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This Gunfight’s More Than O.K.

The 125th anniversary of the so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral might not be cause for celebration, except in Tombstone and maybe Contention, but we can commemorate the heck out of it. You don’t have to be a Western history buff to remember the Alamo or recall Custer’s Last Stand, and the October 26, 1881, gunfight—even if it actually took place in a cozy vacant lot rather than a pretty good corral—ranks No. 3 in Old West name recognition. The casualties were much lighter (3 dead, 3 wounded) than in the first two events, of course, but the confrontation near the O.K. Corral had only eight participants. All three of these 19th-century showdowns—Texans vs. Mexican soldiers, Plains Indians vs. cavalrymen and Cowboys vs. lawmen—have something else in common: controversy. Who did what to whom? Who were the heroes? Who was at fault? Who could have changed the outcomes? Such questions still rattle the old walls in San Antonio, echo through the hills of the Little Bighorn Valley and roll like tumbleweeds down the dusty streets of Tombstone, Arizona.

Yes, the Wild West had deadlier gunfights than the one that pitted three Earps (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan) and a Holliday (Doc) against two Clantons (Ike and Billy) and two McLaurys (Frank and Tom). The saloon slaughter in Newton, Kan., in August 1871; the James-Younger raid on Northfield, Minn., in September 1876; and the September 1893 shootout between lawmen and the Doolin Gang in Ingalls, Oklahoma Territory, come quickly to mind. Nevertheless, other gun battles in the Old West are inevitably compared to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as are many modern battles, whether they involve bullets (gang fights on city streets and deadly close-range encounters in war zones) or just fighting words (political showdowns in council chambers). Many books and movies (see “Reviews” in this issue) have dealt with the Tombstone tussle and its participants, but the 30-second affair has more than just publicity on its side. It has an impressive prelude featuring robberies, killings and Ike’s big mouth and a stimulating aftermath featuring a coroner’s inquest, a hearing, killings and more killings. It also has Wyatt and Doc.

The 1881 Tombstone street fight helped make that duo famous, but only in the late 1950s did the fight become a household word—thanks to the fact that the now-famous Wyatt and Doc had been involved in it and that a 1957 flick had secured the catchy “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” label. What happened in Tombstone 125 years ago continues to fascinate people worldwide, and in this issue of Wild West, readers are offered three feature articles that address a trio of intriguing questions. Did Ike Clanton’s behavior before the fight help trigger the showdown? Did Tom McLaury have a weapon during the fight? Did the presence of Doc in the fight make Virgil Earp and his brothers look bad? Readers will undoubtedly come up with different “right” answers to these questions. But that is par for the course when it comes to a gunfight that has been called both “terrible” and “terrific” but rarely simply “O.K.”


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here