“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything. In a gun fight… You need to take your time in a hurry.”
Words couldn’t have been truer than those spoken by Wyatt Earp. A total of thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds in the most famous shootout in the history of the American Old West. I will of course follow this article up with more about Wyatt’s vendetta, and biographies of the key players, but for now I will concentrate on the infamous gunfight itself.
Tombstone, Arizona is located near the Mexican border. The Earps arrived on December 1, 1879, when the small town was mostly composed of tents as living quarters, a few saloons and other buildings, and the mines. Virgil Earp had been hired as Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County, with his offices in Tombstone, only days before his arrival. In June 1881 he was also appointed as Tombstone’s town marshal. The Earps were not universally liked by the townspeople but they tended to protect the interests of the town’s business owners and residents. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan was generally sympathetic to the interests of the rural ranchers and Cowboys. (the term “cowboy” generally meant an outlaw) Legitimate cowmen were referred to as cattle herders or ranchers. The Cowboys (supposedly led by Johnny Ringo) viewed the Earps as badge-toting tyrants who ruthlessly enforced the business interests of the town especially their own. The Cochise County Cowboys were not a gang but a loosely organized band of friends who committed crimes.
The long feud between Cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury, and opposing lawmen: town Marshal Virgil Earp, Assistant Town Marshal Morgan Earp, and temporary deputy marshals Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday finally came to a head after weeks of death threats by Ike Clanton (he reportedly drank a lot). An argument between Ike and Holliday reportedly started in the Alhambra Saloon. Morgan escorted Holliday out onto the street and Ike, who had been drinking steadily, followed them. Virgil arrived a few minutes later and threatened to arrest both Holliday and Ike Clanton if they did not stop arguing. Ike and Wyatt talked again a few minutes later, and Ike threatened to confront Holliday in the morning. Ike told Wyatt that the fighting talk had been going on for a long time and that he intended to put an end to it. Ike told Wyatt, “I will be ready for you in the morning.” Wyatt walked over to the Oriental Saloon and Ike followed him. Ike sat down to have another drink, his revolver in plain sight, and told Wyatt “You must not think I won’t be after you all in the morning.” Wyatt took Holliday back to his boarding house to sleep off his drinking, then went home and to bed. Virgil played cards with Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, Sheriff Behan and a fifth unknown man, until morning.
At about dawn on October 26, the card game broke up and Behan and Virgil Earp went home to bed. Shortly after 8:00 am barkeeper E. F. Boyle spoke to Ike, who had been drinking all night, in front of the telegraph office. Boyle encouraged him to get some sleep, but Ike insisted he would not go to bed. Boyle later testified he noticed Ike was armed and covered his gun for him, recalling that Ike told him “‘As soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open—that they would have to fight’… I went down to Wyatt Earp’s house and told him what Ike said. Ike’s own testimony said that he remembered neither meeting Boyle nor making any such statements that day.
Later in the morning, Ike picked up his rifle and revolver from the West End Corral, where he had stabled his wagon and team and deposited his weapons after entering town. (When entering the town you had to deposit your weapons) By noon that day, Ike was drinking and once-again armed and told others he was looking for Holliday or an Earp. At about 1:00 pm, Virgil and Morgan Earp surprised Ike on 4th Street where Virgil pistol-whipped him from behind. Disarming him, the Earps took Ike to appear before Judge Wallace for violating the city’s ordinance against carrying firearms in the city. While Wyatt waited with Clanton, Virgil went to find Judge Wallace so the court hearing could be held. Ike was fined $25 plus court costs and after paying the fine left unarmed. He reportedly was able to pick up his weapons at the gun drop off location.
As Ike was released, Tom McLaury (who arrived in town the day before) ran into Wyatt, who demanded, “Are you heeled or not?”, McLaury said he was not armed. Wyatt testified that he saw a revolver in plain sight on the right hip of Tom’s pants. As an unpaid deputy marshal for Virgil, Wyatt carried a pistol in his waistband, as was the custom of that time. Witnesses reported that Wyatt drew his revolver from his coat pocket and pistol whipped Tom McLaury with it twice, leaving him prostrate and bleeding on the street. Saloon-keeper Andrew Mehan testified at the Spicer Hearing afterward that he saw McLaury deposit a revolver at the Capital Saloon sometime between 1-2:00 pm, after the confrontation with Wyatt, which Mehan also witnessed.
Wyatt said in his deposition afterward that he had been temporarily acting as city marshal for Virgil the week before while Virgil was in Tucson for the Pete Spence and Frank Stilwell trial. Wyatt said that he still considered himself a deputy city marshal, which Virgil later confirmed. Since Wyatt was an off-duty officer, he could not legally search or arrest Tom for carrying a revolver within the city limits. Wyatt, a non-drinker, testified at the Spicer hearing that he went to Haffords and bought a cigar and went outside to watch the Cowboys. At the time of the gunfight about two hours later, Wyatt could not know if Tom was still armed.
It was early afternoon by the time Ike and Tom had seen doctors for their head wounds. The day was chilly, with snow still on the ground in some places. Both Tom and Ike had spent the night gambling, drinking heavily, and without sleep. Now they were both out and about with head wounds, and Ike was still drunk. Around 1:30–2:00 pm, Ike’s 19-year-old younger brother Billy Clanton and Tom’s older brother Frank McLaury arrived in town. Both Frank and Billy were armed with a revolver and a rifle, as was the custom for riders in the country outside Tombstone. They had come to back up their brothers after they heard Ike and Tom had been stirring up trouble.They learned immediately after of their brothers’ beatings by the Earps within the previous two hours. The incidents had generated a lot of talk in town. Angrily, Frank said he would not drink, and he and Billy left the saloon immediately to seek Tom. By law, both Frank and Billy should have left their firearms at the Grand Hotel. Instead, they remained fully armed.
Sheriff Behan later testified that he first learned of the trouble while he was getting a shave at the barbershop after 1:30 pm, which is when he had risen after the late-night card game. Behan stated he immediately went to locate the Cowboys. At about 2:30 pm he saw Ike, Frank, Tom, and Billy gathered off Fremont street. Behan attempted to persuade Frank McLaury to give up his weapons, but Frank insisted that he would only give up his guns after City Marshal Virgil Earp and his brothers were disarmed.
A miner named Ruben F. Coleman told Virgil that the Cowboys had left the Dunbar and Dexter Stable for the O.K. Corral and were still armed, and Virgil decided they had to disarm them. (The actual gunfight did not happen by the O.K Corral) Virgil picked up his 10-gauge or 12-gauge, short, double-barreled shotgun from the Wells Fargo office around the corner on Allen Street. It was a cold and windy day in Tombstone, and Virgil was wearing a long overcoat. To avoid alarming Tombstone’s public, Virgil hid the shotgun under his overcoat when he returned to Hafford’s Saloon. He gave the shotgun to Doc Holliday who hid it under his overcoat. He took Holliday’s walking-stick in return. From Spangenberg’s, the Cowboys moved to the O.K. Corral where witnesses overheard them threatening to kill the Earps. For unknown reasons the Cowboys then walked out the back of the O.K. Corral and then west, stopping in an the narrow, empty lot next to C. S. Fly’s boarding house.
Virgil was told by several citizens that the McLaurys and the Clantons had gathered on Fremont Street and were armed. He decided he had to act. Several members of the citizen’s vigilance committee offered to support him with arms, but Virgil said no. He had during the prior month appointed Morgan as a Special Policeman. He had also appointed Wyatt as a Special Policemen while Virgil had been in Prescott on business. He had also called on Doc Holliday that morning for help with disarming the Clantons and McLaurys.
The Earps carried their usual revolvers in their coat pockets or in their waistbands. Wyatt was carrying a .44 caliber 1869 American model Smith & Wesson. Holliday was wearing a nickel-plated pistol in a holster, but this was concealed by his long coat, as was the shotgun. The Earps and Holliday walked west, down the south side of Fremont Street past the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral, but out of visual range of the Cowboys’ last reported location. The Earps then saw the Cowboys and Sheriff Behan, who left the group and came toward them, though he looked nervously backward several times. Virgil testified later that Behan told them, “For God’s sake, don’t go down there or they will murder you!” Wyatt said Behan told him and Morgan, “I have disarmed them.” Behan testified afterward that he’d only said he’d gone down to the Cowboys “for the purpose of disarming them,” not that he’d actually disarmed them.
When Behan said he had disarmed them, Virgil attempted to avoid a fight. “I had a walking stick in my left hand and my hand was on my six-shooter in my waist pants, and when he said he had disarmed them, I shoved it clean around to my left hip and changed my walking stick to my right hand.” Wyatt said I “took my pistol, which I had in my hand, under my coat, and put it in my overcoat pocket.” The Earps walked down Fremont street and came into full view of the Cowboys. Wyatt testified he saw “Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton standing in a row against the east side of the building on the opposite side of the vacant space west of Fly’s photograph gallery. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne and a man I don’t know (Wes Fuller) were standing in the vacant space about halfway between the photograph gallery and the next building west.”
Virgil testified that he immediately commanded the Cowboys to “Throw up your hands, I want your guns!” Wyatt said Virgil told the Cowboys, “Throw up your hands; I have come to disarm you!” Virgil and Wyatt both testified they saw Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton draw and cock their six-shooters. Virgil yelled: “Hold! I don’t mean that!” or “Hold on, I don’t want that!” The single-action revolvers carried by both groups had to be cocked before firing. Who started shooting first is not certain; accounts by both participants and eyewitnesses are contradictory but at 3:00 p.m. the gunfight commenced. No one actually knows which side actually drew their guns first but its believed that Virgil Earp pulled out his revolver and shot Billy Clanton in the chest at point-blank range, while Doc Holliday killed Tom McLaury with a blast from his double-barreled shotgun. Wyatt Earp shot Frank McLaury in the stomach, and the wounded man staggered out into the street but managed to pull his gun and return fire.
When the gun smoke cleared Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were killed. Ike Clanton, who had repeatedly threatened to kill the Earps, claimed he was unarmed and ran from the fight along with Billy Claiborne. Virgil, Morgan, and Doc Holliday were wounded, but Wyatt Earp was unharmed.
The bodies of the three dead Cowboys were displayed in a window at Ritter and Reams undertakers with a sign: “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.” The Tombstone Nugget proclaimed:
“The 26th of October, 1881, will always be marked as one of the crimson days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water, and human life was held as a shuttle cock, a day to be remembered as witnessing the bloodiest and deadliest street fight that has ever occurred in this place, or probably in the Territory.”
The funerals for Billy Clanton (age 19), Tom McLaury (age 28) and his older brother Frank (age 33) were attended by around 300 people who had joined in the procession to Boot Hill and as many as two thousand watched from the sidewalks. Both McLaureys were buried in the same grave, and Billy Clanton was buried nearby. Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday. The lawmen were eventually exonerated by local Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer after a 30-day preliminary hearing, and then by a local grand jury famously known as the Spicer Hearings on November 30. Spicer did not condone all of the Earps’ actions and criticized Virgil Earp’s use of Wyatt and Holliday as deputies, but he concluded that no laws were broken. He said the evidence indicated that the Earps and Holliday acted within the law and that Holliday and Wyatt had been properly deputized by Virgil.
Unfortunately, that was not the end of the conflict, December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was ambushed and maimed in a murder attempt by the outlaw Cowboys. On March 18, 1882, Cowboys fired from a dark alley through the glass door of a saloon and shot Morgan Earp, killing him. The suspects in both incidents furnished alibis supplied by fellow Cowboys and were not indicted. Wyatt Earp, newly appointed as Deputy U.S. Marshal in the territory, took matters into his own hands in a personal vendetta. He was pursued by county Sheriff Johnny Behan (his county posse composed mostly of Cowboys), who had received a Tucson warrant for Wyatt’s shooting of Frank Stilwell. Behan’s posse never caught up with the much smaller federal posse. The Earps especially Wyatt left Tombstone under a cloud of suspicion not as heroes as many fictionalized accounts would have you believe.