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The two factions in Tombstone on October 26, 1881, likely wanted to engage in little more than a war of words but quickly became reluctant warriors in the gunfight of the century.

Historians have advanced various explanations as to the why of the misnamed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which was, properly speaking, a bloodletting on Fremont Street and an adjoining lot in Tombstone, Ari- zona Territory, on October 26, 1881. Given the succeeding decades of mass-media treatments— Wyatt Earp biographies by authors ranging from Stuart Lake (1931) to Casey Tefertiller (1997), movies from My Darling Clementine to Tombstone, and the hit television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955–61), starring Hugh O’Brian as the iconic lawman—it would be understandable, even obligatory, to view the Fremont Street gunfight as the climax to a grand morality play, a peculiarly American epitome of the victory of good over evil. In this scenario the posse of lawmen, comprising three Earp brothers and sidekick Doc Holliday, acted as the agents of fate, theirs a destiny to which man must submit, willingly or otherwise. But, however satisfying at a visceral level, this simple dramatization does not fare well when confronted by the complexity of historical facts.

After 30 seconds and nearly as many rounds from six revolvers and a shotgun had expired, it was indisputable that three men, Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury, so-called Cowboys— an epithet for rustlers and stage robbers in southern Arizona Territory—lay dead or dying, their wounds sprinkled with desert dust. Beyond that, there was little agreement among townsfolk about what had happened and hardly more among those who had seen the melee with their own eyes.

Although political rivals, the local newspapers, the Epitaph and the Daily Nugget, realized at once that reports of slaughter on the city streets were bad for business, especially so for a fledgling community dependent upon external capital for its survival. Mining was the salient industry, and without the support of skittish Eastern financiers Tombstone faced a dark future as yet another frontier ghost town, a graveyard of once-splendid hopes.

The October 27 Epitaph, referring to the “proximate cause” of the incident, cast it as the result of a personal quarrel between the Earp and Cowboy factions, and not a threat to public safety or private investment. Likewise, the October 30 Nugget ran its editorial under the headline CAPITAL NEED NOT FEAR, reminding readers: “There were bitter personal feuds existing between individuals on either side. They were all of that class to whom any imputation of not possessing ‘staying’ qualities in a fight is sufficient to provoke one immediately. It was inevitable that a difficulty would sometime occur between some of them. It was on neither side an attack on the person or property of peaceably disposed citizens, nor were there any such causes leading up to it.” Diarist George Parsons, a resident of the community, succinctly concurred: “Desperate men and a desperate encounter….Bad blood… brewing…not surprised.”

Despite the efforts of civic boosters to build a narrative limiting the extent of the confrontation to a small group of “desperate men,” outsiders were quick to assess possible danger to their own interests. On November 6 Tucson’s Arizona Citizen conceded, “The bold, high-handed course of the cowboys, with whom the victims of this shooting affray have been classed…has made that section of our territory unpleasantly notorious.” The San Francisco Exchange, an influential business paper, declared: “The cowboy class are the most despicable beings on the face of the earth. They are a terror to decent people and a disgrace to even frontier civilization….Southeastern Arizona, with its rich mines, varied resources, and increasing civilization and prosperity, should rise up if need be and drive every wretch of them beyond the border.”

Yet as much as contemporary observers spoke with assurance of the causes, none had access to the documents critical to understanding the circumstances surrounding the gunfight, primary among which were the motivations of the participants. Can these motives be ascertained, their meanings deciphered, their morality judged? These questions must be answered, or be deemed unanswerable, before any evaluation of the Wild West’s most famous gunfight can stand. If answers do exist, the search must begin in two remarkable documents—the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers; and the judicial hearing that followed, presided over by Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer, to determine whether to charge the Earps and Holliday with murder. Together these documents preserve thousands of words over scores of pages—more than a month’s worth of testimony, a repository unique in depth and breadth among Western gunfights.

A close reading of these texts fails to support as the motivating force at the moment of the gunfight either the inevitable culmination of a personal feud or a plot to strike a devastating blow to the leadership of the Cowboys and thus cripple the outlaw organization. Rather, a picture emerges of two sides reluctant to do battle in anything more belligerent than a war of words.

Of the Cowboys, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury had clattered into Tombstone aboard a spring wagon late on October 25, the day before the fatal collision. The McLaury brothers dealt in cattle—their own or others’—on a spread in the Sulphur Springs Valley, about 25 miles east of town, and Tom had come to settle accounts with several butchers. His business associate, Ike, seems to have been along for the ride, but it was not long before he quarreled and drank himself into a pickle. Confrontations with the Earps and Doc Holliday that night aggravated Ike’s prickly self-esteem, and sleepless and fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, he took to roaming the streets the next morning and bellowing imprecations and prophesies of doom until Marshal Virgil Earp cold-cocked him with the barrel of a six-shooter and dragged him into Judge Albert O. Wallace’s court on a charge of carrying firearms within the city limits.

A bloodied but still mouthy Clanton paid a $25 dollar fine, boasting as he did that he wanted only “four feet of ground” to fight on. Braggadocio, indeed, since the marshal had stripped him of his weapons, and Ike’s first order of business was to get his cracked head mended. Soon afterward he appeared in public with his slouch hat perched atop a bandaged skull.

Outside the courthouse, apprised of Ike’s troubles, Tom McLaury ran headlong into Wyatt Earp. The two exchanged words, and Tom received the same treatment as had Ike. Wyatt shoved his hand into the smaller man’s face and then brought down his revolver with savage force, knocking McLaury to the ground and slicing open a wound on his left ear. Wyatt then strode off to smoke a cigar, and according to bystanders, when Tom McLaury wobbled to his feet, he was shaken and disoriented. Once he had regained his senses, he went straight to the nearby Capitol Saloon and handed over his six-gun to the bartender for safekeeping, an unmistakable sign he wanted no further trouble. Only hours before the fatal gunfight, two of the four Cowboys were disarmed and suffering the effects of violent assaults. The Earps were seasoned frontier lawmen, and their decisive actions had effectively taken the heart out of Tom and Ike, though perhaps Marshal Virgil Earp, the man in charge, became overconfident in his ability to handle a situation charged with explosive potential.

Keeping a prearranged meeting with their brothers, and unaware of the turn of events, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury cantered up to the Grand Hotel on Allen Street shortly after the episode at Wallace’s court. Both were armed and clearheaded. When Frank McLaury was told what had happened, he walked away from the Grand barroom, saying, “We will not drink,” and went to find Tom and Ike.

Several citizens observed the four Cowboys in conversation at or near Montgomery and Benson’s O.K. Corral, and one, a stranger named H.F. Sills, overheard them make mortal threats against the Earps. Sills sought out Virgil near Hafford’s Corner Saloon, on the corner of Fourth and Allen streets, informing him that he was to be targeted, but the marshal was not concerned enough to move at once against the Cowboys. He knew that two of the four had already been whipped and the most likely troublemaker, Ike, was disarmed. Virgil had received offers from businessmen to assemble a fully equipped squadron should he require one, and he was aware that a secret vigilante group was prepared to stand by him. A posse of his brothers Wyatt and Morgan and the loyal Doc Holliday would be sufficient should arrests be called for.

Virgil was inclined to let the Cowboys have their “blow,” vent their anger with empty boasts, and then leave town, but the populace was having none of that. Newspaper reports and testimony from the judicial hearing make it evident community sentiment would settle for nothing less than a showdown then and there. So when breathless reports circulated that the Cowboys had not saddled up and ridden off but were afoot on the street two blocks away, Virgil yielded to the force of popular will, assembled his brothers and Holliday, and began the block-long walk down Fourth Street to Fremont.

Meanwhile, the McLaurys were intent on finishing up business in town. Tom had made visits to those owing him money and was in possession of nearly $3,000 in cash, checks and certificates of deposit. When Cochise County Sheriff John Behan caught up with Frank McLaury on Fremont at the corner of Fourth, Frank informed him he still had affairs to attend to and would not leave before completing them. Behan asked Frank for his gun, in accordance with a city ordinance that forbade carrying weapons unless a person was entering or leaving town, but Frank “demurred,” refusing to disarm unless the city police likewise put aside their armaments. An unreasonable and foolish response, surely, but susceptible of being interpreted either as that of a man whose brother and associate had suffered beatings that day and did not wish to face his adversaries “naked” or one who was plotting to exact revenge. To this point Frank’s actions had been responsible, showing all he meant to do was that for which he had come to town—to complete some financial transactions, relax in a saloon, have a few drinks, gamble and perhaps dally with a woman, but nothing more sinister. Only moments before Wyatt Earp had challenged Frank and the others as they were gathered in a gun shop. Had they been of a mind to, they could have loosed a fusillade on him then, with the odds greatly in their favor. But they had not.

When Marshal Virgil Earp’s posse caught sight of the Cowboys, the latter were congregated at the edge of a vacant lot between Camillus Fly’s boarding- house and photo gallery and a small house (Harwood House) near the corner of Fremont and Third streets. Sheriff Behan, who had been expostulating with the Cowboys, left them and hurried to intercept the advancing lawmen. Testimony as to what he told Virgil and the others is conflicting, but most likely the sheriff said he had disarmed the Cowboys. This was false. But it caused the posse to momentarily relax its guard.

Before setting off for Fremont Street, Virgil had obtained a shotgun from the Wells Fargo office. Not wishing to cause undue alarm, he handed the short-barreled weapon to Doc Holliday, the only member of the posse wearing a long coat, instructing Holliday to keep the weapon concealed beneath his wrap. In turn, Virgil took Holliday’s cane and put it in his left hand, fingering his revolver in his right. When Behan bustled up to the posse and gave his false report, Virgil was holding his pistol in his right hand.

Wyatt likewise held his six-shooter in his hand, in plain view, while Holliday’s coat had blown open at least once that windy afternoon, revealing the shotgun. According to testimony, when the Earps and Holliday were about 20 paces distant, the Cowboys observed that the posse had weapons in readiness. Ike Clanton was certainly not armed, and the preponderance of evidence suggests that Tom McLaury had no weapon on his person either, though within reach the stock of a Winchester rifle protruded from the scabbard slung over the back of Frank’s horse.

Assured by Behan the men he was to confront were unarmed, Virgil stuck his own six-gun in the waistband of his pants and shoved it around to his left hip. He also shifted the cane he was carrying from his left to his right, or gun, hand, certainly not the act of a man who intended a murderous assault. Wyatt tucked his six-chambered Smith & Wesson in his coat pocket, specially lined with slick leather. Whether he loosened his grip on his sidearm is unknown. The Cowboys had stepped back from Fremont into the small lot, and the two parties of four men formed ranks across from one another, 15 feet or less of space between them. When it became plain Behan had failed to secure Billy and Frank’s revolvers, Virgil did not hesitate but at once addressed the Cowboys, saying: “Boys, throw up your hands. I want your guns.”

At that instant three factors conspired to turn a routine arrest into a legendary bloodbath. Each resulted from a misapprehension on the part of a man with a gun.

A mere 19-year-old, Billy Clanton was jumpy from the moment he learned of the trouble his brother Ike had brought down on his head. Once Billy sniffed the scent of violence in the air, he set out determined to round up his raucous sibling and escort him out of town. But it took time, too much time, to have Ike’s wagon brought around to Fremont. William Cuddy, one of the inquest witnesses, provided insight into Billy’s state of mind. Cuddy innocently strolled by him as Billy waited in the empty lot only moments before the gunfight, and the young man’s hand twitched toward his sidearm. He was so edgy that when the shooting started, his critical first shot would miss its mark.

As Wyatt approached the Cowboys from the head of Fremont, he held his revolver under his coat and out of sight. After Sheriff Behan assured the posse he had disarmed the Cowboys, Wyatt relaxed. He slid his Smith & Wesson from under his coat and slipped it into his pocket, at the same time flashing it before the eyes of Billy and Frank, standing only 20 paces away. Seconds later Wyatt received a shock when he discovered two of the Cowboys had guns in their holsters. This put him on high alert.

Frank McLaury was understandably furious that his brother had been the victim of an assault. Doc Holliday took up a position facing the McLaurys, and as Virgil ordered the Cowboys to surrender their arms, Doc opened his coat and jabbed the barrel of the Wells Fargo shotgun toward the brothers. In doing so, Doc was only enforcing Virgil’s order, for after leveling the shotgun, he took a step back and did not touch it off. But with Billy and Frank’s emotions screwed up to a high pitch, they wrongly interpreted Doc’s intentions. At the same time the shotgun thrust in Frank’s direction seemed to startle him, slowing his defensive reaction, paralyzing for the briefest of instants his trigger finger.

Though often characterized as a firebrand, Holliday did not deliberately instigate the battle—his deference toward the Earps likely being a significant factor in his reticence. Neither he nor Virgil expected a shootout or was inclined to start one. While there is no description of Morgan’s actions at this point, there can be no doubt he was equally as unprepared for what happened next as anyone in the posse, save Wyatt.

Appearing before the Spicer hearing on November 16, 1881, Wyatt Earp testified how Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury reacted to Virgil’s order to surrender their guns: “They…commenced to draw their pistols. When I saw Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury draw their pistols, I drew my pistol….Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me, but I did not aim at him. I knew Frank McLaury had the reputation of being a dangerous man, and I aimed at Frank McLaury. The first two shots were fired by Billy Clanton and myself; he shot at me, and I shot at Frank McLaury. I do not know which shot was fired first; we fired almost together.” Eyewitness testimony given at the coroner’s inquest and Justice Spicer’s hearing corroborated Wyatt’s reconstruction of the events initiating the gunfight.

Wyatt continued with his statement— which he was allowed to read, according to Arizona statute, without interruption from the prosecution—claiming, “I never drew my pistol or made a motion to shoot until after Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols.” Virgil Earp later described his reaction as he gave the command to disarm: “With that Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton drew their six-shooters and commenced to cock them —click, click….At that I said, throwing up both hands, with the cane in my right hand…‘Hold. I don’t want that.’ As I said that, Billy Clanton threw his six-shooter down, full cocked…. Two shots went off right together—Billy Clanton’s was one of them. At that time I changed my cane to my left hand and went to shooting.”

By his own admission, Virgil was taken by surprise. The first shots touched off so quickly, he’d had no time to shift the cane out of his gun hand. By contrast, Wyatt was able to get his pistol out of his coat pocket, cock the hammer and decide upon a target before pulling the trigger at the same instant as Billy Clanton and before Frank McLaury, and do so after those men had drawn their pistols. It is possible Wyatt did not wait for the others to draw but brought out his sidearm as soon as Clanton and McLaury made a pass for their guns. This is not what he or anyone else testified, but whether or not this was the case, what is evident is the extraordinary degree of readiness Wyatt displayed. Not only did his actions make Virgil’s seem as if they were taking place in slow motion, but also he was able to squeeze off a round that tore into Frank McLaury’s stomach, eliminating him as a danger, even before Frank could fire a single shot from his drawn and cocked Colt revolver.

This remarkable accomplishment, the very stuff of legend, may seem inexplicable except in larger-than-life, heroic terms. At a crucial instant, when his own life and those of his brothers and his boon companion depended on him, did Wyatt rise above himself, become more than a mere mortal? Certainly in a figurative sense he did, as his place among American legends proves. However, in concrete terms, recent discoveries in brain science offer at least a partial, plausible and less exalted explanation of his behavior.

In the 1980s Benjamin Libet, a researcher in the physiology department at the University of California, San Francisco, conducted several experiments to measure the unconscious electrical processes that occur in the human brain prior to hand movements. He gave these processes the general name of “readiness potential”—a sign that an intention to act was in progress. The experiments concluded that unconscious brain processes precede conscious decisions to perform actions people ordinarily ascribe to “free will.” EEG (electroencephalograph) recordings showed a buildup of the readiness potential 300 milliseconds (.3 second) before a subject became aware of a conscious decision to act. Follow-up studies combining EEG with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, a refinement of the MRI test common in today’s medicine) have pushed back the horizon for unconscious decision-making from .3 second to as long as 10 seconds before a movement takes place. Significantly, these studies replicated Libet’s, insofar as they involved a decision on the part of the subject to make a hand movement—a situation analogous to that in which a gunfighter found himself.

At several points in Wyatt Earp’s written statement, which he and attorney Tom Fitch crafted with skillful attention to detail, he revealed exceptional vigilance toward the Cowboys, saying, “They intended to assassinate me the first chance they had,” and, “I believed…from the threats I have related… I would have been legally and morally justifiable in shooting any of them on sight.” These thoughts were so strong and active, they became a prominent motif in his recollections.

More than anyone else present on October 26, 1881,Wyatt was primed for a deadly confrontation. As Billy and Frank drew their pistols, Wyatt’s motor cortex, which initiates hand movements, was already responding to signals from areas of the brain that control planning and execution. Unlike his brothers or Doc Holliday, Wyatt was able to whip his gun out of his pocket, literally without a second’s hesitation, because the very act of shooting was in motion at a basic neurological level even before they made a move to draw. Had Billy and Frank not taken aggressive action, there would have been time for Wyatt to check himself, to use an “unconscious veto” over his own aggression once he perceived their intentions were not hostile. But as things fell out, he had no inhibitions about employing deadly force, and in fact so well had he framed the situation prior to any conscious deliberation that he plugged the most dangerous target, Frank McLaury, with a crippling body shot, even though Frank was standing at an oblique angle from him. Removing Frank at the outset doomed the Cowboys. The most infamous gunfight in the history of the West was over before it began.

While one might ascertain the motivations of the Fremont Street gunmen and decipher their meanings with some clarity, moral judgments are more elusive. Any attempt to endorse a single, canonical evaluation must reach an impasse, in light of numerous mixed motives—exemplified by the powerful desire of the Cowboys and the lawmen to be rid of each other, and yet the obvious unpreparedness of both sides to bring their conflict to a head on Fremont that October afternoon in 1881. Unambiguous conclusions in this case present themselves only when morality has so far shaded into legality as to no longer be driven and defined by individual conscience.

Running just beneath the surface of Wyatt Earp’s exculpatory statement was the accepted American doctrine of “no duty to retreat,” which states a citizen has a right to stand his ground and make use of all necessary measures to defend himself and his personal property when confronted by an imminent threat. This tenet received judicial blessing as early as 1806 and is explicitly confirmed in Arizona statutes today: The use of deadly physical force is permissible to the extent it is necessary to prevent murder. In Tombstone the lawmen’s legal defense emphasized that the Cowboys’ actions on Fremont Street embodied the threats they had made against the lives of the Earps and Holliday, placing them in extreme jeopardy. Justice Wells Spicer, in ruling there was not enough evidence to indict the defendants, seemed to reach for moral heights when affirming the lawmen were “fully justified” in committing homicides, yet his reasoning ultimately fell into the legal realm: “The evidence taken before me in this case would not, in my judgment, warrant a conviction of the defendants by a trial jury of any offense whatever.”


Roger Jay writes from Baltimore, often about Wyatt Earp, and is a frequent contributor to Wild West. Suggested for further reading: The O.K. Corral Inquest, edited by Alford E. Turner, and Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.