Monday, August 28, 2023

How Close Did Wyatt And Doc Come to Being Lynched After The O.K. Corral Gunfight?

 A Lynching at The O.K. Corral?

   By my count, there have been almost 40 movies on Wyatt Earp and the world famous O.K. Corral gunfight in Tombstone, but I cannot recall a single one of them that has been told from the viewpoint of the cow-boys. And, not one of these movies has dealt with just how close Wyatt and Doc probably came to being lynched.

One of the Best of the Forty

   Okay, I trust you know the Wyatt Earp take on the gunfight, so let's start with the cow-boy version of the legendary event. Now this is not to say this is the true account but it's how many of the cattlemen and cowboys of Cochise County view the fight to this day.

The Cow-Boy Version of The O.K. Fight

   Five shots were fired by the Earp party before any of the cow-boys attempted to fight back. Only two, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury, even had a weapon, and both of theirs were holstered. As the marshal—Virgil Earp—ordered them to raise their hands, the Clantons and McLaurys complied completely, only to be shot down like dogs.

Cow-boy Halos at The O.K. Corral

  Immediately after the 30 second gunfight on Fremont Street, Sheriff John Behan, attempted to arrest Wyatt Earp, saying, "I want to see you." Earp replied, "I won't be arrested now. You threw us Johnny. You told us they were unarmed." This is true. Behan, in trying to stop the fight as the Earps and Holliday came towards the cow-boys, ran up the boardwalk and told Wyatt he had disarmed the cowboys and not to go any further. Wyatt put his pistol in his coat pocket and they marched on.

   After the fight the Vizina mine whistle blew and the Tombstone Vigilantes, a local voluntary law and order organization showed up some 70 strong. They were friends of the Earps and the group considered them allies so the two wounded Earps, Virgil and Morgan, were carried to a drug store where their wounds were dressed, then a buggy, or hand cart, was procured and the men were ferried to their home.

   Ike Clanton paid for a fancy funeral and had a sign painted that said, "Murdered On The Streets of Tombstone." Tensions mounted, and after a possible assassin showed up at the Earp compound, all the Earps moved into the Cosmopolitan Hotel for safety.

October 29, 1881

   An arrest warrant was issued before Justice of the Peace J.B. Smith: "That Wyatt Earp did willfully, unlawfully, deliberately, premeditatedly, feloniously, and with malice afore thought, kill or murder William Clanton, Thomas McLaury and Frank McLaury."

   Ike Clanton also filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday with Justice Wells Spicer. 

October 31, 1881

   Spicer begins a hearing to determine if the Earps and Holliday should be bound over for a full-scale murder trial. The first witnesses provided damning testimony against the Earps, essentially echoing the cow-boy version of the fight, above.

November 4, 1881

   Will R. McLaury arrived in Tombstone from his home in Forth Worth, Texas. The brother of the two slain McLaurys, Will joined the prosecution team and immediately got Wyatt and Doc remanded to jail without bail (Virgil and Morgan were exempted because of their wounds).

November 7, 1881

   Wyatt and Doc are arrested by Harry M. Woods and held in the makeshift jail on Sixth Street. For 16 days, heavily armed friends take turns guarding the two-room clapboard hoosegow.

The Makeshift Tombstone Jail

   Because Tombstone was still new in 1881, they had no stand alone jail and Wyatt and Doc are placed in a two-cell, makeshift jail which was 10 foot by 12 foot and essentially made up of 2X4s stacked on top of the other and each one spiked down. It is all but a chicken coup and to think that Wyatt and Doc were held in this claustrophobic contraption for more than two weeks is nothing short of crazy amazing. Friends of the Earps and Holliday guarded the jail 24/7 but it still seems that this situation would make them vulnerable for a lynch mob and in fact, there is a historic precedent for what could have all too easily happened to the O.K. Fighters.

   A little more than two years after the O.K. fight we have a similar set of circumstances just down the road from Tombstone.

December 8, 1883

   Five Clifton area cowboys rode into Bisbee and attempted to rob the Castenada-Goldwater Store. In the botched robbery, five people on the street are shot and killed including a pregnant woman. Eventually the five cowboys are caught and brought to trial along with a sixth person, John Heath, a saloon owner, who the five arrested outlaws claimed actually planned the robbery. The five outlaws were tried and convicted and sentenced to hang, but Heath was tried separately and convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison. His lawyers wanted to appeal the verdict, which incensed many in Bisbee and Tombstone. On the morning of February 22, a mob of vigilantes (crowd estimates run from 50 to 150) overpowered the guards in the newly built Tombstone jail—in the basement of the newly built courthouse—and the mob overwhelmed the guards and took Heath from the jail. Sheriff Jerome Ward talked them out of hanging Heath from the balustrade of the courthouse so the mob took Heath down the street and hanged their prisoner from a telegraph pole at the corner of First and Toughnut Street. The lynching photo is one of the most famous photos in the history of the Old West.

John Heath lynched at First and Toughnut

    By the way, there were 42 legal hangings in Arizona from the 1860s to 1911 and 32 lynchings.  So this photo could just as easily have been of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and serves as a good example of just how close Wyatt and Doc probably came to being lynched out of that makeshift jail a mere two years prior.

Daily Whip Out:

"Cow-boys Celebrate An O.K. Lynching"

   I think it's safe to say, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were very lucky boys in the aftermath of the O.K, Corral gunfight.

   Of course, the actual O.K. Corral affair ends with two assassination attempts, one of them successful and the Earps and Holliday are ultimately driven from Arizona as fugitives from justice.

  So, how do we get from this lurid version of the familiar tale to the glorious finale and the triumph of Law & Order at the O.K. Corral? Well, that took a couple of very creative writers—two of my heroes by the way—Walter Noble Burns and Stuart Lake, who each wrote a best selling book about "The Lion of Tombstone," and together those two books have spawned 40 some movies and tv shows trumpeting the "flawless" lawmen who was so "brave, courageous and bold." And, pretty damn lucky.

Daily Scratchboard Whip Out:
"Walter Noble Burns"

The author of the book "Tombstone,"
with a chapter on Wyatt Earp called
"The Lion of Tombstone"

   If there is anything to be learned, it's this:

"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

—Old Vaquero Saying


  1. Great write-up. Do you think Will McLaury had anything to do with the shootings of Virgin and Morgan after the hearing? I read somewhere that he might have financed it.

    1. Yes, I have read that Will McLaury offered a $500 reward on every Earp killed. Although it's probably just speculation, I think it has the ring of truth.

  2. Answered my own question - found an article on, of all places, TWM:


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