Wild West Shootout

Wild West Shootout

A Wild West Shootout in Tombstone, 1881 was an event that put this town on the map! At that time in history, Tombstone was a thriving active town.

Want some quick, inside details on that famous Wild West Shootout? It's known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We invite you to enjoy the history as we and other locals do!

Tombstone's initial attraction was silver mining. At this time in the Wild West, when this shootout took place, the town's population was quite a bit over 2000. The census of 1880 recorded 2000 residents [read more] - and it was growing daily.

Let's take a step back into Tombstone Arizona history to see what was happening. Put yourself in 1881, to evaluate that wild West shootout!

Tombstone is the name of the Arizona town.Ed Schieffelin named the town Tombstone

Tombstone Establishment

Ed Schieffelin has credit for Tombstone's founding and naming, about 1877. Its morose name became official on April 5, 1878 - when only a few miners lived there.

2 years later many more moved to Tombstone to seek their fortune in mining. Soon to be infamous players were already in Tombstone Territory:

  • The 5 Earp brothers, and the Earp women, were residents.
  • Doc Holliday came to Tombstone in late 1880
  • John Behan was a Tombstone Deputy and County Sheriff.
  • Johnny Ringo was already living in the area
  • Frank & Tom McLaury were already ranching in the San Pedro River Valley area
  • Curly Bill Brocius had been around since 1878
  • Newman Hayes "Old Man" Clanton lived with members of his family in an adobe house south of Charleston. 
  • With Old Man Clanton there in Lewis Springs were Ike, Billy, Phineas, plus his two daughters with their husbands. 
  • In early 1879 Ike Clanton had opened a boarding house and restaurant in nearby Millville.

Background of
Tombstone's Wild West Shootout

Historical elements added to the events of 1881 in Tombstone. This understanding helps us understand why Tombstone's 1881 wild West shootout lives in history.

Those seeking dishonest gain were attracted to the area, as it seemed easy pickings. How so?

  • Mining "left-overs" were somewhat easily snatched & sold
  • Trade excursions out of Mexico were targeted for their goods
  • Cattle roaming the open range through SE Arizona & Northern Mexico attracted stockmen who lived on the edge of lawlessness
  • The civil war ended in mid 1865, leaving bitter after-effects in the hearts of many who had headed West afterwards

Town is Official

Those who lived in town generally, but strongly, aligned with one of the two political parties - somewhat like today! Either the Republicans or the Democrats. Including the 2 local newspapers! The Tombstone Epitaph's editorials presented the Republican viewpoint. Tombstone's first newspaper, the Nugget, held the Democrat's outlook.

Tombstone began by filing a townsite claim in this area - known as "Goose Flats." The Tombstone Townsite Company recorded with Pima County on April 22, 1879. Lots were sold, a post-office opened, a justice-of-the-peace appointed and an interim mayor & councilmen were elected.

Lawmen of Tombstone Arizona

Earps' Arrival

Fred White became Tombstone's Marshal. Virgil Earp was appointed Deputy for the Southeastern area of Arizona Territory. He was in Tombstone by the beginning of December 1879. His wife and brothers James and Wyatt came with him.

Some months later, other Earps arrived. Morgan Earp left his policing job in Butte Montana to join his brothers. Warren Earp was 25 years old when he arrived in Tombstone to be with his older brothers.

The Earps began earning their living with mining claims, bartending, gambling, and law enforcement. Wyatt Earp was named a local Deputy on July 27, 1880. But political complications led to his holding the post for just 6 months.

John H. Behan was selected as Deputy, replacing Wyatt, which caused underlying conflict between the two. Behan also was a bartender, gambler, horse racer, and was seen accompanied by many local women.

revolver law in Tombstone AZ 1882

Guns & Problems

The Tombstone Common Council had passed an Ordinance to prevent violent incidents arising in town. It stated concealed fire-arms, knives or any weapon could not be carried within the town limits without a Mayor's permit. Even so - enforcement was difficult.

In the early hours of October 28, 1880, some unruly stockmen known in Southeastern Arizona as Cow-boys, included Curly Bill Brocius. Drinking all night, they walked down the street and started firing shots into the air.

Stockmen in Cochise County AZCow-boys of Cochise County

Town Marshal Fred White was nearby and approached the group. He said "this won't go boys." He stated his credentials, confronted Curly Bill, said "give that up" and grabbed the gun barrel. In the grab, the gun lurched and went off. White was shot in the gut. [Epitaph, Oct. 29, 1880]

Nearby, Wyatt Earp ran up and used his gun head-slam technique: buffaloed Curly Bill. Brocius and the others were all arrested on the weapons charge. Fred White died later that day. But first he relieved Curly Bill of guilt, stating the shooting was accidental.

Virgil Earp was asked by the Council to become interim Marshal. He ran for the permanent position, but was defeated by the more popular Ben Sippy. The town's people were very upset about the Marshal White incident.

And Now, Look at Tombstone 1881 - Let's Go There!

Tombstone in 1881Tombstone in 1881 - Photo by C.S. Fly

A City Charter was issued in 1881, with a regular police department charged with law enforcement. The gun ordinance was reworded. It now prevented carrying any weapon, concealed or otherwise, without a permit for good reason.

For enforcement, it still was vague. The ability to have your weapon until arrival at your lodging, and also on your way out of town, was alright. From reports thereafter, this change didn't have much effect on gun-play in town.

Wyatt & Cow-boy Secret Pact

In 1881 stage robberies plagued Tombstone TerritoryStage Coach Robberies

In 1881 a number of stage robberies concerned law enforcement. Area stockmen, the Cow-boys, including many of the Clanton Gang - were suspected of being involved.

Behan organized posses to track the culprits. The Earps joined in. In the middle of 1881, Marshal Sippy took a leave of absence - but never returned. Virgil was then requested to fill the job. He also continued with his Deputy U.S. Marshal position.

Wyatt Earp still had his eye on a prominent lawman position. Tombstone was now County Seat of newly created Cochise County. He wanted to run for County Sheriff in 1882. He thought of an angle - bring the stage robbers to justice.

He worked on the idea of informants. Wyatt spoke with Cow-boys Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury. Would they secretly give him info that could get him the stage robbers? He'd then confidentially give them the reward money. All he wanted was the notoriety of the catch.

They agreed, and devised a plan. It didn't work out in the end, as the Cow-boys discovered the stage-robbing culprits were already dead.

Cow-boys Party in Town

Old West Wagon

Ike and Frank became wary of Wyatt. They felt he now had no reason to keep their deal quiet. They became paranoid about the situation, especially Ike.

On October 25, 1881, Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury drove their wagon into Tombstone. They went to the butcher shop, and concluded their errands. Now was time for some entertainment - the bars and some gambling. The rest of the day, into the evening, and after midnight into the next day's early hours.

Ike wound up at the Occidental Lunch Room at about 1 a.m. on October 26. With all the day's alcohol, he probably felt the need for some food. There he found Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp, neither friendly toward him, and both also under alcohol's influence.

Ike's Ire

Doc and Ike had a mean-spirited exchange. Doc threatened Ike, telling him to go arm himself - since he wasn't heeled. Ike returned, armed now, and sat down to play poker with Tom McLaury, Virgil Earp and some others.

The game broke up about 6 a.m. Ike left complaining to Virgil about Doc: "The damned son-of-a-bitch has got to fight." Virgil responded by trying to calm him, saying he was going to get some sleep and didn't want him to cause trouble. [Virgil Earp disposition, Turner, O.K. Corral Inquest]

Ike began roaming town, still armed, complaining of his treatment by Doc Holliday and the Earps. He claimed readiness for a fight. Word spread quickly through town about his antics.

Virgil Earp cold-cocked Ike ClantonVirgil cold-cocked Ike

Virgil awakened, returned to town and heard of Ike's actions. He called on brothers Morgan and Wyatt for assistance. They located Ike on Fourth Street, between Allen and Fremont. Coming up behind him, Virgil clunked him on the side of his head with his gun. He took Ike's pistol from him and brought him to the courthouse.

Before Judge Wallace, his head oozing blood, Ike was fined a total of $27.50. All the while he was cursing out the Earps under his breath. Then he left.

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

That same morning, Cow-boys Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury, brothers of Ike and Tom, got to town. Arriving at the Grand Hotel, they pleasantly interacted with Doc Holliday!

They heard about Ike's court encounter, and went to locate him. He and Frank were at Spangenberg's Gun Shop on Fourth. They all made purchases. Frank's horse was secured up on the sidewalk - another law violation. Wyatt came along and moved Frank's horse off into the street. The sets of brothers came out and there was an ugly word exchange, but no action.

It appeared the Clantons and McLaurys were preparing to leave town, so even though now armed, they weren't arrested. They left the shop, walked through Dunbar's Stable over to the O.K. Corral

About mid-afternoon they encountered another Cow-boy. Billy Claiborne was a friend of Billy Clanton. They all gathered just West of the O.K. Corral in a vacant lot, talking about what had happened that morning. They started to prepare their horses to ride out.

Doc HollidayDoc's photo, unauthenticated. Shortly after the infamous Wild West Shootout

Suspect Intentions?

Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, along with Doc Holliday, walked West along Fremont Street. Virgil's intent was to ensure these Cow-boys were indeed leaving town or else. In his own words, "to take away their arms, intimidate them, and again show them who was boss." [Bailey, L.R. (1999). A Tale of the unkilled. The life, times, and writings of Wells W. Spicer. Tucson: Westernlore Press]

John Behan intercepted the Earps, trying to stop their advance. They passed him by and entered the lot off of Fremont Street. Virgil walked up to the Cow-boys; Billy Claiborne made a quick exit. Virgil said "Boys, throw up your hands. I want your guns." Another quip was heard, (many attribute it to Wyatt) "You sons-of-a-bitches, you have been looking for a fight, and now you can have it." [Bailey (1999)]

The shootout began just about immediately then - in Wild West style it's hard to say who started it. Frank McLaury was killed at once. Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were seriously hit, dying almost immediately. Morgan Earp was wounded across the top of his back, Virgil was shot in his lower right leg, Doc was grazed over his hip, Wyatt was untouched. Ike Clanton, a major instigator, escaped unharmed.

The next day a parading funeral procession led the coffins of Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton to a common grave in Boothill Cemetery. The town was divided over who was at fault.

Wild west shootout makes news reportsWild West Shootout Captures Attention Country-Wide!

Who Says...

The local newspapers reflected this, as well. The Epitaph felt the Earps, led by Virgil as the Marshall, were acting in proper accordance with the law. The Nugget saw the Earps as guilty of murder, and should be arrested.

A 3 day shootout investigation led to the Mayor and council suspending Virgil Earp. Ike Clanton filed a murder complaint against the Earps and Holliday. Wyatt and Doc were arrested. Morgan and Virgil weren't served immediately because they were bed-ridden in the shootout's aftermath.

Hearings regarding this now infamous wild West shootout began. Much testimony faulted the Earps and Holliday. Judge Spicer formed his opinion on November 29, 1881, stating the killings were "a necessary act, done in the discharge of an official duty." [Bailey (1999)]  A grand jury agreed.

The Nugget and The Arizona Daily Star published editorials critical of the decision. The town was about evenly divided in their opinions. The aftermath of this Wild West Shootout was only just beginning!

Have Your Say!

What do you think?

  • Do you believe the Cow-boys were entirely at fault? 
  • Do you think the Earps and Doc Holliday instigated this Tombstone wild West shootout? 
  • Do you think both parties had some blame? 
  • Do you think the law was so vague, it was just the circumstances to blame? 
  • Do you believe no one was really to blame - stuff happens?

Or do you have some other off-the-wall theory or belief? Please express it here! We'd like to hear what you think of this Wild West Shootout well-known as The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral!

Let us know...

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