O.K. Corral began with a double-cross.
On March 15, 1881 the Tombstone stage was robbed. The Earp brothers were part of a posse which quickly went in pursuit of the robbers. Wyatt Earp, deputy U.S. Marshal, had formed the posse. They caught up with Luther King. King claimed to be innocent but Wyatt got him alone and told a fib about how Doc Holliday’s woman, Big Nose Kate, had been killed in the robbery. This news scared the bejeezus out of Luther King. “Hey, I only held the horses!” he cried. “It was Harry Head, Billy Leonard, and Jim Crane who did the shooting!”
None less than Bat Masterson has written that Doc Holliday “had a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper and under the influence of liquor was a most dangerous man.” So no wonder Luther King became terrified of Holliday’s potential vengeance and blabbed the truth to Wyatt Earp.
When Sheriff Johnny Behan tried to pooh-pooh King’s confession, Wyatt Earp began to smell a rat. His suspicion was later corroborated when Luther King easily escaped jail by just walking out the door.
Wyatt decided he needed an informer, someone on the inside of the Cochise County Cowboys. He was helped in this by Marshal Billy Breakenridge. Breakenridge was more of the “good cop” type of lawman. He tried to stay on speaking terms with the cowboys. Through Marshal Breakenridge, Ike Clanton was provided as a stool pigeon. Reward money of $3000 was offered to finger the stage robbers. Ike Clanton brought in Frank McLaury and Joe Hill as co-informers.
But somehow Ike, Frank, and Joe became suspected by the cowboys of being stool pigeons. Maybe “Billy Blab” (Marshal Billy Breakenridge) talked too much to his chum, Curly Bill Brocius. Or maybe Wells Fargo agent Marsh Williams had too much to drink one night and told Ike Clanton, “Don’t worry… I won’t squeal about how you double-crossed the gang” and this panicked Ike Clanton and caused him to make stupid public denials before the gang had even suspected him.
The cowboys decided to exercise poetic justice upon the stool pigeons. “We want you to kill the Earps,” they said. “But don’t worry, the rest of us will be there for the showdown at the last minute.” The poetic justice was that the gang planned to double-cross Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury by leaving them high-and-dry at the crucial moment.
But the Earps believed there was to be a real showdown. This made Wyatt Earp edgy. When he encountered Tom McLaury, brother of Frank, on the fateful day, October 26, 1881, Tom had both hands in his pants pockets. Wyatt slapped him in the face and demanded, “Are you heeled or not?”
“No I am not heeled,” replied McLaury, and he took his hands out of his pockets. He slowly backed away from Earp, but Earp followed and whacked him upside the head with the barrel of his Buntline Special revolver. McLaury fell, and Wyatt Earp hit him again with his Buntline Special. Staggering and bleeding, McLaury was helped away by a friend.
Enroute to O.K. Corral, Tombstone City Marshal Virgil Earp and his brother Wyatt walked in front. Behind them walked Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp. Doc carried Virgil’s sawed-off shotgun under his coat. Virgil carried Doc’s cane in his pistol hand, which indicates Virgil wasn’t premeditating a shooting. Wyatt also was not premeditating murder.
However Doc Holliday, a mean drunk, had been imbibing. And his sometime drinking buddy Morgan Earp may have also had a few. Meanwhile, at the “O.K. Corral” (really a narrow lot six doors west of the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral), the whisky bottle was being passed around freely by the cowboys.
It was like fire approaching dynamite. Sheriff Johnny Behan perceived the dangerous situation and tried to intervene. “Please stay back,” he begged. “I can handle this myself!” But the deadly Earp party brushed aside the Sheriff as if he were a mere fly.
Walking behind Virgil and Wyatt, Doc Holliday spoke low to his pal Morgan Earp, saying, “Let ’em have it!” Morgan replied, “All right!” These words were recalled later by a witness; neither Wyatt nor Virgil heard them. At this point, Virgil later recalled, he heard the sound of two pistols being cocked. Virgil testified it was the pistols of the cowboys, but Virgil knew in fact it had been Doc and Morgan walking behind who had cocked their pistols. What had actually happened was that when Virgil realized Doc and Morgan had cocked their pistols, he yelled to them, “Hold on! I don’t mean that!”
Who fired the first shot? It was Doc Holliday, quickly followed by Morgan Earp, who fired next. Holliday’s shot hit Frank McLaury in the gut. At this point Billy Clanton drew his pistol and aimed at Virgil Earp. But then Morgan’s shot hit Billy in the chest and his shot at Virgil went wide of the mark.
Even today there is still confusion about what had really happened. The cowboys did not have their hands up when the shooting started. But Wyatt and Virgil Earp lied also. Privately, they were furious at Doc and Morgan for firing first, without cause. But publicly the Earp party stuck together and maintained their innocence.
(Sources: (1) I Married Wyatt Earp, edited by Glenn G. Boyer. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976; (2) Helldorado: Bringing the Law to the Mesquite, by William M. Breakenridge. Bison Book Edition, University of Nebraska Press, 1992)