Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a gunfight that occurred at about 3 P.M. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, United States.

The famous gunfight did not actually occur at the O.K. Corral. It occurred in a fifteen- to twenty-foot space between Fly's Lodging House and photographic studio, and the MacDonald assay house west of it. The end of the gunfight took place in Fremont Street. Some of the fighting was in Fremont Street in front of the vacant lot. About thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds. Although only three men were killed during the gunfight, it is generally regarded as the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West, even though many other gunfights of the period resulted in more people killed (e.g., the Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight, the Going Snake Massacre, the Hot Springs Gunfight, and the Gunfight at Hide Park).

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been portrayed in numerous Western films. It has come to symbolize the struggle between law-and-order and open-banditry and rustling in frontier towns of the Old West, where law enforcement was often weak or simply nonexistent. In other views, the fight was a more complex embodiment of some of the tensions of the American Civil War of a generation before. One group of fighters represented rural Democrats from Texas who were involved in the cattle-trade in a remote area of Arizona territory which had been desert just a few years before. The other faction (the Earps) had come from the East with the frontier, and represented the very different city interests of Yankee Republican capitalists and businessmen who were attempting to manage a silver-mining boom-town with Eastern expectations of behavior. The gunfight occurred on the physical border of these two cultures.

The proximate cause of the conflict that led up to the fight was the arrest by Virgil Earp, acting in his capacity as deputy federal marshal, of two rural “cowboys” for a stagecoach robbery. Drunken threats made by another cowboy against the Earps set them on guard, and when family and friends of the drunken man arrived in town on horseback the next day fully-armed, there was a misunderstanding about how and where they should disarm according to city law. Within hours, both new arrivals were dead, as also was a Cowboy standing with them, who had illegally failed to surrender his pistol the previous day.

Law enforcement (the three Earp brothers and "Doc" Holliday) were eventually exonerated of the killings, but later assassinations and assassination attempts against the Earps over the next six months led to a series of killings and retributions, often with federal and county lawmen supporting different sides of the conflict. The series of battles, known as the Earp Vendetta Ride, finally ended with Virgil Earp permanently crippled by gunfire and his brother Morgan killed. The Earps and Holliday were also forced to flee the territory to Colorado and California, never to return to Arizona.


Undoubtedly the most notorious episode of Tombstone's early history occurred October 26, 1881. The Clanton gang of cowboys had refused to recognize the local supremacy of the Earps, and there was bad blood between the factions.

On the night of October 25, Ike Clanton, a prominent, though decidedly not plucky, member of the cowboy faction, had been arrested by City Marshal Virgil Earp and had been fined $50 for disorderly conduct, which appears to have been merely in objecting to the marshal's abuse. On the morning of the 26th of the Clanton gang in Tombstone were Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton and Ike Clanton. They had appreciated the intimation that Tombstone was unhealthy for them and had saddled their horses to leave for their home ranch in the Babocomari Mountains. The horses were in the O. K. Corral, which fronted on two streets. Fearing trouble, they planned to leave by the rear gate, on Fremont Street. Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury were not armed, for both the evening before had had their pistols taken from them by the city authorities. The other two had revolvers.

The men were leading their horses out of the gate when they were confronted, almost from ambush, by four of the Earps, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Jim, and by Doc Holliday. Virgil Earp, armed with a sawed-off express shotgun, and accompanying his demand with profanity, yelled, "Throw up your hands." But he didn't wait for the action demanded and shot almost as soon as he spoke. Tom McLaury showed his empty hands and cried, "Gentlemen, I am unarmed." Holliday answered with the discharge of his shotgun. Billy Clanton fell at the first fire, mortally wounded, but rolled over and fired two shots from his pistol between his bent knees. One shot "creased" Morgan Earp across the shoulder and he fell to the ground. Ike Clanton ran into a vacant lot and escaped. Frank McLaury remained, fighting bravely, and, holding his horse by the bridle, fired four shots at the three Earps in front of him. One bullet hit Virgil Earp in the calf of the leg. McLaury became aware that Holliday was shooting at him from the rear and had turned to answer the fire when his pistol hand was hit. He then raised his revolver with both hands and shot, striking Holliday's pistol holster. At the same moment Morgan Earp rolled over and shot from the ground, his bullet striking McLaury on the temple, killing him instantly. The Earps and Holliday then marched back to the main part of the town and surrendered themselves. They were examined behind closed doors by Justice of the Peace Spicer, who discharged them as having acted as peace officers in the performance of their duty.

Thereafter Virgil Earp received a bad wound in the arm, shot one night by some unknown person concealed in a building. Soon after, Morgan Earp was killed in an Allen Street saloon, about 9 p. m., while playing billiards, his assassin shooting through a rear glass door, himself hidden in the darkness. The murderer was supposed to have been Frank Stillwell, a cowboy of the outlaw stripe. If it were Stillwell who did the shooting, he established a reasonable alibi by being in Tucson early the next morning. Ike Clanton already was in Tucson, under arrest for a stage robbery on the road between Tucson and Bisbee. A few days later, the Earps, Holliday and one Johnson, started for California in charge of Morgan Earp's body. The train, taken at Benson, arrived in Tucson about dusk. Ike Clanton, out on bail, learning of the presence of his enemies, secreted himself, but Stillwell, possibly to maintain his attitude of innocence, went to the depot and walked slowly along the train as it was drawing out. The next morning his body, riddled with buckshot, was found at the head of Pennington Street, possibly a hundred yards from the tracks, back of the railroad hotel. It was assumed that one of the Earps had jumped off, shot Stillwell and then regained the train.

At Killito station, a few miles westward, all but Virgil Earp left the train. They walked back to Tucson, and, a short distance east of the town, flagged a freight train and on it went to Benson, where they got horses and returned to Tombstone. There Sheriff Behan received a telegram to arrest them. When the sheriff notified them that they were under arrest they directed him to a torrid region, secured fresh horses and rode out of town. They were next heard from in the Dragoon Mountains, where they shot and killed a Mexican who was chopping wood for Pete Spence, one of their mortal enemies, possibly irritated over not finding Spence himself. Thence they rode to Hooker's Sierra Bonita ranch, where the owner gave them fresh mounts. They rode across country to Silver City, New Mexico, where they disposed of the horses and took a train for Colorado.

On hearing of the refuge of the Earp gang, Governor Tritle on May 16, 1882, issued a requisition on Governor Pitkin of Colorado, asking the return of Wyatt and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMasters and John Johnson, all charged with the crime of murder. The requisition was refused on the grounds that the papers were defective in form and because Holliday already was under indictment for a crime committed in Colorado. June 2, Governor Tritle sent amended papers, to again meet rebuff, Governor Pitkin replying on the ground that he "did not consider it possible for any agent to deliver the parties named in safety to Tucson." Just the character of influence brought upon the governor of Colorado does not appear at this late date. It is probable the people of Tombstone cared little, as the exile of the Earps was the first possible move toward a lasting peace, which then began to be felt.


Virgil Earp died of pneumonia, in Goldfield, Nevada, October 19, 1905, aged 63 years, and was buried in Portland, Oregon, where a daughter lived. He had been married twice. Of the flood of reminiscences brought up at the time of his death, much was made public beyond the more notable episode of his Tombstone career. He came to Arizona first in 1876, in company with his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, and Doc Holliday. While Ed Bowers was sheriff, Prescott was visited by two cowboys from Bradshaw Basin, who enjoyed themselves in true cowboy fashion, shooting up saloons, finally riding out of town firing their pistols as they went. They camped at the Brooks ranch, and sent back word that they would remain in case the sheriff wanted them bad enough. Bowers organized a posse, of which Virgil Earp was a member. In a pitched battle that followed, Earp found one of the cowboys crouched under an oak tree, reloading his gun, and shot him twice, one bullet passing through his heart and the other only about two inches from the first. It was remarked, when the body was taken away, that between the man's teeth was still a cigarette he had been smoking when shot. The other cowboy also was brought in prostrate, dying two days later. Virgil Earp came back to Arizona, to the scene of his old exploits in Yavapai County, and engaged in mining in the Hassayampa district. In 1900 he was nominated for sheriff, but failed to make the raee. He had seen service in the Civil War in an Indiana regiment of volunteers.

Wyatt Earp went to Colton, California, where relatives lived, and where he later was elected chief of police. He was given much publicity in his capacity of referee at the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight in San Francisco, in which his decision, awarding the battle to the former, was sustained by his reputation as a handy man with a gun. He was in Nome in its boom period.

Holliday died of consumption at Glenwood Springs, Colo. Warren Earp, the youngest brother, a stage driver, in the summer of 1900 met his end at Willcox, where he was killed by John Boyett in a way that a coroner's jury considered justifiable.

In 1882 conditions were so bad in Southeastern Arizona that President Arthur issued a proclamation calling upon bandits to disperse and threatening extermination at the hands of the military authorities and United States marshals. This followed a letter from Acting Governor Gosper to the secretary of the interior calling attention to the seeming inability of the territory to suppress the outlaws.

Doc Holliday, the right bower of the Earp clan, possibly best was described by the equally famous Bat Masterson, who was interviewed on the subject, and whose history of the once-distinguished Arizonan, before his local advent, may as well be quoted:

I never liked him and few persons did. He had a mean disposition and differed from most of the big gun fighters in that he would seek a fight. He was a consumptive and physically weak, which probably had something to do with his unfortunate disposition. He was of a fine Georgia family and was educated as a dentist. He went West after shooting down several defenseless negro boys in a quarrel as to who should occupy a certain swimming hole. He made Dallas in the early seventies and hung out his shingle, "J. D. Holliday, Dentist," but he soon quit that for gambling. His shooting of the negroes became known and so he got a reputation as a bad man from the start and associated on equal terms with men of more notable record. He finally killed a man in Jacksboro and fled. Then he killed a soldier, and to avoid being caught by the military authorities made a desperate flight to Denver, across 800 miles of waterless, Indian-infested desert. He made Denver in '76. The law forbade him to carry a gun there, so he slipped a knife into his boot leg and presently carved up the face of one Bud Eyan, who bears the marks to this day. He then fled to Dodge City, where I first met him. He kept out of trouble in Dodge somehow, but presently wandered to Trinidad, Colo., where the first thing he did was to shoot and seriously wound Kid Colton. Then he escaped to Las Vegas, a boom town in New Mexico, where he disagreed with Mike Gordon and shot him dead in a doorway.

In their palmy days and even later the Earps had many friends, generally enemies of the even rougher element that the brothers opposed. It was claimed that in their former abiding place, Dodge City, Kansas, as well as in Tombstone, they were found opposed to the criminal element and that they never killed a man whom the community was not pleased to lose. Especially has been commended their good work in shooting "Curly Bill," who had considered himself well above the law and left to go free after his cold-blooded murder of White, the first city marshal of Tombstone. Such a man as E. B. Gage has been quoted as stating that "Whatever Virgil Earp did in Tombstone was at the request of the best men in Cochise County."