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?