On October 26, 1881, one of the most defining moments in the history of the American west took place.
A shootout between nine men defined the popular perception of what the old west was about, even though it was actually a very atypical event.
Since then, the gunfight has become legendary, having been the subject of songs, books, and movies.
Learn more about the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the most famous shootout in the wild west, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The gunfight at the OK corral is one of the best-known incidents from the wild west, yet it is still one which is grossly misunderstood.
The depictions of it, which can be seen in movies, often portray it as a story of good guys versus bad guys.
Moreover, because it is one of the only actual cases of a large-scale midday shootout in the west, it has been extrapolated to a great many fictional westerns.
Let’s get into the details of the story.
The event took place in the town of Tombstone, Arizona, and the name Tombstone probably adds to the mythos of the story.
Tombstone is located only about 30 miles north of the Mexican border, and it was founded in 1879 when silver was discovered in the area. However, the town grew rapidly, going from nothing in 1879 to a population of 7,000 by 1881.
It was one of the last boomtowns of the era and, at the time, was the largest boomtown in the southwest United States.
Tombstone was overwhelmingly populated with men who were looking to make their fortune. While the town had a few banks and churches, a school, and even an ice cream parlor, it also had 110 saloons, fourteen gambling halls, and dozens of brothels.
Crime was high as cattle rustlers and bandits came to town, and it became a center for smuggling alcohol and tobacco into Mexico.
So, to summarize, Tombstone was a rapidly growing town with lots of men, lots of booze, and lots of crime.
Into this environment in 1879 came the Earp brothers: James, Virgil, and Wyatt. The Earps are often portrayed as good guys. However, Wyatt Earp was actually a fugitive when he arrived in Tombstone. He was arrested for stealing a horse and escaped from jail.
When they arrived in Tombstone, they got jobs in law enforcement. Virgil was hired as the deputy marshall for Pima County and stationed in Tombstone.
Wyatt was previously an assistant marshall in Dodge City, Kansas, where he first met a gambler and dentist by the name of John Henry “Doc” Holiday. Here I should note that of the people involved in the gunfight, Doc Holiday was probably the one person who could truly be called a gunslinger. He was reported to have been in nine gunfights and was confirmed to have killed three men.
The Earps invested in silver mines and water rights and gambled a lot. Their brothers Warren and Morgan moved to Tombstone in 1880, as did Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday.
On the other side was a group known as the cowboys, which were basically a gang. The members of the gang as it pertains to this story were brothers Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne.
The cowboys were involved in cattle rustling, horse thievery, and legitimate ranching interests.
There was a real economic conflict between the cowboys and the rural of people in the county, and the interests of the people in Tombstone. The cowboys were aligned with the rural interests, and the Earp brothers were aligned with the business owners of Tombstone.
The start of the conflict between the Earps and the Cowboys began in July 1880, when a US Army officer asked for the assistance of Virgil Earp to help track down the thieves who took several army mules.
The primary suspects were the Cowboys, who, in fact, were found to have the mules in question.
In March 1881, another incident occurred, which brought the two sides into conflict. A stagecoach carrying the equivalent of $750,000 in today’s value was robbed by masked bandits, and the driver and a passenger of the stagecoach were killed.
Virgil Earp, who was a deputy US Marshall, along with his brother Wyatt and Morgan, who were temporarily deputized, spent weeks trying to hunt down the culprits.
Wyatt eventually made a deal with Ike Clanton of the Cowboys that he would give him the reward money if he turned in the Cowboys, who were responsible for the robbery and murders. What Wyatt wanted was the credit so he could win the upcoming sheriff’s election.
The three suspects were eventually killed in unrelated incidents, and Ike began to worry that his turning on the cowboys would be exposed, so he began to publicly blame the Earps and Doc Holliday for the robbery and the murders.
Things between the Earps and the Cowboys only got worse over the rest of 1881. It got particularly bad between Ike Clanton and Doc Holiday. There were several threats exchanged between the two groups, including threats of violence.
Things came to a head on October 25, 1881. Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury came to Tombstone to get supplies.
The proximate cause of the fight was a ban on firearms being brought into the city. Wyatt Earp had instituted the ban as a way to reduce violence in the city.
The Earps confronted Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury to disarm them and pistol-whipped them.
They were furious. Ike drank well into the next morning and didn’t get to sleep.
The next day, October 2th, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne came to town. At a saloon in town at around 1:30 pm, they ran into Doc Holliday, who informed them of their brothers having been pistol-whipped the day before.
The Cowboys were furious and vowed to get revenge.
Ike had gone to a livery on the edge of town to get his rifle, and soon Doc Holiday was informed that Ike had his gun and was looking for him.
The Earps and Doc Holliday found them in an alley next to the C. S. Fly’s photography studio and boarding house, where Holliday was staying.
Here is the first big misconception about the fight. It didn’t take place at the OK Corral. The corral, by the way, was abbreviated OK, which stood for Old Kindersley.
The OK Corral was actually a few buildings away on the same block. It was probably used as the name simply because the gunfight at the CS Fly Photography Studio doesn’t really roll off the tongue quite as well.
There were five cowboys there, Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, and there were four on the Earp side, Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp, as well as Doc Holliday.
The two groups confronted each other at about 3 pm. What exactly transpired isn’t known. No one is sure who fired first. What is known is that the entire fight took place in only 30 seconds.
During that time, about 30 shots were fired, and they were probably very close to each other, perhaps only 6 to 10 feet or 2 to 3 meters away from each other.
By all accounts, the Earps didn’t go there looking for a fight but only to disarm the Cowboys.
What we do know is the results of the fight.
Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton were killed. Billy was shot three times, including in the chest and abdomen. Tom McLaury was shot in the chest with a shotgun by Doc Holiday. Frank McLaury was shot in the stomach by Wyatt Earp.
Virgil Earp had been shot in the calf, Morgan Earp was struck in both shoulder blades, and Doc Holiday had a minor wound near his hip. Wyatt Earp was unhurt.
Ike Clanton and Billy Claibourne both managed to escape.
The aftermath of the gunfight was perhaps more interesting than the fight itself.
As I stated at the beginning, there weren’t clear good guys and bad guys. Yes, the Cowboys weren’t the best of people, but they also had support amongst the people of Tombstone. Likewise, the Earps weren’t that popular in the same circles.
Immediately after the fight, the three dead men were displayed in the window of the town undertaker with a sign saying “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.”
The funeral procession for the three men had 200 people walking with the caskets and another 2,000 people lining the streets.
The Earps and Doc Holliday were arrested for murder four days after the shootings.
After an extensive, month-long investigation, the justice of the peace in Tombstone, Wells Spicer, cleared the three Earps and Doc Holiday of all charges.
Two survivors, Billy Claiborne and Morgan Earp were murdered within a year.
In 1887, Doc Holiday died of tuberculosis, and Ike Clanton was shot by a Pinkerton detective who was sent to track him down.
Virgil Earp died in 1905 from pneumonia after complications from a mine collapse he was involved in.
Wyatt Earp outlived everyone, and he is the reason why our view of the OK Corral gunfight is the way it is. He lived 24 years after his brother Virgil died, which means that the story of the fight was told through him.
Wyatt Earp traveled to the Yukon for the Klondike Gold Rush, owned several taverns, and was also a boxing referee.
He was the referee in one of the most controversial boxing matches of the era: the world heavyweight championship match between Bob Fitzsimmons vs. Tom Sharkey in 1896. In the match, Fitzsimmons knocked Sharkey to the mat, but Earp said that Fitzsimmons hit Sharkey with a low blow and awarded the match to Sharkey.
Many people thought the bout was fixed, given that hardly anyone else saw the punch.
He also just happened to be in Los Angeles when the motion picture industry started to take off.
He became a consultant for western movies and got to know movie stars such as Tom Mix and Charlie Chaplin, and directors like John Ford.
Wyatt Earp did interviews, and his account of the gunfight became the version that history remembered, with, of course, Wyatt Earp as the primary hero of the story.
Wyatt Earp died in 1929 at the age of 80, and his wife Josephine died in 1944, keeping the story of Wyatt Earp and his version of the event that took place alive.
At the time of his death, he was probably better known for his role in the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight than he was for the gunfight at the OK Corral.
The Gunfight at the OK Corral has been the subject of several books and movies, most famously the 1957 movie of the same name and the 1993 movie Tombstone.
The Gunfight at the OK Corral, or more accurately, the Gunfight at the CS Fly Photography Studio, was actually one of a few gunfights of its type, which took place in the wild west.
Despite being a staple of western films, those types of events rarely happened. Yes, there was crime, and there were shootings, but they mostly were drunken or cowardly murders, not gunslingers fighting in the middle of the street at high noon.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
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The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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