Tombstone, Arizona, is the most historic town of the Old West, where Wyatt Earp and the
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral became the west's most famous legend. This feature takes a
closer look at the town and the legend. A little digging and reading has yielded
some great photos and fascinating stories. Part 1 covers the Gunfight; part 2, the
Bird Cage Theater; and part 3, the
Boothill Cemetary and the Tombstone Court House.
(Photo, (left), is the present-day O.K. Corral. Many of the original landmarks had fallen
into disrepair or ruin, and were rebuilt or restored as Tombstone became a
popular tourist attraction. A major exception is the amazing Bird Cage Theater which is original.)
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
The shootout was essentially the culmination of a feud between the Earps who represented
"law and order" in this lawless boomtown, such as it was, and the gang known as the
Cowboys, a loose association of cattle rustlers, gunslingers, and other hard men.
The Clantons, McLaurys, and Billy Claibourne were part of this faction. Given the
nature of the town and the harshness of the Earps, there was considerable sympathy for the Cowboys.
The actual shootout took place on the afternoon of October 26, 1881, at the
rear of the O.K. Corral (left) on Fremont Street. Doc Holliday and the Earps (Wyatt,
Virgil, and Morgan) rounded 4th Street (near tree in photo), and approached the
Clantons and McLaurys who were standing at the corral. Town Sheriff, John Behan,
tried to intercede but was shoved aside by Virgil.
The shootout took place at point-blank range and lasted less than thirty seconds.
Ike Clanton decided not to fight and left the scene, thus surviving. Billy Clanton
and the McLaurys succumbed, the most damage being done by Doc Holliday's shotgun.
(A shotgun is extremely lethal at short range.) Doc, Virgil, and Morgan were each
shot but none hurt severely. Only Wyatt walked away unscathed. (Photo right, the
plaque marking the spot of the shootout. Also seen in left photo, next to the car.)
The Earps were supported by Mayor John Clum and Judge Wells Spicer. After Spicer
ruled the deaths as justifiable homicide, the Cowboy Gang went on a campaign
of terror. Mayor Clum's stage was ambushed at night but he survived. Virgil Earp
was also ambushed, on December 28, 1881, and permanently crippled. On March 18, 1882,
Morgan was shot dead while playing pool.
At this point, Wyatt earned his reputation as a gunslinger during his "vendetta".
He and his associates hunted down and killed several members of the Cowboys
implicated in the attacks on his brothers. The most startling story, supported by
alleged witnesses, involved "Indian Charlie". When he was found and confessed
his guilt in Morgan's murder, Wyatt allowed "Indian Charlie" first draw, before filling him
with lead. When charges were filed against Doc and Wyatt for the killing of Frank
Stilwell, both left Tombstone for good.
The photo, (right), comes from the National Archives of the United States.
Taken around 1890, the picture posed past and present "Peace Commissioners"
of Dodge City (Kansas). Left to right: Charles Bassett, W.H. Harris, Wyatt Earp,
Luke Short, L. McLean, Bat Masterson, and Neal Brown. Masterson was a close friend
of Wyatt and spent much time in Tombstone before returning to Kansas in 1882.
Luke Short, another friend, and part-time lawman and part-time gambler, spent
time in Tombstone and left a victim in Boothill.
Most of the hard men of Tombstone did not live long or prosper. Billy Claibourne
was gunned down in 1882. Ike Clanton was shot to death in 1887, resisting arrest.
Johnny Ringo, the gunslinger who was Wyatt's chief protagonist, was found dead in 1882
with a bullet in his head. The death was ruled a suicide but many people think the
bullet came from Wyatt's gun. Doc Holliday finally succumbed to his tuberculosis
in 1887 at age 35. Virgil Earp, crippled by the ambush, died in 1905.
Wyatt Earp eventually moved to Los Angeles and lived a conventional life as a
businessman. He outlived all his contemporaries, dying on January 13, 1929, at
the age of eighty. He was therefore able to tell his version of events
in Tombstone without being contradicted. Thus, the legend was born.