On this date in 1881, Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, and Virgil Earp took on the Clanton-McLaury gang at the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, immortalized in many movies, arguably the best of which are Frontier Marshal (1939), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Tombstone (1993), and Wyatt Earp (1994).
Frankie Lane sang the title song for the 1957 movie:
Tombstone had become one of the richest mining towns in the Southwest after silver was discovered nearby in 1877.
Despite its name, the gunfight did not take place in or near the O.K. Corral but in a narrow lot on the side of C. S. Fly’s Photographic Studio, six doors west of the O.K. Corral’s rear entrance.
It was the result of a long-simmering feud between Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and town Marshal Virgil Earp, Assistant Town Marshal Morgan Earp, and temporary deputy marshals Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were killed. Ike Clanton claimed he was unarmed and ran from the fight, along with Billy Claiborne. Virgil, Morgan, and Doc Holliday were wounded, but Wyatt Earp was unharmed.
The Earps represented law and order in Tombstone but they also had reputations as being power-hungry and ruthless. The Clantons and McLaurys were cowboys who lived on a ranch outside of town and worked on the side as cattle rustlers, thieves, and murderers.
The gunfight lasted all of 30 seconds and is regarded by some as the most famous shootout in the history of the wild, wild west. It’s still debated who fired the first shot but most reports say that the shootout began when Virgil Earp shot Billy Clanton point-blank in the chest while Doc Holliday fired a shotgun blast at Tom McLaury.
The gunfight was not the end of the conflict. On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was ambushed and maimed in a murder attempt by the outlaw cowboys. On March 18, 1882, cowboys fired from a dark alley through the glass door of a saloon and shot Morgan Earp, killing him. The suspects in both incidents had alibis supplied by fellow cowboys, resulting in no indictments.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall has come to represent a period in American Old West when the frontier was pretty much an open range for outlaws, largely unopposed by law enforcement spread thin over vast territories.
The gunfight did not get widespread coverage until 1931, two years after Wyatt Earp died, when author Stuart Lake published a biography about him, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. The book captured the American imagination during the Great Depression and was the basis for the 1946 film, “My Darling Clementine,” by director John Ford. The shootout became known as the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” in 1957 with the release of the movie that year by that name.
I remember watching “The Life & Legend of Wyatt Earp” on television in the ’60s. The series originally ran from 1955 to 1961. Here’s the theme song:
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Photographic Art by Russel Ray Photos at Fine Art America