No doubt about it, the Wild West is an evocative era in American history. This period of frontier expansion is synonymous with rowdy saloons, cowboys, suspenseful shootouts, and of course, the ever-present tumbleweed. Within this lawless atmosphere, the infamous 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place. Although it was a real historical event, the showdown between Wyatt Earp and the Cochise County Cowboys checks off every element of a good spaghetti western film.
Here are the basic facts: Approximately 30 shots were fired in the standoff between law enforcement and the group of outlaws known as the Cochise County Cowboys. The altercation left three cowboys dead and two lawmen wounded in the mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona Territory. However, the passage of time has meshed fact with legend. We’re here to set the record straight. Here are seven little-known facts about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
1. The gunfight did not actually take place at the O.K. Corral.
Nope, the shootout didn’t happen inside or even next to the eponymous corral. Shots were exchanged in a vacant lot on Fremont Street, down the road from the corral’s rear entrance.
This common mistake can be attributed to the 1957 film, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The movie made the shootout famous, but it was rather loose with the facts. (As for why the movie-makers decided on a location change, we’re guessing it’s because Gunfight at the O.K. Corral sounds more glamorous than Gunfight at the Vacant Lot on Fremont Street.) The corral still exists today, but instead of a business renting out horses and wagons, it’s a part of Tombstone’s historic district, where people can pay to watch reenactments of the gunfight.
2. The police may not have been the good guys.
There isn’t much room for moral ambiguity in standard depictions of the Old West. You have your bad guys (violent, lawless thieves) and your good guys (law-abiding sheriffs who try to protect the town). However, historians aren’t so sure what went down during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The Earp brothers and their friend Doc Holliday claimed afterwards that they were trying to disarm the cowboys, who were illegally carrying firearms when the cowboys opened fire. The surviving cowboys alleged that they were fully cooperating and had even raised their hands in the air when the lawmen started indiscriminately shooting them at point blank range. Alliances were strong in the small town–newspapers were not above taking sides, and witnesses of the scuffle gave conflicting testimony. To further complicate matters, the transcript of the ensuing murder trial was destroyed in a fire. All in all, we may never know for sure who provoked the shootout.
3. Wyatt Earp wasn’t really the hero of the shootout.
Wyatt Earp went down in history as the central figure of the gunfight. In reality, his brother Virgil was far more experienced than him in combat and shootout situations. Virgil had served in The Civil War and had a long career in law enforcement compared to Wyatt, who had a shorter stint in law enforcement and was even fired from one position.
However, Wyatt gained fame when a biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, was published in 1931, two years after its subject’s death. Riddled with exaggerations, to the point that it was more fiction that actual biography, the book portrayed Wyatt as the deadliest and most feared shooter in the Old West. Another contributing factor to his notoriety was the fact that unlike his fellow lawmen in the O.K. Corral shootout, Wyatt wasn’t injured or killed. Nor was he harmed in any of the ensuing fights. His close calls in the face of death only added to his mystique. Which brings us to our next point ...
4. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was only a small part of the long feud between the Earps & the cowboys.
Tension was simmering between the cowboys and the Earps long before gunfire erupted. Naturally, the fact that the Cochise County Cowboys made their living through smuggling and thievery ruffled a few feathers with town marshal Virgil Earp. The cowboys were implicated in several robberies and murders. The Earps promised justice, to which the cowboys responded that they were being persecuted without evidence. Death threats were exchanged.
The gunfight wasn’t the end of the enmity between these men either. The surviving cowboys were believed to have organized the assassination of Morgan Earp and a murder attempt on Virgil that left him permanently disabled.
5. Wyatt Earp wasn’t always on the right side of the law.
And he definitely wasn’t the infallible hero later accounts made him out to be. Earp was apparently heavily affected by his first wife’s death and started acting out. Before moving to Tombstone, he faced a series of lawsuits alleging that he stole money and falsified court documents. He was also arrested for stealing a horse and escaped from jail before his trial. Later, he was arrested and fined for frequenting brothels. Rumors were abound that he was a pimp.
Earp tried to turn things around for himself and got a job on the police force in Wichita, Kansas. However, he was fired after getting into a fistfight. Luckily for him, it was pretty easy to wipe the slate clean for yourself in those days. He could simply pack his bags and head to a new town like Tombstone, where he could start with a fresh reputation.
6. The gunfight only lasted 30 seconds.
Yup, the dramatic confrontation that left three men dead and three wounded lasted less than a minute. In that span, around 30 shots were fired. The movie Gunfight at the O.K. Corral dramatized the shootout, showing the men heavily armed and engaged in a fight that spanned minutes. In reality, each man carried only a revolver apiece and in the confusion, nobody could be sure who fired the fatal shots.
7. Many of the townspeople sympathized with the cowboys.
You would think the people of Tombstone would regard the Earps as their heroes for driving out the outlaws. Not so. Public opinion was divided over the matter, especially after Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan testified in court that he witnessed the cowboys try to surrender peacefully.
However, even the sheriff had loyalties in this small town. Virgil Earp had clashed with Behan on several other occasions, claiming that he turned a blind eye to the cowboys’ illegal activities and was sympathetic to the criminals. Additionally, Wyatt Earp’s common-law wife, Josephine Earp, had lived with Behan for two years before entering a relationship with Earp. She left Behan after finding him in bed with another woman, but no doubt this contributed to the animosity betweens the Earps and Behan.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons