On October 26, 1881, the infamous Earp Brothers, Morgan, Wyatt and Virgil, along with Doc Holliday walked down the street in Tombstone, Arizona. John Behan, a county sheriff, happened to be in Tombstone that fateful day, and ran to the four men begging them not to instigate a gunfight. Without a word, says the article, “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” they pushed Behan out of the way, and continued to walk toward the corral. (They had to keep walking, because they had a date with making history, the gunfight at OK Corral.)
The month of October marks the anniversary of that gunfight, which has been the subject of many movies. As is the case with most “based on fact” movies, filmmakers tend to glamorize them, and this gunfight is no exception. The gunfight, in the movies, is usually a drawn out shoot-em-up-bang affair at the OK Corral. However, in reality, the gunfight was not at the OK Corral, but in a vacant lot near it, and the actual gunfight, while deadly, was short lived.
A year before, in October 1880, Virgil Earp became sheriff in Tombstone. He soon thereafter appointed his two brothers, Wyatt, and Morgan, as deputies. The Earp brothers, a cantankerous group, soon had running feuds with the Clanton and McLaury, families, in Tombstone.
Doc Holliday, a friend of the Earp’s, entered the picture when County Sheriff Behan arrested him for killing a stagecoach driver during a holdup. Holliday was released a short time later, but Virgil Earp, upset at the arrest of Doc Holliday, arrested Sheriff Behan’s deputy for the same offense. His release came after a brief stay in jail, but Behan’s name became part of the Earp’s feud list, along with Clanton and McLaury.
The day before the OK Corral gunfight, Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton rode into Tombstone for a few drinks. Before long, Clanton and Doc Holliday who were drinking at the same saloon, argued, but nothing more ensued.
The next day Sheriff Virgil Earp arrested Clanton and McLaury for unlawful possession of firearms, within city limits. After they surrendered their guns, and released from custody, they met Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury at the OK Corral.
Sheriff Earp learned the Clanton’s and McLaury’s were in Tombstone, and decided to disarm them per the city law. Sensing trouble he enlisted the aide of his brothers, and Doc Holliday, and the four walked towards the corral. When they met near the OK Corral, the two groups faced each other in close proximity. Sheriff Earp asked for their handguns, but Billy Clanton drew his gun and fired at Wyatt Earp, but missed. Morgan Earp then shot Billy Clanton twice, and Billy fell to the ground. About the same time, Wyatt Earp shot Frank McLaury, and he too fell to the ground. Ike Clanton and Tom McClaury, who were disarmed at the jail tried to run away. Clanton escaped, but Doc Holliday shot McLaury in the back.
In the meantime, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were lying on the ground wounded, but not dead. They managed to shoot and wound Virgil and Morgan Earp, plus Doc Holliday. Wyatt Earp, not shot during the fight, then shot and killed Clanton and McLaury. The fight was over, leaving three dead, three wounded, one escaped and one left unharmed at the site.
In the aftermath, County Sheriff Behan arrested the Earp’s and Doc Holliday for the murder of Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury. The trial lasted a month and the defendants found not guilty on the grounds of self-defense. The irony of the trial was the judge was a relative of the Earp’s.
Spartacus Educational: Gunfight at the OK Corral