The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | October 31, 2012

October 31, 2012
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Within a 16-month period beginning in July 1881, there were three notable shootings and one great shootout in the United States.  President Garfield was shot by an assassin, Billy the Kid was shot by a sheriff, Jesse James was shot by a coward, and at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday shot up the Clanton gang, in the most famous gunfight in Western history.  That epic shootout was, one hundred and thirty years ago today, the subject of a Preliminary Hearing convened in Tombstone –  and what  happened at it  determined why the great frontier lawman Wyatt Earp, forty years later, was living in poverty in Los Angeles, from whence he wrote this incredibly rare letter…

Whether the bad blood between the Earp and Clanton boys which led to an Arizona cattle pen becoming the site of the most famous gunfight in Western history began over stolen mules, a stagecoach robbery, a contested election, a stolen horse, or was instead yet another clash between North versus South, town versus ranch, or Republicans versus Democrats, wasn’t, on October 31st 1881, the point: what mattered that day in Judge Spicer’s courtroom was that three men had been shot to death at the OK Corral, and someone, the law said, had to answer for it.

The surviving Clantons charged that the Earp brothers and Holliday stalked their victims, some of who were unarmed, and shot first without provocation. The Earps and Holliday, in turn, claimed that the Clantons were waiting for them, and had cocked their pistols first. Whatever the true facts, the Earps and Holliday were, after a month of intense and controversial wrangling, acquitted: a verdict which, not surprisingly, infuriated the Clantons and so led, in short order, to more bloodshed. Taking their revenge, the Clantons first ambushed and badly wounded Virgil Earp; next, they shot at Wyatt and Morgan Earp in a saloon, killing Morgan. With this, Wyatt Earp and Holliday – mindful of how they had just been dragged into court, jailed and assailed for a month before being exonerated – decided to take justice into their own hands. In what has come to be known as the Vendetta Ride, Earp and Holliday raided various outlaw hideouts, killing those whom they suspected participated in Morgan’s death. Some three weeks and four (or fourteen) deaths later, Wyatt was on the run from the law in Arizona. He fled to Gunnison, Colorado, where that state’s governor refused to extradite him back to Arizona on the grounds that he could not get a fair trial.

Tombstone, circa 1881. Wikimedia.
Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881

Even when, a few months later, the heat at home had diminished, Earp realized that Arizona was over for him, and so made his way to San Francisco. There he re-kindled his Tombstone romance with Josephine “Sadie” Marcus, the free-wheeling and unlikely daughter of an observant Jewish family. Together they began a restless life, relocating whenever a new gold, silver or copper mining boomtown appeared. They bought mines and real estate, and ran saloons and gambling parlors, in places as far away as Nome, Alaska and Eagle City, Idaho. Finally they settled in Southern California, where, initially, they lived on their winnings from gambling. There they invested in oil wells, which never hit; bought land,  that never boomed; worked on an autobiography, never completed; and wrote a screenplay, which naturally, was never produced. When, at the end, their money all gone, they rented a tiny apartment in a dingy bungalow court in Los Angeles, and lived on monthly checks from Sadie’s family…

The exceptionally rare letter featured here is one of but a couple in private hands – in fact, there has not been a whole handwritten Earp letter offered at public auction in a hundred years – and it shows Earp, like everyone else in the 20‘s Los Angeles real estate boom, trying to carve up and sell off the last frontier:

“Your letter in hand – was glad to hear from you in regard to Mr. Burke. You can tell him I would be glad to do business with him but at present cant do anything as I have not got things fixed up on the 160 acres, but am ready to go in with the 40 acres providing I get the bonus. Mains and Bradley were here and have gone back to Los Angeles again. There is a man by the name of Holt from the Imperial Valley a man with plenty of money. He has taken over the Alice property that Vaughn owned. I wonder would Mr. Burke be interested in the mines in any way. I would like to show him my property. I will stay here until I hear from Washington. Mrs. Earp will arrive here tonight.”

Despite all of Earp’s wheeling and dealing, the trail he left behind him was, in life, chiefly written in blood. It wasn’t until two years after his death, when his story was finally told, in ink, and two years after that, on film, that Earp became a myth.

WYATT BERRY STAPP EARP. 1848 – 1929. American frontier lawman and folk hero. In October 1881, he and his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holliday, faced off against the Clanton gang at a cattle pen in Tombstone, Arizona – the O.K. Corral – in the most famous gunfight in Western history.  The legendary Earp also bears the unlikely distinction of being buried in a Jewish cemetery, next to his Jewish wife, Josephine “Sadie” Marcus Earp.

Autograph Letter Signed (“W. Earp”), 2 pages, quarto, Vidal [California], January 15, 1921. To John Flood, Earp’s (unpaid) secretary and the ghostwriter of his abortive autobiography. Of the utmost rarity; there are thought to be not more than two or perhaps three Earp letters in private hands.

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