Wyatt Earp's Tombstone
Aftermath Of The O.K. Corral Shootout
After the smoke has cleared the scene, Sheriff Johnny Behan attempts
to arrest Wyatt. In a line that has become famous with the telling of the
OK Corral story, Wyatt responds, "I won't be arrested today. You threw us,
Johnny." Apparently implying that Behan had set them up by telling them he
had disarmed the cowboys. Two of the 3 cowboys who participated in the shoot-out
were armed, only Tom McLaury was believed to be unarmed. Ike and Billy Claiborne,
also unarmed, had run at the beginning of the fight. It was amazing how
three men in the Earp party were shot by "unarmed men". Ed Bartholomew states
in his book that Wyatt and Doc were arrested immediately after the shooting,
we will soon see that this is not true, they were not arrested until several
Wyatt sees that Virgil and Morgan are taken care of as they are taken to
their homes. Virgil Earp is suspended as City Marshal until a full investigation
can take place and Ike Clanton follows up a couple days later by filing murder
charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday with Judge Wells Spicer, who reportedly
was a good friend of Wyatt's. While this is taking place, the Earps are being
moved into the Cosmopolitan Hotel because they fear for their lives.
On November 4 of 1881, Wyatt and Doc are arrested by Deputy Sheriff Harry
Woods and taken to jail. Bail is set at $10,000.00 each for Holliday and
Wyatt and they were initially released after posting said bail. (13)
(Virgil and Morgan had been allowed to stay home due to their injuries.)
Soon after, William McLaury, the brother of the dead men, came into town.
He was an attorney and became outraged when he learned Earp and Holliday
were free on bail. After meeting with Judge Spicer on November 7, he succeeded
in getting Wyatt and Doc put back on jail, where they were held until November
20th. During the trial, everyone was questioned from Wyatt Earp to
witnesses on the street. Wyatt caused a prosecution objection when asked
to tell the events that transpired the day of the shooting. Wyatt pulled
out a prepared statement written by his lawyer and commenced to read from
it, prompting the prosecution objection. It was overruled. Wyatt was never
cross-examined after his statement, which was very favorable to the defense.
In addition to the letter of support that the citizens of Wichita sent to
Judge Spicer (noted on the "early years" page), the citizens of Dodge City
similarly submitted a letter in support of Wyatt Earp:
"To all Whom it May Concern, Greetings:"
"We, the undersigned citizens of Dodge City, Ford County, Kansas, and
vicinity do by these presents certify that we are personally acquainted with
Wyatt Earp, late of this city, that he came here in the year 1876; that during
the years 1877, 1878, and 1879, was a Marshal of our city; that he left our
place in the fall of 1879; that during his whole stay here he occupied a
place of high social position and was regarded and looked upon as a high minded,
honorable citizen; that as Marshal of our city he was ever vigilant in the
discharge of his duties and while kind and courteous to all, he was brave,
unflinching, and on all occasions proved himself the right man in the right
place. Hearing that he is now under arrest, charged with complicity in the
killing of three men termed cowboys, from our knowledge of him we do not
believe that he would wantonly take the life of his fellow man, and that,
if he was implicated, he only took life in the discharge of his sacred trust
to the people, and earnestly appeal to the Citizens of Tombstone, Arizona,
to use all means to secure for him a fair and impartial trial, fully confident
that when tried he will be fully vindicated and exonerated of any crime."
(signed by dozens of people, too many to list here)Defense Exhibit
"A", Wells Spicer Hearing, 1881 (14)The trial was
predictable. The prosecution against the Earp party brought a dozen witnesses
forward stating that the Earps were murdering, stage robbing, psychopaths
who were looking for a reason to kill the Clantons and McLaurys. The defense
brought about a dozen witness of their own who claimed the Clantons and McLaurys
were rustling, murdering, psychopaths who had been threatening their lives.
No one knew what side to believe and it seemed impossible to find a completely
non-partial witness. Perhaps the one witness that won the case, at least
a large majority of it, for the Earps, was railroad engineer H.F. Sills.
Sills did not know either party, was not from Tombstone, and had arrived
in town only one day before the gunfight. Sills would later testify that
he heard the men (the cowboy party) gathering in front of the OK Corral state
that they were going to "kill Virgil Earp" on sight. This impartial testimony
from a man who didn't know either faction, and didn't care either way, may
have been the straw that broke the back of the prosecution.
In his decision finding the Earps not guilty (on December 1),
Judge Wells Spicer would state the following, "...I am of the opinion
that the weight of evidence sustains and corroborates the testimony of Wyatt
and Virgil Earp that their demand for surrender was met by Wm. Clanton and
Frank McLaury drawing, or making motions to draw, their pistols..." "The
defendants were officers charged with the duty of arresting and disarming
brave and determined men who were experts in the use of firearms...and who
had previously declared their intention not to be arrested or disarmed..."
"The testimony of Isaac Clanton that this tragedy was the result of a scheme
on the part of the Earps to assassinate him, and thereby bury in oblivion
the confessions the Earps had made to him about piping away the shipment
of coin by Wells Fargo & Co., falls short of being a sound theory, because
of the great fact, most prominent in the matter, to wit, that Isaac Clanton
was not injured at all, and could have been killed first and easiest..."
"In view of the past history of the country and the generally believed existence
at this time of desperate, reckless and lawless men in our midst, banded
together for mutual support, and living by felonious and predatory pursuits,
regarding neither lives nor property in their career, and at this time for
men to parade the streets armed, with repeating rifles and six shooters and
demand that the Chief of Police and his assistants should be disarmed is
a proposition both monstrous and startling..." "I...cannot resist firm conviction
that the Earps acted wisely, discreetly, and prudentially to secure their
own self-preservation- they saw are once the dire necessity of giving the
first shot to save themselves from certain death...; it was a necessary act
done in the discharge of official duty." Wells Spicer Transcript
While many would criticize Spicer's decision, saying he was friendly
with the Earps, Spicer's decision has been regarded in most legal circles
today as being a "highly competent" legal decision, and that his basic finding,
that Virgil Earp and the men he deputized were acting within the authority
of the law - was legally sound. (15)The Earps had gone
free, found not guilty. I think the most compelling statement of Spicer's
decision is the fact that if the Earps were walking down Fremont street with
the intent of killing some cowboys, why was Ike Clanton not shot first since
he was the one making all the threats? If the Earps were really intent on
murdering someone, they not only would have shot Ike as he ran, but would
have shot Billy Claiborne as well. Note that Spicer also acknowledges that
he thinks the Earps fired first, and yet finds that they were justified in
firing first. It would appear from most angles that at least Wyatt and Virgil
did not confront the cowboys with the intent of killing them, Virgil still
had Doc's cane in his hand. Morgan and Doc are the ones who may have had
another motive. The one witnesses telling statement that she had heard one
of the two in the back say "Let 'em have it!" and the other responded, "Okay"
would seem to support that belief. Many historians agree that Wyatt Earp's
undoing was his friendship with Doc Holliday, and it might well have been
Doc that got the Earps into trouble. Of course, Ike Clanton would share
much of the blame as well. On the cowboy side, it is safe to say that
at least Tom McLaury and possibly Billy Clanton didn't want to have anything
to do with a confrontation with the Earps. Tom was by most accounts unarmed,
and Billy was noted by witnesses to hold his hands out before the shooting
started and yell, "I don't want to fight!" The cowboys had their own instigator
that brought them into the fray, Ike Clanton. It was Ike's reckless running
off at the mouth that brought Doc's wrath upon the party and his threats
against the Earps that brought their wrath upon them.
Spicer would go on to say further that even if Tom McLaury was unarmed, it
was his own fault for being with men who were illegally armed. In short,
it was a foul tempered person on each side of the shooting that brought the
other mostly unwilling participants together to fight. I would suggest to
everyone who wants to know more about the Wells Spicer trial, to get Paula
Marks' "And Die in the West" or Alford Turner's "The Earps Talk". Both books
offer detailed accounts into the trial that space prohibits me from printing
here. On December 14, 1881, Tombstone Mayor and Earp ally John Clum
is nearly killed in an assassination attempt while he is riding on the stage
from Tombstone. The horses are spooked and take off on the run, probably
sparing Clum and other passengers their lives. Clum, feeling the attempt
was made on him, leaves the stage and walks most of the way back to Tombstone.
(3) A few days later on December 17, 1881, Judge Wells Spicer
receives a threat that says among other thing that it is "only a matter
of time," before he is not among the living. (4) Spicer lashes
back at the threat in the Epitaph and states that "The attempt to assassinate
Mr. Clum has been made, who will come next?"
The next attack on the Earps would take place on the night of December 28,
1881. While City Marshal Virgil Earp is crossing 5th Street, he is fired
upon with buckshot. He was badly wounded in his left arm and would forever
lose the use of it. A hat turned up on the scene with the initials of Ike
Clanton in it. (6,7) On December 29, Wyatt is sworn in as
Deputy US Marshal by Arizona US Marshal Crawley Dake to replace the injured
Virgil. Warrants are soon swore out for the arrest of Ike Clanton, Frank
Stilwell, and Hank Swilling. Sheriff Johnny Behan refuses to send a posse
after the men so Wyatt, as Deputy US Marshal took after them. Clanton and
crew soon surrendered themselves to John Behan. The cowboys are all found
not guilty when they are able to come up with sufficient alibis.
On January 17, 1882, Johnny Ringo openly challenges Wyatt and Doc Holliday
to a shoot-out in the middle of Allen Street. Ringo, the self appointed spokesman
of the outlaws, had a terrible temper, was often depressed and most likely
suicidal. It was a well witnessed confrontation and while descriptions vary,
Jack Burrows' account is probably the most accurate. Wyatt began to babble
about being a peace officer, and then commenced to lecture Ringo on the silliness
of fighting a duel in the street, and suggested Ringo was crazy or drunk
and that he should go home and sleep it off. Ringo turned contemptuously
to Doc Holliday and a near "handkerchief" duel took place. A city police
officer named James Flynn is credited with breaking up an almost deadly encounter
as he reportedly ran up and grabbed Ringo from behind and separated the men.
(12)In February of 1882, Ike Clanton, still desperate
to get the Earps found guilty of murder, charges them again with the OK Corral
killings before Magistrate JB Smith at Contention City. (8)
Wyatt is arrested again and taken to Contention City for a hearing where
the charge is thrown out based on the fact that there is no new evidence
and the Earp party has already been tried once for the crime. On
March 18, 1882, the final straw comes in Tombstone. Morgan Earp, who is
playing billiards with Wyatt watching, is shot in the back and killed at
Campbell and Hatches Saloon. The first shot kills Morgan, the second one
narrowly misses Wyatt. Wyatt rounds up Virgil and the remaining family and
escorts them on a train to California, Wyatt knows he can't continue to protect
the injured Virgil without Morgan. Coming along for the ride with Wyatt
and family is Doc Holliday, Warren Earp, Texas Jack Vermillion, Sherm McMasters,
and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson. In Tucson, the train stops and everyone gets
off to get something to eat. Wyatt spots Frank Stilwell, whom he believes
was involved in killing Morgan, at the station and chases after him. Wyatt
runs him down in the tracks as Stilwell attempts to grab Wyatt's shotgun.
Wyatt will later relate how he put the barrel of the gun right up to Stilwell's
heart and pulled the trigger. Right before Wyatt had pulled the trigger,
Stilwell yells out "Morg! Morg!". Wyatt will wonder for the rest of his
days what Stilwell meant. Wyatt was very proud of killing Stilwell, as he
fingered him as being the trigger man in Morgan's murder. Wyatt would later
tell a family member that Stilwell was the only person he ever had
to kill. (9)Wyatt realizes that he has little time
to act before he might be arrested and hanged. He is a Deputy US Marshal
now, but the cold blooded killing of Stilwell has put him on the run himself.
He heads back into Tombstone to gather up the loose ends. This is probably
the last time he sees wife Mattie Earp as he knows he won't be coming back
to Tombstone. Some speculate that Mattie accompanied the family train back
to Colton and others claim she moved on with Kate Holliday, who had also
been dumped by Doc.
See the later section on other people in Wyatt's life for information
on what became of Mattie Earp. Josie moves on back to California to be with
her family. As Wyatt is tying up some loose ends and makes to leave town,
Sheriff Behan attempts to stop him, "I want to see you Wyatt." Wyatt is
reported to have said, "If you're not careful, you'll see me once too often
Johnny." (Some witnesses state he said, "You can't see me, Johnny. I will
see Paul." Wyatt implying that he didn't consider Behan an honest lawman
and he would turn himself in to Bob Paul, Sheriff in Tucson and friend of
the Earps.) Wyatt leaves town to continue hunting for the men who he believes
killed his brother. On March 22, 1882, Wyatt Earp and his posse/now
outlaws, arrive in the camp of Pete Spence and find "Indian Charlie" out
in the woods. Before Wyatt shoots him down, he claims that Charlie implicated
the cowboys. Regardless, Wyatt has just got word that the Coroner's Jury
has found that Morgan was murdered at the hands of Pete Spence, Frank Stilwell
and Indian Charlie. At about this same time, Sheriff Behan is busy putting
together a posse to go after Earp. Two of the men who are to ride on the
posse are none other than Johnny Ringo and Ike Clanton.
Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul refuses to go after Earp when he see who Behan
has obtained for his posse. "He persists in cloaking the most notorious
outlaws and murderers in Arizona with the authority of the law. I will have
nothing to do with such a gang.", Paul says about Behan and his posse.
(10)On March 23, 1882, Wyatt and his posse are ambushed
by Curly Bill Brocius and Pony Deal, among others, near Iron Springs. Most
of the ambushers take flight and before Curly can do the same, Wyatt empties
his shotgun into him. Wyatt has now killed 2 of the 4 men he believes killed
his brother Morgan. He never would get Pete Spence or John Ringo, two other
men he believed killed his favorite brother. After Brocius is disposed of,
the Earps, along with Doc Holliday and friends flee the territory with Behan
close behind. (Earp would only find out some 50 years later that Brocius
indeed had a part in Morgan's killing. Johnny Barnes, who also later died
from wounds received at the Iron Springs shoot-out, would implicate Brocius
before he died.) (11) Several people in the region would
refute Earp's claim that he killed Brocius, stating they had seen him since
the shooting. While there is no substantiated evidence Earp killed Brocius,
neither was Curly Bill ever seen again by a credible witness. Unfortuntately
for Wyatt, while he was out taking the law into his own hands, public opinion
was turning against him. The public felt, and possibly rightly so, that
Earp's brand of vigilante justice was no better than what the Cowboys had
done to the Earp family. They were also afraid that Wyatt's brazen attacks
would bring the Cowboys rath on Tombstone and other towns. Some people were
also of the opinion that Earp was taking out his murderous vendetta while
"hiding" behind his Deputy US Marshal's badge. Possibly fearing that it
was only a matter of time before he was caught in Arizona, Earp and his friends
leave the territory for Gunnison, Colorado.
From the Flood Manuscript, Courtesy Earl Chafin
3. Under Cover for Wells Fargo, by Fred Dodge, Edited by Carolyn Lake, 1969,
4. The Illustrated Life and Times of Wyatt Earp, by Bob Boze Bell,
1993, page 82.
6. Undercover for Wells Fargo, by Fred Dodge, Edited by Carolyn
Lake, 1969, page 37.
7. Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, by Stuart Lake, 1931, page 218.
8. The Illustrated Life and Time of Wyatt Earp, by Bob Boze Bell,
1993, page 84.
9. The Suppressed Murder of Wyatt Earp, by Glenn Boyer, 1967.
10. The Illustrated Life and Time of Wyatt Earp, by Bob Boze Bell,
1993, page 87.
11. Undercover for Wells Fargo, by Fred Dodge, Edited by Carolyn
Lake, 1969, page 233.
12. John Ringo, The Gunfighter who Never Was, by Jack Burrows,
1987, page 28.
13. The Wells Spicer Decision: 1881, Montana, The Magazine of
Western History, Gary Roberts, Winter 1970, page 64, note 6.
14. The Earps Talk, Edited by Alford E. Turner, 1980, page 55.
15. And Die in the West, by Paula Mitchell Marks, 1989, page 295.