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Back to the O.K. Corral


From time to time during the long settlement wars of the American West, an event would occur which somehow took on a resonance in popular culture that far exceeded its actual historical effect. The defeat of General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 26, 1876) is, arguably, a case in point. The shock to the national psyche was undoubtedly great because the Indians won—and they weren’t supposed to. The plains Indians who wiped out Custer demonstrated clearly one last time that they were a people not to be trifled with; and yet they were immediately trifled with, through treaties and removals, as the fighting decades ended and the chiseling decades continued. The Little Bighorn, or the Greasy Grass, as the Indian called it in Thomas Berger’s brilliant novel Little Big Man (1964), was a twilight victory. The body count—about 250 men of the 7th Cavalry and perhaps a little more than half that many Indians—was tiny compared to the fields of the dead after Gettysburg, or Shiloh, or any of the major battles of the Civil War ended just a decade before.

Not everyone took notice when, only a week after the Little Bighorn, the dandified gambler James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok was assassinated in Deadwood, South Dakota, while playing cards. Hickok still shows up here and there in western narrative, but the Little Bighorn is one of the most-written-about battles in world history. Young and reckless, Custer made a very suitable American knight-errant. Alive, he was a problem for everyone, including the wise scouts who pleaded with him not to take his men over that ridge and into that fatal valley. He took them, they died; he alone became an Immortal.

What had occurred at the little creek in Montana was a profound clash of cultures. Custer, perhaps the most aggressive West Pointer of his generation, attacked several of his Native American peers: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, and their thousands of allies. He lost, but the battle at least had great color, great spectacle, and the death of the young knight-errant assured the conflict of mythic treatment.

Militarily, though, its only effect on policy was to make the few commanders still in the field (Crook, Miles, Terry, Mackenzie) a good deal more wary during the few months of skirmishing that remained.

Turn from that much-studied battle to a tiny dispute in the young silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on the afternoon of October 26, 1881. The dispute, at its fiercest moment, involved only eight men. The brothers Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, and the dentist-turned-gunslinger Doc Holliday, were ranged, ostensibly, on the side of the law, while Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury represented, for the sake of argument at least, the bad guys. (A young man named Billy the Kid Claiborne—not to be confused with the real Billy the Kid, who had been killed three months earlier in New Mexico—was present but took no part in the fracas.) Of the eight men involved, probably only the irritable, tubercular Doc Holliday really wanted to fight.

I am talking, of course, about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which, for starters, wasn’t fought in the O.K. Corral—the shooting occurred across the street in a vacant lot adjacent to the local photographer Camillus Fry’s rooming house. Some say the shooting only lasted fifteen seconds; others give it twenty seconds, or even thirty. Local estimate was that some thirty shots were fired, at close if not quite point-blank range. Three men were killed and three wounded. The shoot-out at the O.K. Corral was neither more nor less violent than a number of shootings that had occurred in Tombstone or its environs in the few short years of the community’s existence. It solved nothing, proved nothing, meant nothing; and yet, 123 years later, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is reenacted every day in Tombstone, Arizona, to paying customers—lots of paying customers.

The most recent O.K. Corral movie stars Kevin Costner as Wyatt; the next most recent, released a few months earlier, stars Kurt Russell as Wyatt, with Val Kilmer as Doc. There are so many gunfight-at-the-O.K.-Corral movies that they constitute a kind of subgenre of the western. In the most lyrical version, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp.

What I’m wondering is why, in this day and time, anyone should care about Wyatt Earp, or any Earp, or the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, either. The Battle of the Little Bighorn at least offers heroism, spectacle, and mass, whereas the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was merely a bungled arrest. Virgil Earp, not Wyatt, was the peace officer in charge that day. How do we get from a bungled arrest to Henry Fonda, Hugh O’Brian, Burt Lancaster, Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, and all the other movieland Wyatts? I’d like to know.


Neither of the two books under review can help me with that question, but they are, in my opinion, along with Paula Mitchell Marks’s And Die in the West (1989), the gems in the vast but mostly amateurish literature on Wyatt Earp and his four brothers: James, Virgil, Morgan, and Warren. (An older half-brother, Newton Jasper Earp, is seldom mentioned; ditto for their sister, Jessie.) The Earps were itinerants: one or another of them lived in virtually every state in the West, but they seemed not to belong anywhere, except to the gambler’s world of saloons and late-night card games.

Casey Tefertiller’s biography of Wyatt is readable, thorough, and levelheaded, a rarity in the world of Earpiana; Steven Lubet’s study of the complicated legal aftermath of the O.K. Corral manages to be stylish and at times even elegant, a virtue not often found in outlaw studies, which so often clunk and plod.

A place to start, in attempting to explain the mysterious persistence of the O.K. Corral in our popular culture, is two contrasting views of the methodology of frontier gunfighting. The first appears in Stuart N. Lake’s adulatory Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), the foundation document of the Earp myth. The person speaking is the lawman Bat Masterson, who worked with Wyatt Earp several times:

Wyatt’s speed and skill with a six-gun made almost any play against him with weapons “no contest.” …I never saw the man in action who could shade him in the prime essential of real gun-fighting—the draw-and-shoot against something that could shoot back.

…Wyatt’s speed on the draw was considered phenomenal by those who literally were marvels at the same feat. His marksmanship at any range from four to four hundred yards was a perfect complement to his speed. On more than one occasion I have seen him kill coyotes at the latter distance with his Colt’s, and any man who ever has handled a six-gun will tell you that, while luck figures largely in such shooting, only a past-master of the weapon could do that….

He’s certainly right about the luck part: I doubt that Wyatt Earp could even see a coyote at four hundred yards, much less hit one with a pistol. Now here’s Steven Lubet on how potentially fatal disputes were actually handled in the Old West:

Lawmen in particular were unlikely to keep their guns holstered when facing armed criminals. It made far more sense—for both law enforcement and self-preservation—to approach the bad guys from behind, or, failing that, with a maximum show of force. It would be nearly suicidal to wait for an adversary to draw first—far bet-ter either to knock him to the ground or intimidate him into surrendering.

And even standing face to face it was virtually impossible to “slap leather.” The quick-draw holster, invented in Hollywood as a movie prop, would have been worse than useless in real life because there would have been no way to keep a gun from falling out while walking or riding. In fact, men carried their pistols in their waistbands or their pockets, only occasionally wearing gunbelts…. When it came to gunfights, displaying your weapon was the first move, not the last, of anyone who was seriously interested in surviving.

Sure enough, when Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp started their many-times-filmed walk toward the O.K. Corral, Wyatt and Morgan had their pistols in their hands. Virgil had borrowed a sawed-off shotgun from Wells Fargo; this he loaned to Doc Holliday, who tried to hide it under his coat, a hard thing to do in windy Tombstone. Virgil Earp carried Doc Holliday’s walking stick and had his own pistol stuck in his belt.

I’ll return to the question of weapons, particularly Wyatt’s, a little later, but it’s worth mentioning that Wyatt Earp, far from being draped with holsters and gunbelts, was often not armed at all. Once or twice he was forced to hastily borrow a weapon when trouble presented itself.

I might also observe that Wyatt Earp made his name as a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas, a cattle town, where he was less often required to deal with seasoned criminals. Most of the people he arrested in Dodge City were Texas cowpunchers who had just arrived in Dodge with a herd. What they wanted, in the words of Hank Williams Jr., was a place to “get rowdy and get loud.” The saloons and brothels of Dodge City were ideal for that purpose. Wyatt and his older brother Virgil often resorted to a technique they called “buffaloing,” which consisted of collaring a cowboy who had gone a little too far with the rowdy and loud, whacking him on the head a few times with a pistol, and dragging him off to the slammer until he sobered up.

Wyatt and Virgil both buffaloed lots of rowdies while actually shooting very few. Their pistols were most often used as clubs, in consequence of which they favored heavy, long-barreled revolvers, while Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday, who had few inhibitions when it came to actually shooting people, preferred short-barreled pistols, preferably nickel-plated.

Indeed, only a few hours before the shoot-out, Wyatt Earp had buffaloed the unarmed Tom McLaury and brother Virgil had buffaloed the obstreperous Ike Clanton, disarming him in the process. The buffaloing technique, developed in the comparative innocence of the Kansas cowtowns, was imported by the Earps to the gambling hells of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, where it soon proved inadequate to the needs of local law enforcement, the reason being that there were serious outlaws in the wild country between Tombstone and Mexico—outlaws not likely to be impressed by mere pistol-whipping.

The Earps’ manhandling of Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton outraged the former and gave the latter such a headache that he may have resorted to the then-popular headache remedy, cocaine. For the rest of that day Ike was what we would now call wired. He blathered and complained so much that Wyatt Earp at some point told him to go home, adding that he talked too much to qualify as a fighting man.

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