On This Day

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Associated Press
Wyatt Earp

On This Day: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Takes Place

October 26, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Oct. 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp and his brothers, with Doc Holliday, engaged the McLaury and Clanton brothers in a bloody gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz.

Earps, Holliday Kill Three in Shootout

In 1881, tensions began to grow in Tombstone, Ariz., setting the stage for one of America’s most infamous gunfights. A year earlier, in October 1880, Virgil Earp became marshal of Tombstone and appointed his brothers Wyatt and Morgan as “special deputies” of the town. The Earps now saw it as their duty to uphold the law in the small mining town.

Within a year, the Earp brothers found themselves involved in a number of conflicts with local cowboys. They began to quarrel with Ike, Phineas and Billy Clanton, as well as Tom and Frank McLaury, over suspicion that they were selling stolen livestock in the town. Wyatt Earp began a feud with John Behan, the sheriff of Cochise County, Ariz., over a woman named Josephine Sarah Marcus.

On Oct. 25, 1881, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury arrived in Tombstone. The following day, they were arrested by Virgil Earp for carrying firearms within the city limits. After being disarmed and released they immediately sought Bill Clanton and Frank McLaury, and gathered on Fremont Street between Fly’s lodging house and a photographic studio, near a place called the O.K. Corral.

Virgil Earp decided he would disarm Bill Clanton and Frank McLaury as well, and called his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and friend Doc Holliday, to help him with the task.

Upon hearing the news, Sheriff Behan raced to Fremont Street and begged Bill Clanton and Frank McLaury to give up their guns rather than face a gunfight with the Earps and their posse. As they converged, Behan pleaded with Virgil Earp not to get involved in a fight.

Virgil Earp demanded the men give up their guns. Two shots were fired; it is not certain who fired them. Those two shots were followed by a barrage of shots back and forth for about 30 seconds.

Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were struck early in the battle by Morgan and Wyatt Earp, respectively, but were able to continue firing. Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury, who were unarmed, tried to run away. Clanton escaped successfully, but Tom McLaury was shot in the back by Doc Holliday.

The Tombstone Epitaph, the local newspaper, reported, “Morgan Earp was shot through and fell. Doc Holliday was hit in the left hip but kept on firing. Virgil Earp was hit in the third or fourth fire, in the leg which staggered him but he kept up his effective work. Wyatt Earp stood up and fired in rapid succession, as cool as a cucumber, and was not hit. Doc Holliday was as calm as though at target practice and fired rapidly.”

When the fighting had ended, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury were dead. Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded, while Wyatt Earp suffered no injury.

Trial and Aftermath

Several days after the gunfight, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. The case would be decided in a month-long preliminary hearing before Judge Wells W. Spicer.

The main issue in the hearing was who fired the first shots. Witnesses for the prosecution, including Behan and Ike Clanton, claimed that both shots were fired by the Earp-Holliday party.

Wyatt Earp testified that he fired one of the first two shots in self-defense. “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,” he said.

Judge Spicer ruled that there was not enough evidence for the case to go to trial. The Earps and Holliday were freed, but they would not go unpunished for the gunfight. A month after the hearing, Virgil was shot by a group that may have included Ike Clanton, leaving his arm immobile. In March 1882, Morgan Earp was ambushed and killed.

The events of the gunfight have long been debated by historians. Casey Tefertiller and Jeff Morey examined the various theories in Wild West magazine. They conclude, “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.”

Tombstone’s History

Tombstone was founded in 1877 by Ed Schieffelin, a prospector staying at what was then a military camp. TombstoneWeb says that, according to legend, Schieffelin “would venture out into the wilderness ‘looking for rocks,’ all the while ignoring the warnings he received from the soldiers at the camp. They would tell him, ‘Ed, the only stone you will find out there will be your tombstone.’ Well, Ed did find his stone. And it was Silver. So, remembering the words of warning from the soldiers, he named his first mine The Tombstone.” As word of his silver strike spread, thousands of people flocked to the town.

“Tombstone” Film

The shootout was re-enacted many times over in film and on stage. Watch this clip of the gun battle as interpreted by Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn and Sam Elliot, in the 1993 blockbuster “Tombstone.”

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