“The Gunfight NEAR the OK Corral” Is It All A LIE?
ALMOST EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT THE GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL IS WRONG
Brothers. Illegally carried firearms. Drunken threats. These were the crimes of both the bad guys AND the good guys when 30 seconds one late October afternoon melded into infamy in a gun battle not QUITE at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
The details portrayed in the movies which surround the legacy that put Tombstone on the map have been told and retold so often by Hollywood, we take their version of events to be truth. In reality, the details are not so cut and dry - or accurate. Every single one of the characters might have been both good AND bad guys, depending on your perspective.
HOW IT BEGAN
The exact events surrounding this infamous battle occurred nearly 150 years ago, on October 26, 1881. And even that detail doesn’t mark the beginning of the events. And to boot, there were wild disagreements in the eyewitness testimony of the events surrounding this incident.
THE “GOOD GUYS”
On the alleged “side of the law” were Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan. Often portrayed as the ‘good guys’ in the conflict, the truth may be a little hazier. The law in Tombstone was represented by the town marshal Virgil Earp, with Morgan Earp acting as deputy. Despite the many portrayals that these were honest men who upheld the law, they were in fact all known to be power hungry and ruthless, often walking the line of criminal behavior.
THE “BAD GUYS”
But don't get me wrong: the ‘bad guys’ were not innocent victims. Consisting of Billy Claiborne plus two sets of brothers: Billy and Ike Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury. These men worked as cowboys on a ranch just outside of Tombstone and were known cattle rustlers, murderers, and thieves. So, not exactly choir boys, either.
THE FLAME IS LIT
The events leading up to the infamous shootout escalated on October 26th, 1881, but the flame was most likely lit the night before when Doc Holliday provoked Ike Clanton. Doc brought up an old disagreement about a stagecoach robbery and in true Doc Holliday fashion, he would not back down. The dispute between the men ended with the aid of the Earp brothers. Clanton was spitting mad when he left town that night, hurling angry threats at Holliday and the Earps.
The next day, a drunk and fully armed Ike Clanton staggered around town and announced he was looking for the men. City Marshal Virgil Earp and his deputy Morgan Earp found Clanton in the early afternoon. They pistol-whipped him and dragged him into court for illegally carrying firearms in the city limits.
Not much later, Wyatt Earp had a run-in with Tom McLaury, whom he accused of being illegally armed. He attempted to provoke McLaury into exposing a hidden pistol he believed to be carrying. The pistol never materialized, but Earp pistol whipped McLaury. Wyatt couldn’t arrest him because he was not officially an officer of the law.
The fuse was lit, and Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury blazed into town to back up their brothers. Both were illegally armed within city limits. You see, they skipped the requirement to drop their firearms at the first hotel, saloon, or stable they came to upon entering Tombstone city limits. When Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday caught wind of this, they sought out the brothers so they could remind the men of their obligations.
By the time Virgil and Doc located them, Billy and Frank had joined forces with Tom McLaury, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne.
THIRTY SECONDS THAT LIVE IN OLD WEST INFAMY
All of this built up to 30 seconds that live in Old West infamy. Words were exchanged between the two factions. And so were bullets. No one remembers exactly who fired the first shot, but a mere thirty seconds (and approximately 30 bullets) later, Doc Holliday, Virgil and Morgan Earp stood injured. Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers lay dead.
THE TRUTH IS SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN
Although history remembers the Earp brothers and Holliday as the Good Guys, and the Clanton/McLaury/Claiborne gang as the Bad Guys, the truth is probably a little greyer. Some argue Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton hadn’t yet had a chance to deposit their weapons as they were required to do, and no one knows for sure if Tom McLaury was actually carrying a concealed pistol during the altercation with Wyatt Earp.
To be fair, if the Bad Guys were illegally armed, then so too were some of the Good Guys. Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were guilty of illegally carrying weapons since neither were officers of the law and they, too, failed to check their weapons.
NOT EVEN THE LOCATION IS EXACTLY ACCURATE!
And I offer this final piece of slightly mangled history: the Shootout at the OK Corral did not ACTUALLY take place in the OK Corral on Allen Street in Tombstone (in spite of the many signs that declare otherwise!). The gunfight, in reality, occurred on a section of vacant property out back behind the OK Corral, somewhere on Fremont Street.
I guess Shootout at the OK Corral just sounds better than The Infamous Gunfight Battle Between Bad Guys and Not So Bad Guys on Block 17, Lot 2 in Tombstone Near the OK Corral. That’s just not very Hollywood.
WALK WHERE THE ACTUALLY FELL
If you do venture out to Walk Where They Fell, try stopping by the block on the corner of Fremont and Third streets some night and see if you don’t catch a glimpse of the oft reported ghosts of men dressed in dusters and cowboy hats who approach, before vanishing, into the darkness NEAR the OK Corral. And see if they’ll share the truth with you of that 30 Seconds of Infamy with you.
Treat, Wesley. Weird Arizona Your Travel Guide to Arizona’s Local Legends And Best Kept Secrets. Sterling Publishing Company. 2007.
Online: TheHistoryChannel.com Shootout At the O.K. Corral - HISTORY