October 26, 1881, Tombstone, Arizona. The Earp brothers--Wyatt, Jim, Virgil, and Morgon--had just moved into town. Virgil, a U.S. marshal, was working as a policeman. Morgan had a job with Wells Fargo. Jim spent his time as a faro dealer. And Wyatt was a stage coach guard. But Wyatt didnt want to stay a stage coach guard; he wanted to become sheriff when the new county of Cochise was created, which would be in a few months. Not because he was particularly concerned about the safety of the county but because he liked money: sheriffs were also the tax-collectors and kept 10% of what they collected. The salary worked out to be around $40,000 a year--a fortune back then. So Wyatt became deputy sheriff of Pima County. But he resigned before the new county was created because, since the territorial governor, John C. Fremont, was Republican, he thought hed have a better chance at the job if he cut his ties with the Democratic sheriff of Pima. Wyatt was replaced with Johnny Behan, a Democrat who also wanted the job. Behan got it. Cochise County, mainly Democratic, was happy. Tombstone, mostly Republican wasnt.
This brought to the surface the political problems of Tombstone. Most of the miners and townspeople were Northern Republicans. A majority of the cowboys who lived around the town were Southern Democrats. Both sides had plenty of criminals. The Earps became the leaders of the Republican Tombstonians. This group liked to call itself the Law and Order Party and blame all crime on the evil cowboys. In fact, the cowboys basically stayed out of town and so caused little of the crime.
In 1880, Fred White, the city marshal, was fatally shot by cowboy Curly Bill Brocius. The rumor was that Brocius had used what was called from there-on the Curly Bill spin: handing the gun over butt first but as the person reached for it quickly flip it over and shoot. The wounded person would be too busy bleeding to notice the trick. But Virgil Earp, who witnessed the event, also claimed the shooting was accidental.
At any rate, Virgil got promoted to temporary city marshal by the Law and Order-run city council. Tombstone elected Ben Sippy instead in a special election in January, 1881, but six months later Sippy took an unexplained leave of absence and was never heard from again.
On March 15, 1881, a stagecoach was robbed and the driver and a passenger killed. A man named Luther King was found who admitted to holding the robbers horses and identified them as the cattle rustlers Harry Head, Jim Crane, and Billy Leonard, friend of Doc Holliday (who was best friends with Wyatt Earp). As sheriff Behan and his deputy Billy Breckenridge looked for the robbers, they were accompanied by a posse made of: Marshall Williams, the Wells Fargos manager of Tombstone, and his buddies Wyatt and Morgan Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson.
A lot of people believed Doc was in on the robbery and maybe even shot the driver himself. A telegraph worker said he heard shots and saw Doc galloping away from the direction the shots came from.
Now it gets more complicated. Wyatt asked Ike Clanton, a cowboy leader, and his friend Frank McLaury to lure the thieves (his old buddies) towards Tombstone. Wyatt later testified hed told them he wanted the glory of catching them so he could win the election for sheriff. If they told him where Leonard, Head, and Crane were hiding, Wyatt would give them the whole reward and never reveal them as sources.
Clanton later said Wyatt wanted help because he couldnt afford for them to be alive. Supposedly, Wyatt and Morgan, who both had Wells Fargo connections, had told the stage robbers about the money: how much, when and where, etc. So Wyatt was afraid that if someone else captured them, the thieves might tell on him--according to Clanton.
Clanton agreed to the arrangement, as long as Wyatt got Wells Fargo to agree to pay the reward for the robbers either dead or alive. But the Clanton-Earp agreement never had a chance to take place. Two ranchers killed Leonard and Head because they suspected them of being hired assassins. Two months later, Crane, along with Ikes dad and some other cowboys, was killed by Mexican troops while driving cattle (probably stolen in Mexico) by the Arizona-Sonora border.
Tensions between the cowboys and the Law and Order people continued to build. Another stage coach was robbed on September 8, 1881 and Frank Stilwell and Pete Spencer were accused of the crime. Both were businessmen, but the Earps followers loudly claimed it as one more of the evil cowboys treacheries. They organized a vigilance committee and appointed the Earps as the enforcers of their decisions. Frank McLaury heard about it and confronted Virgil. McLaury said hed heard they were organizing a committee to hang all the cowboys and warned Virgil he would never be able to get him.
Ike was getting pretty uncomfortable. Besides all the hostilities, he was worried the Earps would tell Holliday about his agreement to double-cross the first robbers. Holliday was a friend of Billy Leonard and Ike was extremely afraid Doc might get mad and kill him.
Now Wyatt brought Ike a new plan: set up a fake robbery with Ike and buddies as the robbers. The Earps an Holliday would heroically chase them off and save the day. No one would be hurt.
On October 25, Ike and Tom McLaury came to Tombstone: Tom to get supplies; Ike to drink. Toms brother Frank and Ikes brother Billy would come the next morning. By 1 in the morning, Ike was hammered. He headed to the Occidental Saloon to get something to eat. Doc Holliday came in and told him to arm himself and come outside so Ike could prove his earlier assertion that they wouldnt be able to take him. According to Wyatt who was outside along with Virgil and his deputy Jim Flynn, Clanton threatened Doc and the Earps. If he did, he was beyond drunk: Ike was not a gunman, the others were known sharp-shooters.
Strangely, half an hour later, Ike got into a poker game with Tom McLaury, Johnny Behan and Virgil Earp. Afterwards, Ike, not feeling like sleeping, wandered around town. While wandering, he picked up his revolver and later his rifle. A neighbor saw him and told Docs wife, Big Nose Kate, that Ike was looking for her husband and he was armed.
Virgil and Morgan Earp set out to disarm him. They snuck up behind him and Virgil knocked him out by slapping him in the head with his revolver. They dragged him to court and the judge fined him $25 for carrying a weapon (illegal while in town).
Later, Wyatt found 18-year-old Tom McLaury walking around town, unarmed. Several witnesses agreed that Earp hit him four or five times in the head with his pistol and then left him there.
Virgil told Sheriff Behan that the cowboys had been threatening them. The sheriff found Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury on Fremont Street near the O.K. Corral and searched them to make sure they had no weapons. Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury did but were on their way out of town.
From around the corner came the three Earps with Doc Holliday. Behan went over to Virgil and asked for a chance to disarm the cowboys. The Earp posse ignored him and kept moving forward. They started shooting. Ike began running; Tom opened his coat to show he had no weapons and Doc blasted him with his shotgun. His last request was for more bullets. Wyatt shot Frank McLaury who then shot Doc in the hip. Morgan hit Frank in the head. Billy Clanton had yelled that he didnt want to fight as the Earps approached, but Morgan shot him. Billy started shooting from the ground and hit Morgan in the shoulder and Virgil in the leg. As Morgan fell, he and Virgil each shot Billy again.
Wyatts testimony at the trial was as follows (as recorded in Legendary American Gunfights & Gunfighters by William Weir):
When I saw Billy Clanton and Frank McLowry (sic) draw their pistols, I drew my pistol. Billy Clanton leveled his pistol on me, but I did not aim at him. I knew that Frank McLowry had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man and I aimed at Frank McLowry. The first two shots which were fired were fired by Billy Clanton and myself, he shooting at me and I at Frank McLowry.
But it couldnt have happened that way. Pioneer in timing shooting stunts, Ed McGivern proved in the 1930s that if a person starts to draw after his opponent has started must be twice as fast to even shoot at the same time. Frank McLaury, like all the others in the O.K. Corral fight, was an experienced gunman. It would be impossible for Wyatt to be even close to fast enough to shoot him first.
Although it was clear the Earps and Holliday had committed premeditated murder, Tombstone did not provide an exactly unbiased court. Justice Wells Spicer, Wyatts friend, held the preliminary hearing to see if they should appear before a grand jury. Neither Morgan, Virgil, or Doc was required to testify because they were injured although Docs was very minor. Wyatt was allowed to read a prepared statement and was not cross examined. All other witnesses were unprepared and cross examined. Disinterested witnesses, like two women who watched the battle--one from a window directly above it and one from a nearby store-front, were completely ignored. Spicer ruled that Virgil was carrying out his duty by trying to disarm the cowboys and the brothers and Doc--since deputized--were doing what they were supposed to as well.
But the Tombstone city council did meet and fire Virgil. A grand jury trial was held in spite of Spicers decision. The jury was composed of friends and followed Spicers lead. Although the trial was an obvious obstruction of justice, the pro-Earp posse was still the most powerful in town.
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