The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Becomes Legend

On 26 October 1881, three men were shot dead in Tombstone, Arizona. A survivor, Wyatt Earp, turned it into a legend.

Sign entering Tombstone, Arizona mentioning the so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1937. New York Public Library. Public Domain.

Gunfights were news in Tombstone, Arizona but not headline news. One local paper, The Tombstone Epitaph, had a regular column for them titled ‘Death’s Doings’.

But the gunfight on the afternoon of 26 October 1881 was different. ‘Three Men Hurled Into Eternity in the Duration of a Moment’ was the Epitaph’s headline; three more were wounded. One of the dead, Billy Clanton, was still in his teens.

From the beginning, what happened was disputed. On the side of the law – in theory at least – town marshall Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and John ‘Doc’ Holliday, gambler, gunslinger, sometime dentist. On the other, four bandits known locally as ‘The Cowboys’. Many thought the killings no more than murder: 300 followed the cortège to the cemetery and some 2,000 lined the route.

The gunfight took place at a vacant lot beside a photographer’s studio, not the O.K. Corral. That seems apt: film – particularly the 1957 movie – made it famous.

Wyatt Earp alone lived to shape public memory. He was in Hollywood by 1915 where he met Charlie Chaplin and a young John Wayne. He is reportedly in the crowd scenes in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Half-Breed, indistinct, already fading into myth.