The Old West's most famous gun battle lasted all of about thirty seconds, but it left three men dead, three other men shot, and enough questions to occupy historians for more than a century. The gunfight also led to criminal charges being filed against the three Earp brothers (Wyatt , Virgil , and Morgan ) and Doc Holliday who, near the O. K. Corral on October 26, 1881, decided to enforce the law against four notorious "cowboys." The hearing that followed the shoot-out considered the question of whether the Earps and Hollidays killed out of a justifiable fear for their own lives or simply to rid themselves of troublemakers and personal enemies. After listening to weeks of testimony, Judge Spicer gave his answer--but whether his answer was the right one remained a subject of considerable debate long after the silver mines that gave birth to Tombstone , Arizona had vanished.
In 1877, in the dry washes of the San Pedro Valley at the foot of the Huachuca Mountains in southern Arizona about thirty miles from the Mexican border, a prospector discovered an outcropping of high grade silver. Soon that same summer, another prospector named Ed Schieffelin would venture into the same hot, dry Apache country after being warned by a soldier, "The only rock you'll find out there will be your own tombstone!" Schieffelin found more than that--though the warning he received would inspire the naming of a town laid out less than two years later near his silver strike.
Tombstone grew from 40 cabins, and a population of 100, when it was organized in March of 1879 to more than 7,000 two years later. By late 1881, the classic boomtown had more saloons, more gambling houses, and a larger "boothill" and "red light" district than any town in the Southwest.
Tombstone in 1881
Tombstone was wild even by the standards of the wild West. Horse rustlers and bandits plagued the town. Shootings were frighteningly commonplace. George Parsons, a Tombstone resident who kept a detailed diary in the town's early years, complained of the "hard crowd." He wrote that "killing such men" would be like killing "wild animals." Parsons opined, "The law must be carried out by the citizens, or should be, when it fails in its performance as it has lately done."
Into this anarchic environment came the Earp brothers. Wyatt Earp arrived in late 1879 after serving for four years as a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas. Coming into town with Wyatt were his brothers James and Virgil. Morgan, the youngest of the Earp brothers, reached Tombstone the following summer. (Another man whose name would come to be associated with the Earps, Doc Holliday, pulled into town a few months after Morgan.)
Like so many other Tombstone residents, the Earps saw money to be made in the boomtown. They staked mining claims. Wyatt acquired a 25% interest in a faro game at the Oriental Saloon in return for providing the saloon's security. James took a job as a faro dealer and bartender, while Virgil and Morgan found employment guarding stagecoach shipments for Wells Fargo. Virgil also worked as deputy U. S. marshal and about a half year after his arrival, Wyatt began serving as a deputy sheriff for Pima County.
In 1881 in the area around Tombstone, "cowboys" was a pejorative term used to describe a rootless group of roughnecks, many from Texas, who rustled horses and sometimes engaged in other forms of lawbreaking. George Parson wrote in his diary, "A cowboy is a rustler at times, and a rustler is a synonym for desperado--bandit, outlaw, and horse thief." The San Francisco Examiner editorialized, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country...infinitely worse than the ordinary robber."
Historians generally consider the men killed in the O.K. Corral gunfight, the Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, to be Cowboys. Among the Cowboys, the Clanton family stood out. Clantons rustled cattle, making raids on both sides of the border, and the Cowboys used Old Man Clanton's ranch a center for their illegal business operations. The McLaurys worked closely with rustlers, either purchasing stolen stock or serving as "fences of the frontier."
Events Leading to the Shoot-Out
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.
On October 28, 1880, a more serious crime took place. When Marshal Frank White tried to disarm Curly Brocius, a notorious Cowboy, Brocius's gun fired a bullet (whether intentionally or accidentally was a matter of dispute), fatally wounding White. The Tombstone town council appointed Virgil Earp as acting marshal. After losing an election for town marshal the following November, Virgil resumed his prior position as deputy U. S. marshal.
Meanwhile, a rivalry began brewing between Wyatt Earp, a friend of Tombstone's commercial interests, and Johnny Behan , a man more popular among the town's less respectable elements. Adding heat to the rivalry was that both men competed for the affections of the same pretty woman, Josephine Marcus. (Josephine, after living for a time with Behan, would eventually be won over by Wyatt Earp, and the two would marry in 1888 and live together for almost fifty years.) Earp and Behan both sought appointment from Arizona's governor as sheriff. Earp dropped his candidacy after it became apparent that Governor Fremont favored Behan and (Earp claimed) Behan promised to appoint Wyatt as undersheriff--a promise, it turned out, that Behan would not keep.
On March 15, 1881, outlaws stormed the Tombstone-Benson stagecoach, making off with $26,000 and killing the driver and a passenger on the coach. Two posses headed out after the outlaw band, one led by Virgil Earp and including Wyatt and Morgan, as well as Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday. The other posse was led by Sheriff Behan. The Earp posse managed to track down one member of the gang, who confessed to holding horses while the holdup took place, and turned the man over to the Behan posse. The man would not remain in custody long, as he soon "escaped" from an unlocked jail house door. The Earps suspected that Behan might have been complicit in the escape, and became further irritated when the sheriff refused to pay the Earps for their posse work.
Wyatt Earp's determination to get the job of sheriff from Behan led him to strike a deal with Ike Clanton . Earp promised to give Clanton the $6,000 in reward money offered by Wells Fargo for arrest of the ambushers of its stagecoach if Clanton would--secretly--provide him with information that would lead to the capture of the criminals. Earp reasoned that if he could pull off arrests in this closely followed case, his popularity would soar and his prospects for becoming sheriff greatly increased. Clanton agreed to the deal, but the bargain would never come to fruition as the Cowboys responsible for the crime all were killed in a New Mexico gunfight before Clanton could spring a trap for Earp.
October 25-26, 1881
Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury arrived in Tombstone in the evening of October 25, 1881, carrying a wagon load of beef. Around midnight, Clanton showed up at the Alhambra Saloon for a meal, where he encountered Doc Holliday. Clanton, worried about being revealed to his fellow Cowboys as a snitch, might have planned to meet Holliday as part of Wyatt's plan to calm his fears that Earp would spill the beans about their secret deal. That, at least, is one theory suggested by some historians. Another theory is that the Holliday-Clanton meeting was set up by Earp to keep Clanton in line because the promise of possible reward money was no longer present to keep a lid on his activities. Holliday was a tough character, very capable of making a convincing threat.
Soon the meeting between Clanton and Holliday degenerated into a series of taunts and insults. Morgan Earp, who provided security at the Alhambra, intervened to get both men to leave the saloon. On the street, Clanton ran into Wyatt Earp, who he told--according to Earp--he would like to see for "a man for man" in the morning. Clanton then found his way into an all-night poker game at the Occidental Saloon, where other players included Johnny Behan, Virgil Earp, and Tom McLaury. After the game, Clanton--still simmering--threatened a fight with Holliday.
After a few hours sleep, the Earp brothers awoke to hear reports that Clanton had continued to threaten the Earps and Holliday through the morning. Virgil and Morgan found him near Allen Street. Virgil grabbed Clanton's rifle and used his own revolver to club Clanton to the ground. The two Earps dragged Clanton into a Tombstone courtroom and charged him with violating a town ordinance that prohibited the carrying of firearms in public places. Wyatt Earp, arriving at the courtroom to help, took to badgering Clanton, calling him a "damned dirty cow thief" and expressing a willingness to fight him "anywhere on earth." Clanton responded in kind, telling him that "Fight is my racket." After paying $25, Clanton was allowed to leave without his rifle.
Wyatt Earp ran into Tom McLaury just as he left the courthouse. Still in bad temper, Earp pulled out his revolver and whacked McLaury on the head and shoulder, sending him spilling into the street.
A showdown was coming. Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury arrived in town just as emotions ran at their highest. Learning of their brothers' ungentle treatment by the Earps, the two new arrivals headed for a local gun shop, where they loaded bullets into their gun belts. From the gun shop, the two headed to the O. K. Corral, where they met their brothers and discussed their next step. They then moved to a vacant lot next to Fly's Rooming House on Fremont Street.
Sheriff Behan, alerted to the developing trouble, found the McLaury brothers and tried to convince Frank to surrender his weapon. McLaury refused, saying he would only turn over his gun if "those other people [the Earps and Holliday] were disarmed." Behan patted down Ike Clanton, finding no weapon, while Tom McLaury opened his coat to show that he was unarmed. Behan made no attempt to disarm Billy Clanton, who told the sheriff he was on his way out of town. After about twenty minutes of vainly trying to get Frank McLaury to give up his gun, the sheriff left.
The three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday began a walk down Fremont Street, where they understood their adversaries to be waiting. Johnny Behan met them near a butcher shop and tried to persuade them not to continue. "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." Still, the Earps and Hollidays continued their march.
Site of gun battle (as appeared in 1990s)
When the Earp-Holliday party came within about ten feet of the Clantons and McLaurys they stopped. Virgil Earp raised the walking stick in his right hand and shouted, in one version of the story, "Boys, throw up your hands, I want your guns." Seconds later, shots rang out, first from the Earp party. After a few seconds, in the words of Wyatt, the shooting "became general." Within thirty seconds, it was over. Frank McLaury lay fatally wounded with a bullet through his head on Fremont Street. Billy Clanton, hit in the chest, was dying in the vacant lot. Tom McLaury lay mortally wounded with a load of Doc Holliday's buckshot. Ike Clanton managed to escape into Fly's house. Holliday, Virgil, and Morgan, all were injured, with hip, leg, and shoulder wounds, respectively. Among the gunfighters, only Wyatt Earp remained unharmed.
Prosecution of the Earps and Holliday
Coffins containing the bodies of Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton
A shaken Sheriff Behan made an aborted attempt to arrest Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, after Morgan and Virgil were taken away by wagon for treatment. "Wyatt, I'm arresting you for murder," Behan announced. Wyatt, taken momentarily aback, replied, "I won't be arrested," and accused Behan of misleading him into thinking the Clantons and McLaurys were all unarmed. Other citizens came up to defend Earp. One insisted, "He done just right in killing them, and the people will uphold them." Behan decided not to make any arrests--at least for the present time.
The shoot-out was the talk of the town. The Tombstone Nugget ran a story noting that "The 26th of October, 1881, will always be marked as one of the crimson days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water, and human life was held as a shuttlecock." Citizens seemed divided on whether the Earps acted appropriately in firing so quickly. Many residents asked why Doc Holliday, a hothead with an ax to grind, was deputized by Earp to assist in the disarming of the Clantons and McLaurys. A funeral for the slain men showed deep sympathy for them, with three hundred people joining a procession to Boot Hill, and an estimated crowd of more than 2,000 others watching from Tombstone's dusty sidewalks.
Two days after the shoot-out, Coroner Henry Matthews opened a formal inquest. The coroner presented nine witnesses before his jury, including Behan and Ike Clanton, as well as some more-or-less neutral witnesses. After listening to the conflicting stories and numerous accounts of previous trouble between the feuding parties, the Coroner issued an unhelpful verdict--neither condemning or exonerating the shootings--that left legal matters in limbo: "William Clanton, Frank and Thomas McLaury, came to their deaths in the town of Tombstone on October 26, 1881, from the effects of pistol and gunshot wounds inflicted by Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, Wyatt Earp, and one--Holliday, commonly called 'Doc Holliday'."
The day after Coroner Matthews announced his verdict, Ike Clanton filed first-degree murder charges against the Earps and Holliday. Sheriff Behan, who might have been expected to file the charges, seemed content to let Clanton take the initiative, leaving him to the job of testifying against the Earps. The case was scheduled for a preliminary hearing before Justice of the Peace Wells W. Spicer. (Wells Spicer rose to national prominence in 1874-76 when he defended John D. Lee--who he argued became a scapegoat for Brigham Young and Church elders--in the "Mountain Meadows Massacre" trial, a case growing out of the slaughter by Mormons disguised as Paiute Indians of over a hundred men, women and children as they traveled by wagons across southern Utah.)
Spicer's job was to determine whether the evidence indicated "sufficient cause to believe the defendants guilty" of the crime of murder. Oftentimes, preliminary hearings are rather perfunctory affairs, as defendants concede the inevitability of a full trial (and want not to expose their full hand to the prosecution early in the game) and prosecutors present only enough testimony to meet the legal standard. Not so in this case, however. The defense believed that Judge Spicer, a member of the Tombstone establishment that might be expected to be sympathetic to the Earps, presented a better hope for their freedom than a jury of twelve men selected at random. The preliminary hearing thus took on the appearance of a regular criminal trial, with thirty witnesses and full cross-examination by attorneys for both sides. It would become the longest preliminary hearing in Arizona history, lasting nearly one month.
Thomas Fitch ably represented the Earps. Fitch had impressive credentials. He was a former state legislator from California, former U. S. congressman from Nevada, former general counsel for the Church of Latter Day Saints in Utah, and a close friend of Arizona's governor. As a trial lawyer, Fitch had a well-deserved reputation as a master strategist.
The prosecution team suffered from including members with rather different goals. Prosecutor Lyttleton Price, appointed by the governor, was suspect in the eyes of Clanton-McLaury sympathizers because of his ties to Tombstone's establishment. Ben Goodrich, Ike Clanton's personal lawyer, clearly did not receive the same suspicion, yet understood--as did Price--the benefits of not presenting the prosecution case in its most extreme form. Will McLaury (brother of the Tom and Frank), however, arrived from Texas to join the prosecution team sharing no interest in anything but an all-out attack on the defendants.
Testimony in the hearing began behind closed doors--at the request of the defense--on October 31, 1881. Coroner Matthews opened testimony for the prosecution by stating the dead men were killed by "gunshot or pistol wounds," and that Tom McLaury's wounds indicated that he had been killed by a shotgun rather than a revolver.
The next day the prosecution sent to the stand its first witness offered to prove its central argument: the slain men were killed before they had time to surrender their weapons. Billy Allen told the court that he told when he informed Frank McLaury that his brother Tom "had been hit on the head by Wyatt Earp," he appeared shock and said, "I will get the boys out of town." Later, as a witness to the gunfight, Allen heard one of the Earps say, "You sons-of-bitches, you have been looking for a fight!" and the same time Virgil Earp ordered the Clantons and McLaurys to "Throw up your hands!" Allen said the Earp party began firing just as William Clanton said, "I ain't got no arms." On cross-examination, Thomas Fitch bombarded Allen with questions about his shady past: Hadn't he been indicted for larceny in Colorado? Didn't he flee to Tombstone to avoid prosecution? Hadn't he used an alias? Allen exercised his constitutional right to refuse to answer, but his credibility was severely damaged.
On the third day of the trial, Sheriff Johnny Behan testified that he learning about the fast-brewing trouble in his town while sitting in a barber chair. "I asked the barber to hurry up and get through," Behan said, "as I intended to go out and disarm and arrest the parties." Behan testified that he demanded at least four times that Frank McLaury turn over his gun, but repeatedly met with McLaury's objection that he would do so only when the Earps were also disarmed. Behan said his efforts to disarm McLaury were interrupted when he spotting the Earps and Holliday marching down Fremont Street. Behan told the Earps he had been "down there for the purpose of arresting and disarming the Clantons and McLaurys," and ordered the Earps to stop. "I'm the Sheriff of the county and am not going to allow any trouble if I can help it," Behan claimed to have said. Behan testified that the Earps continued down Fremont Street undaunted, as he followed behind urging them to reconsider. When the Earps arrived at the spot where their adversaries had gathered, Behan heard Wyatt say, "You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight and now you can have it" about the same time Virgil ordered, "Throw up your hands." The shooting commenced instantly, Behan testified, with--he thought, although "I will not say for certain"--the first shot being fired at Billy Clanton by Doc Holliday.
Sherriff Johnny Behan
In his cross-examination of Sheriff Behan, Thomas Fitch tried to establish possible bias and tried to point out problems with his description of the gunfight. Possible bias, Fitch suggested, came from Behan's competition with Wyatt for the position as sheriff. (He resisted the temptation to ask Behan about the love triangle that included him, Wyatt, and Josephine Marcus.) Fitch's main focus with respect to Behan's description of the shooting concerned his testimony that the first shot probably came from a "nickel-plated pistol" in Holliday's hand. How is that possible, Fitch wondered, when so many other witnesses identified Holliday as having a shotgun? Did he drop the pistol and grab a shotgun, all in the space of a few seconds? Most effectively, perhaps, Fitch questioned Behan about his visit to the injured Virgil Earp on the night of the gunfight, in which he reportedly assured Earp, "You did perfectly right."
Other prosecution witnesses offered testimony suggesting that the shooting of the McLaurys and Clanton was premeditated. Martha King told the court that, standing near a butcher shop on Fremont Street, she heard one of the Earps (she was not sure which one) tell Holliday, "Let them have it." Holliday, she testified, answered, "All right." Wesley Fuller testified that the shooting began before the Clantons and McLaurys had a chance to respond to the demand that they disarm. Fuller said that Billy Clanton had thrown up his hands and was shouting "Don't shoot me!" as the bullets began flying. On cross-examination, however, Fuller's credibility was damaged when he admitted to having told a friend that he meant "to cinch Holliday" with his testimony.
In the middle of the prosecution case, Judge Spicer, to the surprise of the defendants, revoked Wyatt Earp's and Doc Holliday's bail, and on November 7 committed them to the county jail. Will McLaury was overjoyed at the decision of Spicer to grant his motion, boasting that "Everybody wanted to see me and shake my hands" upon hearing that "the murderers were in jail."
Judge Wells Spicer
Brought from jail to Spicer's court the next morning, Earp and Holliday listened as prosecution witness Billy "the Kid" Claiborne testified that their party "had their six-shooters in their hands" well before they reached the lot where the Clantons and McLaurys had gathered. The witness provided a detailed description of the gunfight that suggested premeditation on the part of the Earp party. Claiborne said he heard Virgil shout "you can have it [the fight they had been looking for]" even before he told them to "throw up" their hands. He claimed "Morgan Earp shoved his pistol up close" to Bill Clanton "and fired." Cross-examination of Claiborne raised doubts about his assertion that the Earps had guns in hand as they headed down Fremont Street and left Claiborne silent when asked whether he was at present under bail for his role in "a killing scrape" in Charleston.
Ike Clanton probably never should have been called as a witness by the prosecution, but he was. In Clanton's recounting of the gunfight, his brother was gunned down by Morgan Earp as "his hands were thrown up about even with the level of his head." Split seconds later, Ike took Wyatt Earp's pistol-holding hand with "my left hand and grabbed him around the shoulder with my right hand...and pushed him around the corner," allowing Ike to duck into the safety of the photograph gallery. Clanton said the trouble started the night before when Holliday interrupted his meal and began calling him "a son-of-a-bitch of a cowboy" and challenging him to a gunfight. Morgan soon arrived, Clanton testified, and told me "to be heeled when I came back on the street." Later, he said, Virgil Earp buffaloed him and then Wyatt stuck a cocked pistol at him during his arrest. In short, Clanton painted the picture of a group of out-of-control men anxious for a fight--without offering any real explanation for their animosity toward him.
In his cross-examination of Clanton, Fitch forced Ike to admit that he had carried a Winchester rifle around Tombstone on the morning of the gunfight, and made clear he was no less anxious--if not more so--than Holliday or the Earps for a showdown. Most significantly, the defense bore down on a probable motivation for Clanton's anger: his fear that the secret deal he had made with Wyatt Earp to turn in the men responsible for the stagecoach robbery would be revealed to his Cowboy friends. Clanton's answers badly damaged the prosecution case, as Ike offered incredible testimony suggesting that the Earps were behind the stagecoach robbery (Doc Holliday told him, he said, that he shot the stagecoach driver "through the heart") and offering the theory that the killing of the Clantons and McLaurys was an attempt to keep them from bringing charges. The prosecution offered four additional witnesses after Clanton, and then rested its case.
On November 16, 1881, the defense opened its case by calling to the stand, Wyatt Earp. In Earp's case, the defense took advantage of an Arizona law permitting defendants in preliminary hearings to avoid cross-examination by offering a narrative statement. Earp chose to read an account of events that almost certainly was prepared with the assistance of his attorney. Earp told the court that the October gunfight "originated" with the feud between the Earps and McLaury's that had begun that spring when the Earps attempted to retrieve stolen mules from McLaury's farm. According to Earp, the McLaury's had been waiting for a chance to get even ever since, and he recounted several threats he received from McLaury as evidence. Wyatt forcefully denied any involvement with the stagecoach robbery and murder. Clanton's accusation was "a tissue of lies from beginning to end."
Earp portrayed the October 26 shoot-out as the unfortunate result of Behan's deceiving them into thinking that he had disarmed the Clantons and McLaurys. Only when he and the rest of his party came within close range of the men did they realize that McLaury and Clanton had six-shooters "in plain sight." He testified that the shooting began when, in response to Virgil's demand that they disarm, "Billy and Frank reached for their guns." Earp claimed to have, along with Billy Clanton, fired one of the first two shots of the gunfight--his striking "the belly" of Frank McLaury who, Earp said, "had the reputation of being a good shot." Tom McLaury, another victim of the shoot-out, might have been unarmed, Earp admitted, but nothing at the time "led me even to suspect his being unarmed." In sum, Earp offered a compelling story of self-defense: lawmen enforcing the law (carrying guns violated a Tombstone ordinance) being forced to make the tough split-second decision to fire before it was too late to save themselves.
Three days after Wyatt testified, his brother Virgil took the stand--or, more precisely, the court came to his bedside in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, where he lay recovering from his gunshot wound. In his somewhat disjointed testimony, Virgil recounted his futile efforts to calm down an irate Ike Clanton the night before the shoot-out. He testified that the following morning a man warned him that Clanton had threatened to "kill me on sight." Another man named "Sills" told him he had overheard the Clantons and McLaurys talking, and one of them had said of the Earps: "We will kill them all!" Hearing that the Clantons and McLaurys had gathered at the O.K. Corral, he determined to let them be "as long as they stayed in the corral," but disarm and arrest them "if they came on the street." When they moved out on to Fremont Street, Virgil said, his brothers and Holliday, who he deputized, made their fateful march leading to the gunfight. Virgil insisted that Frank and Billy "drew their six-shooters and commenced to cock them" as soon as he gave them the order to disarm. Two shots, one from Billy Clanton and the other--most likely--from Wyatt, went off in quick succession and then the shooting became "general."
Other witnesses, including the H. F. Sills alluded to by Virgil Earp in his testimony, testified about overheard threats against the Earps. Ned Boyle reported that Ike Clanton told him on the morning of the shoot-out that "as soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open." Rezin Campbell testified that he heard Ike warn Wyatt that "Fight is my racket, and all I want is four feet of ground."
Other witnesses further weakened the prosecution's already eroding case. Winfield Williams testified that he heard Sheriff Johnny Behan, at Virgil's house on the night after the gunfight, tell Earp, "You did perfectly right." Hotel owner Albert Billicke told the court that shortly before the gunfight he saw Tom McLaury leave a butcher shop on Fremont Street with what could only be a gun protruding from his pants pocket. Annie Bourland, who witnessed the shoot-out, said that she did not see any of the Clantons or McLaurys throw up their hands in a gesture of surrender before the shooting commenced.
Testimony in the hearing ended on November 29. After listening to thirty witnesses, it was time for Judge Spicer to make his decision.
Decision and Aftermath
Judge Spicer's decision was a near total victory for the defense: there would be no criminal trial of the Earps or of Holliday. Although he considered Virgil's decision to request the assistance of his brothers and Doc Holliday in disarming the Clantons and McLaurys "an injudicious and censurable act", it failed to rise to the level of a criminal offense. "I can attach no criminality to his unwise act," the judge announced. Spicer said that much of the blame for the gunfight must rest with Ike Clanton and the deceased men for failing to heed Sheriff Behan's request that they give up their arms. For McLaury to insist that the Earps be disarmed before he is, Spicer said, "is a proposition both monstrous and startling." Chief of Police Earp and his assistants had every "right and duty" to be armed when they approached "men whom they believed to be armed and contemplating resistance." The "tragic results" of the Clantons and McLaurys actions were largely their own fault. "I cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides," Spicer concluded. "There being no sufficient cause" to believe the defendants guilty of murder, "I order them to be released."
As might be expected in a town where an establishment camp and a rougher-edged crowd battled over everything, the reaction to Judge Spicer's decision was divided. While the Tombstone Epitaph had nothing but praise for Spicer, the Tombstone Nugget called his decision contemptible. Angry elements of the Cowboy faction plotted revenge, and then carried it out. Two weeks after Spicer's controversial decision, Pro-Earp Mayor John Clum leaped out of a stagecoach to escape bandits attempting to assassinate him. Two more weeks later, Virgil Earp was ambushed by several men--probably including Ike Clanton--as he walked home from a saloon at night. Two loads of buckshot left his arm virtually immobile for the rest of his life. (Clanton faced charges for the attempted murder, but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.) In March, 1882, a final act of revenge took the life of Morgan Earp. A bullet fired through the window of a pool hall struck Morgan in his abdomen and then passed through his spinal column. He lived for about another hour, telling his friends before he died only, "I have played my last game of pool."
The death of Morgan and the wounding of Virgil sent Wyatt Earp off on what would become known as his "Vendetta Ride." Wyatt tracked down and mercilessly killed Frank Stilwell, one of the suspects in his brother's slaying. With a murder warrant out for his arrest, Wyatt found in a Dragoon Mountains camp another suspect in Morgan's shooting, "Indian Charlie," and killed him as well. A third suspect, Curly Bill Brocius, also met his death at Wyatt's hands, having been found by Earp with a group of Cowboys in a clearing near Iron Springs.
Earp fled to New Mexico with a small group of his supporters, and from there traveled with Doc Holliday to Colorado. Arizona officials requested that Earp and Holliday be extradited to their state to face charges, but Colorado Governor Frederick Pitkin denied the request.
Within a few years, silver production in Tombstone mines dropped sharply, and the boomtown lost its boom. It seemed headed toward ghost town status, but continuing interest in the famous shoot-out of 1881 brought in enough tourists to keep the old town alive.
Wyatt Earp married Josephine Marcus in 1887. The two would adventure widely together for many decades, from San Francisco to Idaho to El Paso to Alaska. Earp refereed heavyweight boxing matches, mined for gold, sold real estate, raised race horses, and ran saloons and gambling halls. Earp died in January 1929 at age eighty.
* The best source for additional information on the Earp-Holliday trial is Steven Lubet's Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp 2004).