30 Seconds in Tombstone – Was it Murder or Self-Defense?


Thirty seconds was all it took. That’s how long the shootout at the O.K. Corral lasted. Thirty seconds and three men, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury, all lay dead. The brothers Earp, Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt, along with Doc Holliday all became legends. But just what happened in Tombstone? To some it was a clear cut case of self defense. To others it was premeditated murder. In fact, Wyatt Earp actually was charged with murder only to have the charges dismissed at a preliminary hearing.

Tombstone, Arizona was situated 30 miles from the Mexico border. A silver strike in the 1870s took a town of four hundred to over seven thousand in just a few years. Along with the new populace came the stereotypes of the Wild West – saloons, prostitution, and gambling. The Earp brothers came to town, not as lawmen, but rather as capitalists seeking fortune and an early retirement. As it turned out, they did not end up with what they came to town to get.

As a lawman in Tombstone, the law was simple:

Ordinance No.9:
“To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons” (effective April 19, 1881).
Section 1. “It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any person to carry deadly weapons, concealed or otherwise [except the same be carried openly in sight, and in the hand] within the limits of the City of Tombstone.
Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.
Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.”

Law Professor Douglas Linder states:

“The Earps and Cowboys began their confrontational relationship in the summer of 1880 when deputy marshal Virgil Earp asked Wyatt and Morgan to hunt down the horse thieves who had stolen six mules from a nearby Army outpost. Following a tip, Wyatt and Morgan discovered the stolen mules at the McLaury ranch with their “US” brand changed to “D8.” Frank McLaury reacted angrily to the Earp’s intervention in the case, considering them to be acting as “citizens” rather than as lawmen, and warned them to stay clear of his ranch and his operations.”

Over the course of the next year, recriminations festered and neither side gave an inch. On the evening of October 25, 1881, Doc Holliday and Ike (Issac) Clanton had an altercation resulting in threats and insults. The following day, Clanton was taken into custody for carrying a weapon in the city limits. While within their rights to arrest Clanton, many figured the Earps were also within their rights to shoot Clanton as Clanton was aiming his rifle at Wyatt before he was arrested.

Throughout the course of the day, Clanton paid his $25 fine while losing his rifle. He then went and stewed, then got all worked up, got others worked up and somehow found himself at the OK Corral. Sherriff Behan tried to disarm Frank McLaury but to no avail. Upon meeting the Earps and Doc Holloday, Behan stated “For God’s sake, don’t go down there or you will get murdered,” Behan warned. When they ignored him, Behan yelled the contradictory words, “I have disarmed them all.” These contradictory statements play a key role in the acquittal of Wyatt, his brothers and Doc Holliday. If Behan had disarmed them, then why would they all be killed?

What is not known is who fired first? The Discovery Channel and the History Channel both have had programs trying to use modern forensic methods to recreate the scenes. The History Channel show “Investigating History” concluded the Earps fired in self defense. While the evidence stated that, Ike Clanton pressed charges against the Earps and Holliday for murder.

Though never reaching a full trial, a preliminary proceeding was held. The local newspaper stated:

“The feeling among the best class of our citizens is that the Marshal was entirely justified in his efforts to disarm these men, and that being fired upon they had to defend themselves, which they did most bravely. So long as our peace officers make an effort to preserve the peace and put down highway robbery — which the Earp brothers have done, having engaged in the pursuit and capture, where captures have been made of every gang of stage robbers in the county — they will have the support of all good citizens. If the present lesson is not sufficient to teach the cow-boy element that they cannot come into the streets of Tombstone, in broad daylight, armed with six-shooters and Henry rifles to hunt down their victims, then the citizens will most assuredly take such steps to preserve the peace as will be forever a bar to such raids.”

At the end of one month of testimony, it basically came down to Earp’s word versus Clantons. Judge Spicer’s declared:
“I conclude the performance of this duty imposed upon me by saying in the language of the Statute: “There being no sufficient cause to believe the within named Wyatt S. Earp and John H. Holliday guilty of the offense mentioned within. I order them to be released.”

Six months after the trail, Morgan Earp is gun downed in a Tombstone pool hall. Wyatt goes a rampage outside of the law and hunts down and kills those he deems responsible including Frank Stilwell, Indian Charlie, and Curly Bill Broscius. Wyatt travels to Colorado never to return to Tombstone. The moral ambiguity of Tombstone still lingers today. If Earp was acting in self defense at the OK Corral, what do you call his vendetta killings? And why didn’t the Governor of Colorado turn him over to Arizona? There are a lot of questions about these events and the life and times of Wyatt Earp. He would live on for another 40 years after Tombstone.

For more information and documents: Go to Douglas Linder’s Great Trials Page.

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