Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday had a date with destiny October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona. Attempting to disarm local cowboys at the O.K. Corral, the ensuing gunfight on Fremont Street gained legendary status in Old West lore. Here we examine how it all began.
Please understand I do not consider myself to be a historian. I’m a fan of the Old West and a serious student of the “combative application of the handgun.” I grew up in the late 1950s through the 1960s watching Westerns on television. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody were part of American culture due to shows of the same name.
When I entered law enforcement, I became a student of combative pistolcraft which renewed my interest in the Old West, specifically people known as “gunfighters” or “shootists.” Why? Because they fought with handguns instead of long guns.
Many of the towns that sprouted up after the Civil War were either cow towns or mining camps. Those industries spurred the economy west of the Mississippi. Towns like Abilene, Hays City, Dodge City, Virginia City, Lead, Trinidad, Deadwood and Tombstone are the famous ones, but many towns sprang up and then died. Naturally, these towns — really camps — were the watering holes for cow pokes and miners who after long days or weeks in the ground or on the trail wanted to blow off some steam via gambling, alcohol and women.
These towns were predominantly gambling houses, saloons and brothels with a few needed businesses thrown in. Carrying firearms was restricted, if not outright banned, in many of these locations. Many will see this as gun control but look at it from the viewpoint of those who were trying to keep the peace: A drunk cowboy or miner feeling like he was cheated at cards, watching another man flirt with his “woman” (read prostitute), is drunk and in possession of a gun. Can you see where this is headed? After 35 years in law enforcement, I get it. I can remember any number of killings I responded to that involved alcohol, a woman and money.
Like today, handguns that could be easily hidden were more likely to be used in a fight than a double barrel shotgun or lever action rifle. It should be noted when guns were carried in town, holsters were not the norm. The revolvers of the time were usually carried in the waistband or in a coat pocket.
Real holsters of the period were nothing like the rigs commonly seen in a Hollywood Western. They were nothing more than a leather pouch with a loop attached that allowed them to be hung from a belt. There was nothing “fast” about them. These holsters rode high on the belt, not low slung around the leg. Holsters were seen in the field or prairie. In town, the gun and holster were commonly surrendered to hotel employees or bar keepers for the duration of the visit.
As I have spent years studying these fights, I have come to realize they are not much different than what occurs today; they were close, chaotic, and over in a few rounds. It’s as likely as not that all rounds fired missed their intended target. Or, both combatants were down and injured with no real victor evident. It wasn’t about being fast or first to fire; it was the person who could keep their head and deliberately fire rounds that would have an adverse effect on their opponent.
In addition, single-action revolvers were in use and required the hammer to be manually cocked with each round fired. The Colt double-action revolver was not introduced until 1877 with an action that was so stiff and heavy most shooters just thumb-cocked it anyway. The typical single-action revolver of the time offered a 6- to 7-pound sear release, unless the owner had the gun’s action filed “sweet.” Such heavy triggers with a felt “glitch” would certainly have an impact on combat marksmanship. Take a moment to consider being under fire, at close range, and having to shift your shooting grip to thumb-cock the hammer each time you fired. (Two-handed manipulation with the support thumb prepping the hammer would certainly be more efficient, but there is little evidence such a technique was used.) Do you think fear and panic would be a factor here? Do you think haste could result in close misses?
Studying the Old West gunfighter spurred me look deeper into how these situations likely played out. The problem is, unlike modern gunfights such as the Miami FBI shootout, the Newhall incident, the Norco Bank robbery or the North Hollywood shootout, there is no modern reporting of the incidents, no video, and no audio recordings of eyewitness reports. In order to look into incidents of 100-plus years ago, we must rely on newspapers of the time as well as any court records that still exist. Like today, newspapers of the time “colored” their reporting depending on the biases of their owners and editors. We also know eyewitness testimony is not as reliable as we would like to believe.
To uncover as much information as possible, one must not only read the research of others, but also walk the ground where the incident occurred. Physical examination paired with an understanding of the technology and equipment of the time can help produce a comprehensive picture of how a historical event may have unfolded.
While I find many famous fights interesting, such as Luke Short’s two arm-length gunfights, Bat Masterson’s fight with Melvin King and, of course, the famous middle of the street showdown of Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt, it is a “free for all” in a vacant lot in Tombstone, Arizona, that fascinates me most. While I like to call it the “Fight on Freemont Street,” it is more famously, and incorrectly, known as the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”
Anyone who has read anything about this incident knows many things led to the altercation. But, if I had to narrow it down to one primary cause, I would say the gunfight on October 26, 1881, was the result of a group of men (the cowboys) who wanted to do what they wanted, when they wanted, and another group of men (the Earps backed by local business leaders) who told them they couldn’t.
What we know for sure is that tensions were already high when cowboy Ike Clanton went on an all-night drinking and gambling binge. Clanton had acted as a paid informant for Wyatt Earp — against other cowboy associates — regarding a stagecoach robbery that had occurred earlier in the year. Earp felt an arrest in this crime would help him win the upcoming election for Sheriff while Clanton just wanted the reward money. When the suspects were killed in New Mexico, Earp no longer needed Clanton’s cooperation. The cowboy turncoat became increasingly paranoid that Earp would reveal his involvement, something Earp later claimed he would never have done.
On the morning of October 26, Ned Boyle had finished an all-night bartending shift at the Oriental Saloon. It was a cold, blustery, nasty morning with snow flurries and Ned just wanted to get home. As he walked down Allen Street, he came across Ike Clanton in front of the telegraph office near the Grand Hotel. Ned was surprised to see that Clanton was not only drunk, but also armed with a pistol in plain sight. Since holsters were not the norm in town, it was likely jammed into the waistband of his pants. Boyle liked Clanton, so he pulled his coat over the revolver so he would not be arrested for carrying in town. He encouraged Clanton to go sleep off his drunk. Clanton stated he would not.
Instead, he told Boyle that he was waiting for the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday to show themselves on the street, then, he said, “the ball would open” and they would fight. Clanton was known to make outrageous statements while drunk and Boyle figured he was just blowing off steam, but he also sensed this was different. He left Clanton and went to Wyatt Earp’s house to warn him. While Earp was appreciative, he did not seem concerned and went back to sleep. Boyle went home.
The Earp brothers were “night owls,” staying up pursuing their interest in gambling and regularly slept in late. Meanwhile, Clanton continued to drink, increasing his level of intoxication. He had added a rifle to the handgun stuffed in his waistband and would eagerly tell anyone who listened how “the Earp crowd” and Doc Holiday insulted him when he wasn’t “heeled.” He was armed now and was ready to fight as soon as he saw them again. Clanton was apparently told by several town folk that picking a fight with the Earps and Doc Holiday was probably not a good idea, especially while drunk, as they would undoubtedly fight back.
Word began to spread down Allen Street that Ike Clanton was drunk, armed and threatening to kill the town police chief, his family, and their friend. The policeman on patrol that morning, A. G. Bronk, hurried to Virgil Earp’s house to warn him there “was liable to be hell.”
Virgil Earp got up a little after noon and headed down Allen Street to see what was going on. Clanton had continued his “bar hopping” throughout the morning. He continued to carry his guns just in case he came across the Earps. Since they were known to sleep late in the day, I cannot help but wonder if Ike Clanton was betting they would not be around, and therefore felt safe making threats. We will never know.
At Hafford’s Corner, Clanton repeated the same story he’d told all morning. The difference this time was Clanton added a new detail, saying the Earps had already agreed to meet him at noon to fight, and it was now five minutes past. The implication being, of course, that the Earps and Doc Holliday were cowards. He showed up outside photographer C.S. Fly’s boardinghouse where Holliday and “Big Nose” Kate Horony were staying. He briefly lurked outside and then moved on. Fly’s wife, Mollie, saw him and warned Kate, who was looking at photographs in the studio. Like the Earps, Holliday was sleeping in after a full night of drinking and gambling. Kate went to their room and woke him, telling him about Clanton. With the dark humor of a terminally ill man, Holliday replied, “If God lets me live long enough to get my clothes on, he shall see me.”
Meanwhile, Virgil Earp began his patrol of Tombstone. Several residents warned him Ike Clanton was drunk, armed and threatening to kill the Earps and Holliday. It became obvious the cowboy wasn’t going to shut his mouth and stumble off to bed. As Virgil walked toward the saloon district, he met his brothers Morgan and James. They, too, had been alerted about Clanton and wanted to make sure Virgil knew that he was carrying firearms. Virgil told them he was on his way to find Ike and stop this. Morgan went with him, while James went to work.
Wyatt got up around noon and walked to the Oriental Saloon. As soon as he arrived former city council member Harry Jones asked him “What does all this mean?” Wyatt told him he had no idea of what he was talking about. “Ike Clanton is hunting you boys with a Winchester rifle and a six-shooter,” Jones said. “I will go down and find him and see what he wants,” Wyatt advised.
The three Earp brothers met and talked about what to do. Clanton had to be disarmed before the situation got worse. As police chief, Virgil Earp carried a revolver. And, based on the morning’s unrest, Morgan and Wyatt each had one, as well. As special deputies, they were permitted to be armed under city law. Since holsters weren’t used in town, Virgil and Morgan’s guns were probably tucked into their trouser band. All three men wore coats to protect themselves from the cold wind of the day, but Wyatt’s had a special feature. The day before, he’d taken delivery of a new coat with a special canvas-lined pocket designed to carry a handgun. It was less likely to catch the hammer, front sight or barrel if the gun had to be drawn quickly. The brothers split up with Wyatt hunting for Clanton on Allen Street while Virgil and Morgan searched Fremont.
Within minutes, Virgil and Morgan found Clanton, but not before the belligerent drunk encountered the one person Virgil Earp probably wanted to keep in the dark, Tombstone mayor John Clum. He was Virgil Earp’s boss and had just left his office at the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper to walk around town as he was always on the prowl for something newsworthy. He found it. On the corner of Fourth and Fremont was Ike Clanton, drunk, and as Clum remembered it years later, “holding a Winchester rifle in his arms much after the fashion of a mother holding her child and fondling it accordingly.” Clum wished Clanton a good morning and jokingly inquired, “Any new war on today?” while looking around for assistance.
Clum saw Virgil and Morgan heading his way. Virgil probably saw the mayor and thought things had just become more complicated. Mayor Clum had now seen an intoxicated man carrying not one but two guns and would expect his police chief to take action. Even in the early 1880’s, the use of force had to be justified and would certainly come under scrutiny. How much force Virgil would use to arrest Clanton needed to appear reasonable. An argument could be made that Virgil Earp had the right to shoot Clanton. After all, multiple witnesses heard him make threats against the Earps and he was carrying two loaded firearms. While the legal trifecta of ability, opportunity and jeopardy did not yet exist in the legal system, if they had, they were certainly met at this point.
Virgil was not reluctant, he’d killed before. Four years earlier in Prescott, Arizona he joined several other lawmen in shooting two felons who had initiated a gunfight. Still, he considered shooting to be a last resort. Instead, he and Morgan drew their guns and walked up behind Clanton. Virgil grabbed the rifle and Clanton responded by grabbing for his pistol. Virgil whacked him across the skull with the butt of his own gun knocking him down. Hitting another with your handgun was called “buffaloing” and it was the 1880’s version of the Taser. Virgil later testified that as Clanton was lying in the middle of Fremont Street, he asked if he “was hunting for me.” Defiant despite his situation, Clanton said that he was, and if he’d seen Earp a second earlier, he would have shot him.
Virgil arrested Clanton for unlawfully carrying firearms inside city limits. The Earps then took their dizzy prisoner to recorder’s court at the corner of Fourth and Fremont. This location is now a parking lot, the buildings having burned down in the 1920s. There was no judge present, so Virgil left to find him. While Morgan and Wyatt stood by, guarding their prisoner, an argument broke out. Clanton had been drinking for 24 hours and was suffering from a blow to the head, he was likely quite angry. Clanton told the Earps that if he had a gun, he would fight them right there in the courtroom. Morgan offered Clanton a revolver and said “Here, take this. You can have all the show you want right now.” Clanton wisely did not take the gun.
The situation seemed to settle, but Wyatt was enraged by the entire incident. Clanton had spent the night threatening his family. Wyatt looked at Clanton and said, “You damn dirty cow thief, you have been threatening our lives and I know it. I think I would be justified in shooting you down any place I would meet you, but if you are anxious to make a fight, I will go anywhere on earth to make a fight with you, even over to San Simon among your own crowd.” Clanton did not hesitate and said, “Fight is my racket,” he replied with more bravado than sense. “All I want is four feet of ground.” The die was cast.
The judge returned and found Clanton guilty, fined him and set him free. While Virgil and Morgan went about their daily routine, Wyatt remained in a state of rage. The fact that Ike Clanton was back on the street so quickly, like nothing happened, only made his anger worse. As far as he was concerned, he, his brothers and Doc Holliday were still at risk.