Maggie A's Meanderings




March 6, 2011

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral -- Justified?

The "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" was 130 years ago.  So when I decided to do some reading about what happened that October day in 1881, I didn't expect to discover that people were ---- to use the vernacular --- still so het up about it.  From the sites I found, you'd think the shootout happened yesterday and the people killed were personal friends.  

My favorite quote is one from Michael Biehn who played the character of Johnny Ringo in the 1993 movie "Tombstone," "So in reality as far as I'm concerned from everything I read, the Earps just went down there and slaughtered these four guys who were just trying to get on their horses and get out of town. They went down to the O.K. Corral and these guys, if I'm not mistaken, had just been let out jail, they'd been given back their Colts but their Colts didn't have all of their bullets in them, and the McLaury brothers and the guy Stephen Lang played [Ike Clanton] they were just (expletive) hung over from the night before and the Earps went down there loaded up with two six-guns each. Doc Holliday with a shotgun, and they just (expletive) massacred them, you know?" (from Johnny Ringo Remembers Tombstone).

The sites about the people involved in the gunfight tend to the partisan to put it mildly.  The ones favoring the Cowboys (who opposed the Earps) are especially rabid --- perhaps because as far as the movies and pop culture is concerned they feel their side's gotten the short end of the stick.  In the movies the Earps are the "good guys" and Ike Clanton and the other Cowboys are the "bad guys."  Shades of gray aren't something you see in the portrayals of that period of Tombstone, Airzona's history.  

I never get my history from the movies.  They're entertainment, not documentaries.  And I didn't have any skin in the game.  I was just curious about what happened.  So I approached the whole incident with an open mind.

Beside the date (October 26, 1881), one of the first, non-partisan, actual, undisputed facts I learned is the gunfight didn't happen at the O.K. Corral.  It was near the O.K. Corral.  The gunfight began on Fremont street, but since this was long before the Las Vegas Fremont Street Experience, I guess "Fremont" didn't have the right cachet because it's going be forever known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

And Tombstone did have what we'd call a "no carry" ordinance.  You were permitted to have weapons when entering or leaving town, but it was illegal to be carrying while you were in town.

Nine people, five of the Cowboys group -- Ike Clanton (age 31) and his brother Billy (19), brothers Tom (28) and Frank (33) McLaury and Billy the Kid Claiborne (21), and four of the Earp group -- the brothers Virgil (38), Wyatt (33) and Morgan (30) Earp plus Doc Holliday (30) were involved in the gunfight.  Three of them ended up dead, all on the Cowboys side: Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury.  Virgil and Morgan Earp were seriously wounded and Doc Holliday had a minor wound.

The rest of the details are something people are still fighting about 130 years later.  I'm going into only the barest essentials as this piece isn't about the "Gunfight at the O.K. Coral."  If you want to know more details, I suggest you check out the following sites:

Virgil Earp was a deputy U.S. marshal and the town marshal.  Morgan Earp had been deputized a month earlier by Virgil.  Contrary to popular belief, Wyatt Earp was not a deputy U.S. marshal at the time.  He had been a Pima county deputy sheriff, but he had resigned that position in November 1880.  Wyatt Earp wasn't made a deputy U.S. marshal until December 1881.  Wyatt was a "special policeman" for the Oriental Saloon which is pretty much a glorified bouncer and gave him no authority outside of the Oriental.  So at the time of the gunfight, Wyatt was not a law enforcement officer, but a civilian.  In the hearing after the gunfight, Wyatt even stated his current profession was "Saloon Keeper."  Doc Holliday was also a civilian.  However, both Wyatt and Doc were assisting Virgil, and there are claims and counter-claims about Wyatt and Doc being deputized.

Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury came into town together on October 25, 1881.  Ike got into an argument with Doc Holliday, but he and Tom still spent the night playing poker with Virgil Earp.  Then Ike Clanton, armed with both a pistol and rifle, spent a good part of the day wandering around town telling anyone who would listen he was going to get Doc Holliday and the Earps.  Yet, somehow, quite strangely, Ike couldn't manage to find any of them even though Tombstone was a small town at the time.  It had only been founded in 1879 and two years later it had a population of about 2000 people.  Clearly, Ike wasn't seriously interested in finding the Earps and Doc and shooting them.  Ike Clanton was just blowing off steam, which was a pretty stupid thing to do because, after being told repeatedly about what Ike Clanton was threatening, Virgil had no trouble finding Ike.  Virgil went up to Ike, hit him over the head and dragged him off to the judge for carrying weapons in town.  Ike had his pistol and rifle taken away, was fined and then released.  Outside the courtroom Wyatt Earp pistol whipped Tom McLaury on the head.  Ike went to Spangenberg's Gun Shop where he met up with his brother Billy, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy The Kid Claiborne.  Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton bought ammunition.  Ike Clanton attempted to buy a gun, but was refused.  All of them were seen by Wyatt and Virgil Earp in the gunstore.   Later, with horses saddled, the men were overheard on Fremont street still making threats.

Ike Clanton was unarmed.  Who else was carrying what is another one of those points still being argued over.  At least some, if not all of the others, were armed with pistols, rifles or both.  The consensus seems to be that Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were armed: either carrying pistols or with rifles near at hand in the scabbards of their horses' saddles.

After being told about the further threats, Virgil Earp along with Morgan, Wyatt and Doc Holliday headed over to where the Cowboys were.  Accounts agree that Virgil Earp either told the Cowboys to throw up their hands or to disarm and then the shooting commenced.  It didn't take long, less than a minute.  The arguing has gone on for much longer.  It started right after the last bullet hit its target and hasn't stopped since.

What I got to wondering was not so much what happened, but whether or not it was a justified shooting.  In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, there was a hearing.  It was determined that the Earps and Holliday had been acting as officers of the law and were within the law.  But that was 1881.  Their definition of within the law would stretch credulity today.   (Even at the time the determination left many people unhappy and there were further attempts at prosecution, none of which were successful.)

If the gunfight happened today would the shooting be considered a "good police shoot" in modern American society?

To the point of whether or not the police could shoot in those circumstances I'm offering up two cases, one you've heard of, one you haven't.  

The first case is the shooting --- the over-shooting -- of 23 year old Amadou Diallo.  Four New York police officers thought he had a gun.  They fired 41 bullets at Diallo hitting him 19 times.  It turns out Diallo was unarmed.  He was holding his wallet, not a gun.  A police department investigation decided the officers had been within department policy to pump 19 bullets into an unarmed civilian.  Due to public pressure, the officers were brought to trial, but all four were acquitted.

The second shooting is something that happened last year here in Pensacola.  I read about it in the local newspaper and couldn't get it out of my mind.  A deputy fired at a car containing 3 unarmed adults and a baby because he thought someone had a gun.  Fortunately, the deputy missed hitting anyone in the car.  There was never any mention in the newspaper about the deputy being brought up on charges.  So I can only assume that it was determined to be a "good shoot."

If the police think someone has a gun and that person doesn't have a gun, then the police have just made a mistake.  The police never like looking at it that way, and they certainly don't like hearing it put in those terms.  But it's Logic 101: You thought there was a gun.  There was not a gun.  You were mistaken.

But just because the police were mistaken doesn't mean the shooting of an unarmed civilian doesn't fall within the scope of a justified use of force policy.  

If the police are allowed to shoot unarmed civilians, they're certainly allowed to shoot people who are most definitely armed and making threats as they were that October 1881 day in Tombstone.

That's the police shooting people.  I'm only sure that Virgil and Morgan Earp were law enforcement officers.  Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday seemed to have been civilians.  That raises the question are civilians allowed to use deadly force in support of the police?

To address that question I'll mention the Texas Tower Sniper, Charles Whitman.  In 1966, Charles Whitman barricaded himself on the 29th floor of the tower at the University of Texas and started shooting people.  This was Texas -- the civilian populace is well-armed itself.  Anyone with a gun was welcome to take potshots at the killer in the tower.  People even went home, came back with their guns and started shooting.  The police did not tell people to stop shooting and leave it to them.   None of the civilian shots actually hit Whitman, but it served a purpose by forcing Whitman to take cover and making it harder for him to aim.  The party that stormed the tower and killed Whitman included one armed civilian alongside the three law enforcement officers.  The civilian fired his gun, though he did not hit Whitman; if he had, there's no doubt that the shooting would have been legal.  So, yes, civilians can use deadly force to support the police.

In the end, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were acting in concert with law enforcement.  That's something the judge in the hearing acknowledged, but even the judge chastised Virgil Earp for bringing in Wyatt and Doc Holliday as both of them had gotten into arguments with the Cowboys within a day of the gunfight.

And there's no doubt that some of the Cowboys were armed.  It wasn't a case of the police thinking someone had a gun when they were unarmed.

So would what happened in Tombstone on October 26, 1881, be considered a "good shoot" i.e. would it fall within police department policy?  Yes, I believe it would now as it did then.  

Legally justified?  Yes.  But getting back to the essence of that amusing and pointed quote from Michael Biehn, did the deaths have to happen?  My answer is an emphatic "No."  Ike Clanton was just shooting his mouth off; he clearly had no intention of shooting anything else.  But if Ike Clanton had died in the gunfight I'd have nominated him for a Darwin Award.  Going around town bragging on how you're going to kill a cop is monumentally stupid.  Then Ike gets together with his brother and his buddies.  Two of them have been roughed-up by the Earps.  The surprising thing would have been if they hadn't been talking tough and making threats, because that's exactly what you'd expect a bunch of hard-living men to do.  As for Virgil Earp, he could have just let them leave town.  But his ego wouldn't let him do it.  Instead he forced a confrontation.  Ike Clanton and his group shooting their mouths off; Virgil Earp not willing to let it slide as the fool talk of braggarts......

And, from this woman's perspective, that's where you get to the real cause of death.  It wasn't extreme lead poisoning (as we used to refer to gunshot wounds back when I was a kid).  It was testosterone poisoning.  There was far too much testosterone in Tombstone that fateful day.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral cartoon
Surgeon General's Warning: Too much testosterone can lead to
stupid, foolish, hot-headed actions causing premature death.

For more about when movies and reality meet and sometimes collide, read "Hollywood's Bizarre Take on Rape" or "Star Wars, Einstein and When Lucas Got It Right." If you're a Michael Biehn fan, check out "The Old Yeller Abyss." Please take a moment to look around the Archive.



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