On this day, in 1881, the most famous (or infamous, depending on how you want to look at it) gunfight in Western history occurred. Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, accompanied by their friend John “Doc” Holliday, faced off against Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, in a vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral near C.S. Fly’s photography studio. A long simmering tension had existed between the Earps and the Clanton-McLaury gang for a multiplicity of reasons. Ike Clanton in particular had begun to make vicious threats against the Earp’s, and things finally came to a head. Virgil Earp was both a deputy U.S. Marshal as well as the Tombstone city Marshal, and when the Clanton’s and McLaury’s rode into town on October 25, wearing weapons in violation of a town ordinance, Earp decided something must be done. Wyatt Earp, acting as a deputy marshal, pistol whipped Tom McLaury for wearing a weapon. In spite of being warned, the Clantons and McLaury’s still continued to wear their weapons in plain site, and finally the Earps and Holliday walked down to the vacant lot to order them to disarm.
According to a later inquest, when Virgil Earp told the cowboys to put up their hands, and that he intended to disarm them, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton drew their pistols. Virgil shouted, “Hold on, I don’t want that!” It’s not clear who fired first, but within seconds the shooting broke out. Wyatt Earp testified that he focused first on Frank McLaury, who was noted to be the best shot of the group. He claimed that Billy Clanton had started firing at him first. Whatever the case may be, Wyatt shot Frank McLaury in the stomach, and Morgan Earp shot Billy Clanton in the wrist. Doc Holliday, in the meantime, used a double barreled shotgun at point blank range to dispose of Tom McLaury. According to Wyatt Earp, Ike Clanton screamed that he was unarmed, at which point Earp told him that the “fight’s commenced, get to fighting or get away!” Varying accounts of Ike’s activity have surfaced after this. He ran into Fly’s studio, and some accounts have him shooting from the studio at the Earps, others have him just running away. Whatever the case, eventually he did flee.
The O.K. Corral shootout only lasted roughly thirty seconds, and between the bitter political disputes that existed in Cochise County at the time, and the natural inability of participants to recall exactly what happened when and where, it’s hard to say who shot whom when. When the dust settled, Tom and Frank McLaury as well as Billy Clanton were dead, and Virgil, Morgan, Doc Holliday and Billy Claiborne were wounded. Wyatt Earp was unharmed. The Earps were later arrested and an inquest was held, but eventually the charges were dropped and it was determined that they had acted within the law.
Though the Earps had won the day, the fallout from the O.K. Corral was pretty severe. A few months later Virgil Earp was ambushed, and his left arm was permanently crippled. In March of 1882, Morgan Earp was assassinated. Though Wyatt Earp was later responsible for arresting or killing several members of the Clanton-McLaury gang, the encounter with them had cost him dearly.
We know about the O.K. Corral mainly through the lens of popular culture. There are several great movies about it, my personal favorite being Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer in “Tombstone.” Most of them draw on popular myth or on Wyatt Earp’s absurd and highly inaccurate biography, but all of them remind us of the swift brutality of frontier justice.