Tonight, my special guest is author and historian Chris Enss who's here to discuss the Wild West and what was considered to be the greatest possse of all time. Future legends of the Old West, Charlie Bassett, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Bill Tilghman were the lawmen who patrolled the unruly streets. When a cattle baron’s son fled town after the shooting of the popular saloon singer named Dora Hand, the four men--all experts with a gun who knew the harsh, desertlike surrounding terrain--hunted him down like "Thunder Over the Prairie." The posse's ride across the desolate landscape to seek justice influenced the men's friendship, their careers, and their feelings about the justice system. This account of that event is a fast-paced, cinematic glimpse into the Old West that was.

 

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The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a thirty-second shootout between lawmen led by Virgil Earp and members of a loosely organized group of outlaws called the Cowboys that occurred at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, United States. It is generally regarded as the most famous shootout in the history of the American Old West.

The gunfight was the result of a long-simmering feud, with Cowboys Billy Claiborne, brothers Ike and Billy Clanton, and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury on one side; and Town Marshal Virgil Earp, Special Policemen and Earp's two younger brothers Morgan and Wyatt Earp, and temporary policeman Doc Holliday on the other side. Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were killed. Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller ran from the fight. Virgil, Morgan, and Holliday were wounded, but Wyatt was unharmed. Wyatt is often erroneously regarded as the central figure in the shootout, although his brother Virgil was Tombstone's town marshal and Deputy U.S. Marshal that day and had far more experience as a sheriff, constable, marshal, and soldier in combat.[1]

The shootout has come to represent a period of the Old West when the frontier was virtually an open range for outlaws, largely unopposed by lawmen who were spread thin over vast territories. It was not well known to the American public until 1931, when Stuart Lake published the initially well-received biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal two years after Earp's death.[2] The book was the basis for the 1939 film Frontier Marshal, with Randolph Scott and Cesar Romero, the 1946 film My Darling Clementine, directed by John Ford,[2] and the 1957 film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, after which the shootout became known by that name. Since then, the conflict has been portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy in numerous Western films and books, and has become an archetype for much of the popular imagery associated with the Old West.

Despite its name, the gunfight did not take place within or next to the O.K. Corral, which fronted Allen Street and had a rear entrance lined with horse stalls on Fremont Street. The shootout actually took place in a narrow lot on the side of C. S. Fly's photography studio on Fremont Street, six doors west of the O.K. Corral's rear entrance. Some members of the two opposing parties were initially only about 6 feet (1.8 m) apart. About thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds.[3] Ike Clanton subsequently filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday. After a thirty-day preliminary hearing and a brief stint in jail, the defendants were shown to have acted lawfully.

The gunfight was not the end of the conflict. On December 28, 1881, Virgil was ambushed and maimed in a murder attempt by the Cowboys. On March 18, 1882, a Cowboy fired from a dark alley through the glass door of Campbell & Hatch's saloon and billiard parlor, killing Morgan. The suspects in both incidents furnished alibis supplied by other Cowboys and were not indicted. Wyatt, newly appointed as Deputy U.S. Marshal in Cochise County, then took matters into his own hands in a personal vendetta. He was pursued by county sheriff Johnny Behan, who had received a warrant from Tucson for Wyatt's killing of Frank Stilwell.

 

Tombstone, located in Arizona Territory about 30 miles (50 km) from the Mexican border, was founded in March 1879 after silver was discovered in the area. Like many mining boomtowns on the American frontier, Tombstone grew rapidly. At its founding, it had a population of just 100, and only two years later, in late 1881, the population was more than 7,000 (excluding Chinese, Mexicans, women, and children), making it the largest boomtown in the American Southwest. Silver mining and its attendant wealth attracted many professionals and merchants, who brought their wives and families. With them came churches and ministers. By 1881 the town boasted fancy restaurants, a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, an opera house, two banks, three newspapers, and an ice cream parlor, along with 110 saloons, fourteen gambling halls, and numerous brothels, all situated among a number of dirty, hardscrabble mines.[4][5]

Horse rustlers and bandits from the countryside often came to town, and shootings were frequent. In the 1880s, theft of cattle and the smuggling of alcohol and tobacco across the border were common. The Mexican government assessed heavy export taxes on these items, and smugglers earned a handsome profit by stealing them in Mexico and selling them in Tombstone.[6]

James, Virgil, and Wyatt Earp arrived in Tombstone on December 1, 1879, when the town was mostly composed of tents as living quarters, a few saloons and other buildings, and the mines. Virgil had been hired as Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County, with his offices in Tombstone, only days before his arrival. In June 1881 he was also appointed as Tombstone's town marshal (or police chief).[citation needed]

Though not universally liked by the townspeople, the Earp brothers tended to protect the interests of the town's business owners and residents; even so, Wyatt helped protect outlaw "Curly Bill" Brocius from being lynched after he accidentally killed Tombstone town marshal Fred White. In contrast, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan was generally sympathetic to the interests of the rural ranchers and members of the loosely organized outlaw group called the Cochise County Cowboys, or simply the Cowboys, to which Brocius belonged. (In that time and region, the term cowboy generally meant an outlaw; legitimate cowmen were instead referred to as cattle herders or ranchers.[7]: 194 )

 

Among the lawmen involved in the O.K. Corral shooting, only Virgil had any real experience in combat. Virgil had been constable in Prescott and was the deputy United States Marshal in Tombstone. He was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County by U.S. Marshal Crawley Dake, on November 27, 1879, before the Earps arrived in Tombstone on December 1. He was appointed as Tombstone's acting town marshal on September 30, 1880, after popular Tombstone town marshal Fred White was shot and killed by Brocius. Wyatt had been a deputy city marshal in Kansas, as well as deputy sheriff in Tombstone.[23][24]

Only six weeks later, Virgil ran for the office on November 12, 1880, but lost to Ben Sippy. However, on June 6, 1881, Sippy asked for a two-week leave of absence. The city soon discovered $3,000 (equivalent to $84,000 in 2021) in financial improprieties in Sippy's records. A few days later Virgil was appointed as town marshal in his place.[25][26][27] At the time of the gunfight, Virgil was both Deputy U.S. Marshal and town marshal. The city suspended him as town marshal after Ike Clanton filed murder charges.[28]: 238 

After Wyatt first arrived in Tombstone, his business efforts yielded little profit, and he took a job as a stagecoach shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo, guarding shipments of silver bullion. On July 28, 1880, Wyatt was appointed Pima County Deputy Sheriff. He held this position for only three months, until after the election of November 9, 1880, when he resigned.[4] When Virgil was maimed by an assassination attempt, Wyatt was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal in his place. He held that position until he left Cochise County in April 1882.

Wyatt was an imposing, handsome man: blond, 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, weighing 165 to 170 pounds (75 to 77 kg), broad-shouldered, long-armed, and muscular. He had been a boxer and was reputed to be an expert with a pistol. According to author Leo Silva, Earp showed no fear of any man.[29]: 83 Wyatt had been an assistant marshal when he and policeman James Masterson, along with a few other citizens, fired their pistols at several cowboys who were fleeing town after shooting up a theater. A member of the group, George Hoyt (sometimes spelled Hoy), was shot in the arm and died of his wound a month later. Wyatt always claimed to have been the one to shoot Hoyt, although it could have been anyone among the lawmen.[30][31] Wyatt had developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-nosed lawman, but prior to the gunfight he had been involved in only one other shooting, in Dodge City, Kansas, during the summer of 1878.[23]

The 1931 book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was a best-selling biography by Stuart N. Lake.[32] It established Wyatt Earp's role as a fearless lawman in the American Old West and the legend of the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" in the public consciousness.[33]: 36 But Lake and many others in the popular media wildly exaggerated Wyatt's role as the central figure in the gunfight.[33][34] It was only discovered much later that Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, based on eight interviews with Earp, was largely fictional.[33][35] The book and later Hollywood portrayals embellished Wyatt's reputation and magnified his mystique as a western lawman.[23]

Morgan Earp had been a police officer in Montana, but had no known experience with gunfighting prior to their arrival in Tombstone. While Wyatt was Pima County Deputy Sheriff on July 27, 1880, Morgan Earp took over his job as shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo. Morgan also occasionally assisted Virgil and at the time of the gunfight was a special deputy policeman and drawing pay.[36]

Doc Holliday had a reputation as a gunman and had reportedly been in nine shootouts during his life, although it has only been verified that he killed three men.[37] One well-documented episode occurred on July 19, 1879, when Holliday and his business partner, former deputy marshal John Joshua Webb, were seated in their saloon in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Former U.S. Army scout Mike Gordon got into a loud argument with one of the saloon girls whom he wanted to take with him. Gordon stormed from the saloon and began firing his revolver into the building. Before Gordon could get off his second shot, Holliday killed him. Holliday was tried for the murder but acquitted, mostly based on the testimony of Webb.[38][39]

Holliday had saved Wyatt Earp's life at one time and had become a close friend. He had been living in Prescott, Arizona Territory and making a living as a gambler since late 1879. There, he first met future Tombstone sheriff Johnny Behan, a sometime gambler and saloon owner. In late September 1880, Holliday followed the Earps to Tombstone.[40]

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