“The Gunfight at the OK Corral”: 130 Years ago Today

*(The following passage is taken from the novel, “Western Legend.”)

*

On the evening of September 29th, 2008, a gunfight exploded within a nightclub located in Ciudad, Juarez, in the Mexican State of Chihuahua. According to an article posted the following day at elpasotimes.com, four men were killed in a shootout occurring shortly after midnight. The participants wore western style clothing and cowboy boots, and investigators found a total of fourteen bullet casings at the scene.

The name of the nightclub: “The OK Corral.”

* * * *

Today, over a century of speculation has illuminated, and yet in the same masterstroke, thoroughly convoluted facts surrounding a violent police action occurring in the year 1881. Alternately known as “The Shootout in Tombstone,” and, as taken from the 1957 film title, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, this historical event has evolved into not simply a pop culture cliché, but moreover a narrative terminally fractured in its own era by biased opinions and erroneous hearsay. And though many researchers have drawn solid conclusions concerning the patchwork of conflicting information available, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal pretty much guarantees that almost anyone who studies this history will inadvertently obscure a needed truth. A simple detail, held within an intricacy of riddles, propagating what is arguably the most infamous gunfight in American history.

At the time of this writing, countless television programs either depicting or merely referencing this event have grown so numerous it would be impractical to catalogue them all here. But of relevant interest to the historical narrative retold here, would be certain programs which attempt to professionally analyze the event.

Programs such as those airing on the Discovery Channel and the BBC have independently sought to capitalize in solving this enigma. And their respective methods have varied, wildly. For example, while the Discovery Channel’s Unsolved History: Shootout at the OK Corral employed the services of a seasoned criminologist, the BBC’s The Wild West: the Gunfight at the OK Corral added the use of actors and mock melodrama to assist in visualizing glimpses of court testimony. And regardless of these elaborate efforts, the reliability of the results achieved remains debatable.

Meanwhile, among the many fictional televised depictions, a general example of what pop culture can do to history, would be a peculiar 1968 episode of the third season of the original Star Trek television show. A surrealistic science-fiction interpretation, which passively weighs in by making a number of bizarre assertions, including that the Earps were themselves the criminal element, “…bad mouthin’ somethin’ fierce all over town,” and that “people in this town are counting on you”—the cow-boys—“…to get rid of the Earps for them.” The episode takes a further step into fantasy by referring to Morgan Earp as, “the one who kills on sight.”

The episode also lists the time of the notorious gunfight as five in the afternoon, and humorously places Captain Kirk in the person of Ike Clanton. A rather interesting comparison when taking into account both the iconic Kirk’s gun-slinging personality, and the historical Ike Clanton’s refusal to display such character in the heat of battle.

Closer to the big budget Hollywood front, two motion pictures stand at the head of the class. First up, the enormously popular and successful Tombstone, released in 1993; a film which appears to utilize various themes and scene constructions from the 1957 release Gunfight at the OK Corral, to rather successfully recreate the traditional western as an Epic theme park attraction. And next, Wyatt Earp, released in 1994; a noble attempt at creating a genuine biography, which though somewhat accurate, still utilizes as much of the Earp mythos as anything else ever has.

These two films respectively portrayed the iconic gunfight with minor, intentional inaccuracies. Something any layman can detect with the proper documentation in hand. Though in defense of each, the gunfight was only featured as a dramatic element of plot, re-created with a measured, significant increase in accuracy above what had come before. A meticulous investigation would doubtless have brought production of each film to a standstill.

* * * *

In painting the perspective of Tombstone’s residents at the time of these events, it should be noted that many people—some of whom had seen all kinds of hell in their lifetime and still genuinely regarded this fight a very disturbing event—were aghast at the shooting. A 1929 reenactment staged during a celebration in honor of Tombstone’s Fifty-year Anniversary, called “Helldorado,” prompted former mayor, John Clum, to denounce its inclusion in the celebration. This from the Arizona Historical Review, circa 1930: “The mock street battle between the city police and the rustlers was a grim exhibition that should have been omitted. The spectacle of men engaged in mortal combat is repulsive and distressing.” And he added, “The lamentable clash between the city police and the rustlers on October 26, 1881, occasioned more partisan bitterness than anything else that ever occurred in that community—and traces of that bitterness linger even to this day. There was no justification for the inclusion of that gruesome act in the Helldorado program, and, in my judgment, the mock street fight was reprehensible—even from a Helldorado standpoint.” (Reference 9.)

And while such a statement could have been an earnest attempt at explaining how tasteless the recreation of the gunfight was—thus citing an era example of modern exploitation—it was still a telling, and some said overdue “official statement,” regarding the entire event. And it had finally been made by a person of great prominence in the community.

* * * *

Clearly, the facts behind the most famous officer involved shooting in history have been thoroughly maligned by time itself, making research of everything which follows vital. Therefore, in addition to Virgil’s own remembrance, consultation has been made with County records obtained from both the Arizona Historical Society and the Bisbee County Courthouse. And subsequently, smaller pieces of the puzzle have been explored for comparison by first utilizing the thorough investigative works of author Paula Mitchell Marks—And Die in the West: the Story of the OK Corral, and author Allen Barra—Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends.

Additional interviews given to newspapers by both Virgil and Wyatt have also been analyzed, along with notes made by Alford E. Turner—O.K. Corral Inquest, and a handful of articles available on-line at historynet.com.

* * * *

Virgil leaned forward and dove head-long into a detailed description of the events which lead up to the fight.

“All right…” he began, “You boys know about the Cowboys Gang, right?”

In its infancy, the generalized term “cowboys,” or “Vaqueros” in Spanish, referred to Mexican cattlemen working the plains of Texas, though there is evidence that the term may actually pre-date this. However, by the mid-19th Century the meaning of this term had evolved into a myriad of connotations, one of which applied to men engaged in what by then had become an often sordid occupation—cattle thieving. (Reference 10.)

“Not regular cowboys,” Virgil continued, “But cattle thieves, stage robbers, and the like? Thieves who mostly profited from raiding cattle in one territory, and trading in another; you’ve heard names, I’m sure: the Clantons, the McLaurys, John Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius—and others…

“Well, them Cowboys we had that street fight with, the Clanton and McLaury brothers, made Tombstone their favorite watering hole—and were real trouble. But they kept local merchants prosperous, and flat had the run of the place when we arrived. They were also used to lawmen lookin’ the other way. And my brothers and I didn’t do that. We did our best to run them bastard rascals off. Thus by the time of that fight, Cowboys had threatened our lives and taken it back so much, was just common place.”

“Story goes,” Jim said with one eyebrow comically raised, “Cowboys had a meeting down in a deep, dark canyon at midnight, and drew up a death-list for us Earps, inked in crimson blood!

The kids all gasped.

Frank shook his head, and hid a smile with his palm.

Tom had his tongue placed firmly in cheek.

Virgil, thoroughly embarrassed, cocked his head in his brother’s direction.

“True,” Jim argued, “Read it—read it myself, Virg.”

“Are you done?” Virgil asked.

“Say what you wanna say, I’ve spoken.”

“Anyhow,” Virgil continued, “As expected, things between us and them Cowboys finally went from bad to worse. Like a snowball headed for hell.”

Virgil briefly described the incident occurring on the night of March 15th, wherein a small compliment of men had attempted to halt and rob the evening stage on its way to Benson, Arizona.

J. D. Kinnear & Company’s Arizona Mail and Stage Line, operated locally out of the Tombstone Wells Fargo & Co. office, and that evening carried tens of thousands of dollars in either silver or currency, or both, dependent on which version you believe.

The attempted holdup went bad immediately, resulting in the deaths of two men aboard—Bud Philpot, the stage driver, and Peter Roerig, a passenger seated precariously upon the rear of the coach. Then, amid the chaos, the bandits panicked and fled into the night, reportedly without ever actually taking possession of the coach’s cash box.

“So Cowboys used Doc Holliday’s name in talk of that. We all knew about this talk goin’ around, but we didn’t know who started it… And though it was common knowledge Cowboys had done it—that talk went all over the territory. The Sheriff—a fella named Behan, a good friend to the Cowboys, but also an instigator of a lot of trouble between us and them—heard Doc and his lady-friend Kate were fightin’ again. Behan found her, got her soused, and tricked her into signing paper stating that Doc had confessed as much to her that he had been involved…”

Mary Katherine “Big Nose Kate” Harony, at one time or another alias Kate Elder, Kate Fisher, and Mary Katherine Cummings, was a known prostitute. And all that has been ascertained regarding the origin of the name “Big Nose,” is that it was not given for a protruding facial appendage. Perhaps she had a penchant for curiosity, and made it her “business” to know everything. That would explain Sheriff Johnny Behan’s interest in her. According to court records and a story in the Daily Nugget, Behan and one of his cronies, county supervisor and owner of the Oriental Saloon, Milt Joyce—supposedly a member of Behan’s notorious “County Ring”—found Big Nose Kate drunken at the bar inside the Oriental Saloon, following yet another row with Holliday. Confirming Virgil’s remembrance, it was testified that they flanked her, fed her as much alcohol as she could intake, and finessed her into signing the aforementioned affidavit declaring Holliday’s involvement in the March stage robbery.

Virgil went on: “When Kate sobered up, she of course recanted. But the damage was done. So Wyatt went to Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury—knowin’ they’d be one’s to know who was really in on the robbery—and he offered to make a deal with those two t’give up the three men responsible. Doc’s name would be cleared of it all, Ike and Frank would share the reward money, and Wyatt would get all the glory.” This was an unorthodox maneuver said to have been an attempt by Wyatt Earp to facilitate a better political position in an upcoming election for County Sheriff. “Turned out that deal suited Ike just fine,” Virgil laughed. “See, Clanton had already taken possession of a ranch belonging to one of the men responsible for the holdup. Ike assumed that dude was long gone. But boys, that man came back, and he demanded that Ike either get off his property, or pay him for it. So when Wyatt made his offer, Ike’s mind did some quick calculations, and came up with a solution to his dilemma. If he assisted Wyatt, the owner of that ranch would get captured…” Virgil added mock excitement to this part, “Or better still, killed!

“And Ike would get to keep the man’s ranch—along with a good portion of that reward money. So, in Ike’s hard head, things was sprucy.”

If the reader judges this to be a perfectly hilarious illustration of the common, brash, and arrogant recklessness of the Cowboys—that reader’s not far off. Researchers are quick to note that excepting Ike’s personal motivation, both he and McLaury knowingly put themselves in danger of being exposed as traitors to their own breed in making such a curious alliance.

Virgil continued by ticking off the first finger on his hand. “There were just two problems. First, it was just a matter of time before the Cowboys’ entire organization found out who gave up their own. Didn’t seem to bother Frank McLaury much, but got under Ike’s skin and festered—turned that man into a worry wart. He knew when them Cowboys found out about his secret deal, he’d be dead in two ticks of a clock.” Virgil ticked off his second finger, “Second…” The next word was spoken with equal caution by both Virgil and his brother—

“Doc.”

John Henry “Doc” Holliday was well known for being fearless. And while in part this was due to his terminal illness, tuberculosis, it’s also likely that he suffered from manic depression as well. Hence, he was literally suicidal. When Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton took the step of implicating Doc in the stage robbery via gossip, Holliday became a walking, lit powder keg, looking to ignite in Clanton’s face. And everyone, no matter how tough they thought they were, knew never to make John Holliday angry. Not unless you just really wanted to die with him—and real damn soon.

“All kinds of talk was just, all over town. Doc had returned to town few days earlier, and had been looking for Ike for a spell. The night before that fight, he finally found him sittin’ in the Alhambra lunch counter… and if you were within a square mile, you heard what followed.”

* * * *

A favorite pit-stop for many, the Alhambra was a saloon adjoining a neighboring lunch room by a small counter. And by proxy, such dining areas were commonly referred to as “lunch counters,” or sometimes, “lunch stands.” To set the scene, Doc Holliday had possibly seen Joseph Ike Clanton enter the Alhambra lunch counter from somewhere on the street that evening, crossed over and entered to confront him. Wyatt was already seated within the lunch room at the actual counter having a meal, while his brother Morgan was in the saloon next door, talking with the bartender. Doc entered at around one in the morning, his golden-tinted mustache glinting within the candle-light. Catching Ike in the act of sitting down, he exploded, “You SON-OF-A-BITCH COWBOY—get out your gun and get to work!”

Clanton replied that he wasn’t armed, and Doc shouted, “Pull out your gun, if there’s any grit to ’ya, and get to fighting!”

Doc may’ve added a comment about Ike using his name in connection with the Benson stage robbery. Though whatever he said, Ike feigned ignorance of it, and Doc responded with, “You’re a damned liar, and you been threatening the Earp boys, too!”

Again, Ike’s response is argumentative. Between Clanton and Wyatt’s testimony, it’s difficult to ascertain the exact truth of this confrontation. Initially, Ike misstated that the confrontation had taken place in a “lunch stand” located at the Occidental Saloon, which was incorrect. During later testimony, he identified the location as a lunch stand near the Eagle Brewery, somewhere on the North side of Allen Street, which wasn’t true either. Clearly, Clanton was already intoxicated at the time of this incident, and couldn’t be counted on for accurate eye-witness testimony.

According to Wyatt, the shouting lasted three or four minutes. Following that interval, Earp called to his brother Morgan in the adjoining saloon, and suggested that he put a stop to it. Morgan crossed the bar room, and hopped up and sat on the counter. Clanton even claimed that the younger Earp slid his hand inside his vest and kept it there, staring Ike down with a cold glare. Ike said he then turned and saw Doc’s hand under his coat, possibly on a hidden pistol.

Instantly, Ike began crying foul. (Reference 11.)

The confrontation raged on. Ike and Doc continued screaming at one another, and Wyatt again urged his younger brother to deal with the situation. Morgan slid off the counter, grabbed Doc, and dragged him out the door and into the street.

Exiting, Doc shouted, “If you ain’t heeled, go and heel yourself!”

Ike, now angry as hell, followed.

* * * *

“Whole thing spilled out into the street,” Virgil said, “I came out of the Oriental down the street there, and threatened to arrest ’em both, then ordered ’em both to separate. Doc went on to bed, directly…but Ike was rattled. He hung around, told Wyatt he wasn’t fixed right; said in the morning he’d have man-for-man with Holliday. Said fightin’ talk had been going on long enough, was time to fetch it to a close, blah, blah, blah…” Virgil rolled his eyes. “Wyatt told him that he didn’t want to fight anyone if he could help it, because there was no money in it… (Reference 12.)

“Soon after, Ike dealt himself into a poker game with myself, Behan, Tom McLaury and another gent—game went on, rest of the night.”

“Very interesting game of cards.” Frank commented.

“They usually are.” Tom retorted.

“Uhm, hmm.” Frank baited Virgil.

Jim laughed at this. But Virgil merely bit his lip and mumbled, to keep any elaborate commentary from escaping.

“Come sun-up,” he continued, “I was ready to get to bed, so I cashed in my winnings.” Virgil mimicked the following described movement for the boys, “I always kept my six-shooter in my lap during a game, so naturally, when I stood up from the table, I holstered it…and Ike took notice.”

* * * *

By the morning of Wednesday, October the 26th, Ike Clanton was drunk and destroyed, and in every sense of that description.

It was cold, and patches of snow hop-scotched the ground all over town. Virgil had left the Oriental Saloon at around seven in the morning, walking Northwest down Allen Street toward the Cosmopolitan Hotel. He took out his pocket-watch to confirm the time, and yawned. Suddenly, Ike Clanton appeared at his side, and Virgil’s eyes rolled. Ike smelled of booze. And it may have made even a hardened man like Virgil slightly nauseous at this hour.

“You stood in with them the whole time, didn’t ya?” Ike said, awaiting a response. When none came, he added, “If that’s so—I’m in town,” and threw his arms wide, staggering to keep up with Virgil. “I was abused last night, but I’m in town this morning!”

“Ike, I’m going to bed.”

“Will you give a message to Doc?”

“What?” Virgil asked with fatigue.

“The damned son-of-a-bitch has got to fight.”

Virgil turned on Ike in an instant, pointing and scolding, “Ike, I am an officer—I don’t want to hear you talking that way! I’m going down home now, to go to bed. I don’t want you raising any disturbance while I’m in bed.”

Virgil walked on, leaving Ike behind. He got ten steps away, when Ike shouted, “You won’t carry the message!?”

“No, of course I won’t,” Virgil replied, with a forceful wave over his shoulder.

You may have to fight before you know it!”

Again, Virgil waved Ike off, and kept walking.

Read “Western Legend” for More of This Narrative and to Learn More About the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

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