The Gunfight Near the O.K. Corral

timeline.It’s 2:47 p.m. on October 26, 1881: In the next 27 seconds, eight men will create the most defining moment in the history of the Old West.

The name Wyatt Earp will be forever branded on the hide of Western folklore. The name Tombstone will personify all that was rough, right and wrong with the West.

Millions of words will be written about that half minute, and yet no one can get enough of the gunfight near the O.K. Corral.

The proof is two new weighty biographies on Wyatt Earp. One is a complete 944-page tome by Timothy W. Fattig, published by Talei Publishers of Hawaii. The other is volume one of a four-volume, self-published work by Lee A. Silva—995 pages that cover only the cow town years. (See review, p. 33.)

To set the stage for an excerpt of Fattig’s book, it’s important to understand the motivations, fears and egos of three men.

Ike Clanton was full of himself and full of booze the night of October 25, 1881, as he laid the groundwork for the gunfight. He and Tom McLaury had come to Tombstone that morning, fresh from a roundup and expecting to meet up later with their brothers and Billy Claiborne, who were out searching for the last strays.

Ike had become head of his family just two months earlier upon his father’s death, and heady with his new status, he wanted respect. But nobody paid much mind as the cowboy swaggered about Tombstone throughout the night, threatening the Earps and Doc Holliday in front of anyone who’d listen.

Just a few weeks earlier, Ike had been conspiring  with Wyatt to nab stagecoach robbers: Clanton wanted the reward money, Wyatt wanted to boost his chances in the upcoming election against Sheriff Johnny Behan. (Wyatt desperately needed the steady income the badge would bring.)

But word leaked out and their scheme was exposed. That embarrassed Wyatt and hurt his political aspirations, but the resulting gossip more than chagrined Clanton—it infuriated and frightened him. He knew if his confederates heard he’d planned a betrayal, his life wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel. But Clanton mistakenly thought it was Doc Holliday who was spreading the story and now, as Ike drank his way through Tombstone’s saloons, he wanted a showdown.

Doc Holliday was just as itchy for a fight. He detested Clanton for two reasons: first, for even thinking Doc would break faith with Wyatt’s confidence, and second, because he saw Ike as a low belly who’d sell out his friends.

By the time the other cowboys arrived in town on October 26—blundering into the middle of the escalating firestorm—everyone knew Ike Clanton was itching for a fight and that the Earps and  Doc Holliday were fed up with his threats.

True West is pleased to present this excerpt  from  Timothy W. Fattig’s Wyatt Earp: The Biography, chapter 16, “Nothing to do but go and make the fight”:

“Earp, for God’s sake, don’t go down there,” the Sheriff told Marshal Earp, “for you will get murdered.”

“I am going to disarm them,” Virgil said, pushing past Behan.

Both Virgil and Wyatt heard Behan respond, “I have disarmed them.” When Behan made this statement, Virgil recalled, “my right hand was on my six-shooter in my waist pants, and when he said he had disarmed them I shoved it clean to my left hip and changed my walking stick [actually Holliday’s] to my right hand. . . .” Wyatt made a similar adjustment, placing his pistol, which he had been carrying in his right hand, under his coat, in the pocket of his overcoat.

Behan followed the Earp party to the edge of the lot then occupied by five cowboys—Frank and Tom McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton, and the self-styled “Billy the Kid of Arizona,” Billy Claiborne—with two more cowboy sympathizers lurking nearby, saloonkeeper Bill Allen and a miner named Wesley F. Fuller, a 26-year-old Oregon native who was no stranger to the Tombstone police court. Behan declined to assist the Earp party, although the cowboys outnumbered the officers nearly two to one; he was observed ducking into the Fly building, and while it might seem rational for him to have taken cover, his motive in doing so was utterly mad: Behan later told Galeyville pioneer James C. Hancock that he hid in the Fly building “to get out of the way as some [member] of the Earp outfit might have shot him and then claimed it was an accident.”

The Earp party descended into the lot, fanning out to present less of a concentrated target. Virgil Earp walked into the innermost part of the lot, followed by Wyatt Earp, with Morgan Earp lingering at the outer edge of the lot. Holliday stood on the Fremont Street sidewalk, the shotgun in his hands a powerful equalizer despite the presence of such a large party of cowboys.

Wyatt Earp broke the silence: “You sons of bitches, you have been looking for a fight and now you can have it.”

Virgil spoke next: “Boys, throw up your hands; I want your guns.”

Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, whose six-shooters were in plain sight, placed their hands on their pistols, while Tom McLaury “had his hand on a Winchester rifle on [Billy Clanton’s] horse,” Virgil recalled. The next sound, following Marshal Earp’s command, was click-click, the cocking of the pistols in the two cowboys’ holsters.

“Hold, I don’t want that!” Virgil shouted, raising both hands.

Frank and Billy followed through, drawing their six-shooters. The younger, less practiced Clanton squeezed off a shot at Wyatt Earp, but missed him entirely. McLaury’s shot also hit nothing, and before Frank could select another target, a bullet from Wyatt Earp’s gun struck the cowboy in the abdomen. McLaury, whom Earp targeted because of his reputation as “a good shot and a dangerous man,” started for the sidewalk and fired another shot, which Wyatt believed was intended for him, but which struck Virgil Earp in the lower part of the right leg. All Wyatt would say of the first exchange of shots was that “[t]he first two. . . were fired by Billy Clanton and myself; he shooting at me and I at Frank McLowry [sic]. I do not know which shot was fired first. We fired almost together. The fight then became general. . . .”

Hobbled by his wound, Virgil Earp remained stationary, concentrating on the nearest available target, Billy Clanton, whom Earp would fire at two or three times. The younger Clanton, staggered by the second shot from Wyatt Earp’s pistol, which struck him in the right side, fell in an awkward, half-crouching position against the wall of the William Harwood house, opposite the Fly building. Clanton continued to fire as he slowly slid to the ground, balancing his six-shooter across his leg. After taking a bullet in the right wrist, a furious Clanton simply switched hands and fired at the officers with the pistol in his left hand.

Clanton’s older brother displayed considerably less determination in actual combat. Having provoked the entire confrontation, Ike decided to flee, leaving his friends and his brother to whatever fate might await them. Wyatt Earp described Clanton’s departure as occurring when “about four shots were fired.” Clanton grabbed Wyatt’s left arm, telling him that he wanted no part of the fight. Earp pushed Clanton away, saying, “The fight has now commenced; go to fighting or get away.” The cowboy instantly disappeared down the side of the Fly building, crossing through to Allen Street and taking refuge, for a time, in the saloon operated by M.E. Kellogg. Ike next appeared on Toughnut Street and while there was found by a city officer and lodged in jail.

Sensing the shift in momentum—Frank was gut-shot, Billy Clanton was scarcely better, Ike had opted not to fight, and Billy Claiborne’s only act had been to follow Johnny Behan into the Fly building—young Tom McLaury decided to enter the combat, producing a six-shooter which he had kept concealed beneath his bloused-out shirt. He used his horse as a shield of sorts, and attempted to fire under the frantic animal’s neck. McLaury’s participation in the gunfight was noted by a number of witnesses, among them Reuben F. Coleman and Mrs. J.C. Collyer, who saw the incident from a vantage point near the post office on Fremont Street, less than fifty yards from the gunfight site.

Standing at the outer corner of the Fly building, Wyatt Earp took notice of Frank McLaury, who stood near the middle of Fremont Street—and who was taking aim at Morgan Earp. “Look out, Morg,” Earp shouted, “you’re getting it in the back!”

As Doc Holliday started up the Fremont Street sidewalk to take on Tom McLaury from the cowboy’s unprotected flank, Morgan Earp turned to face the other McLaury brother. Frank’s shot went astray, but a bullet from Tom’s six-shooter ripped across the younger Earp’s shoulders, and knocked him to the ground. “I’ve got it, Wyatt!” Morgan yelled.

“Then get behind me and keep quiet,” Wyatt said, crossing over to the middle of the lot and taking aim at Tom McLaury. He squeezed off a shot at the cowboy, missing him but grazing the horse McLaury was hiding behind. The horse lurched away as Holliday reached Tom’s position. Doc fired both charges of buckshot from his shotgun into the cowboy’s right side, taking him just below the arm. Tom staggered north, moving onto the sidewalk and following it in the direction of Third Street to collapse in a heap at the intersection of Third and Fremont streets.

Holliday tossed aside the spent shotgun and pulled a six-shooter. Scanning the available targets, he started out into Fremont Street, to confront Frank McLaury. The cowboy, resting his pistol across his left forearm, yelled, “I’ve got you now!”

“Blaze away!” Doc replied. “You’re a daisy if you have.”

The two men in Fremont Street took careful aim at each other, and fired almost together. Holliday missed McLaury entirely, while McLaury succeeded only in grazing the gunfighter’s right hip, the shot impacting on Doc’s pistol holster. Holliday collapsed in the street, but was on his feet a second later.

At the mouth of the lot, both Wyatt and Morgan Earp took aim, and fired at Frank McLaury. One of the shots missed, but the other smashed into the right side of the cowboy’s head, just behind the ear. McLaury collapsed, dead. Morgan yelled, “I got him,” but the shot’s trajectory indicated that it was almost certainly fired by older brother Wyatt.

Holliday limped up to the motionless cowboy and snarled, “The son of a bitch has shot me, and I mean to kill him!”

As John Behan noted of the fall of Frank McLaury, “That was about the end of the fight.”

The gunsmoke started to clear from the lot, and Sheriff Behan and C.S. Fly emerged from the Fly building to assess the damage. Fly walked over to Billy Clanton, the only cowboy visible from his position in the lot. Billy, shot once by Morgan Earp and twice more by Virgil Earp in the early part of the shootout, feebly held up his empty six-shooter and told Fly, “Give me some more cartridges.” Fly took the weapon.

Behan, for his part, approached Wyatt Earp, the only participant, he noted, to be untouched by a bullet. Earp stood tall, wearing a grim countenance and still clutching his pistol in his right hand. Behan was mindful of the presence of many onlookers, rushing to the scene of gunfire, and he did his best to seem officious: “I’ll have to arrest you,” he announced grandly, speaking up so that the people in the rear of the crowd could hear the suddenly fearless Sheriff enforcing the law.

Earp cast Johnny a hard stare. “I won’t be arrested today,” Wyatt said coolly. “I am right here and am not going away.”

Observer Sylvester B. Comstock spoke up on behalf of Wyatt and his brothers, telling Behan, “There is no hurry in arresting this man,” the saloonkeeper and ex-councilman informed the Sheriff. “He has done just right in killing them, and the people will uphold them.”

“We had to do it,” Wyatt said, “and you threw us, Johnny; you told us that they were disarmed.”

The crowd had turned against Johnny, and the arrival of members of the Citizens’ Safety Committee—among them Mayor John Clum, mining man E.B. Gage, hotelier Albert Bilicke, banker Heyman Solomon, and attorney William Herring, who carried a shotgun—did nothing to increase confidence in the Sheriff’s abilities. James Earp also arrived, rushing down from his Fremont Street residence, carrying a pistol. Behan very wisely abandoned his plan to arrest Wyatt Earp, and subsequently fled the lot. The vigilance-committee members, acting as a de facto bodyguard for the Earp brothers and Holliday, expressed their support for the lawmen, and lawyer Herring proposed further action, asking Wyatt Earp if there were “any more rustlers around here.” The Epitaph subsequently reported that “[p]recautions were immediately taken to preserve law and order, even if they had to fight for it. . . .”

Rather less attention was paid to the cowboy participants in the street fight in the immediate aftermath of the event. Frank McLaury’s case was a hopeless one, but both Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton showed signs of life, and friends of the men carried them into the building just west of the Harwood house, near the corner of Third and Fremont streets. Tom McLaury was insensible from the time he was shot to the time of his death, within the hour, but Billy Clanton demonstrated considerably more vitality. The Nugget reported that Clanton lived for more than an hour after the fight, “‘game’ to the last [and] never uttering a word of complaint.” His last words, the Nugget claimed, were, “Goodbye, boys, go away and let me die.” Witness Thomas Keefe—a carpenter who helped carry the cowboys into the building—recalled Clanton’s death throes somewhat differently:

. . . The other young man in the room was hallooing so with pain—Billy Clanton I think it was—that I sent for [Dr. Nelson S. Giberson] to inject morphine into him. The doctor arrived and I helped him inject morphine into the wounds; he, Billy Clanton, was turning and kicking, and twisting in every manner with pain. He said, “They have murdered me; drive the crowd away from the door and give me air.” He spoke again after and said: “Drive the crowd away,” and that was the last he said. I staid [sic] until the coroner [Dr. Harry M. Matthews] came, which was eight or nine minutes afterwards.

Still another version of Clanton’s dying declaration was given in 1927 by Dr. Giberson, who said that Clanton told him, just before his death, “Doc, if I could only get my teeth into that son of a bitch’s throat, I’d die happy.”

Building the American West 1881-1900

April 28, 1881
Billy the Kid escapes from the Lincoln, New Mexico, jail after killing two guards: James W. Bell and Bob Olinger.

May 21, 1881
Clara Barton founds the American Red Cross.

July 14, 1881
Pat Garrett kills Billy the Kid.

July 20, 1881
Sitting Bull and 187 of his followers surrender at Fort Buford, North Dakota.

October 26, 1881
Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp, joined by Doc Holliday, shoot it out with the Clantons and their allies in Tombstone, Arizona.

March 22, 1882
Congress passes the Edmunds Act making polygamy a felony.

April 3, 1882
Bob Ford kills Jesse James in St. Joseph, Missouri.

April 13, 1882
Writer Oscar Wilde lectures at Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado.

May 6, 1882
The Chinese Exclusion Act becomes law, halting Chinese immigration for 10 years.

June 17, 1882
A tornado kills 130 people in Iowa.

July 26, 1882
Judge Roy Bean opens a saloon at Eagle’s Nest Springs, Texas.

November 6, 1882
Actress and singer Lillie Langtry makes her American debut in New York City.

May 1, 1883
Gen. Crook crosses into Mexico in pursuit of Geronimo.

May 24, 1883
New York opens the Brooklyn Bridge.

November 18, 1883
The U.S. adopts Standard Time, splitting the nation into four time zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific.

May 1, 1884
Work begins on a 10-story office building in Chicago, the first building to be called a “skyscraper.”

Sitting Bull joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, earning $50 per week plus a $125 signing bonus. Sharpshooter Annie Oakley also joins the show.

January 4, 1885
The first successful appendectomy in the U.S. is performed by Dr. William W. Grant on 22-year-old Mary Gartside in Davenport, Iowa.

March 5, 1885
Karl Benz of Germany builds the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine.

May 1885
Geronimo, accompanied by 41 warriors and 92 women and children, bolts from the San Carlos Reservation.

Fed up with her servants breaking her good china, Josephine Cochrane of Shelbyville, Illinois, invents the first dishwasher.

March 29, 1886
John Pemberton of Atlanta, Georgia, brews a brown drink in his backyard, calling it Coca-Cola.

July 16, 1886
King of the dime novels, Ned Buntline, dies in New York.

September 4, 1886
Geronimo surrenders to Gen. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, south of Apache Pass, in Southern Arizona.

October 28, 1886
Officials dedicate the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the U.S. from France.

August 31, 1887
Thomas Edison patents the kinetoscope, a device for showing motion pictures.

November 8, 1887
Doc Holliday dies from tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

The White House is wired for electricity. Singer Company introduces the first electric sewing machine.

February 3, 1889
Belle Starr is murdered in the Oklahoma Territory.

April 22, 1889
Oklahoma is opened to 50,000 white settlers, who lay claim to two million acres within 24 hours.

July 20, 1889
Ellen Watson (a.k.a. Cattle Kate) is lynched in Wyoming.

U.S. Indian population dips below 250,000—its historical low—and remains there until 1910.

December 15, 1890
Indian policemen kill Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Agency.

December 29, 1890
U.S. cavalrymen massacre between 150 and 350 Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

June 8, 1892
Ed Kelly kills Bob Ford with a shotgun in Creede, Colorado.

Aunt Jemima pancake mix is introduced at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

June 5-20, 1893
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her stepmom 40 whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41!

So in a courtroom,
Lizzie is tried,
For murdering her father
And his recent bride.

The Carey Act is signed into law, giving any Western state one million acres of federal land, provided it’s irrigated within 10 years.

Gold is discovered in the Klondike.

November 17, 1896
Isaac Parker—the “Hanging Judge”—dies in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Pearl Wait of LeRoy, New York, adds fruit flavoring to gelatin, which his wife dubs Jell-O.

September 23, 1897
Wyoming celebrates its first Cheyenne Frontier Days.

February 15, 1898
The U.S. battleship Maine blows up in Havana Harbor, killing 266 American sailors and Marines.

April 25, 1898
U.S. declares war on Spain.

July 7, 1898
President William McKinley signs the law annexing Hawaii.

Kansas City, Missouri, boasts 147 houses of prostitution. The U.S. College Entrance Examination Board is founded, giving rise to every high school student’s nightmare: the S.A.T.

Excerpt from Timothy W. Fattig’s Wyatt Earp biography.

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