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Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight Not Too Far from the OK Corral

We'll get right to the heart of the matter. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp did not begin when Hugh O'Brien rode into Dodge City fresh off the buffalo plains. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp began on October 26, 1881 with the street fight involving firearms that occured on the vacant half of Lot 2 of Tombstone, Arizona Block 17 between Camillus Fly's boarding house and photography shop and the building owned by William Harwood. Fortunately for the many book covers, title pages, and movie marquees, the battle was close enough to a local livery stable that it can accurately be styled the "Gunfight Near the OK Corral".

Wyatt Earp

Figuring out who fired first and who shot who has been a historical parlor game ever since Wyatt and his friend John Hendry "Doc" Holliday were arrested following the gunfight. Yes, Wyatt and Doc were arrested. Despite what you see on the television or in motion pictures, gunfights in the Old West were as illegal then as now and the perpetrators would not just ride off merrily into the sunset. Usually there would be a trial or inquiry, which if often perfunctory, satisfied the legal requirements of the times.

Wyatt's brothers, Virgil and Morgan were at the gunfight, too, but were too seriously wounded to be thrown in jail. It was Virgil, we must point out, not Wyatt, who was the city marshal of Tombstone. At the time, Wyatt was a faro banker in the Oriental saloon. The youngest of the five Earp brothers (yes, there were five) was Morgan, and he was serving as an assistant to Virgil.

At first glance there doesn't seem to be much to argue about regarding who fired first and at whom. Wyatt himself testified under oath that he and cowboy Billy Clanton drew their guns first and fired nearly simultaneously. This testimony was corroborated by an independent witness, a railroad engineer named H. F. Sills who knew none of the principals involved and wasn't even from Tombstone. This seems to (and at least in court did) settle the matter.

All right. Then why have people been arguing for over a hundred years about what really happened at (or near or close by) the OK Corral? For the answer to that we'll back up a minute and start with Virgil waking up on the morning of October 26, 1881.

Virgil began his day at around 9:00 with his current deputy, Andy Bronk, standing by his bed and saying a local rancher named Ike Clanton was walking around the streets carrying a Winchester and boasting he was going to have it out with the Earps and their friend Doc Holliday. It seems the night before Doc had an argument with Ike in the Alhambra saloon. The reasons for the argument are not really clear. Ike said that Doc claimed he, Ike, had been "threatening" the Earps and "using his [Doc's] name".

What Ike meant was never established. But here's a possibility based on other testimony. To paraphrase John Steinbeck, if not true, this scenario is at least credible.

Wyatt wanted to be sheriff. So he planned to nab three men, Billy Leonard, Harry Head and Jim Crane, who were suspected in robbing the Benson stage where the shotgun "messenger", Bill Philipot, was killed. Leonard was an acquaintance of Ike and sometimes stopped by the Clanton Ranch. So Wyatt asked Ike to help him capture the men. Ike would get the reward money as along as Wyatt got the credit. Then Wyatt would be in a good position when he ran for sheriff. Ike, so we hear agreed.

But the plan somehow leaked. So in an effort to cast blame elsewhere Ike went around saying Doc was one of the robbers (in fact, he said Doc confessed he was there when Bud was killed). This, then, was the "using" of Doc's name. Then to deflect attention away from him even more, Ike said Wyatt had "piped" off money to both Bill Leonard and Doc. At least this is what Ike later said.

Doc of course, took exception to Ike's accusations regarding either him or his good friend Wyatt Earp. Hence the argument in the Alhambra.

Is this account true? Who knows? It is based on contemporary testimony and is quite reasonable. On the other hand, Doc and Ike's argument could have been for some other reason. After all, Doc (as Bat Masterson wrote in his later years) had a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper and was always quick to turn to a gun to settle his disputes.

Bat Masterson

Bat's assessment of Doc's temperament is born out by what happened in the saloon. Doc called Ike a "son-of-a-[gun] of a cowboy" and told him to "get his gun and go to work". But Ike said he didn't have a gun and walked out. Wyatt and Morgan were in the saloon and (so said Ike) also heaped foul abuse on him. After he walked outside, Ike bumped into Virgil, who as we said, was city marshal.

So Ike griped to Virgil about Doc and said he would be ready to fight once he, Ike, got "heeled". Virgil told Ike that as a law officer he didn't want to hear talk like that. Besides, he was going to bed.

As a conscientious lawman (which in many ways he was), Virgil should have gone into the saloon and arrested Doc for carrying a weapon in town. Despite media representation, it was illegal to carry guns in most towns in the Old West. But Virgil let Doc be, and Ike kept stewing about the matter. He soon decided to get his rifle and go looking for Doc. Later he decided to toss in the Earps as objects of his displeasure.

At this point we have to say that Ike was almost certainly not really wanting to fight. After all, he spent about six hours wandering around a town that was a couple of blocks wide and maybe three long but - quote - "couldn't find" - unquote - anyone he was looking for. At one point he even stuck his head in the boarding house where Doc lived. He immediately left not even bothering to look in Doc's room (where in fact Doc was). But Ike made sure he told everyone else that he was after Doc and the Earps. In short, we must conclude Ike's ramblings were really just a face saving gesture, mostly for his own benefit.

So as the sun crept over the Chiricahua Mountains, Ike was still walking around town with a loaded Winchester telling everyone he looking for Doc and the Earps. And he was still looking in mid-morning when Andy Bronk spoke to Virgil.

Unlike Ike's ineffectual wanderings, Virgil located the rancher in about two minutes. Seeing Ike was (illegally) carrying a firearm, Virgil walked up from behind, drew his pistol, and clobbered the rancher upside the head. "Buffaloing" was the term used for the technique which at the time was an acceptable non-lethal method of restraint. After a trip to the city court, Ike was fined $25 and told he could pick up his gun when he left town.

Later that day, Ike's brother, Billy, and their friend and business partner, Frank McLaury, rode into town. Frank's brother, Tom, was already in Tombstone having ridden in with Ike. Soon all the Clantons and McLaury's (and the rest of the town) knew what happened.

Later Tom met Wyatt on the street. Three witnesses saw the encounter. Tom seemed perplexed by what was going on. Why was Wyatt being so onery, he wanted to know. Why, he, Tom, was a friend of his. But friend or not, Tom added, if Wyatt wanted to fight, he was ready. Well, Wyatt was ready and in a minute had buffaloed Tom as Virgil had done for Ike. Wyatt walked off.

It was around 4:00 p.m. when railroad engineer H. F. Sills passed the OK Corral on Allen Street. Sills was from out of town, but was staying in Tombstone between assignments. As he walked by he heard a bunch of cowboys saying they were going to kill someone named Virgil Earp. Another cowboy added they would kill all the Earps. Sills asked a bystander who Virgil Earp was. The man pointed out the marshal who was standing a little further down the street. Sills told Virgil what he heard and Virgil quickly summoned Wyatt and Morgan. Doc said he was coming along, and Virgil deputized the retired dentist on the spot.

As the group walked down Fremont Street, the county sheriff, Johnny Behan, walked up. Johnny had heard about the impending confrontation while getting a shave. Realizing events had gone beyond a city policeman telling some ranchers they had to check their guns, Johnny told Virgil to let him handle the matter. He then turned and hurried down the street. But after a moment, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc followed.

Wyatt later said Johnny claimed he had already disarmed the cowboys (Johnny denied he said anything of the sort). So Wyatt said that he, Virgil, and Morgan put their guns away (except Doc who had a shotgun hidden beneath his overcoat). But when the group reached the vacant lot down the street, the cowboys were there with their guns, if not in hand, then in their holsters.

Virgil stepped up and told the cowboys to throw up their hands. He was there to disarm them, he said. Others heard him say he wanted their guns or to give up their arms.

First, the facts that everyone agrees on.

1. There were two shots fired almost simultaneously, a pause, and the fighting became "general".

2, Thirty seconds later, Billy, Tom, and Frank were dying. Virgil and Morgan had serious wounds, and Doc had been grazed on the hip. Wyatt was unscathed.

So much for the facts. Now for the speculation.

All right. Who shot first and who (or it is whom)? At the month long inquest chaired by Judge Wells Spicer, Wyatt testified the first two near simultaneous shots were Billy Clanton firing at him, and he at Frank McLaury (Frank was a better shot, Wyatt added). Sills in later testimony agreed with Wyatt. This certainly seems to seal the matter. An entirely independent witness fully supported Wyatt's testimony. Case closed, nicht wahr?

Unfortunately (or fortunately for those who like western history), there is plenty of room to argue. For one thing none of the most immediate accounts - published the day after the fight - agree with Wyatt or Sills. The Tombstone Epitaph stated Billy and either Frank or Tom fired first the first two shots. But Tombstone's other paper, the Nugget, said it was Wyatt and Doc who fired first. Which of the variants version, if any, is correct?

Here we can let partisanship raises its head. The Epitaph, we learn, was pro-Earp. So of course it said the cowboys fired first. On the other hand, the Nugget was pro-cowboy, and we expect it to maintain the Earps and Doc fired were the instigators. So with both papers being so unforgivably partisan, we should certainly toss both accounts out. So the story of Wyatt and Sills still trumps. Again case closed.

Weeeeeeeeeelllllllllll, not quite.

Now it is certainly true the Epitaph editorialized that the "better citizens" say the marshal (Virgil) was justified in his actions as so seems slanted toward the Earps. On the other hand the story in the Nugget was by no-mean anti-Earp. Au contraire as they say in the American Southwest. The Nugget states flat out that Doc and Wyatt did not fire until after Frank McLaury made a move to draw his gun. So when you get down to it, both papers say the Earps and Doc fired in self-defense.

Wyatt Earp

Unfortunately, the near perfect case for exoneration of the city marshal and his assitants began to crumble almost immediately. Once the coroner issued the incredibly astute finding that the dead men had been killed by gunfire, Ike quickly filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc. Then Frank and Tom's brother, Will, came into town. Will was a lawyer and determined to see the Earps and Doc hanged. Soon Will had a list of witnessees (including Ike) who were going to testify that the cowboys had thrown up their hands on Virgil's command. Billy, we hear, had even called out that he didn't want to fight and Tom had said he was unarmed. Then the Earps shot everyone down. So said Ike and his friends.

Before we go further we have to deal with the inquest verdict. The Earps were found not guilty, or rather Judge Spicer ruled there was not sufficient evidence to justify a full trial. According to the rule of law, the inquest decision had to be - as the judges say - based on the evidence as presented in the case. Newspaper stories are not testimony, historians' speculation is not evidence, and accounts by "interested" parties have to be given their proper balance. The strongest weight had to go to that the independent testimony of Sills, which completely corroborated that of Wyatt. Although today it is likely that the case would have gone to trial, by the standard of the time and place, the benefit of the doubt in gunfights was usually given to the defendants - or at least the survivors. With Sills' testimony agreeing with Wyatt, Spicer saw little point in going further, and so he ruled.

But then why do so many people argue that Sills was wrong? It's not just a question of not liking the Earps, or of revisionist historians getting their jollies by believing an American legend like Wyatt Earp was really a jerk. After all, some Earp Champions don't believe Sills either.

First, it is entirely possible - in fact, likely - that Sills was simply mistaken. Before the fight he had met none of the Earps except Virgil. The Earps brothers were not far separated in age and looked a lot alike.

Next, Sills was quite a ways off during the shooting. He saw the fight while he was standing by the post office which at the time was near the corner of 4th and Fremont. The gunfight was near the corner of 3rd and Fremont. So Sills was about 200 feet away - 2/3 of a football field. It's highly doubtful that he could have seen the action in such detail as he claimed.

Then there's the problem as to where Wyatt was standing. Ike claimed he grappled with Wyatt (which Wyatt also said) and pushed him around the corner. Ike then ducked into the door of the building. This would mean Wyatt would have first been standing inside the lot with his back to the building's wall.

There's even corroboration from Wyatt on this point. Years later he drew a map of the gunfight for his friend John Flood who was writing a book about Wyatt. As always there are disputes on the accuracy of the map or even if Wyatt really drew it. But the maps does indeed show Wyatt inside the lot with his back to building. So it's unlikely Sills could have seen Wyatt at all.

Finally we have to ask how could Sills see things that another crucial and impartial witnesses nearer to the action could not? That was Addie Bourland, a dressmaker. She saw the fight from her second floor window across the street. More to the point, she was looking right at the men when the first shots were fired. She saw no one with their hands raised. But she could not tell who fired first. If Addie couldn't have seen who shot first from her vantage point, how could Sills do so if he standing further away and with the Earps and Doc were facing away?

But hold on there, pardner, you say. Explain how Sills and Wyatt could agree? That's cutting coincidence too fine. And remember, the prosecutor asked Sills if he had spoken to anyone after the fight. No, Sills said, no one.

Well, no one, he added, except James Earp. Jim, we should point out was the other and non-gun fighting Earp brother. And if Sills spoke to Jim what did they talk about? The weather? The night life of Tombstone? Who was going to the win the pennant? Nope. They surely talked about the gunfight and what Sills saw (or thought he saw). Amazingly, the prosecutor did not follow up this answer with any further questions.

So now we have the very real possibility, speculative but reasonable, that Wyatt knew full well what Sills would say if called to testify. Then when it became evident that Will and Ike were determined to "get" the Earps and Doc - even if it meant inventing the story of four men with hands raised and begging for their lives - Wyatt had no qualms about altering his story. Certainly Wyatt would have no hesitation about altering his story to agree with an eyewitness who was ready to swear that Billy ignored the orders from Virgil and instead immediately drew his gun. Regardless of the truth, the Earps and Doc now had an extremely strong case for self-defense.

The Official CooperToons Opinion - for what it's worth - is that Sills was mistaken, but does not go so far as some and claim Sills had been bought off. More likely the engineer was just saying what he thought he really saw.

If picking out one scenario,the Official CooperToons Selection is the version reported in the Tombstone Nugget. The story certainly reads like the reporter interviewed a number of principals and witnesses, and the tone is balanced and objective. So when Virgil ordered the cowboys to throw up their hands, one of the them, probably Frank, "made a move for his gun". Wyatt and Doc, both wary and even edgy (and perhaps spoiling for a fight) reacted and fired nearly simultaneously. Frank was hit, and as one witness reported, moved out into the street drawing his gun. Then Bill and Tom began to fire back. Even if Tom did not have a pistol, as some maintain, he did have a saddle rifle. But a number of witnesses said they saw him shoot with a handgun.

If the Nugget's account is true, it would also explain a lot about the famous gunfight. The fact that 100 % of the fatal shots were fired by the Earps and Doc makes most sense if the Earp party fired first. After all, if half of the armed cowboys had first been hit by .45 caliber slugs or a shotgun blast before they drew their guns, then the Earps would have a decided edge. Then there's the aftermath of revenge that followed. A month later Virgil was ambushed by an assailant wielding a shotgun. Although Virgil survived, his left arm was rendered useless for the rest of his life. Then a few months later Morgan was playing pool in Campbell and Hatch's Billiard Parlor when a bullet crashed through a glass door pane and struck him in the back. Morgan died about an hour later, and the assailant was never found.

So what we have in the Earps vs. Cowboys feud is two sides who sincerely felt they were the aggrieved party. Since the Earp party fired first, Ike really believed it was they who had started the fight. He would naturally have no hesitation to padding his testimony with the claim he, Billy, and the McLaurys had raised their hands. And as Billy lay dying and "halloing with pain", he said flat out that the Earps had murdered him. If the rationale of a dying declaration is correct, then this should be taken as Billy's true belief on what occurred. It should even have the force of a statement under oath.

But an intriguing question remains if we accept the Nugget story. Just why did Frank or the others make a "move" for their guns? Sure, they - or at least Frank - may have decided to fight (Franks's conversation with Johnny Behan shortly before the fight shows that Frank was uncooperative and belligerent). But if Virgil's actual words were "I want your guns" or "Give me your guns", the cowboys may very well have reached for their weapons to do just that. Doc and Wyatt - both ticked off already - could easily have mistaken the gesture. If so, the famous "Gunfight at the OK Corral" was due to a minor misunderstanding.

 

References

Books

The O.K. Corral Inquest, Alford Turner (Ed.), The Early West Series (1992). The transcript of the coronor and inquest record, or rather the records as copied by newspaperman Pat Hayhurst. It's been shown by historians that Pat edited a bit in favor of the Earps and omitted some statements that support the claim Tom McLaury was armed. The original transcript had disappeared but recently has been reported to have been rediscovered in the Tombstone courthouse.

All in all Alford did a decent job of editing but some of his footnotes are opinions, such as it was Morgan who said to Doc "Let them have it" as they walked to the vacant lot. No one really knows which Earp made the statement.

This seems now to be a volume rather hard to find. CooperToons once lent his out and the son-of-a-[gun] never returned it. Fortunately, on a visit to Tombstone itself, a copy was purchased in a local bookstore.

Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend Casey Tefertiller, John Wiley and Sons (1997). Considered the definitive biography.

Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends, Allen Barra, Carroll and Graf (1998). Another biography of Wyatt but with added material on the rise and manner of the Legend of Wyatt Earp.

Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp, Steve Lubet, Yale University Press (2004). It was after writing this Merry Explanation that CooperToons found this book and it's companion article in the University of Colorado Law Review (originally online but the original link has disappeared). The author, a professor of law at Northwestern University, says a murder charge was too complex to sustain, but manslaughter might have made it. He also cites the Nugget story as objective and balanced.

On-Line References

Despite the spittle flinging diatribes so often voiced by the author of CooperToons, there is much (good) information on the Internet about Wyatt and the Gunfight Near the OK Corral. But as usual, be wary!

Tombstone History Archives at http://www.tombstonehistoryarchives.com/. Primary documents including the Nugget and Epitpah articles published the day after the fight. This is also accessible from the well-known BJ's Tombstone Historical Discussion Forum at http://disc.yourwebapps.com/Indices/39627.html.

"Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Did Tom McLaury Have a Gun?" http://www.historynet.com/gunfight-at-the-ok-corral-did-tom-mclaury-have-a-gun.htm. An article appearing in Wild West Magazine on October 2006, where author Lee Silva shows how historians have to sift through evidence, testimony, and disparate statements. All in all, Lee makes a strong case that Tom did have a pistol, although the author of CooperToons still has nagging doubts.

Interviews

One point of controversy is if Doc fired nearly simultaneously with Wyatt, then he probably fired with his shotgun (in his hand and concealed under his coat) and only later pulled his pistol. But others testified the shots - whether Doc or from someone else - were from a pistol. So CooperToons decided to interview a firearm expert - or at least a firearms enthusiast - and asked if it would be possible to confuse the sound of a shotgun with that of a pistol. The answer was an unequivocal no.

Unless, the expert added immediately and with no prompting, (and pardon us if we shout) BOTH SHOTS WERE FIRED NEARLY SIMULTANEOUSLY. Certainly there's still room to debate, but for now at least, CooperToons still goes with the Nugget account.