What Really Happened at the OK Corral? (Part II)

In my previous post, “What Really Happened at the OK Corral? (Part I)”, I discussed the sequence of pertinent events, such as the murders of the hired gunmen of the Benson stagecoach, the failed plan of Wyatt Earp to capture the murderers and the drunken public outbursts and threats made by Ike Clanton, that helped lead to the final showdown between the Earps, Doc Holliday and the Clantons and McLaurys.  We resume where Ike Clanton is leaving the Recorder’s Office.

Just Before the Gunfight

After Ike Clanton was taken to the judge by the Earp brothers and fined the $25, plus the $2.50 court fee, he left the Recorder’s Office, and bumped into Billy Claibourne. Billy, 21 years old, considered himself the “Arizona Billy the Kid”.  Ike and Billy headed down Fourth Street, then they separated, as Ike went into Spangenberg’s, a gun and ammunition shop.  Ike tried to buy a pistol, but George Spangenberg wouldn’t sell him one, after hearing about Ike’s defiant outbursts and run-ins with the Earps.  Frank McClaury, who was leading his horse down Fourth Street, along with Billy Clanton, met up with Billy Claiborne.  They saw Ike in Spangenberg’s store and the three of them headed that way. Frank tethered his horse outside the store, a little too close to the building, and they all went inside.

Wyatt Earp was watching all of this, as he smoked a cigar outside of Hafford’s Saloon.  After the cowboys went into the store, Frank’s horse stepped up on the sidewalk and stuck its’ head inside the door of the store.  Wyatt decided to step in…he went over to Frank McLaury’s horse and grabbed the reins and began pulling Frank’s horse back onto the street.  Frank and the Clanton brothers came out and Frank yanked the reins away from Wyatt.  Wyatt told Frank, “You will have to get this horse off the sidewalk.”  Frank tied his horse up a little further down Fourth Street, and went back into Spangenberg’s without muttering a word. 

During this time, Virgil Earp was making his way down Allen Street, and townspeople were stopping him and warning him about the cowboys’ activities.  Virgil stopped by the Wells Fargo office and borrowed a shotgun, as he knew too well it would be a way to intimidate anybody on the other end of it.  After being tipped off about the cowboys being at Spangenberg’s and Wyatt being there alone with them, Virgil hurried down to the gun shop and caught up with Wyatt, who was back in front of Hafford’s Saloon.  They watched the cowboys leave the gun store.  The cowboys first went to Dexter’s Livery and Feed Stable to pick up Billy Clanton’s horse.  From there, they would go pick up Tom and Ike’s team and wagon from the West End Corral, which would take them through the back of the O.K. Corral.

Cochise Co. Sheriff Johnny Benham heard there was trouble between the Earps and the Clantons, and decided to go look for Virgil Earp, in case he needed assistance.  With Pima Co. Sheriff Charlie Shibell in tow, they went searching for Virgil, who they found in front of Hafford’s Saloon, who was now accompanied by Doc Holliday.  Sheriff Benham asked Virgil, “What’s the excitement all about?”  Virgil replied, “…there were sons of bitches in town looking for a fight.”  Sheriff Benham suggested having a drink inside Hafford’s to Virgil, which Virgil did.  Inside the saloon, according to Virgil, he asked Sheriff Benham to go down and disarm the cowboys.  According to Sheriff Benham, he told Virgil to go down and take their guns from them.  Obviously, their testimonies differed, but there was no one else to corroborate either man’s story.

William B. Murray, a leader of the Citizens Safety Committee, came in to Hafford’s and pulled Virgil aside, offering 25 armed men to help subdue the cowboys.  Virgil told him he wanted to wait to see what the cowboys were planning to do.  If they stayed in the O.K. Corral, he said it didn’t matter if they were armed.  If the cowboys decided to come out onto the public streets, then he would disarm them.

The cowboys paused inside the O.K. Corral, making threats against Virgil and his brothers, the loudest, most violent comments coming from Ike.  A bystander, H.F. Sills, couldn’t help but overhear the threats made against the Earps, and went to find Virgil to tell him.  After asking around, he found Virgil and told him what he had witnessed.  After speaking with Sills, Virgil insisted that Sheriff Benham go disarm the cowboys.  Sheriff Benham then changed his mind and decided it would be a feather in his cap to disarm them.

Sheriff Benham made his way down to the corral to disarm the Clantons, McClaurys and Billy Claiborne, ready to make a better name for himself while he did so.  Unfortunately for the Sheriff, when he got to the corral, the cowboys were no longer there.

The Earps waited at Hafford’s, wondering if Sheriff Benham would ultimately succeed in disarming the cowboys.  The pressure was on for Virgil Earp, since he was the town’s police chief, but he resisted in taking action at that point, hoping Sheriff Benham would defuse the matter.  Wyatt and Morgan were more ready for a fight.

The cowboys had left the O.K. Corral, heading north, making their way down the alley to Fremont Street, near the Union Meat and Poultry Market.  Billy Clanton and Frank McClaury were leading their horses, both horses were saddled and had rifles hanging in their saddle scabbards.  They stopped at the market and the McClaurys began talking with James Kehoe, the butcher.  Ike, Billy, Tom McClaury and Billy Claiborne went a little further west on Fremont, while Frank continued to talk with Kehoe.  The four other cowboys headed a little further west, stopping in an 18 ft. wide empty lot, on the south side of Fremont Street, between C.S. Fly’s Boardinghouse and a residence owned by William Harwood.

Sheriff Benham finally caught up with Frank McClaury, who, holding the reins of his horse, was still talking to the butcher, James Kehoe.  The Sheriff told Frank he wanted his gun, and then added, he was going to disarm everyone involved.  Frank told him he wouldn’t give up his gun “as long as the people in Tombstone acted so.” – (in other words, as long as the Earps were armed, he was going to be armed).  The Sheriff offered to take Frank, along with the other cowboys, to the Sheriff’s Office and disarm them there.  Frank told Sheriff Benham, “You need not take me, I will go.”  Sheriff Benham then noticed Ike Clanton and Tom McClaury loitering in the vacant lot beyond C.S. Fly’s Boardinghouse, looking westerly down Fremont Street.  The Sheriff did not see Billy Clanton or Billy Claiborne, as they were probably too far inside the lot to be seen.

Around 2:30 p.m., the Earps were still waiting at Hafford’s to see if Sheriff Benham had accomplished disarming the cowboys.  John L. Fonck, furniture dealer, came into Hafford’s and approached Virgil with the same type of offer that William Murray had offered earlier, supplying men to help subdue the cowboys.  Now it appeared he had no choice.  Virgil could not wait any longer. With the Safety Committee breathing down his neck and the townspeople expecting some type of action, he knew what had to be done.  Apprehension still weighed on him, because his two policemen were off duty, and he did not want to face the Clantons and McLaurys alone.  His best course of action, with Wyatt and Morgan right there, was to ask them to come help him disarm the cowboys.  Doc Holliday was there as well, so Doc invited himself along.

Virgil asked Doc to stand guard along Fremont Street in case there were any other cowboys around.  He then gave Doc the Wells Fargo shotgun, in exchange for Doc’s walking cane.  He told Doc to conceal the shotgun under his long coat until they reached Fremont Street, so as not to alarm any citizens who may be watching.  Doc was also carrying a pistol in a holster under his coat.  Virgil had Doc’s cane in his left hand and his right hand was on the butt of his pistol that was under the waistband of his pants.  Morgan and Wyatt had their pistols in hand.  Virgil then said to them, “Come along.”  The three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday left Hafford’s, walking north on Fourth Street towards Fremont Street.

As Sheriff Benham walked into the empty lot with Frank McLaury, he was taken aback by the presence of Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne.  Sheriff Benham asked if they were all together, and Billy Claiborne said he wasn’t with the rest of them.  Sheriff Benham then explained that he would take them, minus Billy Claiborne, down to the Sheriff’s Office to disarm them.  Ike said he was unarmed, and Sheriff Benham frisked him and found no guns.  Tom pulled open his coat and said the same as Ike.  Sheriff Benham doubted Tom, because Tom could have had a pistol under his untucked shirt or tucked in the back, but the Sheriff didn’t have time to deal with it, so he took Tom at his word.  Just as Sheriff Benham was ready to lead them away, Frank hesitated and said he would only surrender his guns, “after the party that hit [my] brother” was disarmed.  Now Sheriff Benham was in a fix…he told them, according to witness William Cuddy, “I won’t have any fighting.  You must give up your firearms or leave town immediately.”  One of the cowboys replied, “They will have no trouble with us, Sheriff Benham.  We are going to leave town right now.”  Just then, someone on Fremont Street shouted, “Here they come!”

Virgil Earp

The pressure on Virgil Earp must have been immense.  He had the everyday responsibilities as Police Chief of Tombstone, the comings and goings of the cowboys, the Safety Committee constantly tugging on his coat tails, the townspeople of Tombstone to worry about, the Mayor and the County Sheriff to deal with, and on top of all of that, his brothers trying to make their mark, with Wyatt leading the way.  As the Earps and Doc Holliday made their way down Fremont Street towards the Clantons and McLaurys, all of this probably weighed heavily on Virgil, but he had a duty to the citizens of Tombstone as a sworn lawman, and it was he that would be the keeper of the peace.  Unfortunately, the outcome he wanted was not to be.

Finding the Truth

At the end of this series of posts, I will give my final thoughts to these events and what I believe really happened.  For the most part, I know that there are still gaps in the entire story that led up to the gunfight and the aftermath that followed.  In reading the newspaper articles of the day, it’s easy to see how and why people got the real story of the O.K. Corral misconstrued.  Newspapers relied on public opinion, gossip and hearsay, rather than on cold hard facts, which made victims out of the cowboys and murderers out of the Earps.  One newspaper article I read from 1919, looking back at the events of October 26, 1881, called the Earps, “desparados”…really?!  Finding the truth in the events that surrounded your ancestors can reveal the actions that they may have taken, whether it was to look for better opportunities elsewhere, fighting for what they believed in or in leaving their homeland across oceans to begin a new life in a new land. Always look for and find the truth, if you can…or even part of it.  Knowing the truth will help you understand your ancestors better.

Sources:

  • The book, “The Last Gunfight”, written by Jeff Guinn
  • Court testimony during the trial of the Earps (murder charges filed by Ike Clanton)
  • Letters written by Earp family members
  • Interviews with eye witnesses and eye witness accounts
  • Material from other noted Earp authors
  • Material from biographer Stuart Lake

Special thanks to all our Earp relatives out there, and especially to my great-uncle Bill Earp, who started me on the trail of the Earps.

Also, special acknowledgement to my wife, whose constant love and support is vital to my existence and my writing

Brian S. Miller

One thought on “What Really Happened at the OK Corral? (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Toledo’s Day in the Sun | Your Ancestors Demystified

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