How the Shootout at the OK Corral Worked


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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert, joined today by Sarah Dowdey. How are you, Sarah?

Sarah Dowdey: I'm good, Katie. I'm excited about this gun fight.

Katie Lambert: Thank you to the listener who sent us in the request. John in South Saint Paul, Minnesota, said that he could not wait to hear all about the gunfight at the OK Corral, so we're going to do a little myth busting, and go through the shootout.

Sarah Dowdey: So our story takes place in Tombstone, Arizona, which was a boomtown in the 1880s. Probably if it wasn't for this gunfight, it would be a ghost town today, but in 1879, a prospector finds silver. He's warned by a passing soldier that, "The only thing you're going to find in those hills is your own tombstone."

Katie Lambert: Bum, bum, bum.

Sarah Dowdey: He showed him, didn't he?

Katie Lambert: The town grew from 100 people to 7,000 people in two years because of all the silver mining. It was quite the place.

Sarah Dowdey: It was rough and lawless town.

Katie Lambert: Oh, yes. Horse wrestlers, bandits! They had a big red-light district, lots of saloons and bars.

Sarah Dowdey: There are two key parties in Tombstone in 1880/1881: the Earps and the cowboys.

Katie Lambert: You've probably heard of the Earps because of Wyatt Earp, but it wasn't just him. He had some brothers. Wyatt worked as security at a saloon. James was a card dealer and a bartender, and his brothers Virgil and Morgan guarded stage coaches. Virgil was also a deputy U.S. Marshall why Wyatt was a deputy sheriff?

Sarah Dowdey: The cowboys, on the other hand, were pretty lawless, not the heroes of movies that we think of.

Katie Lambert: No, they were hell raisers.

Sarah Dowdey: Yes. We've got Ike Clanton and Billy Clanton who are especially notorious, and we have Tom and Frank McLaury, two sets of brothers.

Katie Lambert: Who liked hanging out with horse wrestlers? So the trouble starts in the summer of 1880 when Virgil Earp goes to his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, and says there were men who stole six mules from an army outpost, so they go out on the lookout and find the horses at the McLaury ranch, and the brands have been changed, so they no longer look like they belong to the army. Frank McLaury is having none of it and tells him, "You're just a deputy U.S. marshal. Get off my property. This is not your concern."

Sarah Dowdey: They're not accepting the Earp's legal positions.

Katie Lambert: No. So a little bit of trouble starts there!

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, and trouble's brewing on another front with Wyatt Earp going up against Johnny Behan - who is kind of a cowboy type more than the law-abiding type - over a woman, Josephine Marcus, and over the sheriff position.

Katie Lambert: Right, and Josephine first picked Johnny, but she ended up married to Wyatt for about 50 years. That wasn't until later. But both men wanted to be appointed sheriff of the state because that how it worked. Wyatt ended up dropping out of the race because he could tell the governor was leaning much more toward Johnny. Johnny told him that he would give her a lesser appointment, so the thought, "Okay. I'll drop out." That didn't work out.

Katie Lambert: Oh yes. In March of 1881, the Tombstone-Benson stagecoach was held up, and $26,000.00 was stolen, and the driver and passenger are both killed.

Sarah Dowdey: Virgil Earp ends up leading a posse to hunt down the people who robbed it, and he brings in his brothers, of course, Wyatt and Morgan, along with Doc Holliday, who I'm sure everyone has heard of him. I didn't know this, but he used to be a dentist.

Katie Lambert: He somehow related to Margaret Mitchell, which I found out when I was touring the house.

Sarah Dowdey: Both from Georgia.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdey: Anyway, Doc Holliday is in Virgil Earp's posse. Sheriff Behan also leads a posse. The Earp group finds a guy who confesses to this stagecoach holdup, though, and they turn him over to the sheriff. He ends up escaping. There's some question as to whether his jail cell was even locked.

Katie Lambert: Like did Behan just let him escape?

Sarah Dowdey: Wyatt, obviously, no fan of Behan, suspects that he might have been in on it. And he won't pay them.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, they don't get their reward.

Sarah Dowdey: So they're pretty pissed off at this point.

Katie Lambert: According to the story, Wyatt Earp makes a deal with Ike Clanton of the infamous Clantons that we mentioned earlier. He says that if Ike will give him information about who did the robbery, then Wyatt will make sure that he gets the reward from Wells Fargo, which is a $6,000.00 reward.

Sarah Dowdey: These are two guys who would want to have no professional association with each other. Neither would want their name linked to the other. One is the semi-law-abiding man. The other is the cowboy. So this deal is very under the table.

Katie Lambert: Wyatt thought that way he could make the arrest, and he would look good, unlike Johnny Behan, and Clanton just wanted the money and/or to set up a trap for Wyatt. That part's still unsure.

Sarah Dowdey: Unfortunately, the actual robbers of the stagecoach are killed in a gun fight in New Mexico, so the deal isn't even worth anything.

Katie Lambert: It's not even valid. There's no point. So in October of 1881, Ike Clanton and Doc Holliday - which remember are on opposite sides of this particular conflict - are both at the Alhambra Saloon. Historians don't know whether Clanton planned this meeting because he wanted reassurance that Wyatt wasn't going to turn him in, or if Wyatt set it up to scare Ike into behaving, because Doc Holliday was not the kind of man you wanted to mess with.

Sarah Dowdey: No. Either way, the meeting does not go well, and the two start trading insults. They end up both getting kicked out by security, interestingly enough, Morgan Earp. The confrontation carries on through the night though, even though they're no longer in the saloon.

Katie Lambert: Right, and Ike ends up in an all-night poker game in another saloon with Johnny Behan and Virgil Earp and Tom McLaury. That's quite the motley crew because they're all on opposite sides, and it just keep goings - the trading of insults.

Sarah Dowdey: And death threats even.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: Ike is saying some pretty nasty stuff about the Earps.

Katie Lambert: All around town. The next morning, he's still talking about Doc Holliday and the Earps, and they find out, and they're not pleased.

Sarah Dowdey: No. They actually end up arresting him for illegally carrying a firearm in public.

Katie Lambert: Which seems like kind of a low blow because they were all doing that, and they just wanted a pretense.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, definitely.

Katie Lambert: Wyatt Earp joins into the party to call him a damn dirty cow thief.

Sarah Dowdey: Though the whole thing is escalating out of control. Wyatt runs into Tom McLaury, one of the other cowboys, when he's leaving the courtroom, and whacks him over the head with his gun, so the lawmen are not doing their part to turn the fire down on this fight that's brewing.

Katie Lambert: News is traveling fast, so Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury hear about everything that's going on, and they decide they're having none of it, and they buy a bunch of bullets and set up a meeting in a vacant lot on Freemont Street, which isn't actually at the OK Corral, to discuss their plans.

Sarah Dowdey: When Sheriff Behan finds out their plans, this is not going to end well, so he heads off to Freemont Street to meet them and tries to get Frank McLaury's gun. Frank won't let the sheriff disarm him until the Earps are disarmed, which - I don't know.

Katie Lambert: It's a hot-headed response.

Sarah Dowdey: Yearly. It's not really very acceptable. But Ike is patted down. He doesn't have a weapon. Tom says he's unarmed. Billy's like, "I'm heading out of town," and the sheriff doesn't even bother to check him. At this point, the Earps and Doc Holliday are on their way.

Katie Lambert: The sheriff tells them not to go, or they'll be killed. He also tells them he's disarmed the men, which makes no sense.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is really weird because he didn't?

Katie Lambert: And it's two totally contradictory statements. So this is where it all begins. There are two versions of events that were given at the trial.

Sarah Dowdey: So Katie and I are going to have a showdown here.

Katie Lambert: I will be playing the party of Wyatt Earp.

Sarah Dowdey: And I will be Ike Clanton.

Katie Lambert: So Wyatt Earps says that the McLaurys and the Clantons are still upset about these stolen mules, and they've been making threats for months. He makes this deal with Ike Clanton over stagecoach killings, which we mentioned. On October 26th, Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton got into that fight, and they were separated by the Earps. Then he says that Ike continued to threaten him throughout the night. The next morning, all the Earp brothers hear that he's still threatening him, so they arrest him and bring him to court! Tom McLaury starts threatening them, so he hits them on the head and walks away. So he says this was a provoked attack. He meets up with his brothers and Doc Holliday and hears that the McLaurys and Clantons are armed, and they've gone to the OK Corral. At this point, the brothers are thinking about arming themselves, but Virgil asks for help disarming them, so instead, he's trying to paint their intentions as...

Sarah Dowdey: Good, law-abiding citizens.

Katie Lambert: Right. With purely innocent intentions, and let's disarm these dangerous, violent men. So they walk in that direction and the sheriff walks up to the Earps and says, "Hey, the me

n have been disarmed. There's no danger here." When they see the men in the lot, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton have visible guns. Being Wyatt Earp, I am a bit alarmed, and I decide to get ready to take out mine. Virgil asks the men to surrender and throw up their hands. He says, "I have come to disarm you." But Billy and Frank go for their guns. So I, as Wyatt Earp, draw and fire at Frank, but the first shots are my shot and Billy Clanton's shot, so we're both at the same time. I didn't provoke them. They didn't provoke me. We both shot at each other. After several shots, Ike Clanton runs up, grabs my arm, I push him off, and I never fire at him because, again, I've been told he's unarmed. I'm just acting in self-defense here. This is not my fault. I thought that Tom McLaury was armed - we all did - even though he wasn't, and Doc Holliday killed him. So maybe Doc shouldn't have done that, but again, I was acting in self-defense.

Sarah Dowdey: Just how it went down, right?

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: Well, as Ike Clanton, I have a dif version of events. For one thing, back at the saloon, Doc Holliday started all the trouble. It wasn't me provoking him. It was all on Doc. Morgan Earp, instead of being this neutral party who throws both of us out, he joins in to curse me out and threatens me. The next day, the Earps arrest me - Ike Clanton - take me to court on false charges of threatening a gun fight, and Morgan and Virgil continue to taunt me and threaten me. Later, I see the Earps and Holliday coming down the street with Behan meeting them telling them not to go down there. I'm with all my brothers and my cowboys by now.When the Earps and Holliday come up, they pull out their guns. Virgil Earp curses us and says, "You've been looking for a fight, and you can have it." Those are fighting words, aren't they?

Katie Lambert: They are.

Sarah Dowdey: And the Earps order us to throw up our hands. Billy Clanton does. I do. Tom McLaury throws open his coat and says he's disarmed. Then the shooting starts. We have our hands up in the air, all defenseless, and the Earps and Holliday are shooting at us.

Katie Lambert: Pure victim.

Sarah Dowdey: Doc Holliday fires the first shot at Tom McLaury. Morgan shoots at Billy Clanton while he's holding up his hands. Wyatt Earp shoots at me. Then I grab him and push him and finally escape to Fly's photo gallery with flies whizzing around my head. Billy Clanton is shooting a little bit as he lies on the ground.

Katie Lambert: So when all is said and done, this gunfight has lasted only 30 seconds. At the end, Frank McLaury is dead. Tom McLaury is dead. Billy Clanton is dying, and Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp are all wounded.

Sarah Dowdey: Sheriff Behan tries to arrest Wyatt and Doc. Wyatt says no. He thought the guys were unarmed - because the sheriff had told him, after all. The citizens on the scenes stood with Wyatt.

Katie Lambert: The newspapers have a field day with this. Hundreds of people show up to the funerals, and thousands come to watch the procession - which in a city of 7,000 is saying a lot. Doc Holliday was generally thought of as a hot-head, and people thought he shouldn't be involved in upholding the law, period, so why was he even there?

Sarah Dowdey: By October 29th, Ike Clanton filed first-degree murder charges.

Katie Lambert: So we have a preliminary hearing with the justice of the peace, Wells Spicer, and it should've been a short little thing. A preliminary hearing is just a prelude to a real trial, but it ended up lasting longer than a month because the Earps thought he might be sympathetic to them, more sympathetic than a random jury would be.

Sarah Dowdey: This trial is crazy, just all these different testimonies, all the different feuds going on. It makes everything really suspect.

Katie Lambert: So we'll just give some highlights. Basically, the prosecution was trying to prove that their men had been shot before they ever even had a chance to give up their guns.

Sarah Dowdey: While they had their hands in the air. Probably the most important testimony for the prosecution was Sheriff Behan who said that he asked for Frank McLaury's gun repeatedly, but he was interrupted by the arrival of the Earps.

Katie Lambert: As far as the defense goes, they took a trickier tack. Wyatt got to give a narrative instead of being examined and cross-examined, a little quirk of Arizona law. So he went up there and gave his testimony and said he was acting in self-defense as a man of the law.Virgil was actually examined while he was in bed recovering, because he was still wounded. He said he tried to calm down Ike the night before. The morning of the shootout, a bunch of people told him that Ike and the crew were after him and wanted to kill him and his brothers. He also said that they would've left the Clantons and McLaurys alone if they had stayed in the corral.

Sarah Dowdey: So we have all these different witnesses giving different accounts, but in the end, Judge Spicer rules that there would be no criminal trial. He said the Earps were profoundly unwise about the way they went about disarming the cowboys, but nothing criminal happened.

Katie Lambert: He also mentioned that the Clantons and McLaurys should have given up their guns because an officer of the law asked them.

Sarah Dowdey: Exactly.

Katie Lambert: They don't like this verdict, the Clantons and McLaurys. Then takes place what is called "the cowboy revenge." The first is an assassination attempt on a stagecoach of a mayor who had been sympathetic to the Earps, and he jumps out and manages to escape his own demise.

Sarah Dowdey: This is the Wild West, folks.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: The second thing is Virgil is ambushed when he's walking home from a saloon. One of the men who ambush him was Ike because his hat was found on the scenes. That's an important tip. Don't leave your hat at an assassination attempt. Virgil isn't killed, but his arm is shot so full of buckshot that it's left practically immobile.

Katie Lambert: Morgan is shot through a window during a game of pool and dies. His last words are, "I have played my last game of pool."

Sarah Dowdey: That's pretty deep.

Katie Lambert: Which I think were some good last words. In response to this, Wyatt Earp starts his famous vendetta ride.

Sarah Dowdey: He kills Frank Stilwell, who was a suspect in Morgan's murder. He kills Indian Charlie and Curly Brocius, another suspect.

Katie Lambert: And after you've just gone and killed three people who were never arrested or anything in any way, there were a bunch of warrants out for Wyatt Earp's arrest, so he runs off to New Mexico, and then to Colorado, with Doc Holliday. Arizona wanted him extradited, but the state of Colorado refused this request.

Sarah Dowdey: Wyatt goes on to live a nice long life, doesn't he?

Katie Lambert: He does. He married Miss Josephine from earlier.

Sarah Dowdey: He has a varied career. He referees heavyweight boxing matches. He mines for gold, sells real-estate, raised race horses, ran saloons. He even appeared on the sets of early Hollywood westerns.

Katie Lambert: Which is fitting considering there have been so many movies and TV shows about him, although many of them seem to portray him in a much more golden light than perhaps we have.

Sarah Dowdey: Maybe they just read his testimony.

Katie Lambert: And not so much yours, Clanton. I'm sorry. If you'd like to learn more about U.S. marshals and the Wild West and check out our blog on the site's home page, go to www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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