Friday, March 2, 2018

Reader Questions About The OK Corral

Dear Readers,

It seems that a number of you have written to ask me questions about what took place at the gunfight near the OK Corral, specifically about Wyatt Earp's testimony in regards to what took place at the shootout. While I've never said that I'm any sort of "expert" on what took place there, like you, I have questions as well. After all, some things just don't make sense.

So with that, let's talk about some of the questions that you have. Let's see if we can come up with answers that may satisfy both you and me.

Let's start by looking at a few questions regarding Wyatt Earp's testimony regarding the shootout. The Tombstone Epitaph Newspaper reported Wyatt Earp's statement after the shooting near the OK Corral on the day that he testified regarding what he believed took place. That was on November 17th, 1881.

During Wyatt Earp's testimony he stated his age was 32, and that he was born in Monmouth, Illinois. He stated that his profession was that of a saloon keeper. Although he also said that he had also been employed as a deputy sheriff, and also as a detective. In his written statement, he stated some things that get one thinking about his accusations against the "cowboys" and how selective he was when it came to enforcing Tombstone's City Ordinance against carrying firearms.

In his statement, he stated that "the difficulty between deceased and myself originated first when I followed Tom McLowry and Frank McLowry, with Virgil and Morgan Earp and Captain Hearst and four soldiers to look for six government mules which were stolen. A man named Estes told us at Charleston, that we would find the mules at McLowry's ranch, that the McLowrys were branding "D. S." over "U. S." We tracked the mules to McLowry's ranch, where we also found the brand. Afterwards some of those mules were found with the same brand. After we arrived at McLowry's ranch there was a man named Frank Patterson who made some kind of a compromise with Captain Hearst. Captain Hearst came to us boys and told us he had made this compromise and by so doing he would get the mules back. We insisted on following them up. Hearst prevailed upon us to go back to Tombstone, and so we came back. Hearst told us two or three weeks afterwards that they would not give up the mules to him after we left, saying they only wanted to get us away: that they could stand the soldiers off. Captain Hearst cautioned me and Virgil and Morgan to look out for those men; that they had made some threats against our lives. About one month after that, after those mules had been taken, I met Frank and Tom McLowrv in Charleston. They tried to pick a fuss out of me, and told me that if I ever followed them up again as close as I did before that they would kill me."

He then claimed that "Shortly after the time Budd Philpot was killed by those men who tried to rob the Benson stage, as a detective I helped trace the matter up, and I was satisfied that three men, named Billy Leonard, Harry Head and Jim Crane were in that robbery. I know that Leonard, Head and Crane were friends and associates of the Clantons and McLowrys and often stopped at their ranches. It was generally understood among officers, and those who have information about criminals, that Ike Clanton was a sort of chief among the cowboys; that the Clantons and McLowrys were cattle thieves, and generally in the secrets of the stage robbers; and that the Clanton and McLowrvs ranches were the meeting place, and place of shelter for the gang."

Some of you want to know how he could say such things without proof? Some of you want to know why he didn't arrest the Clantons if he had proof of what he stated in court? If he had proof that the Clantons were rustlers and robbed stages, why didn't he or his bother Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp arrest them for that?

One reader asked why was there a concern over the "cowboys" stealing Mexican cattle and bringing them across the border, when it was probably cattle that Mexican rustlers stole from Americans on this side of the border?

As for that, I believe that's the reason that Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp was actually dispatched to Tombstone in the first place. The Mexican government had complained about rustlers crossing the border. The folks in Washington D.C. wanted to put a stop to it. Of course, the Mexican government said nothing about Mexican bandits stealing American cattle -- but what's new about that.

Also some of you want to know why the Earps associated with the "cowboys" socially if they were such a deadly threat to the Earp brothers? As one of you pointed out, Virgil Earp played poker with Ike Clanton on the night before the shootout.

At another point in Wyatt Earp's court statement, he says, "Three or four weeks ago Ike Clanton met me at the Alhambra, and told me that I had told Holliday about this transaction, concerning the capture of Head and Leonard. I told him I never told Holliday anything. I told him when Holliday came up from Tucson I would prove it. Ike Clanton said that Holliday had told him so; when Holliday came I asked him and he said no; I told him that Ike Clanton had said so. On the 25th of October, Holliday met Ike Clanton in the Alhambra saloon and asked him about it. Clanton denied it, and they quarreled for three or four minutes. Holliday told Ike Clanton he was a d-d liar, if he said so. I was sitting eating lunch at the time. They got up and walked out on the street. I got through and walked out, and they were still talking about it. I then went to Holliday, who was pretty tight, and took him away." 

Wyatt Earp did not mention that Doc Holliday was armed and challenged Ike Clanton to a gunfight. When Clanton said that he wasn't armed, it's said that Doc Holliday threatened Clanton by telling him that he better have a gun on the next time he saw him. So then the question becomes, as you've asked, why didn't Wyatt Earp arrest Doc Holliday for carrying a firearm in city limits in violation of the Ordinance No. 9 or for disturbing the peace?

Wyatt Earp stated that he "came back alone and met Ike Clanton. He called me outside and said his gun was on the other side of the street at the hotel. I told him to leave it there. He said he would make a fight with Holliday any time he wanted to. I told him Holliday did not want to fight, but only to satisfy him this talk had not been made. I then went away and went to the Oriental, and in a few minutes Ike Clanton came over with his six shooter on."

As one of you have asked, if that's true then how come Wyatt Earp didn't arrest Clanton at that moment for violating the city ordinance against carrying a firearm in town? If that really did take place, then he could have done it right then and there.

Remember, Wyatt Earp states, "He [Calnton] walked off and left me, saying, 'I will be ready for all of you in the morning.' He followed me into the Oriental, having his six shooter in plain sight."

So why not arrest him then and there instead of waiting until the next day when there's more than one "cowboy" to deal with? Frankly, I agree with my readers who don't understand what Wyatt Earp was doing since he appeared to be playing Doc Holliday against Ike Clanton and vice versa. He even says so in his testimony above. 

As for the next day, Wyatt Earp states that during October 26th, "I walked out and just then outside the court room, near the justice's office, I met Tom McLowry. He came up to me and said to me, 'If you want to make a fight I will make a fight with you anywhere.' I supposed at the time he had heard what had first transpired between Ike Clanton and me. I knew of his having threatened me and I felt just as I did about Ike Clanton, that if the fight had to come, I had better have it come when I had an even show to defend myself, so I said to him all right 'make a fight right here,' and at the same time I slapped him in the face with my left hand, and drew my pistol with my right. He had a pistol in plain sight on his right hip, but made no move to draw it. I said to him, 'Jerk your gun use it.'"

One reader saw that part of Wyatt Earp's statement and wanted to know if lawmen in the Old West provoked people to go for their gun like that? I don't know of any lawman in the Old West who would slap a man and shame him into a gunfight in front of his friends.

As for telling Tom McLaury to "jerk your gun use it"? Since Wyatt Earp said that he already had his pistol in his hand, and I presume pointing at McLaury, I'd say it would have been suicide for Tom McLaury to go for his gun. It's a good thing that Tom McLaury didn't take the bait when he was provoked into drawing his pistol. With a gun already in Wyatt Earp's hand, Tom McLaury would have been killed on the spot. As for arresting him, as Wyatt stated, he already had his gun out -- so all he had to do was disarm Tom McLaury. Why didn't he?

Wyatt Earp goes on to say, "He made no reply and I hit him on the head with my six shooter and walked away down to Hafford's corner. I went into Hafford's and got a cigar, and came out and stood by the door. Pretty soon after I saw Tom McLowry, Frank McLowry and William Clanton. They passed me and went down Fourth street to the gunsmith shop. I followed down to see what they were going to do. When I got there Frank McLowry's horse was standing on the sidewalk with his head in the door of the gun shop. I took the horse by the bit, as I was deputy city marshal, and commenced to back him off the sidewalk. Frank and Tom McLowry and Billy Clanton came to the door, Billy Clanton had his hand on his six shooter."

So let's see if we have this straight. He buffaloed Tom McLaury and let him lay in the street, then went to get a cigar? And of course, as you have the same questions regarding this as I do when it comes to Billy Clanton, why didn't Wyatt just arrest him when he should have for carrying a gun in city limits?

The number one question that you want to know is why didn't Wyatt arrest the "no carry" violators one day but did the next? Your questioning regarding the inconsistencies of Wyatt and the other Earps not arresting violators a day earlier and even hours earlier but yet later is a fine question?

On the night of October 25th, Wyatt Earp could have arrested Doc Holliday for carrying a pistol within city limits but he didn't. Then he could have later arrested Ike Clanton for carrying a pistol within city limits but didn't. Wyatt Earp admits that Tom McLowry (McLaury) had a pistol in plain sight carrying it within city limits but didn't arrest him. And then admits that Billy Clanton had his hand on his six shooter in plain sight, carried within city limits, but didn't arrest him either. I understand where your curiosity comes from. I have the same problems when reading his testimony.

One reader asked the question, "If Virgil or Morgan Earp had seen Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton armed as Wyatt stated that he had at different times, would Virgil or Morgan have arrested them on the spot? Would they have waited and not do anything when the violations took place?" Somehow, I don't believe they would have.

Wyatt Earp stated, "Virgil Earp was then city marshal; Morgan Earp was a special policeman for six weeks, wore a badge and drew pay. I had been sworn in Virgil's place to act for him while Virgil was gone to Tucson on Stillwell and Spence, on the charge of robbing the Bisbee stage trial. Virgil had been back several days, but I was still acting. I know it was Virgil's duty to disarm those men. He suspected he would have trouble in doing so; and I followed up to give assistance if necessary, especially as they had been threatening us, as I have already stated."

So if he were as he stated, "I had been sworn in Virgil's place to act for him ... but I was still acting." Then why not arrest the violators when the violations took place? Why wait until they are all together?

And really, if Wyatt Earp wanted to disarm them, why wait? Why wait until later? And why take Doc Holliday since the Earps knew there was bad blood between him and the Clantons? Since the Earps knew that there was an argument the night before, why have a constantly drunk Holliday there along for the ride when they could have deputized a number of citizens?

As for the rest of what happened, it's well known that Ike Clanton was not armed at the shootout though he was the night before according to Wyatt Earp. And Wyatt Earp stated in court that "Billy Clanton and Frank McLowry commenced to draw their pistols, at the same time Tom McLowry threw his hand to his right hip and jumped behind a horse."

Of course the problem with that is that no pistol or gunbelt was found on Tom McLowry (McLaury). As some of you have pointed out, that in itself raises questions about Wyatt Earp's statement of his seeing Tom McLowry (McLaury) with a pistol on earlier. How does he have it on and then off during the gunfight. 

As for people saying that someone made off with Tom McLowry's (McLaury) gun right after the gunfight? One reader points out that there's never been a witness who came forward to state that they saw so and so do such a thing. Since a lot of details pertaining to the shootout were witnessed, if Tom McLowry's gun and gunbelt were taken as he lay there -- who took it and why wasn't it ever recovered?

There's another thing, a few of you have asked if Wyatt Earp was ever really shot at during the gunfight? One reader wants to know if he was since there is no proof that he was other than his testimony saying that he was. So is there any proof that he was shot at? Frankly, I don't know of any by anyone else but him. 

He states, "I had my pistol in my overcoat pocket where I had put it when Behan told us he had disarmed the other party. When I saw Billy and Frank draw their pistols I drew my pistol. Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me but I did not aim at him. I knew that Frank McLowry had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man, and I aimed at Frank McLowry. The two first shots which were fired were fired by Billy Clanton and myself he shot at me, and I shot at Frank McLowry. I do not know which shot was first; we fired almost together. The fight then became general."

He then states this, "After about four shots were fired Ike Clanton ran up and grabbed my arm. I could see no weapon in his hand and thought at the time he had none, and so I said to him, 'The fight has now commenced go to fighting or get away.' At the same time I pushed him off with my left hand. He started and ran down the side of the building and disappeared between the lodging house and the photograph gallery. My first shot struck Frank McLowry in the belly. He staggered off on the sidewalk but first fired one shot at me. When we told them to throw up their hands Claiborne held up his left hand, and then broke and ran. I never saw him afterwards until later in the afternoon, after the fight. I never drew my pistol or made a motion to shoot until after Billy Clanton and Frank McLowry drew their pistols."

A few of you who have read Wyatt Earp's testimony have asked if Wyatt actually joined in the gunfight after his conversation with Ike Clanton? Some of you have said that you think he didn't fire a shot until well into the gunfight. Some have pointed to his statement above as proof of that. Frankly, there are those who say that Wyatt Earp actually fired the first shot in the gunfight. To me, it does sound like he was interacting with Ike Clanton for a few seconds or more while his brothers and Holliday were shooting it out in the gunfight.

As for your questions pertaining to Tom McLaury's missing gun" Wyatt Earp states in his testimony, "If Tom McLowry was unarmed I did not know it. I believe he was armed and that he fired two shots at our party before Holliday who had the shotgun, fired at and killed him. If he was unarmed there was nothing to the circumstances or in what had been communicated to me, or in his acts or threats, that would have led me even to suspect his being unarmed."

But if that's true, as he said, that Tom McLowry "had fired two shots at our party before Holliday who had the shotgun, fired at and killed him," then where was the gun Tom McLowry (McLaury) used to fire those shots that Wyatt Earp said he saw fired? There were two witnesses who said that they thought they saw Tom McLowry (McLaury) fire shots. Virgil Earp said he saw Tom McLaury fire from over his horse. But again, that goes to the question, what happened to his gun if he had one? It appears its disappearance is anyone's guess.
A few of you have written to ask about Wyatt Earp's statement, "When I went as deputy marshal to help disarm them and arrest them, I went as a part of my duty and under the direction of my brother the marshal. I did not intend to fight unless it became necessary in self defense, and in the performance of official duty."

Some of you think Wyatt Earp needed to be pushed into doing his job? One reader wants to know why it is that Wyatt needed his brother to push him to do his job since he said he was already authorized to act without the OK from Virgil? He point outs that Wyatt Earp said that he decided to do his duty by disarming people for carrying firearms in city limits only after Virgil said that it needed to be done.

One reader wants to know if the "cowboys" saw Wyatt Earp as a threat? He points out, "Virgil Earp was shot and hit, and that Morgan Earp was shot and hit. Holliday was grazed but Wyatt seemed to have been left out of the fight." One reader says that he suspects Billy Clanton and Frank McLowry (McLaury) saw Virgil and Morgan as the law and subsequently the real threats. That's why they were shot. 

Frankly, who knows if the "cowboys" saw Wyatt Earp as a threat or not. I have not idea if they were interesting in shooting him or not. As one you points out, Virgil Earp was the City Marshal and Deputy U.S. Marshal with a reputation as a good lawman, and Morgan Earp is said to have had a better reputation as a lawman than his brother Wyatt did. So with that, I can see why some of you think Wyatt was not a concern.

You make the case that the "cowboys" may have seen Wyatt Earp in the same way that Wyatt stated he saw Billy Clanton. Remember, Wyatt Earp stated, "Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me but I did not aim at him. I knew that Frank McLowry had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man, and I aimed at Frank McLowry."

Was this the same situation for the "cowboys"? One reader wants to know if the "cowboys" saw Virgil and Morgan as the better shots and truly dangerous men, but no Wyatt? He wants to know if that's why Wyatt was not hit?

Another reader wrote to say how he can't help but wonder if that's why Virgil and Morgan were later targeted and ambushed and not Wyatt or Holliday? Did the "cowboys" see Virgil and Morgan as the people responsible for what took place at the shootout?

Another reader asked, "If the Cowboys thought Wyatt Earp was responsible for what took place at the OK Corral, why did they go after Virgil and Morgan and not Wyatt later on?" I don't know the answer to that since the movies and books always seem to make it appear as though Wyatt was the most important brother in that family. 

Lastly, you asked, if the cowboy's were there to get money and leave town, or were they there to kill the Earps? To me, from what I've read, I really believe that they were getting ready to travel out of town to buy a breeding bull. People traveling out of the area were armed as was the case. If for any other reason, as protection against the Apache who were on the move at that time.

One reader has asked if I think that the "cowboys" were there specifically to kill the Earps? For me, I don't believe that was the case. If so, then they were not the killers that they are portrayed as -- that's for certain. Why do I say that? 

Well, first off, if the "cowboys" expected a fight, or were there to kill the Earps, then Ike Clanton would have been armed. Second, if they were there with the intention of killing the town's lawmen, that would mean that they would have turned the entire town, including the Vigilantes against them. And no, I don't think that's what they wanted since they made money by selling stolen beef to the people in Tombstone, and they were afraid of the Vigilantes. Also, if they came to town specifically to kill the Earps and Holliday, why not have Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill, Phin Clanton, Frank Stillwell, Hank Swilling, Pete Spence, and others there if they were indeed there to wipe out the Earps and Holliday?  

If the "cowboys" wanted to kill the Earps, why try it when they are outnumbered by the Earps? That doesn't make any sense at all. And also, if they wanted to kill the Earps, why wait until the Earps were face to face? Why wait as they made their now famous walk to disarm them?

If the "cowboys" were there to kill the Earps and Holliday, why not use the rifles that they had in the rifle scabbards on their saddles? Why not pick them off from a distance at a range where the Earp's pistols and the shotgun that Holliday was handed would have been almost useless? Fact is, the "cowboys" could have started firing their Winchester rifles as the Earps and Holliday came down the street. But, that's not what happened. For me, I really believe the "cowboys" were just getting ready to leave town. 

Do I think the Earps were out to kill the "cowboys"? I don't know. I really don't believe all had the same motivations that day, I really don't thing all of the Earps were of the same mindset that day. I think Wyatt Earp had a problem with the Clantons because he felt double-crossed over the county sheriff's race and more, and I know that Doc Holliday wanted to have at Ike Clanton. But frankly, I don't think City Marshal and Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp had the same mindset as his young brother Wyatt.

To me, Virgil Earp seemed to take the threats in stride knowing that was part of the job. I believe he understood that one can't go around killing everyone who makes a threat to a peace officer. If that were that case, then why didn't he kill Ike Clanton the day before the shootout took place when he was shooting his mouth off about killing Earps?

Remember, earlier that day Virgil Earp hit Ike Clanton over the head when he pulled a rifle on Virgil after threatening to kill him. In reality, if Virgil Earp wanted to kill Ike Clanton, he was in his right to do so right then and there. But, that's not what happened. 

I can't help but wonder if things just spiraled out of control. Virgil Earp wanted to do his job and his mistake was bringing Doc Holliday with him. Some say Virgil Earp realized his mistake later. 

All in all, they gathered in a tiny lot. Initially there were nine of them and two horses. They were so close that some say their gun barrels almost touched each other. When the shooting started, the black powder turned the scene into a fog. 

A reader wants to know "Did Wyatt Earp really have a conversation with Ike Clanton while the gunfight was taking place?" Let's put it this way, out of the 27 or so seconds that the whole thing lasted, Wyatt Earp stated that he interacted with Ike Clanton while the shooting was going on. No telling how long that actually took. Was it 5 or 10 seconds out of those 27 or so seconds? Who knows?

He stated, "After about four shots were fired, Ike Clanton ran up and grabbed my left arm." I told him, "the fight has now commenced go to fighting or get away" and pushed him off." He then stated that he never fired at him "because I thought he was unarmed."

Virgil Earp testified that, "they were all standing in a row. Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury had their hands on their six-shooters. I don't hardly know how Ike Clanton was standing, but I think he had his hands in an attitude where I supposed he had a gun. Tom McLaury had his hand on a Winchester rifle on a horse. As soon as I saw them, I said, 'Boys, throw up your hands, I want your guns,' or 'arms.' With that, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton drew their six-shooters and commenced to cock them, and I heard them go 'click-click.'"

He went on to say, "Ike Clanton threw his hand in his breast, this way [illustrates]. At that, I said, throwing both hands up, with the cane in my right hand, 'Hold on, I don't want that!' As I said that, Billy Clanton threw his six-shooter down, full cocked. I was standing to the left of my party, and he was standing on the right of Frank and Tom McLaury. He was not aiming at me, but his pistol was kind of past me. 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; it was general then, and everybody went to fighting. At the crack of the first two pistols, the horse jumped to one side, and Tom McLaury failed to get the Winchester. He threw his hand back this way [shows the motion]. He followed the movement of the horse around, making him a kind of breastwork, and fired once, if not twice, over the horse's back."

On the second day of testimony, Virgil Earp stated, "Frank McLaury made a threat to me one day on the street. It must have been about a month before the shooting and it might have been a week after the notice in the paper of the formation of a vigilance committee. Frank McLaury stepped up to me in the street between the Express Office and the Grand Hotel. He said, 'I understand you are raising a vigilance committee to hang us boys.' I said, 'You boys?' He said, 'Yes, us and [the] Clantons, Hicks, Ringo, and all us cowboys.' I said to him, 'Frank, do [you] remember the time Curly Bill killed White?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Who guarded him that night and run him to Tucson next morning to keep the vigilance committee from hanging him?' He said, 'You boys.' I said, 'Now do you believe we belong to it?' He said, 'I can't help but believe the man who told me you do.' I said, 'Who told you?' He said, 'Johnny Behan,' 'Now,' he says, 'I'll tell you, it makes no difference what I do, I never will surrender my arms to you.' He said, 'I'd rather die fighting than be strangled.' I made some remark to him, 'Alright,' or something-and then left him."

I find that interesting in that it sounds like Frank McLaury simply refused to go along with the new city ordinance about carrying guns in town, and that may have been what set things off. And while that in itself sounds almost too simple a reason for the final exchange that day, I can't help but wonder who knows what really pushed things to the point of shooting it out.

With all sorts of books written about this, as well as all sorts of movies made about what supposedly took place, I don't think anyone really knows why it happened the way it did. I really believe that.

For me, I can guess that Virgil Earp wanted to act on their breaking the law, just as I can see how Wyatt was finally pushed to do what should have been done when he first noticed the violations taking place. I can speculate what Doc Holliday's reasons were for joining the party. I can think all I want that Holliday did so out of an eagerness to kill a Clanton. But frankly, as with the books written and the movies made, I'd just be putting in my own conjecture and assumptions that I can't prove. Yes, the same as anyone else.

That's why, like you who have questions about this, I like to tear apart the testimonies of those there. I like to take a look at the inconsistencies as in the case of Wyatt's testimony. And yes, I like looking into why certain things were done and certain things weren't. In most cases, I find that the facts as stated in testimonies will usually shatter the theories and presumptions of many so-called experts who refuse to have open minds when it comes to looking at what took place. 

Many year ago I had a friend who was really into each and every nuance of what took place before, during, and after that now famous gunfight. He once summed up the gunfight saying that he thought it was all just a simple arrest gone bad. He said that it was a culmination of bad blood and hot tempers. He believed it was a great deal of anger over many factors including people not liking to be told how to live. 

It would later be written about and made into a number of movies. Those books and movies put Tombstone on the map and made Wyatt Earp famous. 

Tom Correa


  1. I agree with your friend. They were finally fed up with the Earps and their laws. The Earps decided the cowboys needed to be spanked for their disrespect either stopped breaking the law or receive the consequences.
    I had a friend and when him and some of my other friends were in Denver at a dance. There were 5 guys from my area. They got into an altercation inside over a girl. They all went outside. The 2 groups were at that point were to a point, do we really want to fight or should we walk away. My friend yelled out "My name is Rick, does anyone want to call me a chickens..t?". That was the pivotal moment that tells who really wants to fight. The boys from Denver walked away at that point. It would of taken 1 of them to answer the call. That would of started the fight. I think that was probably the kind of thing that happened that day. One move, one phrase or one insult flipped the switch.
    Men are men and nobody really knows why we do what we do sometimes. I am one that has done some stupid things in my life. If asked why I did this or that I wouldn't know why.

  2. Some think the "clicks" heard was Doc cocking the hammers of the shotgun thus setting off the fray.


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