Wyatt Earp – stolid, courageous lawman defeating the bad guys in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Or, Wyatt Earp – every bit as criminal as those he killed and furthermore, guilty of shooting unarmed men.
Who was the real Wyatt Earp? And why do we still remember the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral – which some believe only lasted thirty seconds and was more a judicial execution than a ‘gunfight’.
Wyatt Earp. Dependable. Honourable. Trustworthy. One of the last genuine heroes of the Wild West. That’s what Hollywood led audiences to believe for decades in the 20th century. Or was he a charlatan who operated on both sides of the law as the situation demanded?
Let’s uncover the true identity of Wyatt Earp. And just how important to the history of the Wild West was the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral – immortalised in the cinema Westerns?
The 19th century version of Wyatt Earp – before the myth
In 1896, Wyatt Earp was all over the newspapers. Not as a Wild West law enforcer – but as a boxing referee. He made a controversial decision in a high-profile fight between two household-name champions – Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey. Even before the fight, there were rumours Earp was going to throw the fight to Sharkey. Despite that, Earp was kept in place as referee although police ordered him to remove his gun, which he was still wearing as he entered the ring!
Sharkey was beyond doubt the better fighter and floored Fitzsimmons who then grasped at his groin inferring that he had been brought down by a low blow. The crowd wasn’t buying it. But Earp was. He immediately disqualified Sharkey and declared Fitzsimmons the winner. To say the press and the public went mad would be an understatement. And furious journalists in 1896 began a gleeful process of character assassination against Earp. (Cartoon below mocks Earp’s decision – then article continues).
The journalists looked back at Earp’s chequered career as a lawman in the Wild West. They focussed on his time in an Arizona mining settlement called Tombstone. One of the last true frontier towns of the Wild West. The population was polarised between northerners and southerners, former Union soldiers and Confederates, Republicans and Democrats, miners and cowboys.
The Earp family hailed from Illinois and three of his brothers fought in the Union army. After the American Civil War, Wyatt Earp drifted around the west from California to Arizona trying to find a role in life. He learned plenty about how to win a gunfight, boxing, and gambling. After a brief stint as a Constable, Earp was unable to resist the lure of brothels and saloons. Possibly the death of his wife from typhoid fever sent him on a self-destructive trajectory where he found himself increasingly on the wrong side of the law.
And then it was back to being a lawman again in Dodge City. But Dodge was losing its edginess and Wyatt Earp was getting bored. So when his older brother Virgil suggested a move to Tombstone, Arizona – Wyatt was there in a shot. He took a close friend, Doc Holliday, and a companion, Mary Katherine Cummings, better known as Big Nose Kate.
Wyatt Earp and the lead up to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
The Earps (James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Warren) went to Tombstone hoping to make a quick buck out of the silver mines. But when that failed to be sufficiently lucrative, they set themselves up as the town’s law enforcers. Virgil became the town marshal in 1880. But it certainly wasn’t profitable enough. So, the Earps had their fingers in other tills. Essentially, the brothers operated like most family-based gangs in the Wild West.
Tombstone was located in Cochise County. It was divided between Republican voting, business minded, Union supporting citizens who had often hailed form the north, like the Earps. They read the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper. Opposed to them were were cowboys who resented any kind of regulation or political control, had supported the Confederacy in the Civil War, and read the Tombstone Nugget.
While the Earps and Doc Holliday were in the former camp, a group known as the “cowboys” opposed them. They consisted of brothers Ike and Billy Clanton and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury. Newman “Old Man” Clanton (1816-1881) was the patriarch of the clan and represented everything the Earps detested. Ex-Confederate, slave owning up until the Civil War, southerner, and cattle rustler.
He would be shot dead two months before his sons took on the Earps at the O.K. Corral. The Old Man and his sons had been stealing cattle on both sides of the American-Mexican border. This had involved killing Mexican nationals in both countries. While sitting at a camp fire on August 13, 1881, the Old Man was gunned down by a posse sent from Mexico.
The sheriff of Cochise county was a Democrat, Johnny Behan, who relied on the support of the cowboys so turned a blind eye to their nefarious activities. In January 1881, Wyatt Earp ran against him for sheriff but Behan convinced his opponent to step down with a promise he would appoint Wyatt deputy if he withdrew. After the election, he promptly reneged on the promise.
The Earps bristled with indignant rage.
The issue that would prove fatal for the Clantons and McLaurys was what we call “open carry” today – the perceived right to bear arms in public. To the Earps, the only people allowed to carry guns down the street were law enforcement (themselves). The cowboys, on the other hand, were all about open carry. Regrettably for them, they decided to be very strident about this.
Open Carry and the O.K. Corral
Things came to a head during an all-night poker game at a saloon on October 25, 1881. Ike Clanton was heavily armed and massively drunk. He got into an altercation with Doc Holliday, a murderous medic with a long history of violence who was a friend of Wyatt Earp. The whole cast were present. The Earps, the cowboys, and Behan. And nobody was having a pleasant evening.
The Earps believed they were the law in Tombstone and the Clantons needed to disarm. The Cowboys, Clantons and McLaurys, regarded the Earps as criminals with a thin veneer of respectability. They had to be put in their place.
As morning broke, Ike Clanton staggered around town waving a Winchester rifle and announcing that he intended to kill Doc Holliday and the Earps. Morgan and Virgil Earp got wind of what was going on and started “buffaloing” (pistol whipping) Ike. Wyatt visited a similar punishment on an equally belligerent Tom McLaury some hours later. Fuming and badly hungover, the Clantons and McLaurys made their way to the Old Kindersley Corral – better known subsequently as the O.K. Corral.
The Earps, in another saloon by now, made their way over to the O.K. Corral. This was their famous walk of destiny. Striding with purpose to have it out with the cowboys. Sheriff Behan tried to convince the Clantons and McLaurys to put down their guns but everybody was now way too hyped up. Wild West machismo had taken over.
The mistake the cowboys made was to reposition themselves from the corral to an adjacent lot. They were now, strictly speaking, in a public space. And therefore shouldn’t be carrying arms. Virgil Earp ordered them to disarm. The cowboys more than likely told Virgil where to go with some colourful language. According to the pro-Earp version of the story, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols. The rival pro-cowboy version has them putting their hands up and surrendering.
What nobody disputes is that the next thirty seconds saw the air filled with gun smoke. As it cleared, the lifeless bodies of Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers lay lifeless on the ground. Doc Holliday, Virgil and Morgan Earp were injured. Wyatt Earp was unscathed.
In less than a minute, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral had happened. In the Hollywood westerns, this was depicted in one film after another as the triumph of good over evil. Wyatt Earp had brought justice to the Wild West. But Ike Clanton, supported by Sheriff Behan, didn’t see matters like that at the time. What Hollywood doesn’t tell you is that murder charges were then pressed against Wyatt leading to his arrest and brief incarceration in a prison cell.
A subsequent investigation exonerated the Earps and Doc Holliday. Tombstone’s establishment and the wider authorities wanted to see and end to the freewheeling, cattle rustling ways of the cowboys. It was time to bring the curtain down on the Wild West. Which is ironic given that Wyatt Earp is portrayed as a quintessential, libertarian hero of…the Wild West.
In fact, he was the sworn enemy of the lawbreaking, anti-authority cowboy.
There was a grim and vengeful aftermath to the gunfight. Virgil Earp was ambushed and severely wounded in December that year. Morgan Earp was killed in March 1882. Cowboys involved in both attacks got off the charges so Wyatt took matters into his own hands and killed one of the suspects: Frank Stilwell. Unbelievably, Stilwell – who had faced murder charges in 1877 – had previously been a deputy assistant sheriff to Johnny Behan.
The Earps left – or rather fled – Tombstone as Behan was clearly determined to destroy them with cowboy support. Behan was eventually arrested for graft and lost re-election as sheriff. He ended up as a prison governor.
1930 to 1950s – Wyatt Earp as Wild West hero
Towards the end of his life, Earp contributed to a glowing biography – Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal – written by Stuart Nathaniel Lake (1889-1964) and published two years after his death. It transformed Wyatt Earp into a legend of the Wild West.
By the time Wyatt Earp died on January 13, 1929, the Wild West could only be experienced at the movies. In the year he passed away, cinematic cowboys were heard on screen for the first time as the ‘talkies’ replaced silent movies. Now, the audience could listen to the drawl of a gunslinger, the whooping of a Sioux warrior on horseback, and the crackle of rifle fire.
The storylines brought to life by actors playing cowboys like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and James Stewart were crafted by people like Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill – who had experienced the last years of the Wild West. They glamorised the hell out of it, but audiences didn’t care. Bored American urban dwellers wanted to be transported to a fantasy world of frontier life and heroism on the plains.
1960s – Wyatt Earp as Wild West villain
For decades, everybody swallowed Wyatt Earp’s version of events.
But in the questioning climate of the 1960s, it was time to take a fresh look at Wyatt Earp. Books like The Earp Brothers of Tombstone by Frank Waters and Wyatt Earp 1848 to 1880: The Untold Story by Ed Bartholomew ripped into the Wild West lawman’s reputation.
In the 1970s, Earp disappeared from the movies though his shadow looms over seemingly unrelated movies like Dirty Harry with the ever attractive notion of the enforcer who operates on the edge of the law.
In 1995, a descendant of the Clantons, the cowboys that fought the Earps – Terry “Ike” Clanton – declared he’d had enough of the Earp version of events being accepted as gospel truth. That year, he organised the second annual “Notorious Clanton Gang OK Corral Reunion”.
His argument was that Earp, a supposed American hero, had murdered unarmed men at the corral. There was no gunfight. There was an execution. The Earp brothers had taken the law into their own hands as they always did. Skirting between legality and illegality.
However, try as some have to bring Wyatt Earp down, his legend (or myth) endures. In recent years, actors Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell have thrilled movie theatres with their portrayals. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral even featured in the original series of Star Trek.