The Earps Role in Tombstone

By James Harvey McClintock in 1913

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp in 1881 was a Deputy U.S. Marshal and Virgil was City Marshal in Tombstone , Arizona, offices that afforded legal standing in the affairs in which they were engaged. They were very much at outs with Sheriff Johnny Behan with whom they divided the influence of the gamblers, who had much to say in those days concerning the administration of affairs. All the Earps had been professional gamblers. They were charged, first and last, with about half of the robberies that were of such frequent occurrence on the roads leading out from camp. It is told that, while not actively participating they were parties to a notable robbery of the Bisbee stage, that the actual work was done by Frank Stillwell and that the primary cause of trouble between Stillwell and the Earp gang arose out of his refusal to divide up the spoils.

Bud Philpot, a well-known stage driver, was killed on the box of the Benson stage near Contention. Bob Paul, later U.S. Marshal for Arizona was riding with him at the time as a guard and it is possible that the bullet that hit the driver was intended for the messenger.

The Earps and Doc Holliday were absent from the town at the time of this particular episode but returned soon after from a jaunt in the country.  They were not arrested. The shooting of Philpot generally was charged to Holliday. John Dunbar remembers that that particular day he had let Holliday have a horse.  If it was from stage robberies that the Earps derived the major part of their income, the money only served for the purpose of dissipation.

Undoubtedly, the most notorious episode of Tombstone’s early history occurred on October 26, 1881. The Clanton Gang of cowboys had refused to recognize the local supremacy of the Earps and there as bad blood between the factions.

On the night of October 25, Ike Clanton, a prominent though decidedly not plucky, member of the Cowboy faction, had been arrested by City Marshal Virgil Earp and had been fined $50 for disorderly conduct which appears to have been merely in objecting to the marshal’s abuse. On the morning of the 26th of the Clanton Gang in Tombstone were Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton and Ike Clanton. They had appreciated the intimation that Tombstone was unhealthy for them and had saddled their horses to leave for their home ranch in the Babacomari Mountains. The horses were in the O.K. Corral, which fronted on two streets. Fearing trouble they planned to leave by the rear gate, on Fremont Street. Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury were not armed for both the evening before had had their pistols taken from them by the city authorities. The other two had revolvers.

The men were leading their horses out of the gate when they were confronted, almost from ambush, by four of the Earps —  Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Jim along with Doc Holliday. Virgil Earp, armed with a sawed-off express shotgun and accompanying his demand with profanity, yelled, “Throw up your hands,” but he didn’t wait for action and shot almost as soon as he spoke. Tom McLaury showed his empty hands and cried, “Gentlemen I am unarmed.”  Holliday answered with the discharge of his shotgun. Billy Clanton fell at the first fire, mortally wounded, but rolled over and fired two shots from his pistol between his bent knees.

One shot creased Morgan Earp across the shoulder and he fell to the ground. Ike Clanton ran into a vacant lot and escaped. Frank McLaury remained, fighting bravely, and holding his horse by the bridle, fired four shots at the three Earps in front of him. One bullet hit Virgil Earp in the calf of the leg.  McLaury became aware that Holliday was shooting at him from the rear and had turned to answer the fire when his pistol hand was hit. He then raised his revolver with both hands and shot, striking Holliday’s pistol holster. At the same moment, Morgan Earp rolled over and shot from the ground, his bullet striking McLaury on the temple, killing him instantly. The Earps and Holliday then marched back to the main part of town and surrendered themselves. They were examined behind closed doors by Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer, who discharged them as having acted as peace officers in the performance of duty.

Thereafter Virgil Earp received a bad wound in the arm, shot one night by some unknown person concealed in a building. Soon after, Morgan Earp was killed in an Allen Street saloon, about 9 p.m. while playing billiards, his assassin shooting through a rear glass door. The murderer was supposed to have been Frank Stillwell, a cowboy of the outlaw stripe. If it were Stillwell who did the shooting, he established a reasonable alibi by being in Tucson early the next morning.  Ike Clanton already was in Tucson, under arrest for a stage robbery on the road between Tucson and Bisbee. A few days later, the Earps, Holliday and John Johnson started for California in charge of Morgan Earp’s body. The train, taken at Benson, arrived in Tucson about dusk.  Ike Clanton, out on bail, learning of the presence of his enemies, secreted himself, but Stillwell, possibly to maintain his attitude of innocence, went to the depot and walked slowly along the train as it was drawing out. The next morning his body, riddled with buckshot, was found at the head of Pennington Street, a hundred yards from the tracks, back of the railroad hotel. It was assumed that one of the Earps had jumped off, shot Stillwell and then regained the train.

Re-creation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Re-creation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

At Rillito station, a few miles westward all but Virgil Earp left the train. They walked back to Tucson and a short distance east of town, flagged a freight train and on it went to Benson where they got horses and returned to Tombstone. There Sheriff Behan received a telegram to arrest them.  When the Sheriff notified them that they were under arrest, they directed him to a torrid region, secured fresh horses and rode out of town. They were next heard from in the Dragoon Mountains where they shot and killed a Mexican who was chopping wood for Pete Spence, one of their mortal enemies. Thence they rode to Hooker’s Sierra Bonita Ranch where the owner gave them fresh mounts. They rode back across the country to Silver City, New Mexico where they disposed of the horses and took a train for Colorado.

On hearing of the refuge of the Earp gang, Governor Tritle on May 16, 1882, issued a requisition on Governor Pitkin of Colorado, asking the return of Wyatt and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMasters and John Johnson all charged with murder. The requisition was refused on the grounds that the papers were defective in form and because Holliday already was under indictment for a crime committed in Colorado.

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