The Gunfight at the OK Corral

... took place in the town of Tombstone, Arizona, at around 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday 28 October 1881. It was the result of an ongoing feud between the town's law enforcement officers – the Earp brothers (Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan) – and a loosely organized group of outlaws known as the Cowboys.

Wyatt Earp is often said to have been Marshal of Tombstone at the time of the shootout. But it was actually his elder brother, Virgil, that was the Town Marshal. Wyatt was known as a Special Policeman – often described as Deputy Marshal – as were their younger brother Morgan, and the fourth figure involved on the side of the law, the dentist John Henry 'Doc' Holliday. It was the vendetta that followed the shootout (more of which later) that made Wyatt the most famous of the Earp brothers.

The gunfight lasted about 30 seconds, in which time about 30 shots were fired. Three of the Cowboys – Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, Tom and Frank – were killed; a fourth, Billy Clanton's brother Ike, claimed later that he was unarmed and ran from the fight along with a fifth, Billy Claiborne. Virgil, Morgan, and Doc Holliday were wounded, but Wyatt Earp was unharmed. Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday, but the lawmen were eventually exonerated by a grand jury.

Two months after the gunfight (on 28 December 1881), Virgil Earp was ambushed from behind and permanently maimed. Three months later, in March 1882, Morgan Earp was killed by a shot through a glass door while he was playing billiards. Virgil then fled to California, and died in 1905, aged 62.

The suspects in both of these incidents furnished alibis supplied by other Cowboys, and were not indicted. Wyatt Earp, newly appointed as Deputy US Marshal in Cochise County (which included Tombstone), then took matters into his own hands in what can only be described as a personal vendetta. He was pursued by county sheriff Johnny Behan, who had received a warrant from Tucson for Wyatt's shooting of his former deputy Frank Stilwell, two days after the assassination of Morgan Earp – in which Stilwell was a suspect. Wyatt Earp's posse was said to have murdered three other outlaws (Curly Bill, 'Indian' Charlie Cruz, and Johnny Barnes).

The posse left Arizona in April 1882, heading east into New Mexico and then Colorado. In July 1882, Wyatt Earp moved to San Francisco to live with his common law wife, Josephine 'Sadie' Marcus; he died in 1929, aged 80.

The shootout has come to represent a period of the American Old West when the frontier was virtually an open range for outlaws, largely unopposed by law enforcement officers who were spread thinly over vast territories. It, and the vendetta that followed, received extensive press coverage, but it was not well–known to the world at large – even in America – until 1931, two years after the death of the last surviving Earp brother, when Stuart Lake published the biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. The book was the basis for the 1946 film My Darling Clementine, directed by John Ford, and for the 1957 film Gunfight at the OK Corral, after which the shootout became known by that name.

The title chosen for the 1957 film was, however, a misnomer. The gunfight actually took place six doors away from the rear entrance to the OK Corral, in a narrow lot by the side of a photographic studio.

© Haydn Thompson 2017