On this day in 1881, tensions near the breaking point between the Earp brothers and the Clanton-McLaury families, the two major power centers in Tombstone, Arizona.
Two days earlier, a stagecoach had been robbed and the Tombstone sheriff formed a posse that included Morgan and Wyatt Earp to find the culprits. On the basis of a boot print found in the dust, the posse arrested Frank Stillwell, a sometimes deputy of the Cochise County Sheriff, John Behan. Stillwell’s actual guilt or innocence aside, two of the leading Cochise County ranching families, the Clantons and McLaurys, saw the arrest as a deliberate attack by the Earps on their continued control of the county.
Many country-living ranch families like the Clantons and McLaurys deeply resented the city folks who increasingly dominated law and politics in Tombstone–especially the ambitious Earp brothers: Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil and James. The ranch families maintained tenuous control over the wide-open country surrounding Tombstone, thanks in large measure to the sympathetic support of Cochise County Sheriff Behan. Sheriff Behan detested the Earps–a sentiment that was entirely mutual–and made a point of ignoring their well-founded complaints that the Clantons and McLaurys were stealing cattle and horses. Likewise, while the Earps often acted as law officers and posse members, Behan and the ranchers knew the brothers were not above ignoring the law when it came to their own questionable dealings in the Tombstone gambling and saloon business. So when the Tombstone sheriff and the Earps arrested one of Behan’s own deputies for the stagecoach robbery, the Clanton and McLaurys claimed they were being unfairly harassed and warned the Earps that they would retaliate.
Both sides publicly accused the other of corruption and collusion with criminals, leading the governor of Arizona Territory to report later that month, “Many of the very best law-abiding and peace-loving citizens [of Tombstone] have no confidence in the willingness of the civil officers to pursue and bring to justice that element of out-lawry so largely disturbing the sense of security…[The opinion] is quite prevalent that the civil officers are quite largely in league with the leaders of this disturbing and dangerous element.”
The governor was right, and the situation would not be resolved without violence. The Earp brothers and Clanton-McLaury families were headed for a showdown at the O.K. Corral in October.