Farmington Museum lecture will focus on gunfight at O.K. Corral

Curator Jeffrey Richardson addresses misconceptions about causes, aftermath of 1881 event that left three men dead

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The lecture takes place at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.
  • The presentation is part of the Curator's Choice Lecture Series.
  • The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is widely regarded as the most famous gun battle in the history of the American West.
Wyatt Earp, circa 1887.

FARMINGTON — Any tourist knows a visit to modern-day Tombstone, Arizona, is less than complete without witnessing a re-enactment of the famed Oct. 26, 1881, gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Often described as the most famous gunfight in the history of the American West, the event lasted approximately 34 seconds, saw nearly three dozen shots fired and resulted in the death of three men. It has been portrayed endlessly in pop culture, most famously serving as the pivotal scene in the 1993 Hollywood Western "Tombstone" starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer and Dana Delany. And it remains the foundation of the once-booming mining town's identity.

For the most part, the specifics of that seminal event have been recorded and reproduced faithfully over the years in those various depictions, Farmington Museum curator Jeffrey Richardson said. But the events that led to the shootout and those that followed in its aftermath are not as well known, he said, something he plans to address in a lecture this weekend.

Richardson will be delivering his "The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" presentation at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park 3041 E. Main St., as part of his Curator's Choice Lecture Series.

"One of the things we try to do in this series is discuss events that are well known but often misunderstood," Richardson said. "And the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is one of the most iconic events in the history of the American West."

It also took place under circumstances that are much different than most people believe, he noted. The notion of the gunfight as a battle between "good" (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday) and "bad" (Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury) elements is largely manufactured, he said, and the modern interpretation of the shootout as a triumph of Western justice, an event to be celebrated and honored, certainly was not shared by the citizens of Tombstone at the time.

Stuart Lake's 1931 book "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal" portrayed Earp as the quintessential lawman and made him the legend he is today.

To begin with, Richardson said, the idea of Wyatt Earp as a bastion of law and order on the Western frontier is sorely mistaken, becoming popularized only after his death with the publication of an entertaining but factually challenged biography, "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal" by Stuart Lake in 1931.

"It was a very fanciful, very inaccurate biography," Richardson said.

Nevertheless, it became a bestseller and cemented Earp's reputation as an upright, heroic figure who personified the most admirable characteristics of Western law enforcement officials. That portrayal would have been greeted with rolled eyes in 1880s Tombstone, Richardson said.

"During his lifetime, his reputation was rather unsavory," he said of Earp. "Like most lawmen of the period, he found himself on both sides of the law at various times."

The gunfight took the lives of Billy Clanton, and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury.

The Earp brothers arrived in Tombstone in the 1880s looking to make their fortune, but nearly every endeavor they became involved in failed, Richardson said. Wyatt reacted by trying to get himself elected county sheriff, a coveted position that entitled the office holder to keep 10 percent of the taxes he collected, which Richardson explained would have amounted to a tidy sum by 1880s standards.

Earp was unsuccessful in his campaign, but his political maneuvering brought him into the path of the Cowboys, a loosely affiliated group of local ruffians who sometimes crossed the murky line into what constituted illegality on the frontier.

"They lived on the edge of the law," Richardson said. "Earp ultimately made a lot of deals that found him in a lot of conflict with the Cowboys."

The spark that led to the shootout was an attempt by the Earp faction — Virgil had become the town marshal, while Wyatt and Morgan Earp, and their friend Doc Holliday served as his deputies — to enforce an ordinance that prohibited the carrying of firearms within town limits. When a group of Cowboys balked at surrendering their weapons and threatened the lawmen, the Earps and Holliday confronted them near, but not at, the O.K. Corral, and a short-lived but furious gun battle ensued as shocked citizens watched.

Tombstone's Allen Street, one block from where the gunfight took place.

When the smoke cleared, they were anything but enthralled with what they had witnessed, Richardson said. Many of those Tombstone residents had perhaps pompously come to regard their little town as a cultured, cosmopolitan light of civilization in the rough-and-tumble West, but that façade was shattered in just a few seconds with the acrid smell of gunpowder filling the air and the blood of three dead men — Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury — soaking into the sand.

The human cost of the shootout made it a repulsive event in the eyes of those Tombstone residents, Richardson said, though that perception obviously has flipped nearly 140 years later.

"It kind of shows our struggle with the past and how we look at it," Richardson said of those differences in how the event was regarded then and now.

Much of the gunfight's historical significance lies in the fact that it unfolded in full view of the public in the middle of the afternoon, Richardson said — something that was a rarity in the West, despite the countless "high noon" showdown scenarios featured in many Hollywood Westerns. That last, very public spasm of violence also came to represent the end of the Wild West era, he said.

This image of John "Doc" Holliday is one of only two that has been authenticated. It was taken when he graduated from dental school in 1872.

"It signified the change that was taking place on the American frontier in the 1880s and 1890s," Richardson said. "Tombstone was supposedly this sophisticated place, but it was marred by this horrible violence. … This showed that the lawlessness of the American West had come to an end and that this kind of thing was not to be tolerated."

It also serves as a reminder that few historically significant incidents are as simple as we often are led to believe, he said.

"These weren't clear-cut good guys and bad guys," Richardson said. "It was much more gray. That gets lost. … It's much more complicated than that, and that's what I hope we get at (in the presentation). History isn't about black and white, even if we try to make it as such."

Admission to Saturday's lecture is free. Call 505-599-1174 for more information.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.