Mystery and controversy surround the most famous gunfight in the history of the American west. Here are some surprising facts about the people, their actions, and the ensuing events.
One of the most famous (or infamous) gunfights in western American history is the gunfight at the OK Corral. Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday stood against Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Ike Clanton, although the latter, being unarmed, ran from the fight at its outset. Billy, Frank, and Tom were all killed in the battle. Virgil, Morgan, and Doc were all wounded. Popular depictions aside, there remains much mystery and drama surrounding the gunfight. Here are some of the facts about the gunfight that may surprise you.
The gunfight did not actually take place in a corral
The gunfight took place in a vacant lot behind the OK Corral, with some of it spilling out onto Freemont Street in front of the lot.
It lasted less than 30 seconds
Most movie portrayals of the gunfight last several minutes. One of the early adaptations which seemed to set the standard for the later movies is “Gunfight at the OK Corral” starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. It had the gunfight lasting 5 minutes. In actuality, the gunfight lasted about 29 seconds.
The combatants fought at very close range
The movies usually show the shooters firing across expansive corrals and courtyards, as well as in and out of barns and other buildings. In fact, all the participants were no more than a few feet from one another until Frank McLaury went for a horse on the street, trying to pull a rifle from its scabbard.
The “Good Guys” fired first
Although accounts differ among the surviving participants, most eyewitness accounts concur that the first shots were fired by Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday. In their defense, the Clantons and the McLaurys (with the possible exception of Tom McLaury – see below) began pulling weapons instead of throwing up their hands, as ordered by Marshal Virgil Earp.
Tom McLaury may have been unarmed
No weapon was found to have been in Tom’s possession. Wyatt Earp testified that Tom had been carrying a concealed weapon. Indeed, earlier in the day Wyatt had confronted Tom about that very issue. Some believe that sympathizers with the Cowboy gang removed Tom’s weapon from his body prior to the medical examinations in order to implicate the Earps, although this has never been established.
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were arrested for murder
12 days after the gunfight, as a result of charges of murder from Ike Clanton, Wyatt and Doc were arrested and jailed pending a preliminary hearing. Virgil was suspended from his police duties at the same time. At the conclusion of an exhaustive inquest, Judge Spicer ruled that the Earps and Holliday did nothing illegal, and the charges were dismissed. Doc and Wyatt spent 16 days in jail during the hearing.
It didn’t end there
As most western aficionados know, the animosity and bloodshed didn’t end with this gunfight. After the Earps were exonerated, the Cowboy Gang extracted their revenge by ambushing and shooting Virgil Earp (who recovered but lost the use of one arm for the rest of his life) and in a separate incident, Morgan Earp, who died as a result of his wounds. These attacks on his brothers sent Wyatt on what has come to be known as the Earp vendetta ride. Accompanied by Doc Holliday, Warren Earp, and others, Wyatt tracked down and killed some of the men he felt were responsible for killing Morgan and maiming Virgil.
To this day there is still much controversy over the gunfight and ensuing events. During the vendetta ride, Wyatt was a federal Marshall carrying warrants for the arrest of several people. Some of these people were riding in an opposing posse led by Cochise County Sheriff John Behan, who himself was carrying a warrant for Earp’s and Holliday’s arrests. The surviving Clantons still insist that the Earps were guilty of murder for their role in the gunfight, and that the vendetta ride was just a murder spree fueled by vengeance. Others adhere to the belief that the Earps were acting in the best interests of law and order by breaking up the Cowboy gang, who were indeed guilty of cattle rustling and stage robbery.