A Wild West Shootout in Tombstone 1881, was an event that put this town on the map! At that time in history, Tombstone Arizona was a thriving, active town.
Want some quick, inside details on that famous Wild West gun battle? It's known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We invite you to enjoy the history, as the locals here do!
Tombstone's initial attraction was silver mining. At this time in the Wild West, when this now quite well-known shootout took place, the town's population was quite a bit over 2000. The Census of 1880 recorded 2000 residents (didn't quite count everyone, though) - 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!
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 in that wild west shootout were already in Tombstone Territory:
Historical elements added to the events of 1881 in Tombstone. This understanding helps us all to get a better realization for 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?
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.1
Tombstone began by filing a townsite claim in the two specific areas where miners had settled near claims being worked. These areas were called "Upper Town" and "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.1 At that time none of these first time city officials anticipated this wild west shootout would be the event that kept the town renowned through history!
Fred White became Tombstone's Marshal. Virgil Earp was appointed Deputy for the Southeastern area of Arizona Territory. He was in Tombstone beginning in 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, causing underlying conflict between the two. Behan also was a bartender, gambler, horse racer, and was seen accompanied by many local women.
The Tombstone Common Council had passed an Ordinance in April 1880, to prevent violent incidents in town. It stated concealed fire-arms, knives or any weapon couldn't be carried within village limits without a Mayor's permit.1 Even so, enforcement was difficult.
In the early hours of October 28, 1880, some unruly stockmen that were casually referred to as Southeastern Arizona Cow-boys, included Curly Bill Brocius. Drinking all night, they walked down the street and started firing gun-shots into the air.2 Starting a wild west shootout? Not quite!
Town Marshal Fred White was nearby and approached the group. He said "this won't go boys." He stated his credentials, confronting Curly Bill. Marshal White said "give that up" and grabbed the gun barrel. In the grab, the gun lurched and went off. White was shot in the gut.3
Nearby, Wyatt Earp ran up, using his pistol head-slam technique: buffaloed Curly Bill. Brocius and the others were arrested on the weapons charge. Fred White died later that day. But first he relieved Curly Bill of guilt, stating the shooting was accidental.
The Council asked Virgil Earp 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.
A City Charter was issued in 1881, with a regular police department charged with law enforcement. The gun ordinance was reworded. Now preventing any weapon carrying, concealed or otherwise, without a permit for good reason.1
For enforcement, it still was vague. You could have your weapon while arriving to your lodging, and also on your way out of town. From reports thereafter, this change didn't have much effect on gun-play in town. One prime example was the incident with Marshal White.
In 1881 increasing 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 mid 1881, Marshal Sippy took a leave of absence, but never returned. Virgil Earp was asked to take 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. Wyatt wanted to run for County Sheriff in 1882. He thought of an angle to bring him publicity and popularity. He could bring the stage robbers to justice.
He worked on the idea of informants. Wyatt spoke with Cow-boy Ike Clanton. Would Ike secretly give him info that could get him the stage robbers? He'd then confidentially give him the reward money. All Wyatt wanted was the notoriety of the catch.
Ike agreed, and they devised a plan. It didn't work out in the end, as the stage-robbing culprits were already dead.
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 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.
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 find 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 happened that morning. They started to prepare their horses to ride out.
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."5
John Behan intercepted the Earps, trying to stop their advance. They passed him by and entered this lot off Fremont Street. That vacant lot was just west of C.S. Fly's boarding house and photo gallery. 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."5
It began just about immediately then. In Wild West style it's hard to say who started the shootout. Frank McLaury was killed nearly immediately. Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were seriously hit, dying soon afterward. Morgan Earp was wounded across the top of his back. Virgil was shot in his lower right leg and 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.
The local newspapers reflected this division, 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 right away, because they were bed-ridden from their shootout wounds.
Hearings on this now infamous wild West shootout began. Much testimony faulted the Earps and Holliday. Judge Spicer formed his opinion on November 29, 1881. He stated the killings were "a necessary act, done in the discharge of an official duty".5 A grand jury agreed.
The Nugget and The Arizona Daily Star published editorials critical of the decision. The town was still about evenly divided in their opinions. The aftermath of this Wild West Shootout was only just beginning!
Getting to know the players can help you understand more about where they were coming from. We're have the lifetime stories. For you to know their personalities, their backgrounds and experiences. Click for some comprehension of their actions during this wild west shootout:
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1 Bailey, L.R. (2004). Too tough to die: The rise, fall, and resurrection of a silver camp; 1878 to 1990. Westernlore Press: Tucson, AZ. Prime reference for anything not specifically cited.
2 Daily Arizona Citizen (1880, Oct. 29). Shooting at Tombstone. P. 2. As reported in the Tombstone Epitaph, Oct. 28, 1880. Tucson, AZ.
3 Tombstone Epitaph (1880, Oct. 29). Tombstone, Arizona.
4 Virgil Earp disposition, Turner, O.K. Corral Inquest
5 Bailey, L.R. (1999). A Tale of the unkilled. The life, times, and writings of Wells W. Spicer. Tucson, AZ: Westernlore Press