On an October afternoon 123 years ago yesterday, Wyatt Earp, two of his brothers and Doc Holliday walked along the streets of Tombstone, Ariz., and into history. Earp, who arrived in the town almost two years earlier hoping to strike it rich, found himself in the middle of an epic showdown n the “Gunfight at the OK Corral.”
The shootout, today remembered in movies and books, is the quintessential Wild West myth, still debated and researched by historians. But exactly what happened n that is who shot first — is probably lost to history. The facts of the shootout differ depending on who is recounting the event. What historians do know is that the gunfight wasn’t an isolated incident between the Earps and the cowboys. And it turned Wyatt Earp, a lawman and a gambler, into an outlaw.
When Wyatt arrived in Tombstone in December 1879, he wasn’t looking to return to his law enforcement past; he was looking to strike it rich. Ironically, not too long after his arrival, on July 31, 1880, he was appointed a deputy sheriff of the Tombstone district of Pima County, Ariz. And early in 1881, Wyatt hoped to be appointed sheriff of the newly formed Cochise County, but Johnny Behan, a Southern Democrat with ties to a group of people known as cowboys, was appointed to the post.
Wyatt’s run in with the cowboys began on Oct. 28, 1880, when he arrests “Curly” Bill Brocius for the shooting death of Tombstone City Marshall Fred White, laying the groundwork for what would be a tumultuous next two years. Brocius was later cleared in White’s death. But a few months later, after the Benson stage is robbed on March 15, 1881, and two people are killed, associates of the McLaury and Clanton families, who run with the cowboy crowd, are implicated in the crime. The feud heats up when Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan arrests Holliday, charging him with the robbery. Historians believe Behan was attempting to set up Holliday.
Interestingly in June 1881, Wyatt strikes a deal with Ike Clanton to help solve the crime, though the deal falls apart. A second robbery n this time of the Bisbee Stage in September 1881 — pits Wyatt against the cowboys because the stage’s driver identifies Pete Spence and Frank Stillwell, a deputy under Behan, as the perpetrators. And later that month, Wyatt, along with his brother Virgil and Fred Dodge, arrest Spence and Stillwell, further agitating the cowboys.
While the incidents to date fueled the proverbial fire and escalated the feud between the Earps and the cowboys, it was an incident on Oct. 25, 1881, that would be the breaking point. After a night of drinking at the Alhambra Saloon, Ike Clanton begins threatening the Earps and Holliday. The next morning, Ike runs through town with a rifle and threatens to shoot Wyatt, and Virgil later arrests Ike, charging him with violating Tombstone’s ordinance prohibiting guns. Ike pays a $25 fine and on his way out of court he runs into Wyatt.
Later that afternoon, Ike and some of his cowboy friends gather in a lot behind the OK Corral. Behan confronts the cowboys and urges, “I don’t want any trouble boys, let me have your weapons.” Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury tell Behan they are unharmed; Frank McLaury, citing threats to his life, refuses to disarm.
In the meantime, Wyatt, Virgil, their brother Morgan and Doc, make their way along Allen Street. They turn right on Fremont and left onto Fourth, where they run into Behan, who tells the four, “I have disarmed them.” The Earps and Holliday do not stop, instead making their way to the lot behind the OK Corral, soon coming upon the cowboys.
What happened next has become some of the most disputed facts in Wild West history. Most accounts indicate Wyatt and Billy Clanton fired the first shots, though a bullet fired by Doc is believed to have killed Billy. Doc also kills Tom McLaury and shoots at Ike as he is fleeing. Doc also shoots Frank McLaury in the head, after a bullet from Frank’s gun grazes him in the hip. In the shootout, which lasted about 30 seconds, Virgil was shot in the leg and Morgan was wounded in both shoulders.
While the shootout is the most famous incident in the history of the Earp-cowboy feud, it is merely the middle point. Earp and Holliday were subsequently charged with murder and faced a trial. Judge Wells Spicer acquitted the pair, and that once again seems to further fuel the feud. On Dec. 28, 1881, Virgil is shot in the arm and the following day, Wyatt is sworn in as deputy Marshal. Three months later, on March 18, 1882, Morgan is killed.
The two incidents spark Wyatt to seek revenge. On a rampage, Wyatt uses his law enforcement position to hunt down and kill Frank Stillwell, “Indian Charlie” and Bill Brocius, all men he believes had a hand in Morgan’s death. Soon after the three killings, Earp flees Arizona — he is now an outlaw.
What really happened before and after the Shootout at the OK Corral warrants an examination, even if it is 123 years later. What’s most interesting about the circumstances surrounding the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” is Wyatt Earp, a man generally regarded as an honest law enforcement officer, actually turns into a fugitive, wanted for murder.