Sunday, July 15, 2012

OK Corrall. Was it a fair fight?


110 saloons in Tombstone.

After silver was discovered in the area, Tombstone grew extremely rapidly.  At its founding in March 1879, it had a population of just 100, and only two years later in late 1881 it had more than 7,000 citizens, excluding all Chinese, Mexicans, women and children residents.  It was the largest boomtown in the America southwest.  The wealth of the silver industry attracted many professionals and merchants who brought their wives and families, as well as churches and ministers.  By 1881 there were fancy restaurants, a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, an opera house, two banks, three newspapers, and an ice cream parlor, alongside 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls, and numerous brothels all situated among a number of dirty, hardscrabble mines.

Horse rustlers and bandits from the countryside came to town and shootings were frequent.

Apache warriors had engaged the U.S. Army near Tombstone just three weeks before the O.K. Corral gunfight, so the need for weapons outside of town was well established and accepted.

But there was a city ordinance against carrying firearms in the city.

Tombstone, 1880 and 1882


Who were the Cowboys?

The Clantons and Mclaurys who faced off against the Earps at the OK corral were part of a gang known as the 'Cowboys'.  They were a loosely organized band of friends and acquaintances who teamed up for various crimes and came to each other's aid.

Tombstone resident George Parson wrote in his diary, "A Cowboy is a rustler at times, and a rustler is a synonym for desperado - bandit, outlaw, and horse thief."

The San Francisco Examiner wrote in an editorial, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country...infinitely worse than the ordinary robber."

At that time during the 1880s in Cochise County it was an insult to call a legitimate cattleman a "Cowboy."  Legal cowmen were generally called herders or ranchers.


Lack of experience of the Earps in the business of gunfighting:

Among the Earps involved in the gunfight, only Virgil Earp had had any real experience in combat.  He had served for three years during the Civil War and had also been involved in a police shooting in Prescott, Arizona Territory.
                                                                       Virgil Earp

Prior to the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp had only been involved in one shooting.  It was in the summer of 1878, when Wyatt Earp was an assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kansas.  He and several citizens fired their pistols at several cowboys who were fleeing town after shooting up a theater.  A member of the group, George Hoyt, was shot in the arm and died of his wound a month later.  Wyatt always claimed to have been the one to shoot Hoyt, although it could have been anyone in the group.

Morgan Earp had no known experience with gunfighting prior to this fight, although he frequently hired out as a shotgun rider and stagecoach guard.

Doc Holliday on the other hand had a reputation as a gunman.  In 1879, he and his business partner, John Webb, were seated in a saloon they owned in Las Vegas, New Mexico, when former U.S. Army scout Mike Gordon got into a loud argument with one of the saloon girls who he wanted to take out with him.  He stormed from the saloon and began firing his revolver into the building.  Before he could get off his second shot, Holliday killed him.  Holliday was tried for murder but acquitted, mostly based on the testimony of Webb.


But Doc Holliday was not always very accurate. (He was better with a shotgun.)

In October 1880, Holliday had trouble with a gambler named Johnny Tyler in the Oriental Saloon.   Holliday challenged Tyler to a fight, but Tyler ran.  Joyce, the owner of the saloon, did not like Holliday or the Earps and he continued to argue with Holliday.  He ordered Holliday removed from the saloon but would not return Holliday's revolver. Holliday returned with a pistol and fired several shots at Joyce and wounded him in the thumb and his business partner William Parker in the big toe.  Joyce then hit Holliday over the head with his revolver.  Holliday was arrested and pleaded guilty to assault and battery.


Friendship of Wyatt and Doc:

The friendship was cemented in 1878 in Dodge City when Holliday defended Earp in a saloon against a handful of cowboys out to kill Earp.  A bar room confrontation occured and Earp "was surrounded by desperadoes".  Holliday assisted Earp who credited him with saving his life that day and the two became firm friends as a result.


Morgan Earp was deputy city marshall of Tombstone and Virgil Earp was town marshall.  He had never been in a gunfight.  At this point neither Wyatt Earp nor Doc Holliday had been formally deputized.


Ile Clanton, the instigator of the gunfight:

Some time after midnight on Tuesday, October 25, 1881, the day before the gunfight, there occurred a confrontation between Ike Clanton and Doc Holliday relating to a matter that had ben a subject of some rancor between them.  Virgil Earp threatened to arrest both Holliday and Clanton if they did not stop arguing.  Ike had been drinking steadily.   A few minutes later Ike and Wyatt talked, and Ike told Earp that the fighting talk had been going on for a long time and that he intended to put an end to it.  He told Earp, "I will be ready for you in the morning."

After the confrontation with Ike Clanton, Wyatt Earp took Holliday back to his boarding house to sleep off his drinking, then went home and to bed.

Marshal Virgil Earp played cards with Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan and a fifth man until morning.  Three of these card players would be antagonists in a few hours. This suggests a gray area in the middle of the conflict, in which the rules of law and order were not as fixed as today.  Doubts may have been raised in the minds of Ike and Tom as to how much value Virgil placed on his marshall's badge and how firmly would he adhere to what it stood for.

Ike Clanton had been drinking all night.  Future witness E. F. Boyle encouraged him to get some sleep, but Ike insisted he would not go to bed.  Boyle later testified.....Ike told him "As soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open - that they would have to fight"... and Boyle added that he "went down to Wyatt Earp's house and told him that Ike Clanton had threatened that when him and his brothers and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street that the ball would open."

Later in the morning, Ike picked up his rifle and revolver from the West End Corral, where he had stabled his wagon and team and where he had deposited his weapons after entering town.  By noon that day, Ike, drinking again and armed, told others he was looking for Holliday or an Earp.

At about 1:00 pm, Virgil and Morgan Earp surprised Ike on 4th Street where Virgil buffaloed (pistol-whipped) him from behind.  Disarming him, the Earps took Ike to appear before Judge Wallace for violating the city's ordinance against carrying firearms in the city.

Ike was being fined inside the court house........


..... and outside the court house Wyatt almost walked into 28 year-old Tom McLaury who had arrived in town the day before and who was required by the well-known city ordinance to deposit his pistol when he first arrived in town.

Wyatt testified that he saw a revolver in plain sight on the right hip of Tom's pants.

Wyatt drew his revolver from his coat pocket and pistol-whipped him with it twice, leaving him prostrate and bleeding on the street. 

It was early afternoon by the time Ike and Tom had seen doctors for their head wounds. The day was chilly, with snow still on the ground in some places.  Both Tom and Ike had spent the night gambling, drinking heavily, and without sleep.  Now they were both out-of-doors, both wounded from head beatings, and at least Ike was still drunk.  They were in no condition for a gunfight.


At around 1:30-2:00 pm, Ike's 19-year-old younger brother Billy Clanton and Tom's older brother Frank McLaury arrived in town.  They had heard that Ike had been stirring up trouble in town overnight, and they had ridden into town on horseback to back up their brothers.

By law, both Frank and Billy should have left their firearms at the Grand Hotel.  Instead, they remained fully armed.

So now Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury were in town - the latter two not in the best physical condition.


Leading up to the gunfight:

Virgil testified afterward that he thought he saw all four men, Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury, buying cartridges.  It is important that the Earps establish that they saw this because the claim was made after the gunfight that Tom had been unarmed.

Wyatt said that he saw Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury buying cartridges in Spangenberger's gun and hardware store on 4th Street filling their gun belts with cartridges.[

Virgil picked up a 10-gauge or 12-gauge, short, double-barreled shotgun from the Wells Fargo office around the corner on Allen Street.  He gave the shotgun to Doc Holliday who hid it under his overcoat. Virgil took Holliday's walking-stick in return.

Virgil Earp was told by several citizens that the McLaurys and the Clantons had gathered on Fremont Street and were armed. He decided it was time to act.  Several members of the citizen's vigilance committee offered to support him with arms, but Virgil declined their help.  That morning he had deputized his brother Wyatt and Doc Holliday.  Wyatt later spoke of his brothers Virgil and Morgan as the "marshals" while he acted as "deputy."

The Cowboys moved to the O.K. Corral where witnesses overheard them threatening to kill the Earps.

For unknown reasons the Cowboys then moved a block north to an empty lot next to C. S. Fly's boarding house where Doc Holliday lived.  This is where the gunfight actually took place - not the OK Corrall.

POP 11

The Walk:

The Earps carried revolvers in their coat pockets or in their waistbands.  Holliday was wearing a pistol in a holster, but this was hidden by his long coat, as was the shotgun. Virgil was carrying Doc's walking stick.

The Earps and Holliday walked west, down the south side of Fremont Street, out of visual range of the Cowboys, toward the Cowboys' last reported location.  The Earps then saw the Cowboys and Sheriff Behan, who then left the group and came toward the Earps. Virgil testified later that Behan told them, "I have disarmed them." - which if true would have been a potentially deadly deception.

When the Earps approached the alley, they found Ike Clanton talking to Billy Claiborne in the middle of the lot.

With the appearance of Billy Claiborne, this now made five 'Cowboys' against four of the Earp bunch.  So far a fair fight.

Beyond those two, against the MacDonald house and assay office to the west stood Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton, and two of their horses.  Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury wore revolvers in holsters on their belts and stood alongside saddled horses with rifles in their scabbards.

Virgil claims that, based on the strength of Behan's comment that he had disarmed the Cowboys, he was not looking for a fight.  He says, "I had a walking stick in my left hand and my hand was on my six-shooter in my waist pants, and when he said he had disarmed them, I shoved it clean around to my left hip and changed my walking stick to my right hand." - he went into the gunfight holding a walking stick in his gun hand.

Wyatt said I "took my pistol, which I had in my hand under my coat, and put it in my overcoat pocket."

These comments of Wyatt's and Virgil's suggest that they had let down their guard and were genuinely planning to disarm the Cowboys, rather than to get right into a gunfight. 


......... but Martha J. King, who was in Everhardy's butcher shop on Fremont Street, testified that when the Earp party passed by her location, one of the Earps on the outside of that party looked across and said to Doc Holliday nearest the store, "...let them have it!" to which Holliday replied, "All right." - which sounds as if they were ready to go in blasting.

However, a drawing Wyatt made in 1924 placed Holliday a couple of steps back in the street, which would have made it harder for any of the Earps to exchange words with Doc Holliday - which casts some doubt on the witness's statement.


The two groups of antagonists were about 6 to ten feet apart.

Based on the Coroner's inquest and the Spicer hearing, a sketch was produced that shows -

Virgil Earp was on the left end of the Earp party, standing a few feet inside the vacant lot.
A few feet behind him, and to his right was Wyatt.
Morgan Earp was standing on Fremont Street to Wyatt's right.
Doc Holliday anchored the end of their line in Fremont Street, a few feet to Morgan's right.

Where the Cowboys were positioned is inconsistent, based on the inquest and Wyatt's recollections from the year 1924.


Virgil Earp was not planning on a fight.  He had given Doc the short, double-barreled shotgun and was carrying Holliday's cane in his right hand.  He immediately commanded the Cowboys to "Throw up your hands, I want your guns!"  But he said the Cowboys reached to draw their guns.

Virgil and Wyatt testified they saw Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton draw and cock their six-shooters. (The single-action revolvers carried by both groups had to be cocked before firing.)
Virgil yelled: "Hold! I don't mean that!" or "Hold on, I don't want that!"

Wyatt testified, "When I saw Billy (Clanton) and Frank draw their pistols, I drew my pistol.  Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me but I didn't aim at him.  I knew that Frank McLaury had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man, and I aimed at Frank McLaury. The two first shots which were fired were fired by Billy Clanton and myself; he shot at me, and I shot at Frank McLaury.  I do not know which shot was first.  We fired almost together."

According to the chief newspaper of the town, The Tombstone Epitaph, "Wyatt Earp stood up and fired in rapid succession, as cool as a cucumber, and was not hit."

Billy Clanton drew his gun right-handed.  Morgan Earp fired almost immediately, hitting Billy in the right wrist.  This shot disabled Billy's gunhand and forced him to shift the revolver to his left hand.  He continued firing until he emptied it.

All witnesses generally agreed that two shots were fired first, almost indistinguishable from each other.  General firing immediately broke out.  About thirty shots were fired in about thirty seconds


Frank McLaury was shot in the abdomen.  He took his horse by its reins and struggled into Fremont Street.  Frank tried to grab his rifle from its scabbard on his horse, and continued to fire his revolver, only to lose the horse before he could withdraw the rifle from the scabbard.  Holliday followed him into the street.

A number of witnesses observed a man leading a horse into the street and firing near it. (Wyatt in his testimony thought this was Tom McLaury.)  However, Claiborne said only one man had a horse in the fight, and that this man was Frank, who was holding his own horse by the reins as cover, but then losing it and its cover in the middle of the street.  Wes Fuller also identified Frank as the man with the horse.


According to Wyatt, as the firing broke out, "At that moment Tom McLaury threw his hand to his right hip and jumped behind a horse."

Tom McLaury hid behind a horse and fired once, if not twice, over the horse's back.  At some point in the first few seconds, Holliday stepped around Tom McLaury's horse and shot him with the short, double-barreled shotgun in the chest at close range.

There is some discrepancy in the accounts concerning the horse, or horses.  If there was only one horse, who was using it as a shield?  Was it Frank or Tom, as Wyatt claimed.

Witness C. H. "Ham" Light saw Tom running or stumbling westward on Fremont Street towards Third Street, away from the gunfight.  Light testified that Tom fell at the foot of a telegraph pole on the corner of Fremont and 3rd Street and lay there, without moving, through the duration of the fight.

After shooting Tom, Holliday tossed the shotgun aside, pulled out his nickel-plated revolver, and continued to fire at Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton.


Though wounded, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury kept shooting.  One of them, perhaps Billy, shot Morgan Earp across the back in a wound that struck both shoulder blades and a vertebra.  Morgan stumbled and fell, yelling, 'I am hit,' as a bullet entered one shoulder blade and passed out through the other. He rose, but soon fell again, probably tripping on a mound on Fremont Street where the town was putting in new water pipes.

Either Frank or Billy shot Virgil Earp in the calf (Virgil thought it was Billy). Virgil, though hit, fired his next shot at Billy Clanton.

POP18 (and POP15)

Frank and Holliday exchanged shots as Frank moved into Fremont street with Holliday following. Frank hit Holliday in his pistol pocket, grazing his skin.  Frank lost control of his horse and, firing his weapon, crossed Fremont Street to the sidewalk on the east side. Holliday followed Frank across Fremont Street, exclaiming, "That son of a bitch has shot me, and I am going to kill him."

Frank, now entirely across Fremont street and still walking at a good pace according to Claiborne's testimony, fired twice more before he was shot in the head under his right ear. Both Morgan and Holliday apparently thought they had fired the shot that killed Frank, but since neither of them testified at the hearing, this information is only from second-hand accounts.  A passerby testified to having stopped to help Frank, and saw Frank try to speak, but he died where he fell, before he could be moved.


Billy Clanton was shot in the chest and abdomen, and after a minute or two slumped to a sitting position near his original position at the corner of the MacDonald house in the alley between the house and Fly's Lodging House.   Claiborne said Billy Clanton was supported by a window initially after he was shot, and fired some shots after sitting, with the pistol supported on his leg.  After he ran out of ammunition he called for more cartridges, but C. S. Fly took his pistol from him at about the time the general shooting ended.


Ike Clanton had bragged that he would kill the Earps or Doc Holliday at his first opportunity.  Wyatt told the court afterward that, once the shooting broke out,  Ike Clanton ran forward and grabbed Wyatt, exclaiming that he was unarmed and did not want a fight. To this protest Wyatt said he responded, "Go to fighting or get away!"  Clanton ran through the front door of Fly's boarding house and escaped, unwounded.

Wyatt Earp showed great prescence of mind under duress to allow Ike the chance to escape.

Billy Claiborne also ran from the fight.

Both Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne were unarmed.

Wesley Fuller, a Cowboy who had been at the rear of the alley, left as soon as the firing began.


Tom was carried from the corner of Fremont and Third into the Harwood house on that corner, where he died without speaking.

Passersby carried Billy to the Harwood house, where Tom had been taken.  Billy was in considerable pain and asked for a doctor and some morphine.  He told those near him, "They have murdered me.  I have been murdered.  Chase the crowd away and from the door and give me air." Billy gasped for air, and someone else heard him say, "Go away and let me die."


As the wounded lawmen were carried to their homes, they passed in front of the Sheriff's Office, and Johnny Behan told Wyatt Earp he was under arrest.  Wyatt paused two or three seconds and replied very forcibly: "I won't be arrested today. I am right here and am not going away."


Dr. H. M. Mathews examined the dead Cowboys late that night.  He found Frank McLaury had two wounds: a gunshot beneath the right ear that horizontally penetrated his head, and a second entering his abdomen one inch to the left of his navel.  Mathews stated that the wound beneath the ear was at the base of the brain and caused instant death.

When he examined Tom McLaury's body, he found a single shotgun wound: twelve buckshot wounds on the right side under his arm, between the third and fifth ribs. The wound was about four inches across.  Both Virgil and Wyatt stated that Holliday had shot Tom, which the coroner's exam supported.

Clanton was shot through the right arm, close to the wrist joint and "the bullet passed through the arm from "inside to outside," entering the arm close to the base of the thumb, and exiting "on the back of the wrist diagonally" with the latter wound larger.  There were two other wounds on Billy's body.  The first was two inches from Clanton's left nipple, penetrated his lung.  The other was in the abdomen beneath the twelfth rib, six inches to the right of the navel. Both were fired from the front.

The wound to Billy Clanton's right wrist was inflicted by Morgan Earp or Doc Holliday immediately at the outset of the fight as Billy was drawing his gun.  This tends to confirm claims that Doc and Morgan fired first.


Excluding the shotgun wound that killed Tom McLaury, the other two dead Cowboys had five wounds between them.  Compare this to the amazing accuracy of Captain Davis in Popthem, Gunfight One Against Fourteen.  Gunsmoke may have been a factor at the 'OK Corrall', where a number of guns where being discharged at the same time and the smoke was swirling around in a relatively enclosed area making it harder to aim.

Doc Holliday seems to have been the deadliest of those involved in the gunfight, killing Tom with his shotgun, and possibly killing Frank.


No revolver or rifle was found near Tom, and he was not wearing a cartridge belt.  Tom McLaury's personal revolver was at the Capital Saloon on 4th Street and Fremont about a block away. The saloon-keeper (Mehan) testified Tom had deposited it sometime before the fight, between 1 and 2 p.m., after the time he was "buffaloed" (pistol-whipped) by Wyatt (Mehan witnessed both events, and said Tom deposited the pistol after the beating).

The Cowboys testified that Tom was unarmed and claimed that the Earps murdered him.


On the strength of the prosecution case,  Judge Spicer revoked the bail for Doc and Wyatt Earp and had them jailed on November 7, and they spent the next 16 days in jail.

Wyatt Earp prepared a written statement, as permitted by Section 133 of Arizona law, which would not allow the prosecution to cross-examine him.  On November 16, when Wyatt was called to the stand and began to read his statement, the prosecution vociferously objected.  Although the statute wasn't specific about whether it was legal for a defendant to read his statement, Spicer allowed his testimony to proceed.

Justice Wells Spicer ruled the case not be bound over for trial.  His ruling stated that there was not enough evidence to assure a likelihood of conviction.  The Cochise County Grand Jury would later reopen the issue and concur with Spicer.



On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was maimed in an assassination attempt by the outlaw Cowboys, and on March 18, 1882, they assassinated Morgan who was killed while playing billiards.

Over the next several weeks Wyatt and his posse tracked down and killed four of the men they believed were responsible for their brothers' ambush and murder. The Tucson sheriff issued arrest warrants for their killing of Frank Stilwell. The ride for vengeance came to be called the 'Earp vendetta ride'. Wyatt and Doc left the Arizona Territory for Colorado in April, 1882 and parted company after a minor disagreement. Although they may have remained in contact, they never saw each other again. Holliday said in 1882 that he thought Behan was behind the assassination of Morgan Earp.  When Holliday died of tuberculosis on November 8, 1887, Wyatt Earp did not learn of Holliday's death for several months afterward.


So, was it a fair fight?

It was fair insofar as the Earps and Holliday went up against five opponents.  (Six if we include Wesley Fuller, the Cowboy who was at the rear of the alley and left as soon as the firing started.)  It's no discredit to them that the fight quickly degenerated into four against three, when Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran.  To the Earps' credit, they were setting off to face the Cowboys with the just the three of them.  Doc Holliday joined them a little later.  The Earps did not lack courage

The fight was not quite so fair when we consider the readiness of the combatants, not just in regards to whether they were armed, but also whether they were mentally ready.

Ike Clanton had spent the previous 24 hours inviting the Earps to a gunfight.  He had called them out, and if he wasn't armed, he should have been armed.  He had been drinking and he and Tom had been pistol-whipped.

So, as far as mental preparedness, it is evident that only one side was ready.  The Earps and Holliday had made the 'walk' toward the OK Corall, during which they would have steeled themselves for the upcoming action, like Pike and the Wild Bunch at the end of that movie; and if the exchange that  the witness claims she heard between Wyatt and Holliday to "Let them have it" is true, then at least those two of the four were coming ready to kill.  But all four of them were ready for a gunfight because they were bringing it.

The Cowboys, on the other hand were standing around not sure if there would be gunfight.  They could not have been mentally prepared.

In the movie 'Old Gringo', Gregory Peck plays American author Ambrose Pierce who crosses the border to team up with Pancho Villa.  A Federale captain is captured by the rebels and is condemned to be executed the next day.  He accepts his fate with grace and courage.  Ambrose Pierce proposes to the rebel leader to try an experiment.  He suggests that the captain be executed immediately and be given no time to prepare himself for death.  The captain is informed of his imminent death.  He loses his resolve and goes all to pieces.

The Earps and Doc Holliday had had time to prepare themselves.  The Clantons and McLaurys were faced with the possibility of imminent death, and no time to prepare.


There's no question that, from the evidence, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were brave men, and game fighters, and they were not quitters.  They suddenly found themselves in a gunfight where they were outnumbered four to two if Tom was unarmed, and at the best four to three if Tom was armed.  They put up a gallant fight.  Billy Clanton, as he sat dying, propped up against a wall, was still calling for more cartridges. He was only nineteen and shooting with his left hand.

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