Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Wyatt Earp: Knight With A Six-Shooter

OK Corral

For my handling of the situation at Tombstone, I have no regrets. Were it to be done again,

I would do it exactly as I did it at the time."

Wyatt Earp. lawman

Throughout the lazy summer season of 1881, threats against the Earp Brothers increased. Ike Clanton, Johnny Ringo, "Curly Bill" Brocius and others of their ilk would often be heard telling a barroom-full how they were going to send Wyatt Earp to Boot Hill.

All day, Oct. 25, Ike Clanton had been drunk, waddling from one gin mill to another. His denouncements of the Earps and Holliday were expletive and singed with violence. By nightfall, he had made his way to the Occidental Saloon for a card game with Tom McLaury. An angry Doc Holliday, who had heard of the boasts, confronted him. "I heard youre going to kill me, Ike," he said. "Get out your gun and commence."

Virgil Earp, on site, drew Holliday away from the sucker play, but Clanton followed, promising "to kill you tomorrow when the others come to town." Spotting Wyatt on the streets, the fired-up Clanton continued. "Tell your consumptive friend, your Arizona nightingale, hes a dead man tomorrow!" To which Wyatt matter-of- factly replied, "Dont you tangle with Doc Holliday hell kill you before youve begun."

"Get ready for a showdown!" he heard Ike promise as he strolled away.

And thus the stage was set for what was to become known as the Gunfight at OK Corral, which still generates story and legend to this day.

Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1881

Tom McLaury and Frank (New York Historical Society)
Tom McLaury and Frank
(New York Historical Society)

The Earps, in anticipation of trouble, woke early. Wyatt had tried to avoid a fight and hoped he still could. Most of the Clanton allies were deadly shots and, if they decided to open up, he and his brothers would have no recourse but to shoot back. But, a fight now would mean more trouble to the Earps, the Clantons, the town.

From his hotel window, Virgil watched Billy Clanton ride into town, accompanied by friend Billy Claiborne. They met the McLaury brothers and Ike Clanton on Allen Street. When Virgil investigated their movements, he encountered Ike alone, bracing a shotgun while rambling down an alley. Words were exchanged and Clanton raised his rifle. Virgil heeled him and dragged him before Justice of the Peace Wallace, who fined Ike $25. Wyatt and Tom McLaury, both hearing what had happened, met at the judges door simultaneously; they literally bumped into each other. Wyatt apologized, but McLaury insulted him. In return, Wyatt brought out his Buntline Special and brought it down across his head. He left him on the threshold with a headache.

Later that morning, the rustlers reassembled at Spangenbergs, a gunsmith, where Ike bought a six-shooter (Virgil had impounded the shotgun). When Frank McLaury rode his horse onto the boardwalk, scattering pedestrians off its path outside the shop, Wyatt grabbed the reins and led it to the street. Passersbys heard McLaury thrash out at the lawman. After this latest confrontation, the outlaws retreated in a group around the corner off Allen.

The Clantons were egging for a fight; it was obvious to many. Various members of the towns Citizens Committee conferred with Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp on the walkway and offered their assistance in the event of trouble. Wyatt thanked them, but told them it was his and his brothers responsibility as law officers.

It was during this street-corner parley that John Behan appeared to pronounce, "Ike Clanton and his crew are on Fremont Street talking gun-talk." Virgil, as Chief Marshal, agreed to go down there to break them up, but contended that Behan should accompany him. Behan laughed. "Hell, this is your fight, not mine."

The county sheriff was right about one thing. Ike Clanton, the two McLaurys, Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne had collected en force in a small vacant lot off Fremont Street. It is now believed they planned to bushwhack Doc Holliday whom they knew passed this way to and from the central part of town every morning. Their pockets were loaded with cash, indicating intentions of a quick getaway. That said, they must have been surprised when the Earps materialized much sooner than they obviously expected.

And they certainly were stunned seeing Doc Holliday with them. The latter had either taken another route or they must have bypassed each other by minutes. Intersecting Wyatt and his brothers on their famous walk to meet the Clantonites, Doc convinced them it was his fight, too. After all, the Clantons had involved him when they tried to implicate him in that stage robbery. Wyatt shrugged, but agreed.

Where the two forces finally met in combat was actually 90 yards down an alley from the OK Corral, not at the corral as colorful history later placed it. The actual gunfight took place off Fremont Street between Flys Photo Gallery and Jerseys Livery Stable. The Earps passed by the OK Corral, but cut through the alley where they found the troublemakers waiting at the other end.

"You are under arrest for attempting to disturb the peace," Virgil announced. As senior officer, he displayed only a non-threatening walking stick, having given his shotgun to Doc to carry. The rustlers tightened and Morgan and Doc simultaneously braced for action. "Hold on, I dont want that!" cried Virgil.

What happened then is still very much unsettled. Because it happened in a span of no more than 40 seconds even the participants couldnt be sure. It was a blur of reflexive action and a bloody one. No one could later target who had shot first, but Doc Holliday seemed to have scored the first hit. His bullet tore through Frank McLaurys stomach sending McLaurys own shot wild through Wyatts coat-tail. Billy Clanton fired at Virge, but his shot too went astray when Morgans report entered his rib cage. Billy Claiborne had run at the first blast and was already out of sight. Ike Clanton, too, panicked and threw his gun down, pleading for his life. "Fight or get out like Claiborne!" Wyatt yelled and watched him desert his brother Billy, arms flailing until he reached the door of the photography shop. But, from that angle, behind the Earps backs, Ike withdrew a hidden gun to pop a shot towards Wyatt before disappearing. The sound distracted Morgan; the moment was enough for Tom McLaury to send a bullet into Morgans side. Doc instantly countered, blowing Tom away with blasts from both barrels of the shotgun. Desperately, wounded and dying, Billy Clanton fired blindly into the gunsmoke encircling him, striking Virges leg. He then fell lifeless from a final volley from Wyatts Buntline Special..

An abrupt silence followed.

Townspeople ran from their homes and shops to see what had happened. John Clum and the Citizens Committee called for wagons to convey wounded Morgan and Virgil to their respective homes; doctors followed those wagons.

The sting of gunpowder in his nostrils, Wyatt walked from the scene, wondering what had happened and how it happened. He became conscious of Behan beside him, advising him he was under arrest.

"Not today," he answered and continued on to Virges and Morgs homes.

 

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