Second of three parts
"THREE MEN HURLED INTO ETERNITY" — The Epitaph headline, Oct. 27, 1881
In the annals of U.S. history, only the JFK assassination surpasses the OK Corral gun battle when it comes to gun play. Both shootings have been dissected and pawed over incessantly by experts and historians.
The latter is the singular event that has come to define the Old West. What follows is the unvarnished story.
On Oct. 25, 1881, Tom and Frank (born Robert) McLaury were having breakfast with their fellow ranchers/rustlers, Ike and youthful Billy Clanton. All four had stopped at Jack Chandler's milk ranch, 12 miles east
of Tombstone. Tom and Ike rode on to Tombstone that morning, while their brothers tended a herd of cattle.
Tom had some business to tend to and Ike, still seething that his cover had been blown in his dealings with Wyatt Earp regarding the "selling out" of fellow cowboys, was hunting trouble. Ike was edgy for a good reason. If noted fellow baddies like Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill discovered his treachery, he would not be worth a sou.
Upon arriving in the silver camp, Ike began drinking heavily. The effects of the alcohol produced a false bravado; he was going to settle with Doc Holliday, whom he thought had spilled the beans about Ike's shady agreement with Wyatt.
Morgan Earp, hoping to settle the matter, or perhaps desiring to stoke the
flames, rode to Tucson to get Doc. Holliday returned to Tombstone in a confrontational mood. He immediately sought out Ike in a saloon, and issued his own threats. Thus, in the parlance of the Old West, two drunks “opened the ball.”
Morgan hustled Doc back to his room at Fly's boarding house on Fremont Street, a location that will be solidified in Western lore. Ike, for his part, continued his drinking.
That evening, the oddest poker game in the West commenced. Seated were John Behan, sheriff and Earp nemesis; Virgil Earp, Tombstone Chief of Police; and Tom McLaury and Ike. There is no record of the winners or losers, but the gambling session did not improve Ike's mood.
Upon leaving the table, Ike insisted Virgil take a threatening message to Holliday. Earp refused and told Ike to sleep it off. Ike then told the chief that the Earps and Holliday had a fight coming. A shrugging Virgil went home to sleep.
At mid-morning on the 26th, Virgil and Wyatt were awakened separately. The bearers of news alerted both Earps that Ike Clanton was armed and prowling the streets threatening to shoot the Earps. Both Earps stayed abed; the thought probably was Ike was all talk and no go.
About noon, Virg and brother Morgan observed Ike at a distance. Ike was surprised by Virgil, and received a blow to the head from the lawman's pistol. Ike was disarmed and taken to court. Head bleeding, he was still talking trash.
Wyatt entered the court and called him a dirty cow thief and challenged Ike. Ike, without firearms, boasted, "fighting is my racket. All I want is four feet of ground." Morgan taunted Clanton with Ike's own pistol, and offered to pay his fine and then settle things. Ike, in a surprising lucid moment, refused to take the gun.
Wyatt wheeled and headed out the courthouse door and ran into Tom McLaury. Wyatt's blood was up, and the sight of another cowboy set him off. He slapped Tom with open hand and pistol whipped him with the other.Tom fell to the ground. (He was no doubt surprised, given that he was not known
as a violent man, unlike his brother Frank).
So, the prelims were concluded, leaving two cowboys TKO'd. There would be more confrontation before the main event.
Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury arrived shortly after their brothers were beaten. Sidekick Billy Claiborne alerted them as they were ordering drinks at the Grand Hotel, a cowboy hangout on Allen Street. They abandoned their glasses and headed out to find Ike and Tom.
United, the brothers headed for a gun shop to purchase ammo. The owner refused to sell. Wyatt, trying to provoke, took a horse off the sidewalk while the cowboys were leaving. They dispersed.
As the afternoon unfolded, citizens reported sightings of the cowboys, and conveyed the heard threats to the Earps. By now, Wyatt had been sworn in by his brother. Morgan was already a registered special policeman.
Virgil requested that John Behan, county sheriff, join his group who were
about to confront the cowboys gathered down on West Fremont Street. Good 'ol Johnny offered to go down and disarm his friends. He went alone to do so.
After a half-hour wait, the Earp brothers ran out of patience. They headed up 4th Street. They were then joined by Doc Holliday. Perhaps Virgil swore Doc in at that moment. They were going to arrest their adversaries for
carrying firearms in the city limits. Virgil handed over the shotgun he took from the Wells Fargo office to Doc Holliday, who swapped it for his cane — a highly questionable decision on Virgil's part.
When they turned west of Fremont Street, Behan approached. He had just left the cowboys who were gathered a half block away, outside an empty lot. The solid black-clad Earps and Holliday, adorned in gray, did not break
stride despite Behan's warnings and promises of disarming.
Virgil put his pistol in his waistband and switched the Holliday cane into
his right hand (his shooting hand), thus demonstrating he anticipated no trouble. Wyatt, likewise, put his pistol into the pocket of his coat; a special pocket that was leather lined for smooth removal. Morgan and Doc remained on the ready.
It was bitter cold day, with the hint of snow in the air.
We should clear up a misconception that has existed for decades, and likely will remain unaltered. There was no gunfight at the OK Corral. In fact, the entrance to the corral was on Allen Street. The back entrance was some distance from the empty lot.
Wyatt was responsible for the error, as his memory failed him when recalling the event years later. For accuracy, it should be renamed the "Fight at Fly's." This author fondly embraces the "Street Shootout Across From Addie Bourland's Dress Shop."
However, Wyatt's mistake proved to have lasting resistance to change. Further proof that history is about those that write it.
Reaching the cowboys' position in the empty lot, Virgil asked for them to give up their guns. Wyatt or Morgan threw down the gauntlet, "You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight, now you will have it!" Maybe one of the cowboys put hands on a holstered pistol. Virgil responded, "I don't want that!" Two shot rang out in unison. All hell broke loose.
There are so many theories of who initiated the fight. Since I wasn't there, I will demure. However, we do have certainties:
The scene was utterly chaotic, making it difficult to ascertain the truth. Three men fleeing, seven moving combatants, two horses, 30 gun shots, lots of smoke, all in a confined space of 15 feet. It was over in 30 seconds.
It is reasonable to exclude Ike Clanton, Virgil Earp and Tom McLaury as potential instigators. We do know this:
Frank McLaury was shot in the stomach during the first round of gunfire, but continued the fight until a fatal shot in the head dropped him on the north side of Fremont Street. Brother Tom received a double barrel load from Doc Holliday, pellets penetrating his right upper side. He staggered to a telegraph pole west of the lot and collapsed, dying minutes later in the Harwood house that bordered the lot. He said nothing.
Billy Clanton proved to be the gamest of the bunch. He was hit three times, wrist, lung and abdomen and, slumped against a wall, begged for more cartridges. He request he be allowed to die, saying he had been murdered. He was the only victim that spoke.
After being administered morphine, he joined the rest in eternity.
Ike, after the opening volley, grabbed Wyatt and declared he did not want any of this. Wyatt shoved him away, admonishing him to leave or fight. Leave he did. Later he was found cowering in an office on Toughnut Street.
The Earps did not escape damage. Morgan was wounded as a bullet traversed his upper back, chipping bone. Virgil was shot in the right calf, the bullet passing through. Doc took a glancing blow off his hip, leaving an angry welt.
Wyatt was the only participant without a scratch, although his long coat had two bullet holes.
The result was predictable. The cowboys that engaged had no experience to call upon. If Ringo or Joe Hill or Curly Bill were there, the results would be different. Instead, the Earp group had a distinct advantage because of their histories in dealing with physical threats. They all had dealt with violence. A clear case of untested versus professionals.
The battle known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral was over.
The war was not.
To be continued
Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western lecturer and researcher. He belongs to the Western Writers of America. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org