What really happened at the O.K. Corral

The most famous gunfight of the old West lives on in movies and in our imagination. “Tombstone” separates the truth from the myth. 

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell” by Tom Clavin, St. Martin’s Press, 386 pp.

The Wild West is one of the most influential and enduring myths in American culture. It’s the idea of a place that exists at the edge of civilization, where rugged individuals are free to act outside the bounds of rules and regulations. The myths, however, often don’t fit the facts. Cowboys weren’t always the good guys and gunfighters weren’t always good shots.

Tom Clavin has written two previous books on western history – “Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West” and “Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter.” In “Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell,” he does a yeoman’s job of combining original research with a knack for page-turning narrative that gives readers an exciting tour of the celebrated gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Clavin pulls the curtain back on decades of legend surrounding this fight, the town, and its key players.

In most movies, gunfighters are shown on the town’s main street with a significant distance between them. Clavin bursts this picture by noting that most antagonists stood fairly close to one another as they were not only drunk at the time but poor shots as well. And since the combatants were so close to one another, the gun – often a Colt Single Action Army revolver known as the “Peacemaker” – was sometimes used as a club. 

The famous shootout at the O.K. Corral was typical. Unlike its portrayal in movies, the real gunfight didn’t even happen there but in a vacant lot about 15 feet wide beside a photography studio. The shooters stood about 6 feet apart and exchanged 30 shots in 30 seconds. After the dust cleared, three men were dead – Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. Afterward there was a swell of sympathy in Tombstone for the dead cowboys and the Earps and Doc Holliday were arrested on charges of murder. They spent a modest amount of time behind bars before finally being acquitted.

Wyatt Earp has always been the nexus around which the Tombstone myth was built. But the story of Tombstone begins well before him. This southeast corner of the Arizona territory was first home to Native Americans, who left petroglyphs and pictographs decorating rock slabs to bear witness to their presence. Later, the Chiricahua Apaches used the area as a favorite hunting and gathering locale, and Spanish explorers colonized the region.

Of the many prospectors coming West to seek his fortune, Edward Schieffelin likely never imagined that the town he founded in 1879 would become the setting for later events that would make Tombstone famous. Like itinerant seekers before him, Schieffelin roamed the West looking for that lucky strike. As he was leaving the the Army post in search of minerals, the soldiers told him, “The only stone you’ll ever find out there will be your tombstone,” giving unwitting name to the mining town that sprang up after his discovery of silver ore. 

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