wyatt and Virgil Earp’s reactions

Wyatt still had the problem of having no legal authority to question their holding of weapons, and so did nothing but move Frank McLaury's horse off the sidewalk where it had strayed. Earp gave the excuse for handling the horse that he still considered himself a city police deputy, but he was still overplaying his role. Earp's handling of his horse provoked Frank to come out of the store, but not to draw his pistol from its holster. Again, things were at a draw.

Wyatt Earp thought that the Cowboys, including Ike, were arming themselves in the store; Ike would testify later that Tom was not in the store, but Wyatt could not tell who was there and who was not. Ike would say that indeed he had actually tried to buy a new pistol in the store, but the owner, observing his head bandages (and possibly his drunken state) refused to sell him one. If Ike did indeed try to buy a pistol, it would have meant that he had not heard (or had not believed) Virgil Earp, who had put Ike's weapons exactly where he had said he would for Ike to pick them up before leaving town.

Meanwhile, Virgil Earp, in charge of enforcing city law, was trying to avoid a confrontation with Frank and Billy by not going to where Virgil thought Frank and Billy were. These armed men, newly arrived in the city, were pushing at two fuzzy borders in the city law. One issue was how far east into town a newly-arrived traveler might go while carrying a firearm; the three main Tombstone corrals were all at the west end of town, a block or two away from where the Cowboys were buying ammunition. It was generally understood that newly-arrived travelers could pass through town while armed, if on their way directly to a hotel or saloon. The other question was how long, after arriving in town, might a traveler legally keep his firearms if he still had his horse with him. The latter would mean he was still in the process of "arriving" while surrendering a horse or wagon at a corral/livery stable automatically meant surrendering firearms with it.

The Earps apparently thought that Tom and Ike had arrived the previous day at the Dunbar Corral on Allen Street, where they were known friends of the owners, including Sheriff Behan. They naturally assumed that newly arrived "reinforcements" Frank and Billy would leave their horses and arms there also, if they meant peace. Thus, when Virgil heard that the Cowboys had gone to the O.K. Corral (across from Dunbar's, but still close to it) he made the decision, stated in the presence of witnesses, that he would seek to disarm the Cowboys only if they left the vicinity of the corrals while still armed. That would have meant that they intended openly violating the town law against weapon-carrying after arrival or while not preparing to leave town. Unfortunately, unknown to the Earps, Ike and Tom had actually left their horse and wagon at the West End Corral on Fremont Street a block north of the O.K. Corral. If they prepared to leave town, it would be from a place a block north of where the Earps assumed it would (and should) be.

Actions near Fremont Street directly before the fatal fight

When Frank Mc Laury and Billy Clanton began to gather on Fremont Street, while still saddled and armed, Virgil Earp suspected they were getting too far from the corrals he assumed they and their brothers had arrived at.

Johnny Behan, Cochise County Sheriff and friend of the Cowboys, testified later that he learned of the trouble while he was being shaved at the barbershop sometime after 1:30 P.M., the time he'd risen after his late night game. Behan stated he immediately went to Fremont Street, where he found Frank McLaury still with horse and arms, on Fremont and 4th Street (this would now have been about 2:30 P.M.). Down the street to the west, he saw that Ike, Tom, and Billy had all gathered off the street in a vacant lot, which was immediately west of the Fly Gallery at 312 Fremont Street and Fly's 12-room boarding house. This was about half a block east of the West End Corral, which the Cowboys may have been intending to use as a jumping-off point to get out of town, as soon as Frank finished doing business (it was also about half a block west of the Capitol Saloon where Tom's pistol was).

Unfortunately for them, the Cowboys gathered in a lot a block away from the O.K. Corral entrance on Allen Street. It was unluckily also west of Fly's where Doc Holliday had a room in the Harwood house, and also between the position of the Earps and their homes just two blocks further west on Fremont Street. The lot was then owned by William A. Harwood, forced from office as Tombstone's second mayor (see Wyatt Earp Photo Page web site). It was residential property and had nothing to do with the Benson and Montgomery owned O.K. Corral. Ordinarily, Mr. Harwood used the lot to store lumber but it was vacant at that time. Jersey's Livery Stable was also nearby. All of this constituted a physical threat which the Earps and Holliday could hardly ignore, especially in light of Ike Clanton's verbal threats.

On Fremont and 4th Street, Behan tried to disarm Frank McLaury, and here Frank made the fatal error of resisting disarmament by Behan (who was the sheriff), insisting that Virgil Earp (the chief of police) and his brothers disarm first. Instead of leaving town, as Ike Clanton now planned to do, Frank McLaury insisted on staying in town to do some business. However, there is no evidence to suggest that he intended on confronting the Earps. A letter written by his older brother, William McLaury, who was a judge in Fort Worth, Texas, claimed that both Frank and Tom were trying to tie some loose ends up business wise, before leaving town to visit him in Fort Worth. Billy Clanton was intending on accompanying them.

Meanwhile, having heard that the newly arrived Cowboys were now on Fremont Street, bearing weapons, and now a block away from the entrance to the O.K. Corral where they were legally entitled to hold weapons, Virgil Earp decided to act. While Wyatt was confronting Frank McLaury at Spangenberg's, Virgil had collected a shotgun from the Wells Fargo office around the corner on Allen Street, in case of trouble. This would have been a very short-barreled "messenger" or coach gun type weapon, double-barrelled and likely 12-gauge (though possibly 10-gauge), loaded with buckshot. Returning to Hafford's, and not wanting to alarm the citizenry of Tombstone by carrying the shotgun through the streets, Virgil gave the shotgun to Doc Holliday to hide under his longer overcoat. (The Earps carried pistols in their coat pockets, or in their waistbands; there is some evidence that Holliday was using his longer coat that morning to conceal a pistol holster). Virgil took Holliday's walking-stick in return, which he carried in his right hand to use for emphasis. Then the Earps and Holliday walked west down the south side of Fremont street toward the Cowboys' last known position, keeping out of sight of the Cowboys.

Along the way, the Earps met Sheriff Behan, coming up Fremont street from the Cowboys. Behan told the Earps (or so Wyatt and Virgil heard him say) that he had disarmed the Cowboys and that no trouble was necessary. The Earps brushed by Behan, only slightly put off their guard. But when the Earps moved out into the middle of Fremont street and came into full view of the Cowboys in the vacant lot west of Fly's boarding house, they found two horses with saddles and rifles in the lot, and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton still near their horses, wearing their pistol belts and still fully armed. Later, Wyatt would especially blame Behan for telling what he took to be a lie about leaving the Cowboys disarmed. Behan would testify that he'd only said he'd gone down to the Cowboys "for the purpose of disarming them," not that he'd actually done it.

As the Earps and Holliday headed south into the alley between Fly's Boarding House and the Harwood house, they came upon Ike Clanton as he was talking to Billy Claiborne in the middle of the lot. Behind them, against a house to the west (the Harwood house), stood Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton, and the horses of Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury. The precise arrangements of the men and animals would be debated by witnesses, but the Coroner's inquest and the Spicer hearing produced the following blackboard sketch. The Cowboys stood from left to right facing Fremont Street, Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton, with Frank and Billy next to the Harwood house and Tom and Ike roughly in the middle of the alley. Facing them were Morgan Earp facing Frank near the Harwood House, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp in the middle of the alley facing south and Virgil Earp holding the left end of the line opposite Ike Clanton. This set-up means that to open the fight, Morgan and Doc fired across one another at Billy and Frank, respectively.

The gunfight


The roughly 30-second gunfight that ensued at about 3:00 p.m. that afternoon of October 26 came to be known in the 1950s (after a movie title) as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and arguably the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West. It has been the subject of many books and movies. Who started the shooting remains a mystery, with partisan factions telling differing stories, and independent eyewitnesses who did not know the participants by sight unable to say for certain.

Of the participants, and contrary to popular belief, none but Virgil Earp had any extensive experience in shooting situations. Virgil's years of service during the Civil War gave him ample combat experience going into the fight, although it was experience of a different sort than street fighting. Virgil had also been involved in a police shooting in Prescott, Arizona Territory (see his biography). Wyatt Earp, despite his reputation and although becoming famous due to the fight and the Earp vendetta ride following it, had only been involved in one shooting before the O. K. Corral, and was not widely known at the time, film portrayals notwithstanding. In that one shooting (in Dodge City, 1878), Wyatt Earp always claimed to have been the one to shoot a retreating horseman named George Hoy, who died later as a result of the gunshot wound to his arm. However, many lawmen, including James Masterson and his brother Bat Masterson, were involved in shooting at Hoy. History does not record that Morgan Earp had any experience at gunfighting prior to this incident. Doc Holliday, also despite his reputation, had been mixed up in a few altercations here and there, mostly while drunk, but details of those are sketchy and generally not believed to have been extensive. Holliday had (perhaps) killed one man in a gunfight prior to Tombstone, that having taken place in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and in the presence of gunman and friend John Joshua Webb.

As for the Earp faction's opposition, short of a few minor instances prior, this was believed to have been the first actual shootout for any of them, except for Billy Claiborne, who had been in at least one gunfight, over which he was later arrested for killing a man. However, Claiborne did not fire a shot during the O.K. Corral gunfight, and fled the scene, claiming later he was unarmed at the time. The closest thing to a shootout in which the McLaurys and Clantons are possibly involved, was the Skeleton Canyon Massacre, but no witness to that (there were two survivors) say anything other than Mexicans were at that fight.

The fight

Virgil Earp requested that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday support him and Morgan Earp in preparation for the gunfight. They were both deputized for the occasion. Wyatt spoke of his brothers Virgil and Morgan as the "marshals" while he acted as "deputy." Virgil carried a cane in his right hand to signify his intent to avoid a fight, but gave his double-barrelled shotgun to Doc Holliday, who concealed it under his longcoat.

Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and other Cowboys had been spoiling for a fight, and the Earps and Holliday were determined to give it. Martha J. King, who was in Bauer's Butcher Shop on Fremont Street when the Earp party passed, testified to hearing one of the Earps [Morgan] on the outside of that party look around and say to Doc Holliday, "Let them have it!" to which Holliday grimly replied, "All right! When the Earp party reached the alley between the Harwood House and Fly's Boarding House, the Cowboys came out to meet them, so that both parties were drawn up in rough lines facing one another at extremely close range. According to one witness (A. Bourland), Doc Holliday poked his "large bronze pistol" (very possibly the sun glinting off Holliday's revolver, which was known to be nickel-plated) into a cowboy's belly (Frank McLaury's), then took a couple of steps backward. Virgil Earp immediately commanded the Cowboys to "throw up your hands!" But as he heard the click of hammers behind him (from Morgan and Doc), he had to yell to his own men, "Hold! I don't mean that!" Almost immediately, however, general firing commenced. The first two shots were so close together that they were almost indistinguishable, and almost certainly came from Doc and Morgan.

Wyatt would testify that the first two shots came as he shot Frank McLaury in the abdomen, and Billy Clanton shot at Wyatt, but missed (Wyatt was not hit at all in the fight). This claim was aimed at refuting the claim by the prosecutors that the Earps had opened fire on the Cowboys in cold blood.

Billy was immediately hit in the right wrist as he drew his pistol, making his gun hand useless, but he gamely shifted his pistol to his left hand and kept firing until he had emptied his gun. A shot from behind the Earp party drew their attention, and Tom or Frank McLaury (Josie Marcus attributes that shot to Tom) used that instant to fire over the back of the horse behind which he had taken cover, hitting Morgan Earp in the back, who had turned to answer this shot fired from ambush (by Johnny Behan, Ike Clanton or Will Allen). Doc Holliday emptied Virgil's shotgun into Tom McLaury's left side as Tom let the horse go and half-turned to run down Fremont street. Tom staggered farther down the street, where he collapsed and died. Doc then tossed aside the shotgun and unholstered his pistol, firing at Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton.

The firing continued with Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury wounded but still fighting. Either Billy or Frank hit Virgil Earp in the calf. Frank and Doc squared off and Frank hit Doc in the left hip, but the shot was deflected by Holliday's leather holster, and he suffered only a bruise. Morgan Earp was back up and still firing, and he, Doc and Wyatt all attested to firing at Frank, with Morgan and Doc each thinking he had fired the killing shot. General firing did not end until Billy Clanton finally went down from the killing shot to his left breast, crying out for more cartridges. Virgil, though hit, may have put this shot into Billy.

According to Josie Marcus, the Earp brothers said what was necessary at the hearing to counter the lies of Behan and the Cowboys. Wyatt's mistress and later-to-be common-law wife minced no words in this regard, just as she confirmed the truth of Martha J. King's testimony about the exchange between Morgan and Doc on the way to the fight. Wyatt's testimony at the Spicer indictment hearing was in writing (as was permitted by law, which allowed statements without cross-examination at pre-trial hearings) and Wyatt, therefore, was not cross-examined. Wyatt testified that he and Billy Clanton began the fight after Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols, and Wyatt shot Frank in the stomach while Billy shot at Wyatt and missed. No witnesses confuted the testimony of Wyatt Earp that Ike Clanton had run up to him and protested that he was unarmed. To this protest Wyatt had responded, "Go to fighting or get away! Thus, the unarmed Ike Clanton escaped the shooting unwounded, as did the allegedly unarmed Billy Claiborne. Wyatt Earp was not hit in the fight, while Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp were hit. Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury were killed.

Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were openly armed with pistols in gunbelts and holsters, but possibly, although it is not known for certain, due to their close proximity to the corral believed themselves safe in being armed. Whether Tom McLaury was armed during the fight is unknown, but there is circumstantial evidence he was not. Certainly, some of the Earps believed he was, and that he had "sneaked" a shot over the horse he was hiding behind when a shot from behind the Earps distracted them. In response to this perceived threat, Doc Holliday emptied both barrels of his shotgun into Tom. The Cowboys claimed that Tom McLaury was unarmed, and indeed Tom's pistol was at a saloon half a block away, where the barkeep would later testify Tom had deposited it hours before the fight (shortly after being beaten by Wyatt). But none of the Earps had any way of knowing this had happened, and the testimony does mean that Tom had been armed through the night and into the next day, and through his alternation with Wyatt. Josie Marcus (as ghostwriten by Boyer) said flatly that someone had spirited Tom's pistol away after he dropped it, probably Johnny Behan. Wyatt also believed that Tom had had a gun, and that somebody had taken it after he was shot. Josie may, in fact, simply have been repeating Wyatt's views of this part of the fight. Sheriff Behan stated in his testimony that his own search of Tom McLaury for a weapon prior to the gunfight was not thorough, and that McLaury might have had a pistol hidden in his waistband and covered by his long blouse and vest worn over his trousers, and not tucked in. This testimony is significant, since Behan was a prime witness for the prosecution. One would have expected him to lie outright on this point to convict the Earps. In his own testimony, Wyatt stated that he believed Tom McLaury was armed with a pistol, but his language contains equivocation. The same is true of Virgil Earp's testimony. Both Earp brothers left themselves room for contradiction on this point, but neither one was equivocal about the fact that Tom had been killed by Holliday with a shotgun blast, and this fact was borne out by the coroner's exam.

The various injuries

Wyatt came out of the gunfight unscathed, while Virgil was shot through the right calf, Morgan was shot through the upper back above his shoulder blades (by a single bullet), and Holliday was grazed on the hip.

Virgil thought he had been shot by Billy Clanton. Morgan thought he had been shot by Frank McLaury. Holliday was sure that his hip wound, late in the fight, was from Frank, and exclaimed as he crossed the street "That son of a bitch has shot me and I am going to kill him."

Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury died from their wounds. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran through the middle of the fight and escaped uninjured (Ike briefly struggling with Wyatt, by both men's accounts, before escaping).

Frank McLaury was shot in the abdomen near the navel, early in the fight (Wyatt Earp testified in writing at the trial to firing this shot, saying at the same time Billy Clanton had fired at him, but missed). Doc Holliday (identified later from his coat and hat) was seen by witness Bourland putting a "large bronze pistol" against one of the cowboys (Bourland knew none of the men by sight), then stepping back a few steps before the firing opened. This "large pistol" may have been Holliday's short shotgun, since he would not have used a pistol while carrying a shotgun. There is other evidence that since Tom McLaury was hit early in the fight, and since the coroner's evidence showed Holliday and nobody else shot Tom, this shotgun blast would have been one of the early shots in that scenario.

Tom McLaury, fatally wounded from the double shotgun blast delivered by Doc Holliday, was seen by witness C.H. Light, running or stumbling westward, away from the action, after the first few shots early in the fight and while shooting was still going on, and Frank and Billy were still standing. As he fell, Lake's biography of Earp states that Wyatt shot Tom in the abdomen, but no such wound was found by the coroner. Tom fell at the telegraph pole at the corner of Fremont and 3rd Street (see left-most mark on photo at right). The coroner's report showed that Tom had been hit only with a dozen buckshot, high in the side of his chest near the right armpit (the pattern being so tight that the coroner could cover it with a hand). He died without speaking, a few minutes after being carried into the nearest house on the corner (the Harwood House). Light testified that Tom, who was already running when Light began observing, fell and lay at the corner during the entire fight, and did no shooting.

Frank McLaury stumbled into the street with his horse, firing his pistol, only to lose the frightened horse before the rifle could be recovered from it. A number of witnesses observed a horseman leading a horse into the street and firing near it, and Wyatt thought this was Tom McLaury. Frank crossed the street (Fremont) and fired twice more before he was felled at the end of the fight by a pistol bullet hitting him at the base of his skull under his right ear. This shot was fired by Morgan Earp, or by Holliday, both of whom were firing at him at the time. The newspaper account mentions a mortal chest wound to Frank, which would have to have come at the end of the fight, and which would mean that both Holliday and Morgan fired final fatal shots. However, the coroner's report, made after careful examination of the stripped bodies of all the dead men before they were delivered to the undertaker, did not find any chest wound in Frank, and so this is probably a false report. In any case, Frank died where he fell, on the sidewalk on the opposite side of Fremont street from the vacant lot. A passerby stopped to help and observed him move his mouth, but he died before he could be moved.

Billy Clanton was shot through the wrist (possibly by Morgan Earp; Keefe testified the bullet passed through the arm from "inside to outside," entering the arm close to the base of the thumb, and exiting "on the back of the wrist diagonally" with the latter wound larger), in the right chest (through the right lung; again possibly by Morgan), superficially at the right arm, and in the abdomen (under the twelfth rib; possibly by Virgil). He fell near his original position, near the corner of the Harwood house, in the empty lot. There his empty pistol was taken from him by Camillus "Buck" Sidney Fly, owner of the Fly Gallery. He died last, having put up the greatest fight from the Clanton side, dying after being carried to the same house at the corner (the Harwood house) where Tom had been taken (it probably didn't make sense to the onlookers to take both men to different adjacent houses, and the corner house was chosen for both. Also the Harwood house was possibly also being used as a mineral assay office). Billy lived long enough to be seen by a doctor and be injected with morphine. He spoke a few words, saying he'd been murdered, and indicating he couldn't breathe. (Shortness of breath following a penetrating chest wound is a classic finding of a pneumothoracic perforation).

How the fighters may have been armed

No pistol was found on Tom after the fight, by any witness. As noted, Tom's usual pistol remained unclaimed during the fight at the bar at the Capitol Saloon, on 4th Street and Fremont less than a block East of the gunfight. This pistol was exhibited and identified by the barkeep and by Ike Clanton as being Tom's pistol, at the Spicer Hearing. Wyatt Earp, to the end of his life, would believe that the pistol Tom had used in the gunfight had been removed from the scene by a Cowboy confederate. At least two witnesses thought Tom had obtained a pistol in a butcher shop on Allen street just before the fight, for he was seen leaving the shop with a newly-bulging pants pocket. However, he would have had to walk past the very saloon where his own pistol had just been deposited and was stored, to have carried this second pistol to the fight. The bulge in Tom's pants pocket noted by witnesses before the fight may have been the nearly $3000 in cash and receipts found on his body (he had probably actually picked up these at the butcher's shop immediately before the fight, as it makes little sense that he'd spent all night carrying around this much cash).

Even if Tom wasn't armed with a pistol the question remains about whether or not he tried to get a rifle. Virgil Earp testified Tom attempted to grab a rifle from a horse (this would have been Frank or Billy's horse) before he was killed. Wyatt thought Tom fired a pistol over "his" horse (actually it would have had to be Billy's horse, because Frank had his own and Tom had none). It's very possible Virgil was mistaken about which McLaury brother used his horse in the fight, as Wes Fuller saw Frank in the middle of the street shooting with a pistol, and attempting to get a Winchester from his own horse, and failing (the very action attributed to Tom). However, Wes Fuller was a member of the Cowboy Gang, and could have said that to make the Earps appear as murderers.

Billy's pistol was taken from him empty by C.S. Fly, who emerged from his boarding house at the end of the fight to disarm Billy.

Frank's pistol, with two unfired rounds remaining in it, was recovered on the street a few feet away from Frank by a bystander, and placed next to Frank's body as it lay on the sidewalk. Frank's pistol was then taken by the coroner, Dr. H.M. Mathews, and laid on the floor of the Harwood house while he examined Billy and Tom (this would cause some confusion later, but both Billy and Frank's weapons would later be positively identified as their own, by witnesses). Both Frank and Billy were armed with Colt Frontier Six-Shooter model revolver pistols (identified by their serial numbers at the hearing later) and presumably their Winchester rifles were Model 1873 weapons to match this .44-40 cartridge. What weapons the other participants of the fight were carrying cannot be acertained from primary documentation, and remains an open question.

The horses

The two saddled horses of Billy and Frank escaped from the fight and were later caught a few hundred feet up the street, both with Winchester rifles still in place in their scabbards.


The Earps and Holliday were generally considered heroes. The funerals for Clanton and the McLaurys (who were relatively wealthy men) were the largest ever seen in Tombstone. The fear of the Cowboys caused many Tombstone residents and businesses to reconsider their calls for the mass killing of Cowboys. Also, Billy Clanton was fairly popular around town, and although rowdy, the Cowboys brought substantial business into Tombstone.

Also, the fear of Cowboy retribution and the potential loss of investors because of the negative publicity in large cities like San Francisco started to turn the opinion somewhat against the Earps and Holliday. Stories that Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury were unarmed, and that Billy Clanton and Tom McLaury even threw up their hands before the shooting, now began to make the rounds. Soon, another Clanton brother (Phineas "Fin" Clanton) had arrived in town, and some began to claim that the Earps and Holliday had committed murder, instead of enforcing the law.

The Spicer hearing

After the gunfight, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday (the two men not formally employed as law officers, and also the two least wounded) were charged with murder. After extensive testimony at the preliminary hearing to decide if there was enough evidence to bind the men over for trial, the presiding Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer ruled that there was not enough evidence to indict the men. Two weeks later, a grand jury followed Spicer's finding, and also refused to indict. Spicer, in his ruling, criticized City Marshal Virgil Earp for using Wyatt and Doc as backup temporary deputies, but not for using Morgan, who had already been wearing a City Marshal badge for nine days. However, it was noted that if Wyatt and Holliday did not back up marshal Earp he would have faced even more overwhelming odds then he had, and could not possibly have survived.

The participants in later history

A few weeks following the grand jury refusal to indict, Virgil Earp was shot by hidden assailants from an unused building at night – a wound causing him complete loss of the use of his left arm. Three months later Morgan Earp was murdered by a shot in the back in Tombstone by men shooting from a dark alley.

After these incidents, Wyatt, accompanied by Doc Holliday and several other friends, undertook what has later been called the Earp vendetta ride in which they tracked down and killed the men whom they believed had been responsible for these acts. After the vendetta ride, Wyatt and Doc left the Arizona Territory in April 1882 and parted company, although they remained in contact.

Billy Claiborne was killed in a gunfight in Tombstone in late 1882 by gunman Franklin Leslie. In less than six years, Doc Holliday died of tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Virgil Earp served as the "Town Marshall", hired by the Southern Pacific RR, in Colton California. He lived without the use of his arm, although continued as a lawman in California, and died of pneumonia at age 62 in 1905, still on the job as a peace officer.

Wyatt Earp traveled across the Western Frontier for decades in the company of Josephine Marcus, working mostly as a gambler, and eventually died in Los Angeles of infection, in 1929, at the age of 80. Johnny Behan failed even to be re-nominated by his own party for the sheriff race in 1882, and never again worked as a lawman, spending the rest of his life at various government jobs, dying in Tucson of natural causes at age 67 in 1912. Ike Clanton was caught cattle rustling in 1887 and shot dead by lawmen while resisting arrest.

A legacy of questions

The issue of fault at the O.K. Corral shooting has been hotly debated over the years. To this day, Pro-Earp followers view the gunfight as a struggle between "Law-and-order" against out-of-control Cowboys; Pro-Clanton/McLaury followers view it as a political vendetta and abuse of authority.

A recent attempt to reinvestigate part of the matter aired on an episode of Discovery Channel's Unsolved History using modern technology to re-enact the shotgun shooting which was part of the incident. However, the re-enactment did not use 19th century period technology (a late 19th century shotgun messenger type short shotgun, brass cases, black powder). The episode concluded that Doc Holliday may have triggered the fight by cocking both barrels of his shotgun, but was likely not the first shooter.

Representation in film, TV and literature

It is a testament to the gunfight's impact on the American psyche that numerous dramatic, fictional, and documentary works have been produced about or referencing this event over the decades. In addition to daily re-enactments by actors at the O.K. Corral and the more complete filmography given by Allen Barra in Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends (referenced in the Further reading section, below), these works include:


Further reading

  • Steve Gatto (2000). The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography. Silver City: High-Lonesome Books. ISBN 0-944383-50-5.
  • Allen Barra (1998). Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0-7867-0685-6. Contains a thorough analysis of the O.K. Corral fight.
  • Casey Tefertiller (1997). Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-18967-7. Contains extensive discussion of the police issues and moral issues relating to the O.K. Corral shootings.
  • Paula Mitchell Marks (1989). And Die in the West: the story of the O.K. Corral gunfight. New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-671-70614-4. Extensive examination not only of the gunfight and vendettas, but also of the myth-making that took place surrounding the OK Corral incident. Marks writes from a socioeconomic perspective.
  • Grace McCool (1990). GUNSMOKE: The True Story of Old Tombstone. Tucson: Treasure Chest Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-918080-52-5.
  • Alford E. Turner (1981). THE O.K. CORRAL INQUEST. Creative Publishing Co.,. ISBN 0-932702-14-7.

External links

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