Wyatt Earp - Can 30 Seconds Define a Mans Life?
 
Can a mere 30 seconds define the whole of a man's life? That certainly seems to have been the case for Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp.
 
Wyatt was born in Monmouth, Illinois, March 19, 1848 - died Los Angeles, California, January 13, 1929. In between those dates, a most remarkable life - but most of it revolved around that fateful afternoon in Tombstone, Arizona.
 
Should we remember Wyatt Earp as a lawman ("brave, courageous, and bold") and entrepreneur - or as horse-thief, gambler, womanizer, and murderer? Historians are divided, especially in recent years, as to the true legacy of Wyatt. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle - Wyatt was a complex individual, just as many other famous people in the Old West. Wyatt certainly had his faults, but he also did serve various communities as a law enforcement officer. It is interesting to note that the highest law enforcement position ever held by Wyatt was that of Deputy U.S. Marshal - although many people think that he held the actual office of U.S. Marshal. He also worked as a buffalo hunter, faro dealer, mine speculator, saloon keeper, boxing referee, and other peripatetic occupations.
 
What of that gunfight on the afternoon of October 26, 1881? Was it the classic shoot-out between outlaws and lawmen - or was it the culmination of a private feud with one side hiding behind badges? Again, it is difficult to paint this story in pure black and white. There certainly was a lot of bad blood between the two groups; Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday on the one side - Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury on the other. Bad blood that wasn't entirely confined to questions of law and order. Still, the Clanton and McLaury faction was generally seen as operating on the very fringe of the law, and as complete outlaws by many.
 
The final showdown actually began the night before (Oct. 25th) with Ike Clanton making wild, drunken, threats against the Earps and Holliday - and keeping this up for most of that long night. At around noon on the 26th, Ike was approached by Virgil and Morgan, struck on the head with a pistol (probably by Virgil), arrested and hauled before Judge Wallace where Ike was fined $25 plus costs for the carrying of firearms within the town limits.
 
Ike was then released and then soon met with his brother Billie, the McLaury brothers, and probably Billy Claiborne at the OK Corral (which is how the gunfight got its misnomer). Concerned citizens informed the Earps that the Clanton/McLaury gang was armed and looking for a fight. Virgil, as Chief of Police, had the duty to disarm anyone carrying firearms within the city limits (there being a local ordinance to that effect). Morgan and Wyatt came along as deputies and Doc joined the procession because ..... well, just because he was Doc .. and he hated the Clanton and McLaury gang .. and because he was a friend of Wyatt's (Virgil did deputize Doc).
 
The Clanton/McLaury group left the OK corral, and the two groups met at the edge of an alley-way, or vacant lot if you prefer, near the corner of Third and Fremont Streets (NOT at the OK Corral) - the time was about 3:00 p.m. Billy Claiborne, if present at all, left the scene almost immediately. Virgil stated that he was there to disarm the Clanton and McLaury brothers and that they should "throw up their hands". At that point, the average distance between the combatants was approximately six feet. Witnesses disagree on just exactly what happened next and who fired the first shot - or even which side fired the first shot. Sometime during the shooting, the un-armed Ike grabbed Wyatt - Wyatt shoved Ike out of the way. At least 30 rounds were fired in that short 30 seconds. At the end, Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury were dead or dying - Virgil was shot in the leg - Morgan had received a bullet that entered one shoulder, clipped a vertebra, and exited the other shoulder - Doc's hip had been grazed by a bullet from Frank's pistol. Of the actual shooters, only Wyatt was totally unscathed.
 
A subsequent inquiry cleared the Earps and Holliday of any wrong-doing, but it did not end the controversy over the matter. Both factions had strong support, and Ike Clanton was very vocal in spreading the word that his brother and friends had been gunned down by common murderers.
 
The legacy, good or bad, of the 'OK Corral Gunfight' followed Wyatt for the rest of his days, with many describing him as a hero - while others vilified him as a killer.
 
Just a mere thirty seconds, on a dusty vacant lot in an Arizona town, turned Wyatt Earp's name into one of the most famous in the annals of the Old West. If not for that bloody showdown, we would probably have never heard of Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp.
 
Suggested Reading:
 
Lake, Stuart
  Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal
    Although chock full of errors and exaggeration (much of this from Wyatt, himself) this is a significant work as it is the source of many of the legends about Wyatt.
 
Waters, Frank
  The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp: The Earp Brothers of Tombstone
    The first book to suggest that Wyatt was something other than a hero.
 
Tefertiller, Casey
  Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend
    An important work that seeks to dispel many of the myths and mis-information about Wyatt.
 
Marks, Paula Mitchell
  And Die in the West
    Probably the most detailed study of the actual gunfight, what led to the bloody gun-battle, the gunfight itself, and the aftermath.
 
Gatto, Steve
  The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography
    A look at Wyatt's life by a biographer who definitely does not consider Wyatt to be a hero.
 
Bell, Bob Boze
   The Illustrated Life & Times of Wyatt Earp
    The life of the lawman, gambler, mining entrepreneur as depicted in contemporary photographs and illustrations by the author. Also a review of the many movies made about Wyatt and that famous gunfight - including an assessment of the two most recent movies - 'Tombstone' and 'Wyatt Earp' - what was right in the movies, and what was wrong.
 

Back to Top of Page
Back to Top of Page