What really happened at the O.K. Corral

By Tracy Mumford (NPR News, The Thread on Mar 31, 2015.)

Everyone’s heard the story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral. It’s been immortalized in over 40 feature films and written about in 1,000 books.

The newest book on the tale, however, refuses to accept the story as we know it. Mary Doria Russell’s new novel digs for truth in the conflict that made Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday household names.

While researching “Epitaph,” Russell tracked down diaries, census records and first-hand accounts of the O.K. Corral shootout. “It has been simplified and scrubbed up and changed and ultimately you have fiction based on fiction based on fiction,” Russell said on MPR News’ Kerri Miller. “What I was trying to do was get back to the real people, peel away the mythology, find the core of historical truth and work with that instead of just accepting the way it had been portrayed in movies for years.”

What really happened in those 30 seconds in Tombstone, Ariz., 1881

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral didn’t actually happen at a corral.
Visitors to Tombstone who have seen the historical marker know the truth. Placing the shooting at a corral evokes all the Wild West myths, but Tombstone was actually a well-established town of 23,000 people. Why the simplification?

“It very early on became the gunfight at the O.K. Corral because it takes way too long to say ‘the officer-involved shooting in the alley behind Fry’s Photography Studio near the corner of First and Fremont, a little north of the O.K. Corral,'” said Russell. “That was the just the first of many simplifications that were necessary to sum this conflict up.”

Cows had nothing to do with it.
“One of the big surprise to me when I was doing the research was that I thought this was cattle rustlers versus lawmen, but no. Cattle had nothing to do with it. There are no cows involved in any way with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”

A failed plot actually triggered the shootout.
The cows are out, backstabbing is in. Ike Clanton struck a deal with Wyatt Earp to turn in three men who were thought to be responsible for a stage coach robbery. Clanton would get the reward money and Earp would get credit for the arrest, which would bolster his political career.

Unfortunately, the three men were killed before Clanton could name names. Clanton became paranoid that the plot would be discovered and he’d be labeled as a rat — that was the real trigger for the shootout.

Holliday was not a sharp-shooting gunslinger.
“He was never a gunslinger,” said Russell. “He was a beautifully educated Southern gentleman who spoke Latin and Greek and read Flaubert in the original French.”

Holliday was bound for a life of dentistry in Atlanta until he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at 22. The popular theory of the day was that the sunshine and dry air of the American desert was good for the lungs, so Holliday went west. “You would never had heard of him if it hadn’t been for the fact that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis,” said Russell.

Out West, he found he couldn’t making a living as a dentist so he turned to gambling. “He was deeply, profoundly ashamed of being a professional gambler. It was the male equivalent of being a prostitute in the 1800s, it was doing something for money that respectable people did for pleasure.”

He never told his family the truth about his life in Tombstone, but news spread fast after the gunfight. Once his family in Atlanta got word of his activities, his father never spoke his name again. “It was a terrible disgrace,” said Russell.

Earp and Holliday were not good friends.
Earp and Holliday were not quite the dynamic duo portrayed in so many films. The two actually had little in common: Holliday loved books, while Earp was barely literate. The real friendship was between Holliday and Earp’s brother, Morgan.

When Holliday and Earp teamed up to chase down Morgan’s killer, the vengeance ride wasn’t as ideal as the stories go. Doc’s health was quite poor and Russell suspects Wyatt didn’t want him along at all. “‘Okay, we’re going to be riding hard over bad terrain, looking for very dangerous men, who do we want on our posse?'” Russell asked, thinking of Earp’s reasoning. “‘Let’s get a guy who might collapse or cough at the wrong time.’ No!”

Earp wasn’t considered a hero until after World War I.
In the aftermath of World War I, America was reeling from the loss of so many men and dealing with a tangled, international conflict.

“The public became hungry for human-sized stories of conflict with real heroes,” said Russell. “In the aftermath of World War I, the conflict in Tombstone was resurrected as a simple story of lawmen versus cattle thieves, good guys versus bad guys.”

Earp’s wife is the reason anyone remembers the story at all.
Josie Marcus, who technically never married Earp but was with him for 49 years, is responsible for shaping the narrative most people know today. Think of it as a posthumous publicity campaign for her husband.

“If it were not for Josie’s increasing obsession with making sure that Wyatt’s name was clear and that he was remembered the way she thought he deserved to be, we would not know his name at all,” said Russell. “This story would have been in the dustbin of history. She became increasingly frantic to make sure she could give her husband the epitaph she believed he deserved.”

Her interpretation laid a lot of the blame on Holliday instead. By the time she was sharing her version of events, Holliday was long dead, with no family left to defend his honor.