Originally posted November 15, 1999; transferred to this site
This gun battle, that took place on October 26, 1881, has been immortalized by Hollywood in numerous feature films. The Earps, the Clantons, and Doc Holliday have become household names.
Not surprisingly, the truth of the gunfight, such as it can be re- constructed, is hardly a bad guys versus good guys affair.
Before we look at the background of the participants, and the origin of the famous feud between the Cowboy and Lawmen factions, it would be well to consider the mindset of America–especially territorial America–around 1880.
If the effects of the Civil War are still being felt today, think of how virulent and divisive they would have been, more than 100 years ago. Flushed with success, the Feds were not above heavy-handed activity in the Territories, and there surely was political patronage. In certain cases, ordinary people, whose rights had been violated, or so they thought, became outlaws. Similarly, out-and-out thugs were often recruited to become lawmen.
It is within this context that we must consider Tombstone, Arizona in the summer of 1880.
Johnny Behan, one of the Cowboy faction (led by the Clanton family), is smitten with actress Josephine Marcus, and they are supposed to be married. Wyatt Earp appears on the scene, and the next thing Behan knows, he gets dumped, and Josie moves in with Wyatt.
This doesn’t sit well with Johnny, who later becomes sheriff of Cochise County.
On October 27, 1880, Fred White, the first marshal of Tombstone, is killed when Curly Bill Brocius’ gun accidentally discharges–as is later determined at the trial. However, the Earps use the occasion of this death to round up all the Cowboys and rough them up, furthering the feud.
In February, 1881, Behan reneges on a political deal he has arranged with Wyatt.
Between March and August, a number of “unexplained” deaths of Cowboys, such as that of “Old Man” Newman Haynes Clanton, and their sympathizers occur, that are most likely the work of the Earps.
In September, the perps of a stagecoach robbery–all Cowboys, including a Tombstone deputy sheriff–are extradited to Tombstone. None of them is ever prosecuted. By now, the bad blood between the factions has reached fever pitch.
It’s October 26th. Ike Clanton comes into town announcing that he is going to kill the Earps. Cowboy Tom McLaury confronts Wyatt, itching for a fight. As it is, both Ike and Tom get pistol whipped by the Earps.
The scene is set! Marshal Virgil Earp, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday walk down Fremont Street toward the O.K. Corral. A minor skirmish occurs between Wyatt and Ike. In the confusion, Billy Clairborne (or Claibourne or Claiborne, depending on the source) is grazed by a bullet from Wyatt’s gun. Clairbourne runs off.
Holliday starts the real action by shooting Frank McLaury in the abdomen from less than three feet away. (Some insist that Wyatt Earp fired this shot.) Morgan then fires and hits Billy Clanton. Ike runs off. Tom shoots Morgan, Holliday shoots Tom. Frank shoots Doc in the hip.
Morgan shoots Frank in the head, killing him instantly. Within an hour, Tom and Billy are both dead.
So, here’s how it stacks up:
The Earps and Holliday are arrested for murder by Sheriff Behan, and many townspeople would agree that a “hit” had taken place, disguised as a gunfight. However, the trial determines that the Earp faction acted within the law.
So, what do we make of all this?
We Americans love our heroes, and we love to view history in black and white terms, even though we view the present in shades of gray. How else to explain that so many figures that were controversial in their own day are so one-dimensional today?