Sorting facts from long held fictions
During casual conversations over the summer of 2019, musing about the enduring popularity of the movie TOMBSTONE, Michael Biehn voiced often his fierce conviction that decades of film and television have grossly distorted the true history behind the fabled “Gunfight at the O. K. Corral.” His awareness of that distortion and sensitivity about it grew out of his association with screenwriter Kevin Jarre, whose obsessive devotion to authenticity in shooting TOMBSTONE led to him being replaced as director after four weeks.
The victims of the “Gunfight,” Billy Clanton and McLaury brothers Frank and Tom, were local ranchers, members of the business community. Yet they have long been cast as villains, branded “Cowboys” and “outlaws” and portrayed as loathsome desperados, which they never were. More egregious still, Wyatt Earp has become an iconic hero when he was likely the most disreputable character anywhere near the O. K. Corral and nothing he would do over his remaining fifty years would ever be considered any kind of accomplishment.
Noting this great disparity between Tombstone facts and fictions led us to explore its history, and our interest was piqued when we learned about the month long “trial” right after the “Gunfight.” Wyatt and Doc were behind bars for most of that proceeding, facing the harshest charges of first degree murder. In the quarter century since TOMBSTONE’s release, and possibly spurred by it, an outpouring of research and books has shed new light into these people and events. Add the growing availability of original, archival material online and ferreting out truth from the welter of distortion is now all the more possible.
Over the past year, we’ve done a “deep dive” into this story, looking at more than a dozen books and several dozen more internet sources. We set out below the facts as we see them, very much at odds with Tombstone myths and legends. We believe we have gleaned new insights into the motives and actions of the principal characters as as they approached their final, fateful encounter that cold October afternoon.
As we unveil our conclusions about the “Gunfight” and its aftermath we will often note how the historical record differs from what’s been depicted onscreen. We start by offering brief, salient portraits of the principals, including names rarely spotlighted, and then look at the key events that led them to that vacant lot.
Wyatt Earp was in Tombstone for barely two years and he left that town as he had others before — with a warrant for his arrest and a posse on his trail.
We will be adding to this site, more fully developing our account, but now, here’s the opening of MURDER AT THE O.K. CORRAL.
1) There’s likely no event more deeply burrowed into our cultural DNA than the thirty seconds when thirty gunshots shattered the stillness of a vacant lot next to a photographer’s studio a century and a half ago. Just six doors down the alley was an establishment whose proprietors wished to honor former President Martin Van Buren by incorporating the initials of his nickname, “Old Kindersley,” into the name of their company. Above their livery stable they erected a sign reading “O. K. Corral.”
2) “Truth Decay” is a nothing new in American life. Consider how a saturating century of pop culture has turned a thick-headed, chronic failure more familiar with the wrong side of the law into an archetype symbolizing dedicated, stalwart law enforcement. For the short time Wyatt Earp was in Tombstone, he spent most of his time grabbing for what wasn’t his and left death and destruction in his wake. If we want to live in a world where “the truth shall make you free,” then a good place to start is by freeing ourselves of what we think we know about the legend of Wyatt Earp.
3) For thirty years following the “Gunfight” Wyatt and Josie roamed the West, chasing quick money without success. He brought with him his fondness for fixing games and that blew up when he refereed a heavyweight championship fight and was universally condemned as throwing it by calling a low blow on the boxer clearly winning. Trying to put that stench behind him, he and Josie settled in Southern California in 1911.
With the arrival of the fledgling
movie business, Wyatt began hanging around
sets, trying to ingratiate himself to anyone
he thought might put his stories on the
screen. He never succeeded, although
he did befriend a few of the early Western
stars. For the fifteen years she lived
on after Wyatt’s
death in 1929,
Josie was relentless in foisting
outlandish narratives that created Wyatt’s
image and she protected it by haranguing,
hectoring, and threatening expensive
litigation on anyone who even considered a
more accurate and balanced view.
5) Our view of Wyatt, however, is quite at odds with the legend Josie so diligently manufactured. At the age of twenty-four, he was running a floating brothel in Peoria, and not very well, either; he kept having to relocate after being arrested three times. He arrived in Peoria after escaping from a Missouri jail cell following his arrest for stealing two horses. This was shortly after he’d fled Lamar, Missouri where he was was wanted for pocketing license fees and court judgements he was responsible for collecting. The monies funded schools.
* * *
6) In the moments leading up to the killings, only one group — the Earps — was on the prowl for the other and they brought with them an incendiary, ill-tempered ally — Doc Holliday — whose very presence was sure to incite mayhem. The Earp’s quarry — the McLaury and Clanton brothers — weren’t shooting up the town nor were any wanted for any crimes. They were accosted leading their horses through the alley from the Corral, heading home after selling beef to the town butchers. The McLaurys planned to continue on to Iowa for their sister’s wedding before they were slaughtered.
7) While the McLaurys and the Clantons were clearly not “outlaws,” they are often grouped together with a shady cast of characters known as the “Cowboys”; or the “Cochise County Cowboys,” and whether they fit in this category requires a bit of exploration as to just what the term meant at the time.
- Jim Anderson & Michael Biehn -