The 1957 movie, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, was popular, but mostly myth. In this timeline, we have endeavored to tease the facts from the popular legends. For example, the real gunfight took place on Fremont Street a half block from the back entrance of the O.K. Coral and Wyatt Earp hid his six-shooter in the pocket of his overcoat, not in plain view in a holster as depicted here. Nevertheless, the Earps & Holliday "walked the walk" without apologies. That part was real. The principles, their age, and status at the time of the gunfight, October 26, 1881.
The Cowboy Faction
Johnny Behan - 37. Sheriff of Cochise County. Billy Claiborne - 21. Cowboy, self-described gunfighter. Billy Clanton - 19. Rancher, rustler. Ike Clanton - 34. Rancher, rustler. Frank McLaury 33. Rancher, rustler. Tom McLaury - 28. Rancher, rustler. (At various times, these 'Cowboys' may also have been involved in other illegal activities, such as robbing Mexican wagon trains and American stagecoaches.)
The Earp Faction
John Clum - 30. Mayor of Tombstone & Publisher/Editor of the Tombstone Epitaph. Virgil Earp - 38. Deputy U.S. Marshal for Tombstone District, Tombstone City Marshal, Tombstone Fire Marshal, Tombstone Tax Collector. Virgil's other title is Tombstone Chief of Police with the legal power to deputize civilians in an emergency. Morgan Earp - 30. Temporary, special deputy to Tombstone Chief of Police. Wyatt Earp - 33. Temporary, special deputy to Tombstone Chief of Police. John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday - 30. Temporary, special deputy to Tombstone Chief of Police.
The Years Leading up to the Gunfight
1859 - Virgil Earp Marries
Future frontier marshal, 16-year-old Virgil Earp, elopes with a young Iowa girl. They have a daughter.
1861 - The Earps Enlist in the Union Army
Three Earp brothers, James, Virgil, and half-brother Newton, enlist in the Union Army and fight in the Civil War. James is badly wounded and is discharged. Wyatt and Warren are too young to enlist.
1863 - While Virgil Earp serves in the Union Army, his wife receives a false report that he had died. She moves to Oregon with her parents. Virgil would not see her or his daughter again for 37 years. Eventually, he will have two more ‘wives’. By the end of the war, Virgil will have seen and done a lot of killing.
1870 - Lamar Missouri
Wyatt Earp is 22 years of age. He is elected town constable, the only elected office he will ever hold. His young wife dies either in childbirth or from typhoid fever. Wyatt spends the next few years adrift.
1871 - Arkansas River
Wyatt is hunting buffalo when he meets Bat Masterson, who will become one of the most famous lawmen of the Old West. The two become life-long friends.
1873 – August; Ellsworth, Kansas
Ellsworth has replaced Abilene as the rowdiest town where cowboys deliver their herds to the railhead. In a dispute over a card game, notorious gunfighter Ben Thompson is embroiled in a violent confrontation that results in the shooting death of Chauncey Whitney, the County Sheriff. For reasons now unknown, the mayor immediately appoints Wyatt marshal and sends him into the fight. Wyatt coolly convinces Thompson to give up. Thompson pays a small fine and leaves town.
1874 - Wichita, Kansas
Wyatt is a part-time deputy marshal. Wyatt’s older brothers, James (Jim) and Virgil, and his two younger brothers, Morgan & Warren are also living in Wichita. Jim’s wife runs a local whorehouse. In Wichita, Wyatt’s reputation as a cool-headed, honest peace officer spreads. Marshal Dick Cogdell, said of him, “Earp is a man who never smiled or laughed. He was the most fearless man I ever saw. Wichita Deputy marshal Jim Cairns served with Wyatt and said, “Wyatt Earp was a wonderful officer. He was game to the last ditch, and apparently afraid of nothing. The cowmen all respected him and seemed to recognize his superiority and authority at such times as he had to use it.”
1876 - Dodge City, Kansas
Casey Tefertiller, the single best Earp biographer, said of Dodge, “If Wichita was wicked, Dodge was Sodom itself.” Wyatt is assistant marshal at various times. Here he must deal with the dregs of frontier society. Whatever we "moderns" consider the "worst of the worse' today, such as members of the drug cartels, Wyatt had to deal with many who were as despicable. One does not live in that world and not become hardened. Wyatt meets a prostitute, Mattie Blaylock. She becomes his common-law wife.
1877 - Fort Griffen, Texas
Wyatt has drifted into Indian Territory. Here he meets John Henry (Doc) Holliday, dentist. Having contracted tuberculosis, ‘Doc’ spends more time gambling than pulling rotten teeth. Doc Holliday is living with Mary Katherine Horony, a prostitute. For reasons unknown today, Mary Katherine is known as Big Nose Kate Elder. Surviving photographs of her do not show a particularly prominent proboscis. Yet, the moniker stuck.
Doc becomes known for his quick wit, hot temper, and heavy drinking. He comes from a prosperous Southern family and is, for the time and place, highly educated. Along about this time, a couple of cowboys corner Wyatt outside the Long Branch Saloon. Wyatt tells people many years later that Doc was playing cards in the saloon when he heard Wyatt was in trouble just outside. Many people today wonder why Wyatt stuck by Doc through all of his outrageous drinking bouts. Late in life, Wyatt told a reporter, “One thing I’ve always believed, if it hadn’t been for Doc Holliday, I’d have cashed in that night.”
Bat Masterson said of Doc, “His whole heart and soul were wrapped up in Wyatt Earp and he was always ready to stake his life in defense of any cause in which Wyatt was interested.” When the two get to Tombstone, much of Wyatt’s problems will be caused by his defense of his loyal friend, the often drunk, cantankerous Doc Holliday.
1877 – Summer
Prospector Ed Schieffelin finds a vein of silver ore on a waterless plateau above the San Pedro River called Goose Flats. Many say this vein was the purest silver ever discovered and, almost overnight, Mr. Schieffelin becomes one of the richest men in America. He names his first mine in this area the ‘Tombstone’ because the soldiers at Fort Huachuca told Ed that the only thing he would find in these Apache-infested hills would be his own tombstone. Goose Flats soon has a population of over 100, mostly miners living in tents and shacks.
1878 - April; Dodge City, Kansas
Dodge City Marshal Ed Masterson, Bat’s brother, is killed by a drunken cowboy. Wyatt is appointed Assistant Marshal of Dodge. The Ford County Globe praised the appointment. “Wyatt Earp, one of the most efficient officers Dodge ever had, has just returned from Fort Worth, Texas. He was immediately appointed Assistant Marshal by our city dads, much to their credit.”
1878 – Fall
Virgil Earp is elected Constable of Prescott, capital of Arizona Territory.
1879 - March
Ed Schieffelin helps establish the township of Tombstone. Lots on Allen Street sell quickly for $5 each. In just a few years, the town’s population will grow to around 14,000, according to the official census. Because census takers only counted property-owning adult males, future historians can only guess at the peak population of Tombstone. It could just as easily have been more than 20,000 in its boom years. For tourists walking around Tombstone 130 years later it will be hard to imagine that many people living here, but at its height Allen Street, which will become the historic district, boasts 110 saloons and brothels.
Virgil and Allie have staked a mining claim near Prescott. Virgil is working part-time carrying mail and serving as acting Deputy Sheriff. Two cowboys come to Prescott, get drunk and shoot up the town. Virgil is a member of the posse organized by the Sheriff to go after the offenders and arrest them. Virgil encounters, shoots, and kills one of the suspects. Virgil Earp is appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal by U.S. Marshal Dake. Dake asks Virgil to move to Tombstone to deal with the outrageous number of outlaws, including a loose-knit gang of horse thieves, stagecoach robbers, and murderers known generally as the ‘Cowboys’.
At that time and place, "cowboy" is a pejorative term. Legitimate cattlemen are referred to as "ranchers".
1879 – October
Johnny Behan, who will become Sheriff of Cochise County where Tombstone is located, meets Josephine Sarah (Sadie) Marcus, a young beauty traveling with the Gilbert & Sullivan acting troupe playing at venues in the Western boomtowns.
1879 - December; Tombstone, Arizona Territory.
Four Earp brothers, James, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan, arrive in Tombstone to seek their fortune. They invest in town real estate, mining claims, and water rights. James’ wife, Bessie; Virgil’s, common-law wife, Allie; Wyatt’s ‘wife’ Mattie; Morgan’s common-law wife Louisa, soon join their men. Apparently, the Earp men are not big on formal marriage. Tombstone is not yet an incorporated city and has only about 100 residents, mostly miners "living" in tents or hastily constructed shacks.
1880 - July
Virgil is Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Tombstone District. Wyatt is riding shotgun on the Wells Fargo stage, until Pima County Sheriff Charlie Shibell appoints him Deputy Sheriff for the Tombstone District. ‘Old Man’ Clanton, his sons Ike, Billy, and Phin, plus two brothers, Frank and Tom McLaury are outlaw ranchers in Southeastern Arizona in the Sulphur Springs and San Pedro River Valleys. Together they serve as the unelected leaders of the 'Cowboys'. Their ranches serve as ‘clearing houses’ for stolen cattle, horses, and mules. They purchase stolen animals, re-brand as necessary, then re-sell them for a substantial profit.
In mid-July, six U.S. Army mules are stolen from Ft. Rucker 75 miles east of Tombstone. Lt. Hurst rides to Tombstone to ask Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp to help recover the animals. Virgil forms a posse that includes his brothers Wyatt and Morgan.
Along with some soldiers, they track the mules to a ranch owned by Frank and Tom McLaury. Some 15 rustlers are altering the brands. The McLaury brothers are providing sanctuary. Caught in an awkward situation, the McLaurys agree to return the mules if no charges are brought. Days later, the lieutenant becomes incensed when the mules are not returned and publicly names the thieves. The McLaurys, employing a legal tactic they and the Clantons will soon use against the Earps, accuse Lt. Hurst of stealing the mules.
1880 - September
Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate arrive in Tombstone.
1880 - October
Tombstone Marshal Fred White is shot by a well-known outlaw, ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius. Wyatt, responding to gunfire, arrives on the scene, buffaloes (pistol whips) ‘Curly Bill’ and arrests him. Fearing a lynch mob, Wyatt and Morgan closely guard the jail and protect their prisoner. Seriously wounded, Marshal White tells Wyatt that he believes the shooting was unintentional. The next day, Wyatt takes ‘Curly Bill’ to Tucson to stand trial. White dies two days later. Virgil is appointed acting Tombstone Marshal. Virgil is now both Marshal of Tombstone and Deputy U.S. Marshal. At the trial in Tucson, Wyatt testifies that he thinks ‘Curly Bill’s’ shooting of Marshal White was an accident. Brocius is acquitted, primarily on Wyatt’s testimony. (These two will meet again.)
1880 - November
Ben Sippy beats Virgil in a special election for the job of Tombstone Marshal.
Wyatt is a Deputy Sheriff of Pima County. As such, he investigates allegations of voter fraud. The investigation leads to Ike Clanton and notorious gunman Johnny Ringo. On February 1, 1881, the rugged, 7,000 square mile, southeastern portion of Pima County will become Cochise County. Tombstone will become the county seat of Cochise County. Wyatt’s speculative investments in local mining claims and real estate are paying off handsomely. He resigns as Deputy Sheriff and Johnny Behan is appointed to replace him. (Big mistake.)
The Year of the Gunfight - 1881
1881 – February
The southeast portion of Pima County becomes Cochise County. This remote corner of Arizona Territory is mostly beyond the reach of law enforcement. The population is a mix of law-abiding prospectors, store owners, professionals such as doctors and lawyers and lots of miners as well as cattle rustlers, prostitutes, con men, stagecoach robbers, plus many common thieves and murderers. Moreover, renegade Apaches, many led by Geronimo, are a constant threat to Anglo and Mexican ranchers, miners, and other settlers.
Traveling beyond the relative safety of large settlements is exceedingly dangerous. (It is very difficult for modern readers of this time & place to relate to the terror posed by Geronimo and his Apache warriors. Think Osama bin Laden, but worse.)
Tombstone has become a boomtown, the richest silver-producing mining district in Arizona Territory. It becomes county seat for the newly-formed Cochise County. The town is built on the ground over several highly productive mines, including Ed Schieffelin’s Toughnut.
Tombstone has fine dining establishments, a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, two banks, an ice cream parlor, and four newspapers, including the Epitaph and the Nugget. It also has over 100 saloons, dance halls, and brothels. Here the 'Cowboys’ are welcomed for their free-spending ways. Drunkenness, fights, and shootings are common occurrences.
The more genteel of Tombstone’s citizens attend operas and other refined performances by visiting acting troupes at the new Schieffelin Hall.
Lowly miners and cowboys enjoyed more raucous shows at the Bird Cage Theater, which the New York Times declared "the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street (New Orleans) and the Barbary Coast (San Francisco)." An officer of the law is considered ‘good’ if he can keep the peace without killing the customers. Some officers are elected. Many are appointed. In February 1881, the county-controlled Democratic Party convinces Arizona Territorial Governor John C. Fremont to appoint Johnny Behan Sheriff of Cochise County.
Behan is a political hack who does exceptionally well financially by padding his expense account and taking a generous cut of the taxes he collects. He befriends the 'Cowboys’. When Behan finds out that Wyatt may seek his job as Sheriff in the next election, he offers Wyatt the position of under-sheriff and a share of the substantial tax-collecting benefits.
1881 – March
On the 15th, the Benson stage is robbed just north of Contention City on the San Pedro River. Popular stage driver, ‘Bud’ Philpot, is shot and killed, as is a passenger.
Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, Bat Masterson, Johnny Behan and others form a posse and pursue the murdering thieves. One man is captured and confesses. Jailed in Tombstone, he soon escapes with the help of his ‘Cowboy’ friends.
The posse pursues the other thieves for two weeks and finally gives up when Behan fails to bring them fresh horses as promised. Afterward, Wyatt learns that Sheriff Behan has reneged on his pledge to appoint Wyatt under-sheriff and share revenues from their tax collecting duties, creating a rift between the two men that will have extraordinary consequences in the near future.
Moreover, Sheriff Behan refuses to share the $800 in expense money with the other members of the posse. Behan explains to Wyatt and the others that he had not formally deputized them. (Here you are free to add your own adjective describing Johnny Behan.)
1881 - April
In an effort to reduce violent crime, Tombstone City Council passes an ordinance prohibiting the possession of deadly weapons within town limits. Folks entering Tombstone are required to deposit their guns at a livery stable or saloon immediately upon arrival. The City of Tombstone now has about 7,000 residents, not counting Mexicans and Chinese. (In this time & place, PC was completely unknown.)
1881 - June
Town Marshal Sippy takes a leave of absence. Tombstone City Council once again appoints Virgil temporary City Marshal. On June 22, the heart of Tombstone is almost completely destroyed by fire. Virgil is credited for keeping looting to a minimum.
On June 28, the town learns that Sippy had left with about $3,000 in bad debt. Financial improprieties in his office are also discovered. Mayor John Clum appoints Virgil permanent City Marshal with a respectable $150.00 per month salary.
Tombstone’s two major newspapers take sides. The Tombstone Epitaph is founded, published, and edited by Republican Mayor John Clum. It is the Republican Party house organ and they run the city. Clum leads the Citizens Safety Committee comprised mainly of local businessmen who want law and order so their ventures can prosper. They back the Earps.
The Tombstone Nugget is the Democrat’s house organ. The Democrats run the County and back Sheriff Behan and the 'Cowboys’. According to the Nugget, the 'Cowboys’ are honest, hardworking ranchers and cowhands who come to town to quench their thirst, play cards, enjoy the ladies, and let off a little steam.
1881 - July
Sheriff Behan has persuaded the vivacious Sadie Marcus to join him in Tombstone where she believes Johnny will marry her. They are living together. After he takes all of her money, Sadie discovers that Johnny is a perennial womanizer. She breaks off the relationship.
1881 – August
Sadie Marcus meets Wyatt Earp. They become ‘friends’. The rift between Behan and Wyatt Earp grows in intensity. Wyatt does not allow his long relationship with his common law wife Mattie Blaylock to come between him and his new love, the beautiful Sadie Marcus. In the meantime, ‘The Cowboys’ are busy with their rustling operations. ‘Old Man’ Clanton and some others are killed by Mexican soldiers seeking revenge for the theft of Mexican cattle and the death of many Mexicans in the running gun battle that ensued.
1881 - September
The stage from Tombstone to Bisbee is robbed. The stage driver tells the authorities that one of the robbers was Pete Spencer and another was Sheriff Behan’s deputy, Frank Stilwell. Both are arrested, post bail, and released.
1881 - October
Deputy city marshal, Morgan Earp, is unarmed and cornered by Frank and Tom McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Johnny Ringo.
Frank speaks for his side. “You may have arrested Pete Spencer and Frank Stilwell, but don’t get it in your heads you can arrest me. If you ever lay hands on a McLaury, I’ll kill you.”
Morgan replied, “If the Earps ever have occasion to come after you, they’ll get you.” He then just walked away.
In the meantime, Ike Clanton fears that a secret deal he made with Wyatt to turn in some stagecoach robbers and share the reward will become public knowledge. In addition, Ike is afraid Wyatt has told his good friend, Doc Holliday, about the deal. If the word gets out, Ike knows the 'Cowboys’ will kill him. Ike ‘reasons’ that he has to convince his gang that Wyatt is lying just to stir up trouble. Either that, or he can keep Wyatt and Doc from revealing the plot by killing them. Ike begins drinking heavily and making very public threats against Holliday and the Earps. Yet, he is seldom foolish enough to be armed.
1881 - October 19th
Fearing Ike's threats will be backed up by dozens of 'Cowboys', Wyatt sends Morgan to bring Doc back from Tucson where he has been gambling. Holliday arrives in Tombstone on October 22nd.
1881 – October 22nd
Doc and Ike are embroiled in a confrontation. Ike again publicly threatens Holliday and the Earp brothers.
1881 – October 25th
Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury start drinking in the early afternoon at the Grand Hotel, a favorite ‘Cowboy’ establishment. That night, they join an all-night poker game at the Occidental Saloon. Also at the table are Virgil Earp and Johnny Behan.
The Day of the Gunfight
1881 - October 26th: Early Morning
A light snow has fallen and a bone-chilling wind is blowing. Someone awakens Wyatt to tell him that Ike is again making threats against the Earps and Holliday. Wyatt is unconcerned and goes back to bed. Someone awakens Virgil with the same report. Virgil thinks Ike is all bluster and returns to his bed.
1881 – October 26th. Late Morning.
Ike comes to Fly’s boarding house where Doc is sleeping. Mrs. Fly warns (Big Nose) Kate Elder who awakens Doc and tells him Ike is armed and looking for him. Doc, dying of tuberculosis, tells Kate, “If God will let me live long enough to get my clothes on, he will see me.”
Doc accepts that his disease (tuberculosis, then known as consumption) will soon terminate his life and is thus ... shall we say ... a bit reckless. We assume, but do not know with certainty, that he prefers a quick death by gunshot rather than a slow, humiliating wasting away.
Virgil, aware of Ike’s very public threats, walks up behind him, grabs his rifle, and knocks him to the ground. “You looking for me?” Virgil asks. “Yes, and if I’d seen you a second sooner I’d a killed you,” Ike replies. Virgil takes Ike to court where he is fined for violating the gun ordinances.
Shortly thereafter, Wyatt confronts Tom McLaury, who refuses to go for his gun. Wyatt then slaps Tom with his left hand, then clobbers him over the head with the barrel of his revolver and confiscates Tom’s gun. Tom is both dazed and humiliated.
1881 – October 26th. Early Afternoon
Wyatt follows Ike and the McLaurys into Spangenberg’s gun shop where they are re-arming. Another argument ensues. Bob Hatch, owner of the popular Hatch & Campbell Saloon & Billiard Parlor, comes running up to Virgil and tells him that he had better get to Spangenberg’s fast because the 'Cowboys’ are there and Wyatt is all alone.
On his way, Virgil stops by the Wells Fargo office and gets a short-barrel 10-gauge shotgun. Most likely, Virgil's intent in acquiring the shotgun was to intimidate the Clantons & McLaurys into thinking twice before resorting to gun play. The shotgun was a far more formidable weapon at close range than the notoriously inaccurate revolver.
Virgil gets down to Allen & 4th Streets where Wyatt is standing in front of Hafford's Saloon seething with anger. They watch Ike, Billy, & Frank leave Spangenberg's and meet Tom who has been stopping at the various butcher shops to collect payment for cattle they had recently delivered.
Billy Claiborne joins them and the 'Cowboys' head to Dexter's Livery & Feed to get Billy's horse. From there, they intend to walk the two blocks to the West End Corral at Fremont and Second Streets where they will get the Clanton's wagon and team of horses. Their route takes them through the back of the O.K. Corral.
A railroad engineer, H. F. Sills, has been in town only a day. He knows none of the principles. However, he overhears an angry conversation among several men who were walking toward the O.K. Corral about killing Virgil Earp on sight.
Sills asks someone who Virgil Earp is. Told that he is the City Marshal, Sills finds Virgil near Hafford's Saloon and relays the threat. Others too relay the 'Cowboy's' threat to Virgil.
(Hafford's Saloon was on the first floor at the corner of 4th & Allen. The Brown Hotel was on the second floor. Hafford's bar is now in the Tombstone Courthouse Museum at 3rd & Toughnut Street.)
William Murray, a member of the Citizens Safety Committee (vigilantes), offers to gather 25 armed men to fight the 'Cowboys’. Virgil refuses their assistance. He tells Murray that so long as the 'Cowboys' are in the O.K. Corral & preparing to leave town, there won't be any reason to confront them. However, if the 'Cowboys' come back into the streets of Tombstone, Virgil tells Murray, he will disarm them. Perhaps Virgil declined the offer of assistance because he felt the mere presence of the vigilantes on the streets would ignite the gunfight he was trying to find a way to avoid, IF it could be accomplished without officers of the law appearing to back down.
1881 - October 26th. About 2:10 PM.
Freshly shaven from the barber shop, Sheriff Behan arrives on the scene and offers to go alone to disarm the 'Cowboys’. Virgil assents, knowing the Clantons & McLaurys trust the County Sheriff. Clearly, Virgil is still trying to avoid a violent confrontation. The Earps wait to see if Behan is successful.
1881 – October 26th. About 2:30 PM.
The day is very cold and windy. A light snow had fallen that morning. Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan meet at Hafford’s Saloon (corner of 4th & Allen). Doc joins them. It's been 20 minutes since Sheriff Behan went to disarm the 'Cowboys'. John Fonck, a local furniture dealer, enters the Hafford scene & offers marshal Earp 10 armed men to help disarm & arrest the 'Cowboys'. Just as he told Murray, Virgil now tells Fonck that if "The Cowboys" are in the O.K. Corral preparing to leave town he will not confront them. Fonck tells Virgil, "Why, they're all down on Fremont Street now."
Having promised the Safety Committee, Virgil now feels he has no choice but to go down Fremont Street to disarm & arrest the 'Cowboys'. However, Virgil is no fool. He's not about to go alone. His two regular deputies are both off-duty & unavailable. Virgil deputizes the only available men he knows he can trust in a fight, his brothers.
Doc volunteers, in part out of loyalty to Wyatt, in part because he wants the fight. Vigil must have hesitated, but he quickly devises a plan in which Doc can, for a change, help avoid trouble rather than start it. Virgil deputizes Doc and explains his plan.
Virgil gives Doc the Wells Fargo 10-gauge short barrel shotgun & takes Doc's silver-headed cane. Once Virgil & his brothers confront the 'Cowboys' Doc is to stand out in the middle of Fremont Street & display the shotgun as a warning to any 'Cowboy' friends who might consider intervening. However, Virgil tells Doc to hide the shotgun under his long coat while they walk toward the 'Cowboys' so as to not alarm the many onlookers any more than they already are.
1881 – October 26th. About 2:55 PM
The four leave Hafford’s together & step out onto 4th Street. A short block later at Fremont Street they turn left toward 3rd Street. Virgil and Wyatt are slightly in front; Doc and Morgan a step behind. In addition to the shotgun, Doc has a nickel-plated revolver under his long coat. Virgil has Doc's cane in his left hand, a revolver in his right. At this point, Wyatt & Morgan probably each have a revolver in their gun hand. They have no way to know how many 'Cowboys' they will have to confront.
By now, the good citizens of Tombstone are well aware that there could be a bloody confrontation and many peek out from behind buildings and doorways to see & hear what will happen next.
Sheriff Behan had been trying desperately to negotiate with the 'Cowboys' to either hand over their weapons or get out of Tombstone immediately. Too late. Someone on Fremont Street shouts, "Here they come."
Johnny sees the lawmen walking nearly 4 abreast toward the vacant lot where he & the 'Cowboys' are trying to stay out of the cold wind. Johnny runs about 40 yards down Fremont Street where he tells Virgil, “Hold up boys, don’t go down there or there will be trouble. I have been down there to disarm them.”
Virgil, believing that Behan had just told him that he had ALREADY disarmed the 'Cowboys’, put his handgun into his waistband and switched Doc’s cane from his left to right hand. Wyatt puts his revolver back in his overcoat pocket. Morgan probably did the same. Doc still had his shotgun tucked under his long coat. What Virgil doesn't know is that Frank McLaury has already refused to give up his weapon to Sheriff Behan unless the Earps gave up theirs. Frank is an excessively proud man and is not about to submissively hand over his gun with so many town folks watching.
1881 – October 26th. About 3:00 PM
The 'Cowboys’ are standing in the 18-foot-wide vacant lot (some claim the space was only 15', half of a city lot) between the Harwood House and Fly’s Boarding House & Photography Gallery near the intersection of 3rd & Fremont. They include Ike & Billy Clanton, Frank & Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne.
(Note: today the 15 to 18-foot-wide "vacant lot" between the small, wood-framed Harwood House owned by the former mayor and Fly's Boarding House & Photography Gallery" is about 50-feet wide. The explanation is simple if you have a 1881 or 1882 Tombstone street map. Today, the replica "Harwood House" is located on the corner lot; one whole 30-foot lot farther away from Fly's Boarding House. Like most of Tombstone today, the buildings, including the O.K. Corral, are a reasonable approximation of what was there in 1881.)
Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury are clearly armed, each with a revolver in its holsters. It is unclear if Tom McLaury is carrying a revolver, but he has a Winchester rifle within reach in the scabbard of his saddle. (
The Earps & Holliday claim that Tom had a revolver and used it during the gunfight. They said he fired it from under the neck of his panic-stricken horse that he tried to use as a shield. Yet it was not found on or near his body in the immediate aftermath. If he did, in fact, have and use a revolver, someone, probably Wes Fuller, a friend of the Clantons & McLaury's, picked it up immediately following the last shots in order to make it appear that the Earps and Holliday murdered an unarmed Cowboy. This is entirely possible, but there is no way to prove it today.)
Virgil & Wyatt move into the close quarters of the vacant lot. Morgan is only a few feet out on the Fremont Street sidewalk. Doc is near the middle of Fremont Street where he can (a) observe the actions in the vacant lot; (b) watch for more "Cowboys" and/or (c) block the Clanton's & McLaury's escape across Fremont Street. At this point, Johnny Behan dashes in front of the Earps, grabs young Billy Claiborne & the two practically dive toward the space between Fly's boardinghouse & his photography studio.
Behan now clearly believes that a shootout is eminent. Why he pulls young Billy Claiborne out of harms way is unclear, except he knows Claiborne is unarmed. When Virgil is within a few feet of the outlaws, he tells them, “Throw up your hands, boys. I want your guns.” (Or, depending on which witness you believe; "Throw up your hands, boys. I'm here to disarm you."
(Note: Virgil and Wyatt moved to within 6 or 7 feet of the nearest Cowboys. This is not a proximity that the experienced lawmen would have intentionally taken if they expected a gunfight. It is, however, the right distance if they intended to "buffalo" the Cowboys, a favorite Earp method for subduing lawbreakers. None of the most respected historians of The Gunfight believe the Earps expected a gunfight. After all, they had put their guns away when they believed Johnny Behan had told them he had already disarmed the Cowboys.
This was an arrest that very quickly got out of control because of all that had transpired between the combatants the previous 24 hours. What happens next is replayed from many eyewitnesses. Some, including the Earps, Johnny Behan, & Ike Clanton, will testify under oath in Judge Spicer’s court. The 'Cowboy' faction will have their side of the story; which to no surprise contradicts the Earp's version. The following is derived from what I consider the most believable witnesses & the hard evidence.)
As Virgil demanded their weapons, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury have their hands on their revolvers. Frank responds to Virgil's command, "We will ..." (There is much debate as to what Frank intended to say. Did he mean "We will ... give you our guns." Or did he simple not get the chance to finish his sentence; "We will ... NOT." The latter is more likely because Frank had minutes earlier refused to hand over his gun to the Cowboy-friendly Sheriff Behan.)
Tom McLaury is next to his horse, perhaps reaching for his rifle in the scabbard. Virgil hears the sound of hammers cocking and shouts, “Hold on, I don’t want that!” (It's entirely possible that the first sound of hammers cocking came from Doc cocking both barrels of his shotgun that would have been leveled at Tom McLaury. Or Billy, then Frank, cocked the hammer of his six-shooter even before they cleared leather. Or all three cocked their guns at nearly the same instant. We can never know. Given the extreme tension of the moment, any such sound or movement would have been immediately interpreted by all involved as a signal to start shooting in self-defense.)
Wyatt sees Billy begin to pull the gun out of his holster. Frank begins to draw his gun. At the same instant, Wyatt pulls his gun out of his coat pocket. (None of the Earps wore a holster.) His draw is slightly faster than either of his two immediate targets. Rather than fire at Billy, Wyatt shoots Frank McLaury in the abdomen because he thinks Frank is the more deadly with a gun. In hindsight, this will be the single most important shot of the day.
Frank staggers backward, seriously (probably fatally) wounded. In his haste to get a round off, Billy fires, but misses Wyatt. There is a momentary pause, a second or two, when all involved suddenly realize the enormity of what had just happened. And then all hell breaks loose. Wyatt will later testify, “The fight then became general.” The gunfire in the small area is extremely loud. White smoke and the smell of burnt gunpowder fill the air.
Virgil realizes he has lost control of the situation. He is unable to effect an arrest without having to fire his weapon. He quickly switches Doc's cane from his right hand to his left, then reaches across his body with his right hand for his revolver in the left side of his waistband.
Before Virgil can get a shot off, Frank, gut-shot but still dangerous, fires at Virgil, striking the marshal in the right calf. The bullet passes through the muscle, but does not shatter his shin bone. Virgil drops to the ground.
At this point, something happened that no one could have predicted. Ike Clanton, the guy who precipitated this violence with his boozy threats, grabs Wyatt, apparently trying desperately to convince Wyatt that he's unarmed and not to shot him.
(Note: to their credit, neither the Earps nor Holliday fired at anyone they considered unarmed. In the melee, Wyatt could have, with considerable justification, shot Ike. No doubt, in the days and weeks that followed, I'm sure Wyatt wished that he had.)
Now, 19-year-old Billy Clanton is trying to get a shot off at Wyatt, but his older brother is in the way. He hesitates. Morgan shoots him in the chest, collapsing his left lungs. The impact slams Billy back against the side of the Harwood House.
Virgil manages to get on his feet, but doesn't have a clear shot at Frank who is trying to get out of the tight confines of the alley and into Fremont Street using his horse for a shield. Virgil fires a couple of shots at Frank anyway.
Ike grabs at Wyatt's gun, which then discharges. At that instant, Morgan yells, "I'm hit" and falls to the ground. The bullet could have come from one of several guns, including Wyatt's. Nevertheless, the wound was very serious. The bullet entered at one shoulder, nicked a vertebrae, and exited the other shoulder. Morgan tries to get up, but trips over a mound of dirt from a ditch where a water pipe is laid out on Fremont Street ready to be buried. This sudden, unexpected fall may have saved his life because the many other bullets whizzing all around him missed their intended target.
Wyatt finally gets free of Ike's grasp and tells him, "The fight [has] commenced, go to fighting or get away." Ike runs away. After the gunfight, he will be found two blocks away hiding in an office.
Doc, calmly fulfilling his duty in the middle of Fremont Street, is also looking for an opportunity to fire at Tom McLaury. But Tom's horse keeps getting in the way. Wyatt, now free of Ike, sees Doc's predicament and intentionally shoots Tom's horse. The bullet grazes the horse & it bolts away, exposing Tom.
As Tom reaches for his horse, the charge from Doc's short-barreled 10 gauge creates a 4-inch-wide hole in Tom's chest under his right arm. Tom staggers down Fremont Street and slumps against a telegraph pole at the corner of Fremont and 3rd, mortally wounded.
Ike has left the scene. Billy Claiborne is still hiding at Fly's with Sheriff Behan. Tom is all but dead. Wyatt, Morgan, & Virgil are now focused on Billy. Virgil fires 3 shots, one of which hits Billy in the abdomen. Already wounded in his right arm, Billy squats on the ground where he uses his knees as support for the gun in his left hand and fires several more times without effect. One of his bullets may have put a hole in Wyatt's coat.
Out of ammo, Billy Clanton is no longer a threat. That leaves Frank, who is staggering in the middle of Fremont Street badly wounded, but still very dangerous. With his nickel-plated revolver, Doc turns to finish off Frank.
Down but not yet out, Frank McLaury is determined to kill Doc. Frank gets up off the ground and, with his pistol in his right hand and resting on his left arm, he aims his revolver at Holliday and declares, “I’ve got you now.”
Doc, amazed at Frank's scrappy attitude, replies, “Blaze away! You’re a daisy if you have!.” (Yes, that is the quote. The term "daisy" was a popular colloquialism in the 1880's that meant "good". In effect, Doc said, "You're a good one if you have got me.") Frank fires. His bullet hits Doc's pistol pocket and skims across his hindquarters. Doc screams, "I'm shot right through."
He & Morgan fire at Frank at the same instant. Doc's bullet misses*. Morgan's strikes Frank just below the right ear, denying Doc the pleasure of administering the coup de grace.
(* Two of the most believable sources, Jeff Guinn's "The Last Gunfight" & Casey Teferteller's "Wyatt Earp" disagree on whether Doc missed. On October 30th, the Tombstone Nugget reported that, among his other wounds, Frank had a bullet wound in his chest. If this is true, Frank's chest wound almost certainly came from Doc's nickel-plated revolver. However, the coroner's report mentions only "fatal wounds". Given that Doc was only a few paces from a target the size of Frank's chest, I personally believe Doc did NOT miss. Even I couldn't have missed.
Moreover, perhaps the ultimate living expert on The Gunfight, Jeff Morey, also concluded from the evidence & circumstances that Doc, standing in the middle of Fremont Street facing a eminently dangerous enemy at close range, shot Frank in the chest. No less a historian than Gary L. Roberts, Emeritus Professor of History at Abraham Baldwin College (GA) writes: "(Coroner) Mathews described only the fatal wounds in his testimony; hence, he did not describe the shot to Billy Clanton's wrist or Doc's shot to Frank McLaury's chest."
One can understand why Frank's bullet all but missed Doc. Frank was fatally wounded and knew it. He was very weak from internal bleeding, and surely light-headed and dizzy at this point. Doc was not rattled. He was not badly wounded. How cool do you have to be to just stand there and let Frank take a shot? Now, he took deliberate aim from a distance that could not have been more than 10 feet. It is totally implausible to think that, under these circumstances, a reasonably sober Doc Holliday would have missed. Certainly, Doc believed he had dropped Frank. In the seconds following Morgan's fatal shot to Frank's head, Frank's body still exhibited some movement. Several witnesses recalled that Doc stood over Frank in the middle of Fremont Street and shouted, "The son-of-a-bitch has shot me, and I mean to kill him." But Morgan already had. Of course, whether or not Doc shot Frank in the chest is a non-issue. It would have made no difference in the outcome.)
1881 – October 26th. About 3:00:30 PM
Billy Clanton, mortally wounded but still game, is calling for more bullets. Photographer C.S. Fly, an eyewitness to the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West, walks over to Billy and takes his gun.
In about 30 seconds, about 30 shots were fired. The area around Fly's Studio on Fremont Street is covered in a haze of gunsmoke. Frank McLaury is lying dead on Fremont Street. His body is carried to a house near the corner of 3rd & Fremont; as are Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton.
Tom, with a massive chest wound, dies minutes later without saying a word. Billy Clanton lives in agony for a while longer until one of the attending physicians, realizing that he is beyond help, administers enough morphine to send him peacefully into the Promised Land. Virgil and Morgan are wounded, but survive. Doc has a scratch. Wyatt is untouched.
1881 - October 26th. About 3:01 PM
Loud whistles from the mines' steam hoists sound the call to arms. Suddenly the streets of Tombstone are full of heavily armed men, members of the secret Vigilance Committee, ready to fight what they believe is the beginning of gang warfare with the 'Cowboys'. But the other 'Cowboys' didn't show.
(Had the 'Cowboys" expected an all-out gunfight, surely they would have had other experienced & loyal gunmen with them, such as Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Florentino Cruz, Phin Clanton, & Pete Spencer.
Similarly, had the Earps expected an all-out gunfight, they could have either (a) accepted the help of the Safety Committee's vigilantes; and/or (b) sought the help of experienced & loyal gunmen, such as Dan 'Tip' Tipton, Fred Dodge, and Sherman McMaster.)
1881 – October 26th. About 3:02 PM
Sheriff Behan rushes up to Wyatt and says perhaps the stupidest thing a man could say under the circumstances. “I’ll have to arrest you men, Wyatt.” Wyatt coolly responds. “I won’t be arrested now. You threw us, Johnny.”
Soon, Ike Clanton is found hiding in an office a few blocks away and arrested. The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, known to locals as The Gunfight On Fremont Street, is over. Yet, the hatred and killing between the 'Cowboys’ and the Earps and Holliday will continue for months to come.
Following the Gunfight
Ike Clanton brings murder charges against the Earps & Holliday based primarily on the following 3 claims:
- The Clantons & McLaurys raised their hands in submissive response to marshal Virgil Earp's command. With their hands above their heads, the Earps & Holliday began shooting them.
- Doc Holliday started the shootng with shot from his nickel-plated revolver.
- Tom McLaury was unarmed.
All 3 claims were refuted by reliable witnesses & the hard evidence. Briefly:
- The coroner testified that the wounds sustained by Billy Clanton & Frank McLaury could not have occurred as they did if their hands were raised over their heads. (I don't fully concur with this conclusion since Frank's abdominal wound could have been inflicted if his hands were raised.)
- Most eye-witnesses agree that Doc was in the middle of Fremont Street brandishing a short-barrel shotgun. Could the frail Holliday have opened fire with his revolver in one hand and blown Tom McLaury to the Promised Land with the powerful shotgun in the other? Preposterous!
- Months later, Mrs. J.C. Collier, who witnessed the gunfight from half a block away near the corner of Fourth & Fremont Streets, tells a Kansas City reporter what she saw. “(The Earps & Holliday] … approached the cowboys and told them to hold up their hands. The cowboys opened fire on them, and you never saw such shooting as followed. One of the cowboys [presumably Frank McLaury] after he had been shot three times raised himself on his elbow and shot one of the officers and fell back dead. Another [presumably Billy Clanton] used his horse as a barricade and shot under his [the horse’s] neck. (Unfortunately, Mrs. Collier’s testimony was never a part of the official inquire into the gunfight. Under oath, her testimony could have clarified many points of contention.)
- If Tom McLaury was unarmed, why didn't he just run for cover like Ike & Billy Claiborne? Instead, he stayed in the fight. Moreover, even if he did not possess a pistol, he certainly had access to his rifle hanging from his saddle. Yet he never used the rifle. Why? Perhaps because once the shooting started his horse was understandably spooked & out of control. In which case he couldn't get the rifle out of the scabbard. Or, perhaps he just didn't need the rifle because he had a pistol hidden in the waistband of his pants.
- While Tom McLaury's pistol was NOT found after the gunfight, he almost certainly had one & used it, as Mrs. Collier claimed. Also, years later Wyatt told his biographer, Stuart Lake, that West Fuller's father told him that young West had taken Tom's revolver immediately after the shooting stopped. Today, we have no way to verify such a claim, but it is within the realm of possibility.
(See related articles: Wyatt Earp & Doc Holliday Accused of Murder and The Earp Vendetta Ride.) See our Review of the O.K. Corral Attraction, here.
Learn more about the sights of Tombstone on our "Things to Do in Tombstone" page.