From The Vault
OK Corral: When Legend Becomes Fact
by Josh Flores
"I did not intend that any of the band should get the drop on me if I could help it." Wyatt Earp after the OK Corral gunfight.
"Still there is hope, for I know of two Bibles in town." Judge Wells Spicer on Tombstone
There are certain movements in American history that continue to attract interest years after the initial event. Of course, the attraction shifts from the actual experience to a romantic quest to recapture what has come and gone and will never be again. Still, however, the events remain compelling, inspiring new interpretations that in turn lead to new generations of historians. For Americans, the move west of the Mississippi River holds this allure. Indeed, the word "West" became more than a geographical direction-it became synonymous with adventure and danger. Above all, to those who crossed the prairies in the nineteenth century, heading west meant a chance for prosperity and success.
Not surprisingly, like their fellow citizens, historians continue to be drawn to this area of study but the craft of history seeks to go beyond popular romance or Hollywood heroics. In assessing the historical base for the westward migration, a number of factors are intrinsically important. Obviously, the political and economical actions of the federal government that encouraged the country to expand are vital to understanding how the American West was established. Moreover, the land hunger of the ordinary citizen provided a constant spur, as it did at Jamestown and Plymouth. Even the religious certitude of American missionary drive and the assumption of the late nineteenth century white man's burden proved substantial forces. But beyond such national policies, there is something more, something almost magnetic about the personalities who went west and who helped create the myth of the West. These included cowboys, lawmen, gunfighters, cattle barons, as well as the wives, mothers, teachers, and "soiled doves." They did not reflect a particular segment of society. They shared a common search. They sought the most precious gift life has to offer: individual freedom.
In the American West many legends grew large from the smallest seed of truth. The OK Corral, Wyatt Earp, his two brothers Virgil and Morgan, Doc Holliday, and the town of Tombstone are prime examples. Each became a legend, indebted first to the dime novelist, who flourished at the turn of the century and who embellished the actions of the participants in the decades directly following the incident, secondly to modern novelists like Thomas Berger and Larry McMurtry who created new fictional images, and thirdly to filmmakers who used the OK Corral as the premise for numerous television and motion pictures.
The Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred on October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona, originally a silver mine camp that had grown to a population of five thousand. The gunfight was brief, lasting approximately thirty seconds. The brevity of the battle and its subsequent stature in American lore are evidence that, when conflicting facts are left unchallenged, legends grow. In fact, the gunfight did not occur at the OK Corral, but in front of a boarding house one street over. When the battle was finished, three men were dead and two were on their way to immortality.
This incident should be considered the mid point of a feud between the participants, because there was trouble before and after the battle. When the Earp brothers arrived in Tombstone they found a newly formed township. Rather quickly the Earp brothers established themselves through mining claims, through involvement in gambling houses, and through their work in law enforcement. With such high profile success, however, came enemies. The territory of Arizona was a haven for free spirits and the Earps threatened to curtail the lawlessness. Doc Holliday's presence further complicated matters because he took up any cause which involved his friend Wyatt Earp. In fact, Holliday also may have been the deadliest of all those involved.
The most outspoken of the Earp critics were the Clanton and McLaury brothers, who had managed to become quite successful by dealing legitimately in cattle in the area for several years before Tombstone's inception, although they were not averse to occasional cattle rustling. Much of their business was conducted with the U.S. government, who purchased beef for Apache reservations. Now, the town of Tombstone represented another market for their product. One of the consequences of the growth of a frontier town, however, is that there is a demand for some semblance of order. For men given to the lifestyle that a lawless society allowed, this encroachment by civilization was of dubious value. The Clantons and McLaurys resented the restrictions that Tombstone's development imposed. Their animosity combined with the Earps' involvement in law enforcement made these two groups natural adversaries. There were several incidents, arrests, rumors of wrongdoing, and threats of harm leading up to the gun battle. Sides formed and a confrontation became inevitable.
When the McLaurys and Clantons refused to abide by the new city ordinance banning guns within the city limits of Tombstone the situation reached a fevered pitch. The Earps, along with Doc Holliday, proceeded to disarm the cowboys. There were eight gunmen involved in the incident. Ike Clanton, the most boisterous of the group, refused to fight and fled the scene. When the altercation was over, Tom and Frank McLaury along with Billy Clanton were dead. Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded in the leg and shoulder respectively. Doc Holliday suffered a crease wound on his hip. Wyatt Earp was untouched.
Of course, Hollywood did not fail to see the potential in the story of the Earps and Doc Holliday. In 1956, Paramount Pictures released Gunfight at the OK Corral, starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. This film remained the most popular version of the story, until the early nineties when two new interpretations arrived.
Gunfight at the OK Corral, while entertaining, is not accurate. For instance, Wyatt and Doc are shown to be distrustful friends at best. This is not true as evidenced by Bat Masterson, another mythical figure of the west, who said, "Holliday's heart and soul were wrapped up in Wyatt Earp." Masterson, himself a famous lawman, first met Wyatt Earp when both men were hunting buffalo on the great plains. Wyatt and Masterson became friends and naturally that friendship extended to Doc Holliday. Masterson, who later became a writer, is in large measure responsible for the legendary stature achieved by Wyatt Earp. Writing for Human Life magazine, Masterson authored a series of articles entitled "Famous Gunfighters of the West." With vivid descriptions of fearless exploits, Masterson portrayed Wyatt as the bravest of all the men he encountered in the West.
As for the battle, there is no historical correctness in Gunfight at the OK Corral, except for the fact that the Earps emerged victorious. In this version, the gunfight occurs in the open with the participants some distance apart. In reality, the altercation occurred between two buildings with the two hostile factions within close proximity to one another.
In addition, Kirk Douglas, in his portrayal of the tubercular Holliday, is much too sound physically. While Douglas presented Holliday as mean-spirited, hard drinking, with little regard for life, he failed to capture the effects of tuberculosis. The disease which ravaged Holliday's body is commonly given credit for the deadly dentist's quick temper and seemingly endless courage. Holliday knew he would die prematurely. Whether from a bullet or tuberculosis was of no consequence.
In the early nineties, one of those great Hollywood coincidences occurred. Two major motion pictures centering around the story of the OK Corral were released within a year of one another. Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, is the more entertaining of the two films. Kilmer's performance as the fabled dentist is unforgettable. Tombstone focuses solely on events after the Earps and Holliday arrived in Arizona. Historical accuracy in Tombstone is sometimes lacking. For example, the manner in which the Earps arrived in Tombstone is misrepresented. The movie shows
Wyatt and his brothers, Morgan and Virgil, meeting in Tucson before making their way to Tombstone. In reality, the Earp group left Dodge City, Kansas traveling by wagon en route to Prescott, Arizona. It was from here that the group decided to push on to Tombstone. Wyatt is also portrayed as being vehemently opposed to any further involvement in law enforcement upon his arrival in Arizona, but historical records indicate that he was employed as a peace officer soon after settling in Tombstone.
The second film, Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner, attempts to tell the story of the famous lawman from his youth in the midwest to his triumphs and failures in the west. In this respect, Wyatt Earp is not centered entirely on the OK Corral. Yet, the gunfight at the OK Corral is Earp's defining moment in history, and it is obviously covered extensively. In this adaptation, Dennis Quaid portrays Holliday. Quaid, who lost forty pounds for the role, certainly captures the emaciated appearance of someone suffering from severe tuberculosis.
In these two most recent movies a great deal of attention is given to the days and months following the gunfight. Wyatt and Doc were arrested on charges of murder. After a month of hearings, Judge Wells Spicer ruled that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had acted with justification. This trial is dealt with in Wyatt Earp, but not Tombstone, nor in the earlier movie with Lancaster and Douglas.
Following the verdict, allies of the Clantons and McLaurys sought revenge. Virgil Earp was crippled when he was wounded in the left arm with a blast from a shotgun. Several months later, Morgan Earp was shot and killed while playing pool. The two recent movies deal with this aspect of the story. Yet it is at this point, from an historical perspective, that Tombstone becomes too generous with the exploits of Wyatt and Doc. Seeking retribution for the attacks on his brothers, Wyatt and Doc form a group which tracks and kills all allies of the Clantons and McLaurys. It makes for great cinema, but it is inaccurate. It is true that Wyatt, Doc and friends did pursue their enemies, but only four are known to have been killed. Moreover, as a consequence, soon there was a group of lawmen on the trail of Earp and Holliday, forcing the vengeful pair out of the Arizona Territory and into history.
Doc Holliday died in 1887 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, six years after the incident in Arizona. The dentist turned gambler was only thirty-six years of age when he finally succumbed to tuberculosis. In his brief lifetime, the transplanted southerner attained the kind of notoriety that made people fear him while he was alive and speak of him with reverence and awe after his death. Adding to the myth of Holliday is the fact that a definitive work on the dentist gunfighter is yet to be released. Instead, an enormous amount of speculating, even false material has been accepted as truth through years of repetition. A recent book, Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, by Karen Tanner Holliday, a relative of Doc Holliday's, attempts to tell the story objectively. The author claims the use of previously withheld family documents to shed light on her mysterious cousin.
Wyatt Earp lived to be eighty years of age, dying in Los Angeles in 1929. He had lived a controversial life, one that saw him worshipped and ridiculed. In later years, he was firmly entrenched as a legend of the rough and tumble Old West. Earp had grown weary of the attention given his days in Tombstone, if only because too often those reporting were inaccurate. He is accurately described by Casey Tefertiller in Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend, as "mostly a gambler, saloon man, and wanderer, always chasing a new opportunity. He was not a man of esteemed character or dedication to a noble cause. He was not a better man than those around him; he was a braver one."
Today the city of Tombstone is a tourist attraction. Located in Cochise County, approximately an hour southeast from Tucson, the city became a registered historic landmark in 1962. For a few dollars, a visitor can stroll through the OK Corral, Fly's Photo gallery, and Boot Hill. The attraction this bloody and perhaps unnecessary episode of history retains is impressive. This was evidenced earlier this year when a collector purchased the shotgun reportedly used by Holliday at the OK Corral for two hundred and twenty thousand dollars. On the Internet, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and OK Corral websites abound. One of the sites offers an animated re-enactment of the gunfight. It is quite helpful in understanding the logistics of the battle; however it should be pointed out that no one knows for certain the sequence of shots. There was much confusion in that thirty-second interval in 1881.
In June of 1999, the State Bar of Arizona, at their annual convention held a mock trial to determine whether or not Tom McLaury was murdered or killed in self-defense. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were named as co-defendants. Attorneys used computer-generated animation to re-enact the shootout. While the testimony was taken from court records, the lawyers did not work from a script. Playing the part of Wyatt Earp was Earp's great-grand nephew and namesake, Wyatt S. Earp. The jury was the audience which voted electronically. When the results were in, Wyatt and Doc were once again exonerated as they had been in 1881.
Americans love legends. When facts are presented discrediting that which people long to believe, there is a tendency to disregard the evidence. As a result legends grow and are perpetuated. The Gunfight at the OK Corral and the combatants present in 1881 certainly reflect this verity. Some argue that the fracas in Tombstone was a classic good versus evil confrontation. Hollywood likes to view the conflict in such simplistic terms, but that is simply not the case. Seldom in frontier society were the lines so distinct. Men seeking personal advancement crossed the line between honest and questionable activities with regularity. The Earps were no different. Unfortunately, Hollywood is too often the sole historical source relied upon and much too scant in presenting the diversity and richness of the American West.
There is a line from the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, that is quite applicable to Wyatt, Doc, and the OK Corral. In the scene, Jimmy Stewart has just told a reporter the truth about an event that took place years before. The event, the killing of the outlaw Liberty Valance, had elevated Stewart's character in society, making him a hero to many. The truth, however, was that Stewart's character was not responsible for the death of the notorious outlaw. Upon learning the true facts, the reporter closes his notebook and says, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend." When this happens, although we may entertain ourselves, something is lost.The Police Commission of Tombstone, Arizona, early 19th century.