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.
Instead of going home Ike joined his younger brother, Billy Clanton, and the McLaury brothers, Frank and Tom, at the O.K. Corral. As long as they were content to stay there, town marshal Virgil Earp was happy to leave them be. Just the evening before, Virgil sat in on an all-night poker game with most of the same men, and perhaps hoped that they would just calm down and drift away.
The sitting sheriff of Cochise County, Johnny Behan, happened to be both a political and a romantic rival of Wyatt’s. Behan had been living with the comely Sadie Marcus, a San Franciscan and would-be chanteuse who at one point hoped to sing Gilbert and Sullivan on the Tombstone stage—or at least some stage. Sadie left Sheriff Behan for Wyatt and stayed with the latter fifty years.
Sheriff Behan went to the O.K. Corral himself and urged a peaceful departure, but the Clantons and McLaurys ignored him. Then they wandered over to the vacant lot beside Camillus Fry’s rooming house, thereby unwittingly crossing an invisible line in the sand—invisible because Virgil Earp seemed to have drawn it in his own mind.
The Clantons and the McLaurys were Cowboys, capital C, that is to say members of a loosely organized Mexican border Wild Bunch, whose principal activities were rustling cattle and robbing stagecoaches. Despite constant friction between the Earps and the Cowboys the wily Wyatt, accomplished con man that he was, managed to get Ike Clanton to rat out three stagecoach robbers, Leonard, Head, and Crane, all three of whom managed to get themselves independently murdered before any more ratting out could be done. The fact that they had robbed a stagecoach of $26,000 in silver no doubt made them parties of interest to not a few local killers.
When informed that the Cowboys had crossed the street, Virgil Earp decided that enough was enough, so the famous foursome set out on their much-filmed march. The Earps in their varied careers as lawmen had backed down quite a few serious hard cases, and they surely expected to do the same with these indecisive Cowboys. Virgil Earp not only had three neutral deputies at his disposal but had also been offered ten men by a community group that still hoped for peace. Virgil chose instead to go with his two brothers and Doc Holliday, an error in judgment that later cost him much sympathy in the town: in particular, Doc Holliday didn’t conform to most people’s notion of a responsible deputy.
When the four were some distance down the street Sheriff Behan hurried up and informed them that he had disarmed the Cowboys. At least that’s what Virgil and Wyatt understood him to say. Sheriff Behan later claimed that he only meant that since he was sheriff of Cochise County he was available to keep the peace. If he hadn’t disarmed the Cowboys yet, he soon would.
Did Wyatt Earp believe him? Did Virgil? If so, why would they?
Later, in an extraordinary document presented at a preliminary hearing to determine whether Wyatt and Doc should stand trial for capital murder, Wyatt claimed—in words probably written by his brilliant defense attorney, Thomas Fitch—that when Johnny Behan told him that he had disarmed the cowboys, he relaxed and stuck his pistol in his coat pocket. His pistol was a large single-action revolver.
The Earps turned a corner and virtually stumbled into the arms of the Cowboys. The two groups were a few feet apart. Had the Cowboys been farther away they might have stayed calm, in which case no gunfight would have happened. But the Earps loomed up in front of the Cowboys and the Cowboys loomed up in front of the Earps. They were, in a sense, too close for easy retreat, though when Frank McLaury made an ambiguous gesture in the direction of his gun, Virgil Earp called out: “Hold! I don’t want that!”
Nonetheless, as Ike Clanton put it, “the ball opened.” When asked later who fired the first shot, Wyatt said that he and Billy Clanton fired at the same moment, so close together that he couldn’t say which shot came first. If true, then he did a remarkable job of extracting his pistol from his pocket. But I suspect—and Steven Lubet agrees—that Wyatt’s pistol was exactly where it was when he started the march down the street: in his hand.
As the shooting started the discombobulated and unarmed Ike Clanton grabbed Wyatt’s arm but Wyatt told him that the battle was joined, he needed to either fight or leave. Sensibly, Ike left—of the eight combatants only he and Wyatt emerged unscathed. Frank McLaury was soon fatally scathed; he took three bullets and died on the spot. Doc Holliday killed the (apparently unarmed) Tom McLaury by hitting him with both barrels of buckshot from the borrowed shotgun. Young Billy Clanton was hit three times. By some accounts he remembered his manners and said a polite goodbye as he was dying; by other accounts he just died, after receiving two shots of morphine.
Virgil Earp was shot in the leg. Morgan Earp received a traverse wound, the bullet going in one shoulder and going out the other, chipping a vertebra as it traveled. Doc Holliday thought he was badly shot, but in fact was only grazed.
Thus ended probably the most-filmed and most-written-about small-arms encounter in the history of the American West. Everyone agrees that the fight took place on October 26, 1881; but there agreement ends. There are few statements I or anyone can make about the shoot-out that won’t be challenged by someone, somewhere.
I have trouble, in the first place, with the thirty-bullet theory. There were only six armed men, most of whom were shooting single-action weapons at close range. The coroner, Henry Matthews, soon appeared. He found that Frank McLaury had three wounds, Billy Clanton two, Tom McLaury a big load of buckshot, and one wound each for Virgil, Morgan, and Doc. This only adds up to nine hits out of thirty shots, surely no compliment to western marksmanship, especially since one of the men, Wyatt, was supposed to be able to hit a coyote at four hundred yards. Probably to the citizens of Tombstone, a number of whom were watching, it must have seemed as if all hell was breaking loose. But the thirty shots seems to me to be just a guess. If it’s correct then everybody did a lot of missing.
Immediately after the shoot-out the aftermath began and the aftermath, in debate at least, is continuing to this day. Virgil and Morgan had both suffered painful wounds; they had to be carted home in a wagon. As Wyatt was strolling back down the street, Sheriff Behan ran up and informed him that he was under arrest for murder, a charge Wyatt indignantly rejected. He reminded Behan of his claim to have disarmed the Cowboys, in effect setting up the lawmen. Though he declined to be arrested Wyatt did say that he would stand by his actions, rather than leaving town—the latter a common enough solution to threatening legalities, and one, in fact, that Wyatt would eventually adopt.
When Wyatt Earp’s blood cooled he realized that he and Doc were in trouble. Half the citizens of Tombstone might approve of what they had done, but the rough, short-tempered Earps had pretty much worn out their welcome with the other half. Some would commend them; some would want them hanged.
In time a coroner’s jury was convened and delivered itself of an unassailable verdict, which was that the three victims had died of gunshot wounds. This pallid conclusion roused the editorialist of the Tombstone Nugget to an uncharacteristic burst of wit. His comments bore the headline GLAD TO KNOW:
The people of this community are deeply indebted to the twelve [actually eight] intelligent men who composed the coroner’s jury for the valuable information that the three people who were killed last week were shot. Some thirty or forty shots were fired, and the whole affair was witnessed by probably a dozen people, and we have a faint recollection of hearing someone say the dead men were shot, but people are liable to be mistaken and the verdict reassures us. We might have thought they had been struck by lightning or stung to death by hornets.
As soon as the coroner’s verdict was handed down Ike Clanton filed first-degree murder charges against Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, claiming that they had killed Billy Clanton and the two McLaurys with malice aforethought. Wyatt and Doc were jailed. Within a very short time, as Wyatt had feared, public opinion in Tombstone shifted sharply against the Earps: the McLaury brothers had not actually been making any trouble, and Billy Clanton was just a boy. Sympathy for the victims soon rose sharply.
Steven N. Lubet is a professor of law at Northwestern University. What interests him about the O.K. Corral affair is the preliminary hearing, which determined whether Wyatt and Doc would stand trial for capital murder. The judge at this hearing was Wells Spicer, famous for having been assigned the hopeless task of defending John Doyle Lee, the sacrificial victim whom the Mormons offered up—twenty years late—as the sole scapegoat for the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. Despite Spicer’s best efforts, John Doyle Lee was duly executed.
Wells Spicer (who would soon disappear, Ambrose Bierce–like, into Mexico) was friendly with the Earps; but what saved Wyatt was the brilliance of his defense attorney, Thomas Fitch, whose courtroom strategy Lubet analyzes clearly and at length. The pivotal factor was that territorial law allowed a defendant to give testimony in a preliminary hearing without being subject to cross-examination. Thus, in the probably ghostwritten document Wyatt submitted to the court, he could claim, unchallenged, that he had put his pistol in his coat pocket upon hearing from Sheriff Behan that the Cowboys were disarmed.
Judge Spicer let the defendants go, a decision that made him very unpopular in southern Arizona, which, by this time, had had enough of the Earps and Holliday.
Had the Earps been wise men they would have left; but they weren’t wise. Though they knew perfectly well that the Cowboys would make a run at them, they took few precautions. Three days after Christmas, 1881, Virgil Earp was shot down in the street. He lived, but lost the use of his left arm—he gallantly assured his wife that he still had one arm to hug her with.
Morgan Earp fared worse. He was casually playing billiards with his back to a glass door when he was shot through the glass. He lived just long enough to hear Wyatt promise vengeance; and Wyatt delivered vengeance. Within a short time Frank Stilwell, the prime suspect, was blown apart at close range by a shotgun blast. Curley Bill Brocius and Florentino Cruz (who may have also been known as Indian Charlie) were efficiently dispatched, after which Wyatt and Doc prudently left for Colorado, where they successfully fought off efforts to extradite them. Johnny Ringo, a Cowboy who liked to read, was killed and propped up against a tree in July of 1882. Doc was suspected, mainly because his longtime girlfriend Big-Nose Kate was said to have eyes for Johnny Ringo. But Doc seems to have been far to the north when Johnny Ringo was killed. (The coroner ruled the death a suicide, but, as always, there are competing theories.)
When Wyatt Earp departed Dodge City in 1879 he did so because he considered that the town had lost its “snap.” Fortunately Tombstone, when he and his brothers got there at the end of 1879, still had plenty of “snap.” Substantial silver deposits had been found nearby in 1877. Would-be investors flocked in in such numbers that four hotel-saloons had to be built to accommodate them: the Alhambra, the Cosmopolitan, the Oriental, and the Occidental. My favorite of the many eastern boom-towners was the famous headmaster Endicott Peabody, who took a good look and then sensibly turned around and went back east to found Groton School.
Though biographies of Wyatt Earp typically give half or two thirds of their space to his time in Tombstone, he was only there about two and a half years. The killing spree he initiated after Morgan’s death was too much even for Arizona, and Wyatt knew it. He claimed to be a US marshal by then, but nobody cared. He and Doc were only slightly more popular than Geronimo, who was still out at this time.
The Earps, one by one, drifted over to California, where they stayed. Wyatt ran a saloon in Nome, Alaska, for a while, but, mainly, he and Sadie lived out their lives in Los Angeles. Virgil Earp continued his career as a peace officer in Colton, California, while Wyatt did a little of this and a little of that. Stuart Lake found him just in time and extracted those last interviews. Wyatt died in 1929 and is buried in the Hills of Eternity cemetery, Colma, California.
Stuart Lake’s book came out a full fifty years after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, by which time Tombstone, Arizona, had definitely lost its snap. The silver mines got water in them and the rich easterners had long departed. Like many boom towns, Tombstone had all it could do not to become a ghost town. Thanks to Stuart Lake’s book the movies had found their way to Wyatt Earp’s legend as early as 1932, but efforts to film it had little effect on the economy of Tombstone. For that to occur there needed to be help from television. CBS provided it in 1955 with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran for six years, with Hugh O’Brian as Wyatt.
Interest in Tombstone revived to such an extent that the town was soon reconstructed along Olde West lines. The reconstruction worked; today the town surges with tourists, all of them buying O.K. Corral memorabilia as fast as they get their money out of their pockets. A big sign invites visitors to “walk where they died.” For a price, of course. After visiting Tombstone I realized that the reason the O.K. Corral is so persistent in our culture is really quite simple: it’s one of those lucky places where history is instantly converted into money.
Much of the history may be ersatz, but all the money is real.
March 24, 2005