The Gunfight at OK Corral

All guns blazing in the legendary gunfight between the Earp brothers and the Cowboys
All guns blazing in the legendary gunfight between the Earp brothers and the Cowboys

by Ray Setterfield

October 26, 1881 — Possibly the most famous shootout in the history of America's Wild West took place on this day – the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

On the one side stood the so-called forces of law and order: Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday. By reputation these were power-hungry and ruthless men.

Opposing them were the outlaws Billy and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne.

The Clantons and their ranch hands and associates were known as the "Cowboys", a gang numbering up to 300 members. They were rustlers and outlaws and the Clantons repeatedly threatened the Earps because they interfered with the Cowboys' illegal activities.

The Earp brothers held various law enforcement offices in and around Tombstone but were accused by their detractors of being just as guilty of rustling and stage robbery as the Clantons.

(John Henry) "Doc" Holliday, a dentist by trade, was a close friend of Wyatt Earp. A gambler and a gunfighter, Holliday had escaped a charge of murder in Dallas, Texas.

Wyatt (Berry Stapp) Earp was also a professional gambler, the owner of several saloons and a brothel-keeper. Once jailed for stealing a horse, he was one of five brothers, including Virgil who was a deputy US marshal and Tombstone's town marshal (police chief).

Virgil had spent three years fighting in the American Civil War and as a lawman in various towns, so he knew how to fight. By contrast, Wyatt had been involved in only one shootout and Morgan had never been in any gun battles.

So it was fitting that on the day of the OK Corral showdown, Wyatt and Morgan were simply temporary assistants to Virgil.

On the morning of October 25, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury came into Tombstone for supplies. Over the next 24 hours, the two men had several violent run-ins with the Earps and Doc Holliday. The next day Ike’s brother Billy rode into town to join them, along with Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne.

Around 3pm, the Earps and Holliday spotted the five members of the Clanton-McLaury gang near the OK Corral and closed in for a confrontation.

The famous gunfight that ensued lasted for just 30 seconds or so, when around 30 shots were fired. Most reports say that it began when Virgil Earp pulled out his revolver and shot Billy Clanton point-blank in the chest, while Doc Holliday fired a shotgun blast at Tom McLaury.

When the dust cleared, Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were dead, and Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded. Ike Clanton and Claiborne had run away.

According to the Earps, the fight was in self-defence because the Cowboys, armed in violation of local ordinance, aggressively threatened the lawmen and defied a lawful order to hand over their weapons. The Cowboys maintained that they raised their hands, offering no resistance, and were shot in cold blood by the Earps.

Sorting out who was telling the truth was difficult and remains so to this day.

One thing is certain: Wyatt Earp emerged from the battle with legendary status, enhanced over the years by flattering newspaper reports, books and – later – movies.

These included John Ford's highly fictionalised version of events in the 1946 film, My Darling Clementine, starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp.

Then in 1957 director John Sturges took dramatic licence with the confrontation in Gunfight at The OK Corral, having his stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shoot it out for nearly six minutes. The action included spectacular footage of Lancaster firing his rifle as he leapt through the air.

Contemporary newspaper reports state that during the (actual) 30-second shootout, some members of the two opposing parties were initially only about six feet (1.8m) apart.

More recent movie depictions of the shootout include Tombstone in 1993 starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

The following year Kevin Kostner took the title role in the film, Wyatt Earp.

What Virgil would have thought about his brother receiving all this kudos can only be imagined.

Published: October 16, 2018
Updated: October 21, 2018

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