After years of feuding and mounting tensions, on this day in 1881, the “law and order” Earps and the “cowboy” Clanton-McLaurys engage in their world-famous shoot-out near the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, leaving three men dead and three more wounded.
Both sides in the conflict were ostensibly looking for revenge for what they perceived as malicious attacks and insults, but on a larger level the conflict revolved around which side would control the fate of Tombstone and Cochise County. That hot Arizona day, the Earp brothers—Wyatt; Virgil, the town marshal; and Morgan—along with their friend Doc Holliday, spotted a group of cattle rustlers—Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, at the other end of Fremont Street, standing in a vacant lot behind the OK Corral. Standing nearby was Cochise County Sheriff John Behan, who rushed up the street to tell the Earps that the Clantons and McLaurys were mostly unarmed and just wanted to leave town peacefully. But the Earps ignored the sheriff and moved ahead to confront their enemies. “You sons of bitches,” Wyatt Earp reportedly said, “you re looking for a fight and now you can have it.”
The question of which side actually drew their guns first is still debated today, but it s believed that Virgil Earp pulled out his revolver and shot Billy Clanton in the chest at point-blank range, while Doc Holliday killed Tom McLaury with a blast from his double-barreled shotgun. Wyatt Earp shot Frank McLaury in the stomach, and the wounded man staggered out into the street but managed to pull his gun and return fire. Meanwhile, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran for their lives. The wounded Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton both managed to get off several shots before collapsing, and Virgil, Morgan, and Doc were all hit. But when the 30-second gunfight was over, there was no doubt which side had triumphed: the Earps were bloodied but alive, while Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury were dead or dying. Sheriff Behan, who witnessed the entire shoot-out, charged the Earps and Holliday with murder. However, a month later the Tombstone justice of the peace found the men not guilty, ruling “the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides.”