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.
Given the reputations and relationships of the men involved, conflict seemed unavoidable.
Cattle rancher (or rustler, depending on the day) Tom McLaury had wanted to sleep in, run some errands and then relax with his brother Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton when they arrived in town. He knew Ike Clanton had acted like a fool the night before, but thought everything ended well in an all-night poker game.
Tom awakened, however, to discover Ike was even more drunk than before, illegally armed, and had gone around town threatening the Earps and Doc Holliday. For his actions, Clanton had gotten himself buffaloed and taken to court. McLaury knew it was time to grab his friend and leave Tombstone.
Tom retrieved his revolver from the Grand Hotel bar as it would be one less thing to do as he left town. There was a city ordinance against carrying a gun unless you were arriving or leaving town and McLaury was on his way out from the moment he got up. Tom McLaury was not known as a troublemaker and he certainly was not going to brandish his gun. He’d find Ike Clanton, finish his business and depart. Tom walked in the direction of the courthouse.
In route to the court, McLaury encountered Wyatt Earp. Still enraged, Earp saw all cowboys as enemies. No one really knows what the two said to each other, but Wyatt Earp’s response was witnessed by several onlookers. McLaury was reported to have said he’d never wronged Earp, but was ready if Wyatt ever wanted to fight. Earp loudly asked McLaury, “Are you heeled?” and then slapped McLaury with his left hand while smashing his revolver against the young man’s head with his right. Tom McLaury was left lying in the street. Earp was heard to say, “I could kill the son of a bitch.”
Wyatt Earp’s outburst was seen as unreasonable to those who witnessed it. McLaury was assisted to is feet by several townsfolk and, even though his pride had been seriously damaged, he went about finishing his business. Based on what just happened, Tom McLaury probably felt it was a good idea to check his revolver, so he went to the Capitol Saloon where he gave it to the barkeep.
Tom’s brother Frank, along with Billy Clanton, arrived in Tombstone around 1 p.m. They stopped at the Grand Hotel on Allen Street, the normal hangout for the cowboy faction, where they ran into Doc Holliday. They exchanged greetings and there appeared to be no animosity. Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton entered the hotel bar to get a drink and get out of the cold.
Billy Allen entered the bar and asked Frank if he knew what was going on. Frank had just arrived in town, so he probably got an ear full. No doubt the McLaurys saw the Earps as enemies who interfered with what they wanted to do. Their actions likely angered McLaury but he also was smart enough to know that Tombstone’s ordinances would favor the Earps, so any revenge would have to wait. McLaury and Billy Clanton immediately left the Grand Hotel to find their brothers and get them out of town. Unfortunately, they neglected to check their guns.
As Ike Clanton left the courthouse, he ran into his friend Billy Claiborne. Claiborne fancied himself a gunslinger, having killed a man in a bar, and actually referred to himself as Arizona’s “Billy the Kid.” Claiborne helped Ike to a nearby doctor’s office where his head wound was treated. Afterward, the pair walked down Fourth Street to Spangenberg’s Gun Shop where Ike was reported to have tried to buy a revolver, but proprietor George Spangenberg, being aware of what had already transpired, refused to do so.
Frank McLaury still intended to find his brother Tom and leave town, but he couldn’t leave the impression that Wyatt Earp had scared him into doing so. Pride and image were important and Wyatt’s actions with the horse had been seen by too many people. Frank McLaury had to make it clear he wasn’t intimidated.
While Virgil and Morgan Earp had gone about their business after Ike Clanton’s court appearance, they remained concerned about possible violence. As Virgil walked down Allen Street, he was stopped by several townsfolk who warned him about Ike Clanton and his rantings. Virgil took these warnings seriously so he stopped into the Wells Fargo office and borrowed a double-barrel shotgun, a weapon that offered far more power than any revolver. Even at close range, revolvers were considered inaccurate while the shotgun, with its spreading pattern, was more likely to hit.
In reality, the revolvers of the time were probably more accurate than the people shooting them due to the “point and smack trigger” technique often used. Remember, the single-action revolvers of the period had stiff and heavy 6- to 7-pound break. They were not the single actions of today. That said, if aimed properly, the revolver could and would deliver. Still, a shotgun was a nice thing to have in a pistol fight. In addition, the appearance of a shotgun may make the cowboys think twice before engaging in violence.
Virgil had just walked out on to Allen Street with the shotgun when Bob Hatch, owner of a popular Tombstone saloon and billiards parlor, approached. It was in Hatch’s establishment that Morgan Earp would later be assassinated. “For god’s sake, hurry down to the gun shop,” Hatch exclaimed. “They are all down there and Wyatt is all alone. They are liable to kill him before you get there.” Virgil ran down to Fourth Street and found Wyatt unharmed but seething in front of Hafford’s Saloon. The two Earps watched as Frank McLaury, Ike Clanton, and Billy Claiborne left Spangenberg’s and met Tom McLaury coming from his errands in town. The cowboys walked down Fourth Street to Dexter’s Livery to get the horse that Billy Clanton had left there. They then planned to walk two blocks north to the West End Corral on Fremont and Second Streets, where they would pick up Ike and Tom’s team and wagon. Their route would take them through the back of the O.K. Corral.
Controversial Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan also slept in that morning. He went for a shave only to notice the crowd gathered on Fourth Street at Allen. When he asked, he was told about the morning long problems between the Earps and the cowboys. In reality, Johnny Behan could have ignored the situation. After all, he was the county sheriff while Virgil Earp was town police chief. However, it was likely that Behan felt an obligation to get involved. Virgil Earp had helped him apprehend county criminals in the past and lawmen were supposed to assist other lawmen. He finished his shave and ventured out.
Behan found Virgil Earp standing outside Hafford’s holding a shotgun. Doc Holliday, dressed in a long gray overcoat due to the weather, was with him. Doc carried a silver-headed cane, popular in Tombstone at the time. Behan asked Virgil, “What was the excitement?” and Virgil told him there were “sons of bitches in town looking for a fight.” Behan suggested they go into Hafford’s for a drink, hoping to cool off the situation. It’s unknown who made the original suggestion, as their statements later conflicted, but it was decided that Sheriff Behan would go and talk the cowboys into giving up their guns.
Unfortunately for the Sheriff, they were no longer in the O.K. Corral. He found them in a vacant lot off Freemont Street next to Fly’s Boarding House and Photographic Studio. Back at Hafford’s Corner, Virgil, Morgan, Wyatt and Doc Holliday all stood by waiting to see what would happen next.
After their stop at the O.K. Corral, the cowboys walked down an alley that opened onto Fremont Street near the Union Meat & Poultry Market. Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were leading their horses and the animals were saddled with rifles hanging in scabbards. The McLaury brothers stopped into the market to talk to butcher James Kehoe.
While Frank talked with the butcher, the others stopped to wait in an empty lot on the south side of Fremont between Fly’s boarding house and a building owned by William Harwood, Tombstone’s first mayor. There has been some debate over how big the lot was in October of 1881. Estimates range from 15 to 20 feet wide by 18 to 25 feet long. Regardless, it is known that it was not very big. In fact, it was unusual for the lot to be empty as Harwood usually had lumber stored there for building projects.
Johnny Behan saw Frank McLaury talking to Kehoe while holding his horse with the rifle in plain view. Behan walked up and told Frank that he wanted to disarm him and the other cowboys. Frank refused to give up his guns “as long as the people in Tombstone act so.” Who knows what he meant by this statement? It is likely that Frank McLaury was just grandstanding as, by this time, most of the town was watching. Unlike the movies, the fight did not happen in a vacuum, it was being watched by hundreds of people at various locations around town. Things could get boring in Tombstone and this was better than tickets to a show.
Behan understood cowboy pride and offered to take Frank McLaury to the sheriff’s office, he could surrender his guns in private. Frank still had some business to conduct and with Behan’s help he could save face and stay in town. It was important everyone knew he was cooperating because he wanted to, not because of the Earps. “You need not take me,” McLaury told Behan. “I will go.” Johnny looked west on Fremont and saw Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton standing next to Fly’s. Behan told Frank to walk along with him while he got the others and took everyone to the sheriff’s office. Behan must have been quite happy at this point. If he walked with them to his office and took their guns, it would appear as though he made actual arrests, while the cowboys would think they were going on their own. Playing politics was really no different back then.
At this point, Behan was gone from Hafford’s Corner about twenty minutes with Virgil hearing nothing from him. A citizen approached Virgil offering men to help him arrest the cowboys. Virgil repeated if the cowboys stayed at the O.K. Corral, he would take no action. He was then told “Why, they are all down on Fremont Street.” That was it. Virgil had no choice as much of Tombstone was watching. He had stated he would disarm the cowboys if they came out on to town streets. But Virgil wasn’t about to face one against four odds. His two police officers were off-duty and probably asleep. If he called for them, it would delay his response with the cowboys still armed and on Tombstone’s streets. He could wait no more. Vigilantes in town had threatened to take action. Time had run out for Virgil Earp.
Wyatt and Morgan were standing next to him at Hafford’s Corner. Both were experienced lawmen as well as being family. Trust was not an issue. He asked Wyatt and Morgan to come with him to disarm the cowboys. Doc Holliday overheard this and invited himself along. When Wyatt told him it was not his affair, Doc replied, “That is a hell of a thing to say to me.” Doc considered himself Wyatt’s friend and that was enough for him. This friendship is well documented and his eagerness to fight was legendary. Virgil must have recognized the risk of taking Doc along but he still hoped for a peaceful conclusion. He possibly felt if the cowboys saw Holliday and knew of his reputation, they would be less likely to fight.
Not knowing who was over on Fremont Street, Holliday was given the responsibility of standing guard while the Earps enforced the gun ordinance. Virgil handed Doc the shotgun and took Doc’s silver-headed cane. Virgil told Doc to keep the shotgun hidden under his long coat as long as possible. He was further instructed to stand out in the street and brandish the shotgun as a warning to anyone who might want to intervene. He would also be in position to block the cowboys from moving across Fremont Street.
Besides the shotgun, Doc had a nickel-plated revolver in a holster under his coat. In the movies it is shown to be a short barreled, bird’s head model — a “Banker’s Special.” In truth, we know it was nickel plated but not much else. Unlike the movies, that always depict his holster to be a shoulder rig, it was probably on his hip. Virgil had Doc’s cane in his left hand and his right hand on the butt of a revolver stuck in the front of his pants.
The movies portray this to be a Smith & Wesson Model 3 “Schofield,” which is possible, though I have never seen this confirmed anywhere. It is known that Virgil liked this model of revolver. Morgan probably had his revolver in his hand as did Wyatt. Much has been made of the long-barrel Colt-produced “Buntline Special” that Wyatt was reported to own. History has gone both ways on this gun, but there is nothing I am aware of to confirm he had it with him this day.
In reality, I doubt he would have wanted a revolver with such a long barrel as it would not have fit well in the custom pocket of his new coat. It certainly would not have been quick to draw. Wyatt has also been reported to be in possession of an S&W Schofield revolver on that day, but again, I have never seen this confirmed.
“Come along,” Virgil said, and together the three Earp brothers and Holliday left Hafford’s Corner and began “the walk” north on Fourth Street to Fremont, a journey that has been depicted in every movie ever produced about the fight. I have taken this walk on several occasions and have wondered what was going through the Earps’ minds as they did so. Even as hot headed as Wyatt was known to be, there had to be trepidation as they walked. Virgil, Wyatt and Doc had all been in armed conflict in the past, they would have understood its finality. Most gunfights of the era broke out quickly, very few occurred where the participants had time to ponder what was going to happen. I don’t buy into the theory that Doc Holliday had a death wish, either. It is well documented he took action to prolong his life, even moving to Arizona to make use of the high desert air. No, even though I’m sure they put on an air of formidability, there was likely also reluctance and maybe even fear.
When Johnny Behan walked into the vacant lot with Frank McLaury, he saw Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne. He knew he would find Ike and Tom but the other two may have been a surprise. He asked if they were all together and Claiborne responded he “was not one of the party.” Johnny told them what he’d just told Frank, they would go to the Sheriff’s Office and disarm there. Ike and Tom stated they had no weapons for Behan to take, having surrendered them earlier. He was skeptical so he frisked Ike Clanton by running his hands over his waist and found no guns. Tom McLaury then pulled open his coat to show there were no guns in his waistband. Tom could have had a gun in his waistband at his back or concealed under his shirt. We just don’t know. Behan chose to accept his word.
Just as Behan prepared escort them to his office, Frank McLaury said no. He’d thought it over and said he would surrender his guns only “after the party that hit my brother” was disarmed. That wasn’t going to happen, and Behan knew it. The Earps were sworn peace officers and were legally permitted to carry firearms in town, the cowboys were not. Doc Holliday was likely sworn in as a “special officer” for the moment. It was at that moment someone on the street shouted, “Here they come!”