If you have not read the events leading up to the Gunfight, you can do that here. The Years Leading up to the Gunfight at the O.K.Corral.
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
(Note: the time of day in the following narration is not to imply exact time. Back in the day, no one except Wells Fargo and Southern Pacific Railroad kept "exact" time. I use time here so you can get a sense of chronology as events unfold.)
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 lung. 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. Is it reasonable to think that, under these circumstances, a cold-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. What a shame that Fly didn't get at least one photograph of the action. It would have instantly become the most famous photograph in American history. But of course, given the photographic technology of that period, the moving subjects would have been a blur.
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' don'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.