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O.K. Corral: A Gunfight Shrouded in Mystery

 

Tombstone’s deadly October 1881 shootout featuring the Earps and the Clantons remains controversial years later, but who fired the first shot may not be such a mystery after all.

Experts Casey Tefertiller and Jeff Morey share their insight.

 

By Casey Tefertiller and Jeff Morey

 

 

This article was written by Casey Tefertiller and Jeff Morey and originally appeared in the October 2001 issue of Wild West magazine. Tefertiller wrote Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997). Morey served as historical adviser for the movie Tombstone. For further reading, the authors recommend: Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, and for a pro-Behan view, Steve Gatto’s The Real Wyatt Earp (High-Lonesome, Silver City, N.M., 2000).

 

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Cowboy Billy Clanton still lay dying, his face contorted with pain, when the press began the difficult task of piecing together the details of an October 1881 street battle in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. In later years it would become known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Richard Rule, veteran city editor of the Tombstone Nugget, helped carry Clanton into the house where the young man would pass into history, then returned to the streets to go to work.

 

With the canny eye of an experienced newsman, Rule began collecting the details of the gunfight, interviewing witnesses and trying to get a handle on what transpired during that fateful half minute and what led up to the battle. It would be a model of frontier journalism and vital to future understanding of perhaps the most debated event of the American frontier.

 

The saga of the O.K. Corral has been told repeatedly and from many perspectives, often with fictional intrusions and biased analysis. Now, for the first time in 120 years, we may have an authentic understanding of the events that led to the gunfight and what actually occurred in the streets of Tombstone — with a great deal of help from Richard Rule.

 

Through the tense summer of 1881, emotions had grown explosive. Bands of rustlers roamed the backcountry, stealing cattle mostly in Mexico or from Mexican ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico territories and then selling them to apparently legitimate ranchers for resale. The Clanton and McLaury families owned ranches reputed to be headquarters for receiving stolen cattle. This great cattle scam drew little ire from an American population more interested in acquiring wealth in the rich new mining areas than investigating international relations. In addition, Mexico had assessed high taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and smugglers came to southern Arizona Territory to purchase the goods cheaply for resale south of the border. The cash- and jewel-laden smugglers provided an easy target for American bandits.

 

As that fateful year of 1881 progressed, the situation changed. The Mexican government dropped taxes on alcohol and tobacco and then lodged numerous protests with federal and territorial officials to try to stop the outlawry against Mexican citizens. Territorial Governor John C. Frémont, the old pathfinder and the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856, suggested in February that the territorial Legislature fund a state militia to ride against the outlaws and stop the rustling. Legislators hooted down the visionary plan. The Mexican government built a series of forts along the border and began to fight back against the American outlaws. American rustlers George Turner and Alfred McAllister were killed in Mexico during a raid on May 13.

 

Back on the U.S. side of the border, citizens also began to grow agitated over outlawry, particularly because of what happened on March 15. Three robbers that day attempted to intercept a stagecoach traveling from Tombstone to Benson, Arizona Territory. Driver Eli “Budd” Philpot and passenger Peter Roerig were killed. Jim Crane, William Leonard and Harry Head were identified as the robbers.

 

With Frémont’s militia plan discarded, there was little to counter the rustling and other crimes that gripped southern Arizona Territory. Cochise County Sheriff John Behan and his deputies were charged with battling the rustlers, who became known as the “Cowboys.” But Behan was at best ineffective and at worst crooked. His deputy Billy Breakenridge would tell how he deputized Cowboy leader “Curly Bill” Brocius (or “Curley Bill” Brocious) and used him to help collect taxes. And Wells, Fargo detective James Hume was quoted as saying, “Even the sheriff of the county…is in with the cowboys and he has got to be or his life would not be worth a farthing.” The federal government was represented by U.S. Deputy Marshals Virgil Earp and Leslie Blackburn, with Earp in charge of most of the fieldwork, backed by his brother and deputy Wyatt Earp. Virgil also served as city marshal of Tombstone, which left Wyatt with most of the federal work.

 

Wyatt Earp coveted Behan’s well-paid job as sheriff, and the election would be coming up in the fall of 1882. According to Wyatt, he tried to make a deal with Frank McLaury and Ike Clanton, the most visible of the Clanton brothers and a known friend of the rustling crowd, to tell him the whereabouts of the three stage robbers. This would bolster Earp’s chances in the election, and Ike would receive the reward. Before the deal could be completed, two bartender brothers killed Leonard and Head in a remote New Mexico Territory mining village. An army of Cowboys rode down and killed the brothers in retribution.

 

In August, another cattle raid in Mexico caused Commandant Felipe Neri to dispatch troops to the border, where they found a group of Americans bedded down on the U.S. side of the crossing at Guadalupe Canyon. The Mexicans crept the few feet across the border and opened fire, killing five, among them stage robber Jim Crane and Newman Clanton, scion of the Clanton clan, who left behind sons Ike, Fin and Billy.

 

With no deal left for him, Ike Clanton grew increasingly worried. Wyatt Earp knew Ike had made a deal to turn on his Cowboy buddies, information that could have ruined Ike’s standing in the rustling community. With the borders closed, outlawry against Americans grew more commonplace in the backcountry. The Earps emerged as the leading law officers, taking an aggressive stand against the region’s criminal elements. The Cowboys resented their actions. “They met at Charleston and took an oath over blood drawn from the arm of John Ring[o], the leader, that they would kill us,” Virgil Earp said.

 

With emotion running stronger than the best saloon whiskey, Ike Clanton came to Tombstone to confront Wyatt Earp and learn whether Earp had been leaking the secret. According to Earp, Ike accused him of telling the secret to his friend John Henry “Doc” Holliday, a heavy-drinking dentist with a quirky sense of humor. Earp denied the accusation and sent for Holliday, who was in Tucson. Holliday met with Clanton on the night of October 25 in the Occidental Saloon. By the Earp account, Holliday was angry that Clanton had made a false accusation against him. As Ike told it, Holliday called him a “damned liar [who] had threatened the Earps….He told me to pull out my gun and if there was any grit in me, to go to fighting.” Clanton, who was unarmed, said that Holliday ordered him to retrieve his gun. Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp appeared to break up the fight, with Wyatt walking Holliday back to his room at Fly’s lodging house.

 

Then came perhaps the most improbable event of the day. Ike Clanton, after retrieving his six-shooter, sat down to a poker game with Virgil Earp, Tom McLaury, John Behan and one other player. It would be like “Ike” Eisenhower pitching pennies with Adolf Hitler before the Battle of the Bulge. The game broke up around 7 a.m., with Ike Clanton requesting that Virgil deliver a message to Holliday: “The damned son of a bitch has got to fight,” Ike supposedly told Virgil. Virgil said he responded: “Ike, I am an officer, and I don’t want to hear you talking that way at all. I am going down home now to go to bed, and I don’t want you to raise any disturbance when I am in bed.” “You won’t carry a message?” Ike asked. Virgil said he would not. “You may have to fight before you know it,” Ike said as Virgil walked away. Through the rest of the morning, Ike fueled his anger with whiskey, lurching from saloon to saloon to talk tough and make threats against the Earps. “He said that as soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open and that they would have to fight,” said Ned Boyle, bartender at the Oriental Saloon, who went to awaken Wyatt and tell him of the threat. Deputy Marshal Andy Bronk also heard of the threats and woke Virgil. Injudiciously, both Wyatt and Virgil went back to sleep and ignored Ike’s ire.

 

About noon on the 26th, Virgil and Morgan Earp spotted Ike carrying a six-shooter and a rifle. Virgil crashed his revolver into Ike’s head, then led the bloodied Cowboy to Judge Albert O. Wallace’s courtroom. Wyatt Earp entered the room and said: “You damn dirty cow thief. You have been threatening our lives, and I know it. I think I would be justified in shooting you down any place I would meet you. But if you are anxious to make a fight, I will go anywhere on earth to make a fight with you — even over to San Simon among your crowd.”

 

“Fight is my racket, and all I want is 4 feet of ground,” Clanton responded. “If you fellows had been a second later, I would have furnished a Coroner’s Inquest for this town.” Morgan Earp held up Ike’s gun and taunted him, saying he would pay the fine if Ike would make a fight. Ike refused, saying he did not like the odds. Wallace fined Ike $25 for carrying firearms in the city limits. As Wyatt stepped out of the courtroom, he encountered Tom McLaury and engaged in an argument that led to Earp slapping the cowboy with his left hand, then beating him over the head with a six-shooter. Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton rode into town and stopped at the saloon in the Grand Hotel. Cowboy pal Billy Claiborne told them of the beatings delivered to their brothers, and Frank dropped his whiskey glass without taking a sip.

 

As the afternoon continued, the town grew more and more agitated, buzzing with trepidation that a conflict was brewing. The Earps congregated at the corner of Fourth and Allen, in front of Hafford’s Corner Saloon, and watched as Ike and Billy Clanton, along with Frank McLaury, entered Spangenberg’s gun shop. Frank and Billy purchased ammunition, but the proprietor refused to sell a gun to Ike. The Clantons and McLaurys left the gun shop and split up. The McLaurys went off to make collections for cattle they had sold, while Claiborne and Billy Clanton went to retrieve Billy’s horse. They would meet up again a few minutes later, at the O.K. Corral, where witnesses would overhear them making threats against the Earps.

 

Back at Hafford’s, townsmen came to the Earps offering assistance and telling of the cowboy threats. City Marshal Virgil Earp said he asked Sheriff Behan to assist him in disarming the Cowboys. Instead, Behan offered to go down and talk to the Clantons and McLaurys to see if he could peaceably disarm them by himself. After Virgil had waited nearly 20 minutes for Behan to make his talk, local businessman John Fonck came to tell the marshal of the Cowboys’ actions. Virgil said he would not interfere if they were getting their horses and leaving town, but if they were armed and walking the streets he would have to arrest them. “Why,” Fonck responded, “they are all down on Fremont Street now.”

 

Virgil Earp turned to his two brothers, and to Holliday. He handed a short-barreled shotgun to Holliday to conceal under his long gray coat. Holliday then gave his walking stick to the marshal, and the four began the fateful walk that would become part of history. As they strode down Fremont Street, Behan rushed up to them and, according to the Earp brothers, said, “For God’s sake, don’t go down there or you will get yourself murdered.” Virgil replied that he was going to disarm them. What the sheriff said next is uncertain. Behan would say that he told the Earps, “I was there for the purpose of arresting and disarming them.” The Earps believed the sheriff said he had already disarmed them, and they then — apparently disregarding the warning that they would get murdered — made the mistake of relaxing a little. Wyatt Earp put his six-shooter back in his coat pocket; Virgil shifted his six-shooter off his hip into a more difficult position to draw and held the walking stick in his right hand. When they arrived at the 15-foot-wide vacant lot on Fremont Street where the Cowboys had congregated, the Earps were surprised to see that at least two of the opposition — Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton — still carried revolvers, and rifles were visible on the horses. Virgil raised his walking stick and growled, “Throw up your hands, boys, I intend to disarm you.”

 

The shooting began quickly. Two shots, a pause, then the gunfight burst out on different fronts. Holliday surged forward to stalk Tom McLaury, partially hidden by a horse, then fired a shotgun charge into McLaury’s chest. At about the same moment, Ike lurched forward to grab Wyatt Earp. Clanton said he heroically tried to push him out of the way. Earp said he told Ike, “The fight has commenced, get to fighting or get away.” Ike, whose mouth had aroused the town and inflamed the Earps, then dashed from the scene.

 

Virgil took a shot through the calf, most likely from Frank McLaury’s six-shooter. Billy Clanton took a bullet in the chest, probably from Morgan, then a shot in the right wrist. He switched gun hands, leaned back against a building and slowly crumpled to the ground as he continued firing. Morgan stumbled and fell, yelling, “I am hit,” as a bullet entered one shoulder blade and passed out through the other. He rose, but soon fell again, probably tripping on a mound on Fremont Street where the town was putting in new water pipes. Badly wounded, Frank McLaury tried to use his horse for cover as he lurched into the street. He fired at Morgan, causing his horse to bolt. Unprotected and exhausted, Frank squatted in the street, but when Holliday pursued him, Frank stood, aimed and said, “I’ve got you now.”

 

“Blaze away. You’re a daisy if you have,” Holliday responded, according to the Nugget. McLaury fired, grazing Holliday’s side. “I’m shot right through,” Holliday yelled. Frank McLaury staggered farther into the street as Morgan Earp and Doc both fired, Morgan’s shot crashing into the right side of McLaury’s head, Holliday’s into the Cowboy’s chest. McLaury continued to breathe as Holliday ran up and shouted, “The son of a bitch has shot me, and I mean to kill him!” But it was too late. The fight had been shot out of Frank McLaury. His brother Tom had made it to the corner of Third and Fremont, where he lay dying at the base of a telegraph pole. Frank died in the street. Tom and Billy were carried into a nearby house, where they would survive for only minutes.

 

With Morgan and Virgil Earp both wounded and Holliday grazed across the side, Wyatt Earp remained the only participant standing, untouched by lead. Behan strode over to Wyatt and said, “I will have to arrest you.” A witness recalled Earp’s reply: “I won’t be arrested. You deceived me, Johnny, you told me they were not armed. I won’t be arrested, but I am here to answer what I have done. I am not going to leave town.” And Earp was not arrested — not then, at least.

 

Almost immediately, journalist Richard Rule and his rivals at the Epitaph began scurrying to collect the news. Both stories were dramatic, colorful and tinged with blood. In the style of the day, they did not present many direct quotes, instead making journalists’ assessments of the material. By the Epitaph report, the battle began when two Cowboys pulled their guns and fired the first two shots. The Nugget had it different, saying Frank McLaury made a motion for his gun, which prompted Wyatt Earp to quickly draw and shoot McLaury. Both stories led to a belief that the law officers had been in the right.

 

Within 48 hours, the situation would change dramatically. As the coroner’s inquest began, well-liked Sheriff Behan, along with Ike Clanton, Claiborne and several Cowboy friends, testified to a much different beginning to the gunfight. They would report that the Earp party fired the first several shots of the conflict. Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps, and a month-long preliminary hearing began at which both sides would air their versions of the events. By the Earp version, it was self-defense; by the Cowboy account, it was murder.

 

Behan would serve as the most significant witness for the prosecution, which tried to have the Earps bound over for a murder trial. Key witnesses at the hearing in advancing the Cowboy version were Wesley Fuller, Billy Allen, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne, who was under a murder indictment himself for an unrelated incident. They laid out a dramatic story of how at Virgil’s command the two Clantons and Frank McLaury thrust their arms in the air to comply, while Tom McLaury threw open his vest to show he was unarmed. Immediately someone from the Earp party screamed, “You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight, and now you can have one!” Barely had those words sounded when two shots were fired, the first from Doc Holliday’s nickel-plated revolver and the other from another member of the Earp party, probably Morgan. After a pause, the Earps got off several shots before Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton could pull their six-shooters and return fire. Tom McLaury was never armed and never fired. This image of men shot down in the act of surrendering would shock the community as reports appeared in the local press.

 

Wyatt and Virgil Earp would present a much different story. Wyatt would say the fight began after Virgil’s call to disarm: “Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury laid their hands on their six-shooters. Virgil said, ‘Hold, I don’t mean that. I have come to disarm you.’ They — Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury — commenced to draw their pistols. At that moment Tom McLaury threw his hand to his right hip and jumped behind a horse. I had my pistol in my overcoat pocket where I had put it when Behan told us he had disarmed the other party. When I saw Billy and Frank draw their pistols, I drew my pistol. Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me but I didn’t aim at him. I knew that Frank McLaury had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man, and I aimed at Frank McLaury. The two first shots which were fired were fired by Billy Clanton and myself; he shot at me, and I shot at Frank McLaury. I do not know which shot was first. We fired almost together.” Neither Wyatt nor Virgil Earp mentioned the statement about the SOBs looking for a fight and getting one.

 

By the Earp version, the fight began in self-defense when the Cowboys, armed in violation of law, made an aggressive move in defiance of a legal order. The Earp version closely reflected the Nugget’s report of the gunfight, while the Cowboy story was in stark contrast to the immediate reporting after the event. When the preliminary hearing ended on December 1, Justice Wells Spicer ruled the case not be bound over for trial. This was decision without exoneration, as most of the key questions were left undetermined. Spicer ruled that there was not enough evidence to assure a likelihood of conviction. The Cochise County Grand Jury would later reopen the issue and concur with Spicer.

 

The debate has raged on for 120 years as to who fired first. The quest for a true understanding of events has been confused by a series of later writers advancing inaccurate or simply false information from supposed secret sources. Stuart Lake, in his classic Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, stated flatly that the Cowboys drew and fired on the Earps, which is contradictory to the Earps’ own version in the Spicer hearing. Frank Waters, in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, quoted alleged eyewitnesses who were never called to testify in saying the Earps fired first at surrendering Cowboys. It has since been discovered that Waters tampered with material in the book, diminishing its credibility.

 

The issue seemed resolved in 1976 when Glenn G. Boyer’s I Married Wyatt Earp appeared, asserting that Josephine Earp, Wyatt’s third wife, had secret information that Doc Holliday had actually fired the first shot and that Earp lied in the Spicer hearing to cover for his friend. However, Boyer has since admitted that this book is not actually Mrs. Earp’s memoir but rather a creative exercise. Boyer further confused the issue with his 1993 Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone Vendetta, in which he now claimed Holliday told a confidant that Earp himself fired the first two shots so quickly they sounded as one. Four years later, Boyer acknowledged that this was also novelistic. The fictional and fantastic later writings must be discarded in order to gain an understanding of what actually occurred on that dusty street on October 26, 1881. By returning to the original sources, we can finally gain a grasp of what started the gunfight that refuses to die.

 

The Behan/Cowboy version of the initial gunfire is based on the first shot being fired from Holliday’s revolver at the surrendering Clantons and McLaurys. For this to be accurate, Holliday would have needed to stage a sort of juggling act, firing the revolver, then going to the shotgun to shoot Tom McLaury, discarding the shotgun and returning to the revolver as he chased Frank McLaury into Fremont Street. And he would need to have done it without either the witnesses or survivors seeing it. Behan claimed to have his eyes fixed on the Earp party, and the other pro-Cowboy witnesses testified that the Clantons and McLaurys were lifting their hands to surrender.

 

However, Addie Bourland, a dressmaker watching from her shop across the street, testified that she clearly saw that none of the Cowboys had their hands in the air. Behan’s credibility would emerge as an issue late in the Spicer hearing. Deputy district attorney Winfield Scott Williams testified that the sheriff had inaccurately depicted a conversation with Virgil Earp after the gunfight in which, according to Williams, Behan told Virgil that one of the Cowboys had drawn his gun to start the fight. Equally important, documents were located in 1997 showing that Behan served as guarantor of a loan to Ike Clanton during the Spicer hearing. With Wyatt Earp seeking Behan’s job in the next election, the sheriff had much to gain from seeing his rival face a murder charge.

 

And then there is Richard Rule. It is one of those flukes of history that the Nugget story ever appeared as it did. Publisher Harry Woods also served as Behan’s undersheriff, but he was off in El Paso fetching a prisoner at the time of the gunfight. This left the talented and experienced Rule to oversee the newsgathering and writing of a story that would be essentially pro-Earp. With the Nugget’s connections to the sheriff’s office, it would be logical to seek out Behan as a source for the story. What makes this even more probable is that the Nugget story, without attribution, states, “The Sheriff stepped out and said: ‘Hold up boys, don’t go down there or there will be trouble; I have been down there to disarm them.’” Behan would repeatedly insist he told the Earps that he had been down to disarm the cowboys, not that he had actually done the disarming. The article relates details of the conversation Behan had had with the Cowboys. The story further states that Behan “was standing near by commanding the contestants to cease firing but was powerless to prevent it” — a claim that sounds as if it came from Behan’s own mouth. It is hard to imagine the Nugget not interviewing Behan for this story. By Williams’ account, immediately after the gunfight, Behan told Virgil Earp a story similar to the Nugget report before changing his story at the coroner’s inquest.

 

For the Behan/Cowboy version of the first shots to be true, Doc Holliday would have had to orchestrate an incredible revolver-shotgun-revolver shuffle, an officer of the court would have had to lie under oath and both the Nugget and Epitaph would have had to have missed the biggest story of their existences. This remarkable chain of events is so unlikely as to render it unbelievable.

 

After generations of lies, deception and confusion, it appears that we finally have a true understanding of how the firing began. When all the evidence is weighed, there can be little doubt that the frontier’s most storied gunfight began just as the Earps testified, with Wyatt Earp firing in response to Frank McLaury’s motion for his gun.

 

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