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 was 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. [*editor note-although Jim aka James Earp was in town, he was not involved.] 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.

Tombstone, 2007

Allen Street in Tombstone, 2007. Photo by Kathy Alexander

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

A 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.

Virgil Earp died of pneumonia in Goldfield, Nevada, on October 19, 1905, aged 63 and was buried in Portland, Oregon where a daughter lived. He had been married twice. [actually 3 times]  Of the flood of reminiscences brought up at the time of his death, much was made public beyond the more notable episode of his Tombstone career. He came to Arizona in 1876 in company with his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, and Doc Holliday. While Ed Bowers was Sheriff, Prescott was visited by two cowboys from Bradshaw Basin, who enjoyed themselves in true cowboy fashion, shooting up saloons, finally riding out of town firing their pistols. They camped at the Brooks Ranch and sent back word that they would remain in case the sheriff wanted them bad enough. Bowers organized a posse, of which Virgil Earp was a member. In a pitched battle, Earp found one of the cowboys crouched under an oak tree, reloading his gun, and shot him twice, one bullet passing through his heart and the other only about two inches from the first. It was remarked when the body was taken away that between the man’s teeth was still a cigarette, he had been smoking when shot. The other cowboy also was brought in prostrate, dying two days later. Virgil Earp came back to Arizona, to the scene of his old exploits in Yavapai County and engaged in mining in the Hassayampa district.  In 1900 he was nominated for sheriff but failed to make the race.  He had seen service in the Civil War in an Indiana regiment of volunteers.

Wyatt Earp went to Colton, California where relatives lived, and where he later was elected Chief of Police.  He was given much publicity in his capacity of the referee at the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight in San Francisco, in which his decision, awarding the battle to the former, was sustained by his reputation as a handyman with a gun. He was in Nome in its boom period.

Holliday died of consumption at Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Warren Earp, the youngest brother, a stage driver, in the summer of 1900, met his end at Wilcox, where he was killed by John Boyett in a way that a coroner’s jury considered justifiable.

Doc Holliday

Doc Holliday

Doc Holliday, the right bower of the Earp clan, possibly best was described by Bat Masterson, who was interviewed on the subject and is quoted:

“I never liked him and few persons did. He had a mean disposition and differed from most of the big gunfighters in that he would seek a fight. He was a consumptive and physically weak, which probably had something to do with his unfortunate disposition. He was of a fine Georgia family and was educated as a dentist.  He went west after shooting down several defenseless Negro boys in a quarrel as to who should occupy a certain swimming hole. He made Dallas in the early seventies and hung out his shingle but he soon quit for gambling. His shooting of the Negroes became known and so he got a reputation as a bad man from the start. He finally killed a man in Jacksboro, [Texas] and fled. Then he killed a soldier, and to avoid being caught by the military authorities, made a desperate flight to Denver, across 800 miles of waterless, Indian-infested desert. He made Denver in 1876. The law forbade him to carry a gun there, so he slipped a knife into his bootleg and presently carved up the fact of one Bud Ryan who bears the mark to this day.

He then fled to Dodge City where I first met him. He kept out of trouble in Dodge somehow but presently wandered to Trinidad, Colorado where the first thing he did was to shoot and seriously wound Kid Colton. Then he escaped to Las Vegas, [New Mexico] a boom town, where he disagreed with Mike Gordon and shot him dead in a doorway.”

James Harvey McClintock, 1913. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2019.

Also See:

Earp Vendetta Ride

My Friend Wyatt Earp by Bat Masterson

Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman of the American West

Tombstone – The Town Too Tough to Die

Notes and Author:  Wyatt Earp would die years after this article was written of prostate cancer in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929, at the age of 80. The author, James Harvey McClintock was born in Sacramento in 1864 and moved to Arizona at the age of 15, working for his brother at the Salt River Herald (later known as the Arizona Republic). When McClintock was 22 he began to attend the Territorial Normal School in Tempe, where he earned a teaching certificate.  Later, he would serve as Theodore Roosevelt’s right-hand-man in the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War and become an Arizona State Representative. Between the years of 1913 and 1916, McClintock’s published a three-volume history of Arizona called Arizona: The Youngest State (now in the public domain,) in which this article appeared. McClintock continued to live in Arizona until his poor health forced him to return to California, where he died on May 10, 1934, at the age of 70. The article is not verbatim as spelling errors and minor grammatical changes have been made.