All-night card games were hardly unusual at the Occidental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. But the game that broke up at 7 o’clock on the morning of October 26, 1881, was one the players would never forget — nor would America, because four of the five participants had roles later that day in the most celebrated shootout in the history of the American West.
While the fifth man’s name has been lost to history, the others around the table that night were Virgil Earp, Tombstone’s chief of police (often referred to as city marshal); Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, believed to be an ally to the Cowboys, a group of rustlers; Ike Clanton, a rancher and rustler with a chip on his shoulder; and Ike’s Cowboy friend, Tom McLaury. One of those four would be unable to prevent the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, another would be wounded in the fight, a third would die in the fight and the fourth would unceremoniously run from the fight.
As the poker game wore on in the early morning hours of the 26th and his losses mounted, Clanton became irritated and obsessed about earlier run-ins with Doc Holliday and Virgil’s brother Wyatt Earp. When the game finally broke up and Ike found out that the chief of police had kept a six-shooter in his lap the whole game, he hit the ceiling. Clanton seemed to take it as a sign that Virgil was plotting to murder him in a conspiracy with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Ike demanded that Virgil take a message to Holliday, insisting that ‘the damn son of a bitch has got to fight.’ Virgil refused and cautioned the hothead ‘not to raise any more disturbances.’ Ike didn’t appreciate the brush-off and warned Virgil, ‘You may have to fight before you know it.’ Since arriving in town with Tom McLaury the previous morning, Clanton had already threatened Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Now he had added Virgil Earp to his list.
A MAN WITH AN ATTITUDE
Acrimony between the Clantons and the Earps had been building for more than a year. Virgil Earp had risen to chief of police and it was not much of a secret in town that Wyatt was planning to run for Cochise County sheriff. The Earps had become a threat to the Clanton rustling operation.
In August, the Clanton gang lost its lender when Mexicans — possibly army irregulars, retaliating for the gang’s repeated rustling forays south of the border — killed Ike’s father, Newman Haynes ‘Old Man’ Clanton, in an ambush. It was more than a tragic event for the family; it threatened to end a profitable business for them.
Ike was in a state of panic over a secret deal he had made with Wyatt Earp to rat on friends of his who had robbed the Benson stage near Drew’s Station on March 15, 1881. Wyatt was hoping to crack the case to help get himself elected Cochise County sheriff, and he had promised Ike reward money for setting up his friends. Wells Fargo had offered $1,200 for each of the stage robbers, dead or alive. Ike suspected that the deal was unraveling and that Wyatt had leaked details of the plot to Doc Holliday.
A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN
Holliday was Wyatt Earp’s ally and long-time friend, but he was also close to Bill Leonard, one of the stage robbers that Ike was going to rat on. For all Holliday’s faults, he was loyal to his friends, especially Wyatt Earp. That Wyatt would be involved in pursuing Doc’s old friend, Leonard, would not be a problem for Holliday, as he knew of Wyatt’s ambition to be sheriff. But by his own code of ethics as a Southern gentleman, he would consider it a dishonorable and unacceptable act of betrayal if he knew that Clanton had fingered his own friends. If word of the plot got out, Ike’s life would be in danger.
Not sure whether Wyatt had leaked the deal to anyone, Ike had attempted to flush him out with a direct accusation early in October. Wyatt flatly denied it, but he knew he had a problem with his paranoid co-conspirator, and sent his brother Morgan to Tucson to find Holliday and bring him back to Tombstone. They were there at the Alhambra Saloon when Ike Clanton walked in on the evening of the 25th.
As soon as he arrived in town, Ike had checked his Colt .45 revolver and his Winchester rifle at the West End Corral to comply with local Ordinance No. 9, which required visitors to disarm while they were in town. When he spotted Wyatt and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday at the Alhambra, Ike accused them of betraying him; he was careful to describe the payoff plot as a rumor not a fact, but Doc ignored the nuance. Calling Clanton a ‘damned liar’ and a ‘son of a bitch cowboy,’ he accused him of threatening the Earp brothers. Then he told him to go for his gun. ‘I have no gun,’ said Ike, but Holliday challenged him again. ‘Go to fighting,’ he shouted, ‘if there is any grit in you.’ All the while, as Ike remembered it, Holliday had ‘his hand to his bosom and I suppose on his pistol.’
The conversation turned into a shouting match that spilled out into the street and was overheard by Virgil Earp inside the Occidental next door. When he came outside and threatened to arrest all of them if they didn’t calm down, Ike and Doc went their separate ways. But neither of them went very far.
In the meantime, Wyatt had gone to the Golden Eagle Brewery to check on his faro concession. When he came out, Clanton was waiting for him. Wyatt waved him off, saying he wouldn’t fight Ike because ‘there’s no money in it.’ Ike didn’t take that lying down. ‘I will be ready for you in the morning,’ he countered. And as he followed Wyatt into the Oriental, he repeated the challenge: ‘You must not think I won’t come after you all in the morning.’ Unimpressed, Wyatt turned and left.
Ike wasn’t ready to pack it in for the night, and he wandered over to the Occidental, where he dealt himself into that not-so-friendly poker game. At around dawn he was back on the street again, and near 8 a.m. he stopped at the West End Corral to pick up his guns. The law said he should be leaving town at that point, but Clanton had no intention of doing that. He had talked himself into a big day in Tombstone and, as he said later, ‘I had those guns around my person for self-defense.’ Showing his real intent, he added that he was ‘expecting to meet Doc Holliday on the street.’
PUSH COMES TO SHOVE
Not long after picking up his guns, Ike ran into Ned Boyle, a bartender from the Oriental and friend of the Earps, and told him he was not going to bed. ‘As soon as those damned Earps make their appearance on the street today, the ball will open,’ Clanton boasted. ‘We are here to make a fight. We are looking for the sons-of-bitches.’ Not able to calm Ike down, Boyle roused Wyatt from his bed and delivered Ike’s threatening message. Wyatt had heard such talk before and was in no rush, but eventually he strolled down to the Oriental.
At about 9 a.m., police officer A.G. (‘Andy’) Bronk of Virgil’s force awakened the chief and warned him: ‘There is likely to be hell! Ike Clanton has threatened to kill Holliday as soon as he gets up….He’s counting you fellows in, too.’ Virgil rolled over and went back to sleep. In the early afternoon, though, Virgil went downtown to see what all the fuss was about.
Sometime around 10 a.m., Ike Clanton was chatting with miner Joe Stump at Julius A. Kelly’s Wine House. Kelly poured the drinks and listened. Ike informed him that he had been unarmed when insulted by the Earp crowd earlier. Now, Clanton said, he was ‘heeled [armed]’ and that ‘we have come to fight on sight.’ Clanton had told others pretty much the same thing that morning, but his ravings had fallen on deaf ears. Kelly took Ike’s big talk more seriously. During the trial that followed the O.K. Corral shootout, he testified that he had ‘cautioned [Ike] against having any trouble’ as he ‘believed the other side would fight if it came to that.’
Clanton’s intoxicated wanderings led him, shortly after noon, into Hafford’s Corner Saloon, a known Earp hangout. After hearing Ike’s tale about how Holliday and the Earps had agreed to meet him at noon, Colonel Roderick Hafford told him that it was already past that hour and that he had better go home. ‘There will be nothing of it,’ the saloon owner added.
At some point, Clanton wandered over to Camillus Fly’s boarding house, where Holliday lived with ‘Big Nose’ Kate. Doc was asleep, and Mollie Fly, the landlord’s wife, warned Kate that the well-armed Ike was skulking around outside. The alarmed Kate woke her common-law husband. Doc responded, ‘If God lets me live long enough to get my clothes on, he shall see me.’
THE CLOUDS GATHER
Just down the street, John Clum, Tombstone’s mayor and owner of the Tombstone Epitaph, got up from his desk and went out for lunch. As he strolled out of his office, he ran into Ike Clanton on the corner of Fourth and Fremont streets. Clum had no idea that trouble was brewing, and not knowing of the irony behind it, he said: ‘Hello, Ike! Any new war?’ Oddly enough, Clanton spared him the tale he had been spreading all over town, and Clum continued a short way before running into Pima County Sheriff Charlie Shibell. As the mayor and sheriff were talking, Virgil and Morgan Earp rounded the corner onto Fourth Street with their guns drawn. They were headed toward Clanton, who hadn’t noticed them yet.
By the time he spotted the stalkers it was too late to do anything about it. Virgil grabbed Ike’s rifle from his left hand, and as Clanton reached for the six-gun in his waistband, the chief of police drew his own revolver and slammed it against Ike’s head, forcing him to his knees. Virgil then asked Clanton if he had been hunting for him. Ike said that he had, and bragged that if he had seen the lawman seconds earlier, he would have killed him.
Virgil arrested Ike for carrying guns in violation of Ordinance No. 9 and took him to Judge Albert O. Wallace’s court. The judge was away performing a wedding ceremony, so Virgil went off to find him, leaving the prisoner and the prisoner’s weapons with his brother Morgan. Soon after Virgil left, Wyatt came into the courtroom. Ike coldly informed Wyatt and Morgan, ‘I will get even with all of you for this’ and added that he ‘would make a fight’ if he had a six-shooter. Morgan’s response was quick. ‘If you want to make a fight right bad, I will give you this one,’ he said, and then offered Ike his own six-shooter. Ike jumped up, but Deputy Sheriff Rezin J. Campbell pushed him down into a chair.
Wyatt had had enough of Clanton. ‘You damned dirty cow thief, you have been threatening our lives, and I know it,’ Wyatt told him. ‘I will go anywhere on earth to fight with you, even over to [the town of] San Simon among your crowd!’ Ike didn’t back down, saying, ‘I will see you after I get through here. I only want four feet of ground to fight on.’
As Wyatt was leaving the court, he encountered Tom McLaury, who was checking on his pal Ike. ‘If you want to make a fight, I will make a fight with you anywhere,’ Tom announced. ‘All right, let’s make a fight right here,’ an angry Wyatt quickly replied. Wyatt slapped Tom’s face with his left hand and drew his six-shooter with his right, taunting the Cowboy to ‘jerk your gun and use it!’ When McLaury hesitated, Wyatt hit him on the head with his gun and marched off in the direction of Hafford’s Corner Saloon.
Virgil returned to the courtroom with Justice Wallace, who fined Ike $25 and court costs for carrying weapons in town. Clanton paid his fine but remained defiant. Virgil took Ike’s rifle and six-shooter to the Grand Hotel for his later retrieval.
A short time later, Ike’s brother Billy and Frank McLaury came into Tombstone and heard the rumors of a fight brewing. The two newcomers joined their friend Billy Allen at the Grand Hotel for a drink. Allen had heard about Wyatt’s altercation with Tom. ‘What did he hit Tom for?’ Frank asked. Allen said he didn’t know. Frank decided he would get the boys out of town to avoid further trouble. ‘We won’t drink,’ he said, and he and Billy Clanton walked out, leaving the filled glasses on the bar.
They headed down Allen Street and met up with Billy Claiborne, a young friend of the Clantons, at Dexter’s Livery Stable, where they were joined by Ike. Plans to get out of town were put on hold. As the Cowboys neared Spangenberg’s Gun Shop, they passed Wyatt Earp, who was standing outside Hafford’s smoking a cigar. Seeing Ike and the others heading for the gun shop made Wyatt curious. Frank’s horse seemed to be curious about what was going on in the gun shop, too. It had stepped onto the boardwalk and had its nose poked into the door. Wyatt came up from behind the animal to trade places. As Wyatt was placing his hand on the bit, Frank and Tom (who by now had joined his brother) came to the door, with Billy Clanton right behind with his hand on his six-shooter. ‘You’ll have to get this horse off the sidewalk,’ Wyatt told them, as though he wasn’t concerned about anything else. The Cowboys were changing cartridges into their belts. That was no crime, and George Spangenberg, according to Ike’s later account, wouldn’t sell him a gun. Still, this Cowboy visit to the gun shop had Wyatt concerned.
Ike Clanton, still unarmed, beat a path from the gun shop to Doling’s Saloon to have another drink. He passed Virgil Earp on the way, but this time he had nothing to say to the town’s No. 1 law enforcer. Virgil was soon engaged in conversation with a vacationing railroad man, H.F. Sills, who reported that he had just seen four or five armed men at the O.K. Corral. One of them, according to Sills, had threatened to kill Virgil Earp and the others had responded that that they ‘would kill the whole party of Earps.’
At about 2:30 p.m., Sheriff Behan tried to disarm the Cowboy band, telling Frank McLaury, ‘I want you to give up your arms.’ Frank refused the order. ‘As long as the people of Tombstone act so, I will not give up my arms,’ he said. As a compromise, Behan offered to take him and the other Cowboys to the safety of his office. He and Frank went to the lot next door to Fly’s boarding house, where Ike, Billy, Tom and the others were waiting. Behan assumed they would all come with him to his office, but it was too late.
Virgil Earp had come to a decision — he must disarm the Cowboys. Along with his brothers Wyatt and Morgan and Doc Holliday, he was already on his way to a date with destiny. At the front door of Bauer’s meat market on Fremont Street, someone saw the Earp party and called out, ‘There they come!’ Shortly thereafter, the frantic Behan left the Clanton gang and went out to meet them. ‘For God’s sake don’t go down there or they will murder you,’ he shouted. But Virgil’s mind was made up. ‘I am going down to disarm them, Johnny,’ he said. Behan countered that he already had done so. In response to this news, Virgil moved his cane (which Holliday had given him earlier) from his left hand to his shooting hand and Wyatt put his six-shooter into his coat pocket, but the four men didn’t slow down. Behan watched them go.
Soon Ike Clanton had a full view of the forces arrayed against him — a walking nightmare that, more than anything else, had been born in response to his own relentless threats of the past day. Ike had squandered every opportunity for disengagement. The only chance of heading off violence now rested with the armed Cowboys — Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton and Tom McLaury — though to this day some contend that Tom was unarmed.
As the Earps and Holliday drew close to the lot, they could see that at least some of the Cowboys had weapons. ‘Throw up your hands,’ ordered Virgil Earp. ‘I’ve come to disarm you.’ Frank McLaury reached for his six-shooter. Wyatt and Billy Clanton went for their own revolvers. Holliday pulled a 10-gauge shotgun from underneath his coat. Virgil raised his cane, still trying in vain to halt the proceedings. After the first few shots, Ike Clanton ran up and grabbed Wyatt Earp’s left arm. ‘I could see no weapon in his hand, and thought at the time he had none,’ Wyatt said later, ‘and so I said to him, ‘The fight has commenced. Go to fighting or get away.”
It might have been the only time that day that Ike Clanton took an honest look at the situation and made a wise decision. He knew he didn’t have a chance, so he ran for his life — first into Fly’s, past Allen Street and onto Toughnut Street — leaving his two friends and younger brother to face a hail of bullets.
Frank and Tom McLaury died after the 30-second fusillade ended. Billy Clanton lingered in agony for a while, but even after the danger had passed, Ike was not there to say goodbye to his brother. He was still hiding more than a block away and was later taken into custody. In his later testimony, the man who had done more than anyone else to instigate the fight near the O.K. Corral said, ‘I did not return at all to the scene of the firing, only I passed by there eight or ten days after it was done.’
That Ike Clanton ran from the showdown leaves a clear record of his nature. In the inquest that followed, Ike would argue that the fight had all been a plot to kill him. Judge Spicer noted at the close of the hearing that Ike would have been the easiest to kill as he ran toward Wyatt unarmed. That Wyatt did not shoot him also leaves us a clear record of Wyatt’s nature.
This article was written by John Rose and originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Wild West magazine. John Rose is a researcher/writer from Sierra Vista, Ariz., and a consulting editor to Wild West Magazine. For further reading, see: Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller; and The Clantons of Tombstone, by Ben T. Traywick.
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