Shotguns at Midnight: Virgil Earp vs. Unknown Assailants

– Illustrations by Bob Boze Bell –

December 28, 1881

Three days past Christmas, in the chilly night air, Virgil Earp steps from the Oriental Saloon, hobbling slightly from a calf wound he received during the Fremont Street fight.

As midnight approaches, Virgil crosses Fifth toward the Golden Eagle Brewery. When his silhouette lights up the saloon windows, multiple shotguns roar from across the street. The spraying buckshot splinters the windows, awning post and east wall of the saloon. One load hits Virgil above the left hip, and another shatters his left arm above the elbow.

Three assailants are seen fleeing a building under construction on the southeast corner of the Fifth and Allen intersection. They head south on foot and disappear into the gully south of Toughnut Street.

Incredible as it may seem, Virgil keeps his feet and staggers back across the street to the Oriental. He reaches his brother Wyatt, who was investigating the explosions he had heard. Virgil collapses in his brother’s arms.

Wyatt and others help Virgil to his room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel.

Two doctors are summoned.

Everyone fears the marshal has been mortally wounded.

On a midnight mission, three heavily armed riders head up Charleston Road at a trot.
Midnight draws to a close at Fifth and Allen Streets, as we look southeast at the new Huachuca Water Co. structure being built. Next door is the Palace Saloon, also under construction. Three assassins approach from Tombstone Gulch (upper right).
The concealed shooters watch as Doc Goodfellow crosses the intersection after leaving his office, which is on the second floor above the Golden Eagle Brewery (upper left, with light on). George Parsons is staying in Goodfellow’s office while he recovers from a wound received in fighting a recent fire.

Were the Shooters Upstairs or on the Roof?

A persistent Tombstone tale renders Virgil’s shooters as firing from a rooftop on the southeast corner (some versions add even more shooters on another roof). Most historians, however, believe the shooters were on the ground floor.

The confusion stems from a report that “five shots were fired in rapid succession by unknown men, who were standing in the old Palace saloon that is being rebuilt next door above Tasker & Pridham’s store, on the southwest corner of the same street.”

This paragraph from the Epitaph gives the false impression that the shooters were “above” Tasker & Pridham’s store, but in fact, the Palace Saloon is east of the store, or in the vernacular of the times, “above.”

Also, stray buckshot sprayed the upper walls and awning posts of the Golden Eagle Brewery, an impossible feat for anyone shooting down from a rooftop.

The newspaper even got the wrong corner (southwest, when it should be southeast), or perhaps its mangled syntax refers to something else.

Seeing Triple

Wyatt recalled to Stuart Lake in 1928 how confused Tombstonians became at the incredible physical likeness between the three brothers—Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan. When the first council of Tombstone wished to appoint Virgil Earp as town marshal, the appointed messenger walked up and handed the badge to Wyatt. On another occasion, E.B. Gage gave a saddle horse to Morgan in the belief that he was transferring ownership to Wyatt, who had sought to purchase the animal earlier.

Finally, the sporting crowd placed bets and to settle the argument, the three Earps were weighed and measured. According to Wyatt, “Boots off, there wasn’t three pounds difference in our weights, and not one of us scaled above a hundred and fifty-eight. Virg was the heaviest, Morg a shade heavier than I. When you add that each of us had wavy, light-brown hair, blue eyes, and a mustache of the sweeping variety then in Western fashion, you may understand why our comings and goings often were reported inaccurately and why certain persons in Arizona ascribed supernatural qualities to the Earps.”

Who Were the Shooters?

Suspicion immediately pointed to Will McLaury as one of the shooters (see Parsons’ diary entry, previous page). But Will, the attorney and brother of Frank and Tom (both killed in the October street fight), had left Tombstone two days earlier to return to Fort Worth, Texas, his home.

However, rumors have circulated ever since that Will had offered a reward for the Earps’ dead bodies (some say $500 per Earp). In the 1900s, Will wrote a letter to his father in which he inferred that the only good that ever came out of all the money he spent after his brothers were killed was Virgil’s attempted assassination and Morgan’s murder.

Wyatt Earp later claimed that Virgil saw Frank Stilwell “go into the vacant building just as he was coming out of the Oriental.” However, this report came after the Tucson train station killing of Stilwell (Wyatt will kill him on March 20, 1882), and a case could be made that the Earps were stacking evidence against Stilwell to justify his killing.

Ike and Phin Clanton were tried (technically “examined”) on February 2, 1882, for the shooting of Virgil before Judge William Stilwell.

J.W. Bennett testified, stating “that he found a hat in the building—the new drugstore—immediately after the shooting.” The hat was produced, although there is no corroboration that it had Ike Clanton’s name sewn in it, as Wyatt later claimed.

The most damning evidence came from Sherman McMasters, who testified that he saw Ike in nearby Charleston on the night of the shooting. McMasters later asked Clanton “about the shooting, at which Clanton replied that he ‘would have to go back and do the job over.’”

Seven other witnesses, however, provided an alibi for the Clantons, testifying that the Clantons were in Charleston at the time of the shooting. Thus, the court discharged the prisoners.

Dr. Goodfellow’s office (right building).

Crime Scene & The Suspects:

At least three shotguns sprayed pellets at Virgil, hitting the post, walls and windows of the Golden Eagle Brewery (see circle of fire, above). Yet to be determined is who joined Ike Clanton on the midnight mission. Popular conjecture points toward Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Curly Bill Brocius and Hank Swilling. Take your pick.

Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Ike Clanton.

Confusing Snipers’ Nest

Parsons says the shooters were in the Huachuca Water Co. building under construction on the southeast corner of Fifth & Allen. The Epitaph pinpoints the shooters at the Palace Saloon, which was being constructed “above” (or east) of the Huachuca building. To make matters even more confusing, J.W. Bennett testified that the shooters were in “the new drugstore.” Go figure.

Two views of the shooter’s corner: After the fire of 1882, the Huachuca Water Co. building (inset, in circle); and looking southeast from Fremont Street, the water company, circa 1900. The building now features cornices and a gable.

With Friends Like These…
Ike Clanton (above) tries opening a restaurant in Tombstone in the early days of the camp. His efforts are not successful.
– Courtesy Arizona Historical Society –

 

The Arrest That Cost Virgil His Job

On October 26, 1881, Virgil Earp made a decision to deputize a drunk dentist to help make an arrest. Although it is perhaps the most famous gunfight in the history of the frontier West, it cost Virgil his job as City Marshal.

Doc Deals Faro as Wyatt Earp Looks On
It’s Cee-gar City as Doc Holliday deals faro to a wary trio of gamblers who are “Bucking the Tiger.” This could be Prescott, or Tombstone, or Tucson, or Las Vegas, or Dodge, or Leadville, or Pueblo or any of the stops in between. This is a scene that repeats itself countless times, with Holliday on either side of the table—Doc doesn’t care, he deals faro and plays it, around the clock. Breathing the smoky, stale air night after night must do nothing to help his condition.
Billy Clanton (left) slams against the house, while Virgil (right) fires at him. Behind Virgil, Morgan has been hit and is down while Wyatt shoots at the withers of Tom McLaury’s horse. Frank McLaury is just about to fire—he will hit Virgil in the calf.

All Down But One

Wyatt sent the following telegram to U.S. Marshal Crawley Dake:

“Virgil Earp was shot by concealed assassins last night. The wound is considered fatal. Telegraph me appointment [as U.S. deputy marshal] with power to appoint deputies. Local authorities have done nothing. Lives of our citizens have been threatened.”

With the commission in hand, Wyatt formed a posse and attempted to flush out the cow-boys at Charleston, but the raid was a failure.

Three months later, Morgan Earp is ambushed and killed while he played pool less than 50 yards from where Virgil was shot. A second bullet missed Wyatt by inches.

All of the participants in the Gunfight Behind the O.K. Corral (who stayed to fight) received wounds, except one.

Billy Clanton: Dead

Tom McLaury: Dead

Frank McLaury: Dead

Morgan Earp: Wounded, shoulder

Virgil Earp: Wounded, right calf

Doc Holliday: Winged in hip

Wyatt Earp: Unscratched

Wyatt’s incredible luck continued for the rest of his life, although he did wrench his back once while jumping off a San Francisco trolley.

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

Bucking all the odds, Virgil Earp survived his terrible wounds.

Returning to Tombstone in 1887 to visit old friends, Virgil joined a posse that was looking for train robbers. He freaked out a Mexican tracker when an early morning gallop showcased Virgil’s lack of an elbow joint, his arm flailing in all directions. Everyone had a good laugh about that one.

Allie and Virgil, in front of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
The flailing arm of the law.

Recommended: Classic Gunfights, Volume II “Blaze Away, the 25 Gunfights Behind The O.K. Corral. by Bob Boze Bell.

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