Three of the five Earp brothers- Wyatt, Virgil and James, arrived in the fledgling town of Tombstone, Arizona on December 1, 1879. At the time, Tombstone was so new many of it's citizens were using tents as living quarters. (there were only a few hundred residents altogether at the time). There were a few scarce buildings, a few stray saloons, and the obligatory houses of ill repute.
The other two Earp brothers, Morgan and Warren, joined their brothers in the summer of 1880. John “Doc" Holliday, the notorious gambler and expert gunman, joined them in late September of '80.
Tombstone was a wild and wooly town in this early stage, and the Cowboys pretty much had free reign there. The Cowboys were a band of outlaws, cutthroats, horse thieves, rustlers and ne'er-do-wells. (This was the original use of the word "cowboy.” Our now familiar usage of the word, meaning a man, usually a farmer or rancher, who lived in the old west, did not come into common usage until later).
In June of 1881, Virgil Earp had been appointed Tombstone's town marshal. Wyatt was working in the post of unpaid deputy. But just previously, in April of '81, to reduce crime, Tombstone's city council had passed an ordinance prohibiting anyone from carrying a deadly weapon.
The Earps proved to be hard-nosed lawmen, getting under the skin of the reckless, defiant Cowboys. Several members of the Cowboys had been defiantly threatening the Earps, and one of their members, a loud-mouth named Ike Clanton, had especially been spouting off, saying he was going to kill the Earps. Some of the Cowboys had also been flaunting the "no guns" ordinance, wielding their six-guns.
On October 26, 1881, marshal Virgil Earp heard that several members of the Cowboys were congregating at the O.K. Corral, toting pistols and rifles, and threatening the Earps. It was at around 3:00 in the afternoon that Virgil decided he had to put a stop to the Cowboys and their defiance, once and for all. Virgil swore in brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and the three started toward the O.K. Corral, located on Fremont street.
Doc Holliday, walking with a cane, met the Earps and volunteered to accompany them. (it is unknown why Doc was using a cane that day). Wyatt asked Doc why he was volunteering and told him it wasn't his fight. Doc replied that he was surprised Wyatt could ever say that. Doc and Wyatt had been extremely close friends ever since the day Doc had reputedly saved Wyatt's life when gunmen had the drop on him. Doc was quickly sworn in as a deputy.
Virgil took Doc's cane and gave him a shotgun, which Doc concealed under his overcoat. (it was a chilly, brisk autumn day in Tombstone and all four men wore long, thick overcoats). Virgil picked up a 10 or 12-gauge shotgun for himself. He never discarded Doc's cane.
All the Earps carried pistols in their coat pockets or in their waistbands. Doc carried a hidden nickel-plated revolver himself. The four men proceeded down Fremont Street, Doc arrogantly nodding, almost grinning, to viewers.
For some unknown reason, the Cowboys had moved from the O.K. Corral to an empty lot nearby, very close to Fly's boarding house, where Doc was lodging. (The gunfight at the O.K. Corral did not actually take place in the O.K. Corral and, as a great irony, if it had, the Cowboys carrying the guns were not breaking the law, as there was no law about having a gun if you were in a corral.)
On the walk to the confront the Cowboys, Cochise County sheriff John Behan informed Virgil that he had disarmed the Cowboys. This statement was ignored and the Earps finally confronted five Cowboys at the lot.
Tombstone in 1891.
Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, looked up as the Earps and Doc stood just six feet away. Two of the Cowboys' horses stood nearby. At this point, in spite of (or more aptly, because of) there being many witnesses, the events and dialogue is either reputed or disputed.
“Throw up your hands! i've come to disarm you!" Virgil said firmly. Two of the Cowboys cocked their guns, as Ike and Billy Claiborne ran away. Ike reputedly kneeled before Wyatt and begged him not to kill him.
Wyatt relied, “Either commence to fighting or get out!" Some witnesses say the two Cowboys were unarmed, some claim they had guns. Disagreement about the facts also came from the participants.
Ike and Billy Claiborne fled and two shots were fired almost immediately, although no one could agree who fired them. Wyatt Earp always claimed that Billy Clanton fired the first shot, others claimed Doc shot first. One thing is agreed upon by all participants and witnesses- 30 shots were fired in the next 30-odd seconds.
Either Frank McLaury or Billy Clanton shot Virgil in the calf. Morgan tripped over a water pipe and fired from the ground, he went down for a minute and rose up again.
Either Billy or Frank shot Morgan across the back in a wound that hit both shoulder blades and his vertebra. Doc reputedly shot Tom McLaury, threw his shotgun aside and pulled out his revolver and fired at Frank and Billy. Frank hit Doc in his pistol pocket, grazing his skin.
Wyatt Earp, true to image, stood cool as a cucumber, firing at Billy, and hitting him in his gun hand. Billy, now having to shoot using his left hand, emptied his gun.
After a half-minute, the three Cowboys lay dead, as all three Earps and Doc Holiday, although worse for the wear, remained breathing. Only Wyatt Earp came out of the melee fully unscathed. This fact added to Wyatt's eventual reputation as an invincible Superman of the Old West.
Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton.
The upshot? Wyatt and Doc were soon arrested on charges of murder, but were eventually acquitted.
Two months later, on December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was shot on the streets of Tombstone by hidden shooters. Although he denied involvement, Ike Clanton's hat was found at the scene. Virgil's left arm was seriously wounded. Despite losing the use of his arm, he went to California and became a town marshal until his death in 1905.
Morgan Earp was shot and killed while playing billiards with Wyatt in march of 1882. As if to feed the myth of the great and un-killable Wyatt Earp, the assailants attempted to shoot him too, but the shot at Wyatt went high, missing him completely. Wyatt promised Morgan, as he was dying, that he would get the killers.
He proceeded to go on what became known as the "vendetta ride,” where he, along with a posse of dedicated cohorts, proceeded to systematically erase a majority of the Cowboys from the face of the earth, ending their reign of lawlessness.
Billy Claiborne was killed in a gunfight in Tombstone in late 1882. Ike Clanton was caught stealing cattle and shot dead while resisting arrest in 1887. That same year, Doc Holliday died from his chronic tuberculosis, in Glenwood Springs Sanitarium.
Wyatt Earp, as would be expected, far outlived the other eight figures in "the gunfight at the O.K Corral.” Earp survived, living a happy, contented life, married to his beloved wife, actress Josephine Marcus, for 47 years. The two went on various adventures and endeavors, their finances rising and falling regularly and routinely. Wyatt finally succumbed to chronic cystitis, in January of 1929, at the ripe old age of 80.
During the two score and seven-odd years he survived after the most famous event in the history of the Old West, Wyatt Earp lived in California and hung out on various movie sets in Hollywood, chatting, visiting, and advising the actors and directors. He and a young actor spent many an afternoon chatting, Earp regaling the green thespian with his former exploits and telling him how a real lawman in the Old West should handle himself.
The young actor took Earp's advice to heart and based his characters on the time he spent jawing with Wyatt. He later made a name for himself as a Hollywood movie actor. His name was John Wayne.