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“Tombstone” vs. “Wyatt Earp”

As is often the case with the Holy Bee, to understand the entertainment, we must start with the history…

People of Tombstone, Arizona remembered October 26, 1881 as particularly cold. A bone-chilling wind whipped off the nearby Dragoon Mountains, and many residents assumed a flurry of light, dry snow was on its way to the little silver-mining town. A storm of a different kind came instead. Two groups of men faced off against each other in a nondescript vacant lot. (The OK Corral, which would soon lend this confrontation its name, was actually on another street on the other side of the block. Its rearmost portion could be accessed by a tiny alleyway, the entrance to which was still several yards from the vacant lot. But, as author Jeff Guinn points out, “Shootout at the Vacant Lot on Fremont Street” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.)

Animosity between the larger interests each group represented had been growing for the past eighteen months. A tangled mess of politics, personality clashes, and a long series of incidents such as stolen U.S. Army mules, the semi-accidental shooting of the Tombstone city marshal, and a botched stagecoach robbery just outside of town limits all contributed to the tension that had been humming through the town since early the year before.

On one side of the lot were five men — Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton and his younger brother Billy, brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne — who represented the “cowboys.” Small-time ranchers who openly rustled cattle from over the Mexican border less than forty miles south, they were viewed with suspicion by the town leaders and businessmen. Most were legitimate ranch hands with a rowdy streak, coming into town to drink and raise a little hell. Dealing in stolen cattle was something everyone did to keep their ranches afloat, and most people looked the other way (especially if the cattle came from Mexico.) Other cowboys were more sinister — genuine “bad men” from Texas, who fled that area when the legendary Texas Rangers started cracking down on outlawry. Politically Democratic and sympathizers to the old Confederacy, they also had many allies in the town who appreciated their free-spending business and admired their free-spirited resistance to authority.

On the other side were four men — city marshal Virgil Earp, his two brothers Wyatt (a deputy federal marshal) and Morgan (deputy city marshal), and the notorious John “Doc” Holliday (a well-educated dentist-turned-professional gambler) — who represented the order- and community-minded townspeople. The clannish, uptight Earps were never incredibly popular with the people they were charged to protect. Wyatt in particular was viewed as a dour, self-aggrandizing social climber, with a checkered past on both sides of the law, who spent most of his time running card games in a variety of saloons and investing in mines that didn’t pay off. He viewed his off-and-on career as a lawman as a means to an end (that end being authority and respectability that would lead to wealth).  He had formed a close, unlikely friendship with Holliday, who was slowly dying of tuberculosis. Holliday was known to have a vicious temper when drinking (which was most of the time by 1881), and his reputation for unstable behavior and violence preceded his arrival in Tombstone. Wyatt Earp’s own reputation suffered in many people’s eyes due to his association with what many considered a degenerate. But one of Wyatt’s good qualities was loyalty to his friends. The Earps were politically Republican and staunch Unionists, perpetually on the make to enhance their status and make money. The cowboys were a threat to that goal.

The Earps and Holliday confronted those five cowboys that day to disarm them — they were carrying firearms within city limits, against the local ordinance. It was a shaky accusation to make, as the cowboys were ostensibly on their way out of town, and therefore justified in taking the weapons (which they had lawfully turned over on their arrival the day before) with them. They were just taking an awfully long time to make an exit. Lingering. Almost trying to spark a confrontation. Harsh, drunken words and threats had been spouted in the saloons the night before (mostly by the loud-mouthed Ike Clanton), and the Earps had had enough. As they approached the vacant lot, they were stopped by county sheriff John Behan — a friend and ally to the cowboys. He assured the Earps — falsely and dangerously — that the cowboys had already been disarmed. He was ignored, and wisely took cover.

Billy Claiborne fled at the sight of the approaching lawmen. After the tiniest moment’s stand-off, either Wyatt or Billy Clanton fired their weapon.  The unarmed Ike Clanton fled as soon as the shooting started. Thirty seconds later, it was all over, and the remaining three cowboys were dead or dying in the lot and the adjacent street. Tom McLaury was also revealed to be unarmed, but was shot several times as he desperately grabbed at the rifle in his saddle holster. Only Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton had weapons on them. The worst of the cowboys — true outlaws and killers like Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo — were nowhere near Fremont Street that day.

But it did not end there. Controversy and retributions continued for several months. The Earp party were tried and acquitted of murder. Virgil and Morgan were victims of fearsome ambushes orchestrated by Ike Clanton and the more violent-minded cowboys. Wyatt and Holliday led a posse of dubious legal authority to cleanse the countryside of cowboy influence. The so-called “Vendetta Ride” became almost as legendary as the shootout itself… Continue reading

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