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The Making of the Tombstone Legend

Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp, 1885 (United States Public Domain)

The peace-loving residents of Tombstone, Arizona had no idea what was in store for their silver boomtown of 10,000 only 30 miles from the Mexican border on the morning of 26 October 1881 when they woke to light patches of snow on the ground. The bright morning sun quickly melted the snow, but the day remained unseasonably chilly and windy on this treeless desert plateau in the middle of nowhere.

A tent city of a few hundred only two years before, Tombstone--by day--was now a sophisticated center of commerce with grand hotels, newspapers, banks, churches, a school, a bowling alley, an opera house, gambling halls, saloons, and plenty of merchants ready to sell ice cream, cigars, and various imported wines and beers. One brewing company, in particular, from Colorado--a new one established in 1873 called Coors--was selling its brand of beer to several local saloons. After dark, Tombstone then became a mix of “booze and broads” that kept the good, decent people in their homes.

Almost as soon as silver had been discovered, Tombstone divided itself upon the lines of two political groups. On one side, there were the mine owners and local businessmen who came from the Northern States, bringing with them their right wing Republican views. They used their influence to appoint the lawmen they wanted to protect the town and their own best interests--strong arms such as Virgil Earp and his brothers. On the other side were a group of area ranchers who were staunch Democrats. Far from law-abiding individuals, they had Confederate Civil War sympathies and resented the Northerners moving in and taking over, restricting their illegal empire. Many of these ranchers were nothing more than horse thieves, cattle rustlers and stagecoach robbers. They were known as the Cowboys.

A few minutes before 3 PM, town marshal Virgil Earp, and his recently sworn-in deputies, brothers Morgan Earp and Wyatt Earp, and alcoholic friend Doc Holliday met on the corner of Fourth and Allen Streets. All four were wearing black slacks, black hats, and long, black coats. Virgil took Holliday’s cane and handed him a shotgun with orders to keep it concealed under his coat. Then the four men walked along Fourth Street--Virgil and Wyatt in front, Morgan and Holliday in tow directly behind. Many town residents could see the determined looks on the faces of the four walking briskly down the dusty road. Something was up. The lawmen turned left onto Fremont Street, as a gathering crowd of people started to follow at a safe distance. The men continued walking, their destination a vacant lot at the far end of Fremont between two buildings in the back of the OK Corral.

Halfway up Fremont Street, Cochise County sheriff Johnny Behan came out from a nearby building and said to the lawmen, “Don’t go down there or there’ll be trouble.”

“I’m going to disarm them,” Virgil replied, as his party looked straight ahead, not missing a step.

Virgil had every right to disarm anyone who carried firearms inside the Tombstone city limits. At the end of the street was a gang of five Cowboys who were disobeying the city’s Ordnance #9. The Earps and the Cowboys had been at odds for almost two years, and townspeople knew it would all come to a head now.

“There’s no need for that. I’ve disarmed them,” Behan answered.

“Then there won’t be any trouble,” Wyatt replied, not believing Behan.

The Earp party breezed past Behan. As the lawmen came upon the vacant lot, Morgan and Holliday fanned out in order for the four of them to be in an even line. They stopped about six feet away from the Cowboys--leader Ike Clanton, brother Billy Clanton, brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. The two parties were close enough to spit on each other. The Cowboys had nowhere to go.

“All right, boys,” Virgil demanded, “throw up your arms!”

The Cowboys didn’t. Two of them cocked their pistols. Holliday threw back the edge of his coat and brought out the previously-concealed shotgun. Two of the Cowboys, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury immediately went for their guns.

“Hold on,” Virgil said, “I didn’t mean that.”

Then the firing started. No one knows for sure who started it. Thirty shots in about 30 seconds, according to witnesses. Both Billy Claiborne and Ike Clanton ran off. When the smoke cleared, Billy Clanton, and the McLaury brothers were spread out, dead. Morgan and Virgil Earp were badly injured. Morgan in the shoulder and neck, Virgil in the leg. Holliday was slightly wounded in the hip. Wyatt Earp was the only one of the combatants untouched. There are different versions of it, of course, but that in a nutshell was the “Gunfight at the OK Corral.”

Following the gun battle, Holliday and the Earps were charged with murder, but were acquitted. In the next few months, Virgil was ambushed and maimed for life, while Morgan was shot to death playing pool with his brother Wyatt only a few feet away. Wyatt formed a posse and went on a personal vendetta, killing the remaining members of the Clanton gang, except for Ike, then fled Arizona for good in 1882 with Sherriff Behan hot on his trail for more possible murder charges.

Tombstone’s prosperity peaked in the middle 1880s, as the area continued to mine silver until all the shafts in the area began to absorb too much water. The region produced as much as $80 million ($2 billion today) in silver bullion between 1879 and the final year of operation in 1890. As Tombstone’s silver industry died out, the OK Corral gunfight faded into obscurity as a mere footnote in history.

By 1900, Tombstone’s population had dwindled down to 700. The only thing keeping the town alive at the turn of the 20th century was its political importance as the Cochise County seat, but when it lost that in 1929, the future seemed bleak for the once-great silver boomtown. Then in 1931, Stuart Lake’s book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was published, two years after Earp’s death. The piece brought to light the famous gunfight 50 years before, although the book was far from a factual depiction of Wyatt Earp’s life.

Then Hollywood helped Tombstone’s cause by making the 1946 movie, My Darling Clementine, starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp; followed by The Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957 starring Burt Lancaster as the famous lawman. Tombstone built on this new-found interest in Wyatt Earp and the many other recent movies centering on the infamous gun battle. When it comes to realism, Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner, is the best of them all, I think. Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell runs a distant second. Both came out in the early 1990s. The 1967 movie, The Hour of the Gun, starring James Garner, is third. My opinion, anyway.

Today, Tombstone profits from a second boom--the hot tourist market. By glamorizing “The Town Too Tough to Die,” as it is nicknamed, Tombstone can boast of over 400,000 yearly visitors making their way to their town of 1,380 residents to catch such events as a reenactment of the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West. And a political gun battle at that. Republicans verse Democrats.

The bodies of Tom and Frank McLaury
The bodies of Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton in the window of the undertakers following the OK Corral gunfight, 1881 (United States Public Domain)

I had a chance to see Tombstone for myself one day in late-November 1999 when I vacationed in Arizona with my son and my brother. I loved every minute of it. Although the reenactment was not scheduled that afternoon for some reason, we did get a chance to have a beer in the Oriental Saloon where Wyatt Earp had been employed as a faro dealer. We also saw inside the notorious Bird Cage Theatre (apparently haunted and has 140 bullet holes imbedded in the walls), and the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper building from the outside. It was the Epitaph--run by Mayor John P Clum--and its Right Wing perspective that had supported the Earps in print from the beginning, including their actions in gunning down the Cowboys opposite the OK Corral. And you also have to go through Boot Hill, which is on the way into town, and see the graves of the three Cowboys shot to death that cold, windy 26 October 1881.

What surprised me was that Tombstone really is on a plateau. You can see it vividly on approach a few miles away while driving south on Highway 80. I discovered something else too. Although Tombstone is farther south than Phoenix and both centers are right smack in the middle of a desert, Tombstone (due to its higher elevation) is several degrees cooler on any given day than the hotbox of Phoenix nearly 200 miles to the northwest. Tombstone is at 4,500 feet above sea level compared to Phoenix at just over 1,000 feet. Big difference.

Another thing…enjoy a steak dinner at one of the many excellent restaurants in Tombstone. That part of the States is well known for its outstanding beef. And last but not least, I love the billboard outside the town, near Boot Hill which states…

Welcome to Tombstone. People are dying to get here.


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