OK Corral: The Losers

The most famous gunfight in the history of the West took place on October 26, 1881, in a vacant lot behind the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.  Anyone who’s seen the movies/TV series, or read any of the uncounted books knows that the winners were legendary gunman Wyatt Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and their friend, a shady, alcoholic dentist known as Doc Holliday.  But who were the losers?  Did they deserve to die as they did?  Let’s take a closer look.

Ike and Billy Clanton were two of three brothers from a small ranching family.  Ike, the elder, wasn’t the brightest light in the candelabra.  Known as a loudmouth who liked to drink and gamble, he was also a hard worker.  Younger brother Billy was still in his teens.

Tom and Frank McLaury, also small ranchers, were known to be honest and respectable.  They’d made good money selling cattle to the army, but were planning to move away because of the growing Apache problems.  Their only fault, it appears, was being good friends with the Clantons.

A complicated trail of events led up to the gunfight. It started when some stolen government mules were found on the McLaury ranch. Tom and Frank were away at the time and it was later proven that a friend had left them there.  Tom and Frank were never charged but the Earps publicly branded them as thieves.  Other incidents and accusations followed, fueling the bad blood. 

On the night of October 25, Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton rode into Tombstone.  Ike planned to buy supplies for his ranch and find a card game.  Tom was there to settle his accounts prior to moving away.  In the saloon, Ike ran into Doc Holliday, drunk and spoiling for a fight.  Doc began baiting Ike and challenged him to a gunfight.  He was soon joined by Wyatt Earp (photo) and his two brothers.  The slow-witted Ike fought back with the only weapon he had, his mouth.  He shouted that he and his friends would come looking for the Earps and Holliday, and they would have to fight.

Fade to the next day.  After more blustering and baiting, Frank McLaury and young Billy Clanton rode into town, unaware of what had happened.  When Frank was told, he tried to calm things down and get Ike and his brother out of town, but it was too late.  Like a giant clock, fate moved the players toward the final confrontation.  Here’s how the two sides stacked up.

Carrying guns was patently illegal in town.  But Morgan and Virgil Earp were both peace officers.  They’d deputized Wyatt and Doc Holliday, so all were legally armed.  All of them had pistols, and Doc also carried a deadly sawed-off shotgun.

Billy Clanton had a pistol and had been told he could keep it because he and Ike were leaving town.  Frank McLaury also had a pistol, which he was about to turn over to Sheriff John Behan.  Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury were unarmed.

The Earps and Doc walked onto the scene with their guns drawn.  Ike put up his hands and Tom opened his vest, both declaring they weren’t armed.  But the Earps and Doc opened fire.  Frank and Billy fired back in self defense.

When the shooting ended thirty seconds later, Frank McLaury was dead.  Tom and Billy were mortally wounded.  Virgil Earp had been shot in the leg; Morgan had a bad shoulder wound, and Doc was winged.  Ironically, the only member of the “Clanton Gang” to escape unscathed was Ike, who knocked Wyatt Earp off balance and fled.

There’s a lot more to this story.  I’ve cut some wide corners for the sake of brevity.  If you have any corrections or anything to add, I’d welcome your comments.  Did Wyatt Earp deserve all his “fame and glory?”  What do you think?

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I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.

25 thoughts on “OK Corral: The Losers”

  1. I guess I put this gunfight in the category of duels for gentlemen’s honor. The most stupid events ever devised by men.

    But it does remind me that so many gunfights, whether in the west, in a war, even on the streets often start out of a misunderstanding or a misfired gun. I am thinking about the shooting in Buffalo NY this weekend that began as an argument in a bar and left bystanders dead.

    Sigh.

    Love seeing the Horseman’s Bride cover again. Sigh. Now that sigh is for a good reason!

    Peace, Julie

  2. Elizabeth, I think that duel has ended up in more movies than any other. There have been umpteen versions and remakes of the story. And like gossip, things get distorted, events added to and deleted, with each retelling. I think the whole shootout could’ve been avoided if the men had taken the time to get to the truth. But they settled things with their guns instead of their heads. That’s also been the case of lots of other historical events. Senseless deaths resulted. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  3. I recall one movie about the OK Corral where the action goes on for a solid 20 minutes, Linda. The reality was, it was a brief, pathetic and senseless event.
    As you say, like a lot of things, the conflict could’ve been settled if people had used their heads. Some lessons for today here.

  4. That was a great movie, all right, Tanya. Certainly one of the better films about Wyatt Earp.
    Does anybody else out there have a favorite Wyatt, or a favorite OK Corral film?

  5. They say history is written by the vitors. Sometimes it takes careful research and a strong will to get at the truth.

    I thought this was very thought-provoking — I’d never heard the opposite side of the story — and of course there had to be one.

    It’s often said that a manager must get both sides of the story before he acts. It’s the only fair way to deal with things — the other side of the party has their story, also.

    What a great post, Elizabeth.

  6. what?
    well that is a miserable sad story now
    who shoots an un-armed man?
    shame shame shame
    shame
    women would have totally talked the whole thing out…course–we would have talked behind each other’s backs til our graves….
    but we would have avoided a shoot out for sure

    at least there was a pretty picture at the bottom to perk me up 🙂

  7. Double wow – I don’t think I ever heard this version. Totally changes my mind about it but all in all it was still very stupid.

  8. Elizabeth, thank you for posting this. I’ve always known the other side of the story, ever since I started digging around in actual history texts for research purposes too many years ago to mention. Having said that, I’ve always resented the way the Earps have been portrayed in fiction as heroes, especially Wyatt. From everything I’ve read, they were bullies and probably should have been brought to account for a number of shady incidents, rather than raised up as heroes. I’d also like to mention that after the OK Corral shootout, the locals wised up Wyatt had to skip town pretty much in the dead of night. He kept a low profile after that and lived to the ripe old age of 80. It’s sad that the Earp name will continue through the ages as legend when so many brave people who were much more deserving never received any recognition at all. Thanks again!

  9. Loved the post. It’s not the first time that legend has little releationship to the truth. My dad grew up in Bisbee, not far from Tombstone, and his brothers knew the man who was sheriff at the time of the gunfight. He certainly had no use for the Earps and thought them little more than killers.

  10. Thanks, Tracy and catslady (I’m a cat lady, too, have a couple of the darlings). I agree that there was nothing heroic about this stupid fight.

    For anyone who need backup information on this story I’d like to cite my source: “The Losers’ View of the OK Corral,” by Dana Shull, Wild West Magazine, October 1995.

  11. Thanks so much for the extra info, Devon. I had a feeling that somebody out there would know more about this. I agree with you about the Earps. They were bullies who skirted either side of the law when it suited them. Interesting that Wyatt lived to be 80. Wow, didn’t know that.

  12. Elizabeth,

    I loved this post I live in AZ and I love Tombstone. Doc Holiday was my favorite but Wyatt Earp is running close behind

    Thanks for this

    Walk in harmony,
    Melinda

  13. What an amazing connection, Pat! Almost gives me goose bumps to think your uncles knew the sheriff who was a witness to the gunfight. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  14. You live in Arizona, Melinda? That’s great. I love the state and its history, but have never been to Tombstone. Would love to see it but I’m afraid I’ll go with all these expectations and then it’ll turn out to be a tourist trap. Hope that isn’t true because its history is fascinating.

  15. Never paid much attention to the specifics of the OK Corral shoot out. Good guys vs bad guys as usual right? Too bad that is not the way it was.
    The really sad part is the loud mouthed dummy that started the whole thing walked away unhurt. 3 good men died for nothing. I want to know why the sheriff did nothing about charging the Earps and Doc for shooting 2 unarmed men. What a miscarriage of justice by “peace officers.” It sounds like these American folk heroes weren’t much more than thugs with badges.

  16. According to my sources, Patricia, Ike, and his brother Phin, who arrived after the fight, turned themselves over to Sheriff Behan for protective custody until they could safely leave (Behan, who was at the scene of the gunfight, ordered Doc and the Earps not to shoot, but they ignored him). The Earps and Doc served some brief jail time but were exonerated by a local judge and set free. So much for justice.

  17. I guess there’s “history,” and then there’s “Hollywood History.” This really is a sad series of events. Pride and arrogance are a dangerous combination. Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth.

  18. Hollywood seems to care more about entertainment than real history, don’t they, Vicki? It would be interesting to see an accurate depiction of this duel. But would I pay to watch it?
    🙂

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