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Torn over Tombstone

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Posted: Sunday, October 22, 2006 8:19 am | Updated: 3:37 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

You can’t get Wyatt Earp to say anything bad about Terry “Ike” Clanton. One hundred and twenty-five years after animosity between the Clantons and the Earps sparked the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, their descendants are friends. But that doesn’t mean they agree about who is to blame for the 30-second gunfight that left three men dead and changed the lives of the survivors and their descendants.

“I’ve always said it was the first form of police brutality in America,” says Clanton, a cousin of the infamous Clanton clan.

“It’s amusing,” says Earp, a nephew of the storied lawman. “(Clanton) talks about the Clantons and McLaurys as not being bad guys. Oh, boy. I know better.”

Thursday will mark the 125th anniversary of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. On Oct. 26, 1881, building tension between the Earps, who represented law and order in Tombstone, and the Clantons and McLaurys, cattle rustlers and outlaws, erupted into a bloody confrontation.

The legacy of the men who fought that day has become the economic backbone of modern Tombstone and an integral part of the lives of Clanton and Earp. Names like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton became part of the West’s lexicon and Hollywood lore. It was billed as the good guys versus the bad guys, law versus lawlessness and Republicans versus Democrats.

“I’ve studied it for 40 years, and you couldn’t have created a better story,” says Marshall Trimble, professor of Southwestern studies at Scottsdale Community College and Arizona’s official historian. “The whole West rolls into one in Tombstone. It was a microcosm.”


When Wyatt Earp and his brothers arrived in Tombstone on Dec. 1, 1879, it was a bustling mining camp on the verge of booming. Tombstone’s social spectrum was typical of frontier towns — merchants, saloon keepers, prostitutes, peddlers, gamblers and real-estate speculators competed with each other to make a quick buck at the expense of the miners.

“Wyatt never wanted to be a lawman,” says Earp, an actor who has brought his namesake to life for the past 18 years in the one-man show “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier.” “He wanted to be an entrepreneur. But in order to be an entrepreneur in towns that were totally out of control, the law was thrust on him. Decent people can’t enjoy decent lives when indecent violence occurs day in and day out.”

Almost everyone flaunted the law in Tombstone — including the lawmen. Sheriff Johnny Behan collected “taxes” from prostitutes, and some historians speculate that he was in cahoots with the cowboys and cattle rustlers, says Trimble.

“You look the other way from my chicanery and vice versa,” says Trimble. “For example, (cowboys) sold cattle to butcher shops and those butchers had to know the cattle was stolen. But the cowboys sold them for a cheap price so no questions were asked, no brands inspected. They were stealing from honest ranchers.”

This mayhem was typical of any boom town. There were too many desperate souls looking to get rich quick and not enough lawmen to maintain order and keep up with growth. The situation deteriorated so much that the federal government wanted to declare martial law in a territory besieged by cattle rustling and stagecoach robberies.

Tombstone wasn’t the only dangerous place in Arizona or the United States, but everything that happened in the town was national news. This was the age of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and dime store novels of Ned Buntline, the Louis L’Amour of his time. The Earps represented the economic interests of Tombstone’s upper class, who were mostly Republicans. Older brother Virgil was the city marshal, and his brothers were hired guns for Wells Fargo.

Wyatt had established a reputation for being a stand-up guy in places like Wichita, Kan., Abilene, Texas, and Dodge City, Kan.

Ike Clanton and his clan were allegedly cattle rustlers. The cowboys, who made their living stealing cattle from fellow ranchers in Arizona and across the border in Mexico, were supporters of the Democrats, says Trimble.

Clanton, who lives in California and runs the Web site, maintains there’s no proof his ancestors were anything but honest ranchers.

“No matter how they try to whitewash it, the evidence is too strong that they (the Clantons and McLaurys) were dealing in stolen cattle,” says Trimble.

Accounts of what happened that day vary. Some paint the Earps as looking for a gunfight and brutalizing the Clantons and McLaurys to provoke one.

Others depict Ike Clanton as in a drunken rage and threatening the Earps.

Here is what most sources agree on:

Ike came to Tombstone on Oct. 25 with Tom McLaury to buy supplies. In the early hours of Oct. 26, Doc Holliday, who had a contentious relationship with the cowboys, tried to provoke a fight with Ike at a lunch counter in town. Wyatt dragged Doc back to his boarding house to sleep it off.

By noon on the 26th, an intoxicated Ike was going around town threatening the Earps. He was carrying a gun, which was illegal within city limits. Virgil and Morgan Earp arrested Ike and disarmed him.

Tom McLaury’s older brother, Frank, and Ike’s younger brother Billy arrived in town around 1:30 p.m. They’d heard their brothers were in trouble and rode into town to support them. Both men were armed when the cowboys gathered a block away from the O.K. Corral.

Sheriff Johnny Behan tried to disarm the cowboys, but they resisted. Upon hearing that the cowboys were armed, Virgil decided to confront them. The sheriff told the Earps and Doc he had already disarmed the cowboys, which wasn’t true. When the lawmen reached the cowboys, they were surprised to find them still carrying weapons.

No one knows who fired the first shot. But it’s documented that shortly after 3 p.m. Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury were dead. Wyatt was unharmed, but his brothers Virgil and Morgan were wounded in the leg and shoulder, respectively. A bullet grazed Doc Holliday in the hip.

An unarmed Ike Clanton escaped shortly before the fighting began.


Wyatt Earp isn’t a stage name. His parents named him after the lawman when he was born on Aug. 2, 1945 (“My folks didn’t anticipate the cinema dramatizing of our family history as aggressively as was the case in the 1950s”).

He grew up in Indiana and never imagined he’d become an actor.

“I loved entertainment and I loved theater, but I didn’t see myself as having the talent for it,” says the tall and lanky Earp, who is sitting in the reception area of Kindred Hospital in Phoenix. His wife, Terry, who is a playwright, is recovering in the hospital after being hit by an SUV Sept. 16.

She’d been commissioned to write a one-man biographical drama about Wyatt Earp, and the couple decided to stage “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier.”

“We wanted to see what the work would look like on stage, and what we thought would be an expensive party launched it,” says Earp. “That was 532 performances and six countries ago.”

He first visited Arizona in 1968 as a college student, when he competed in a swim meet against Arizona State University.

“I loved the place, and I came back after school,” says Earp.

A year later he visited Tombstone for the first time and walked the streets his ancestors helped keep safe.

“I found it so fascinating to be in a place where history still lived,” says Earp, who moved to Arizona after graduating from college.

Earp believes he shares a lot of similarities with his namesake — a very high sense of self-discipline, athletic enthusiasm, a dogmatic appreciation for honesty, a love of children and a well-documented penchant for ice cream.

“I met a lady who was in her 90s about nine years ago,” says Earp. “And she says, ‘You know I met Wyatt Earp.’ ”

The woman told Earp she was working in an ice cream parlor in Parker in the 1920s when Wyatt came in for a hot fudge sundae.

At the time, Wyatt operated the Happy Days mine in Vidal, Calif., which is just across the Colorado River.

“He had some of his happiest times out there with Sadie (Wyatt’s second wife, Josephine Marcus),” says Earp.

Wyatt and Sadie lived in a small cottage in Vidal, which is the setting for “Mrs. Wyatt Earp,” written by Terry Earp.

“Do you know who owns the Vidal cottage?” Earp asks as he leans forward with a glint of amused mischief in his eye. “My good friend Terry ‘Ike’ Clanton.”


Clearing his cousin’s name is a mission for Terry “Ike” Clanton, an actor who lives in California. Earp and Clanton have appeared nationwide to discuss the history leading up to that 30 seconds that intertwined their destinies 125 years ago.

The historical record depicts Ike as a slovenly personality — a drunken cattle rustler who started the fight with the Earps.

“Ike did the most cowardly thing,” says Trimble. “He picked this fight. He was going around town telling people he was going to kill an Earp, and when the time came he ran and left his little brother to die. That really says a lot about him.”

Not true, says Clanton.

“He wasn’t going to instigate a gunfight without a gun,” says Clanton. “He was trying to stop it. I’m amazed that the public still believes in Wyatt Earp.

“Part of the passion I have for Ike Clanton is that nobody knows who he is. The man wore a three-piece suit when he came to Tombstone. He was a wealthy man and he was not illiterate.”

Clanton was a kid when he first heard about his infamous relative. His grandfather, Floyd Clanton, didn’t want the neighbors to know his family was related to “those Clantons.”

“All my grandfather knew is that they were bad people, and you don’t want to be a bad person,” says Clanton. “All they knew was what Hollywood told them.”

Clanton’s father was the one who took him to Tombstone for the first time.

“I grew up running around the streets of Tombstone,” says Clanton. “When I go down there it’s like old home week.”

Clanton’s Web site hosts a lot of Tombstone-related traffic.

He says his in-box is a mix of hate mail and fan mail from the newly converted, people who question the official version of events.

“When people hear my side of the story, they’re going to say, ‘That makes sense,’ ” says Clanton.

If you go

Tombstone is planning a three-day celebration in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Thursday, Friday and Saturday:

• A special re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 2:30 p.m. Thursday. The conflicts that led up to the gunfight well be re-created.

• See an exhibit of Wyatt Earp’s belongings 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at the Tombstone Courthouse State Park, 223 Toughnut St. $4 per person. (520) 457-3311 or parkhtml/tombstone.html.

• The Clanton and McLaury funeral procession will proceed down Allen Street noon Saturday.

• The Tombstone Repertory Company will perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1878 comic operetta, “H.M.S. Pinafore,” 8 p.m. daily at Schieffelin Hall.

• Western authors discussion groups and book signings noon to 4 p.m. Friday at Schieffelin Hall.

• Bring your chair and watch movies on the street 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The lineup includes “Tombstone” and “Appointment With Destiny” Thursday, “Hour of the Gun” and “Appointment with Destiny” Friday, and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and “Appointment With Destiny” Saturday.

Details: All events will take place in historic downtown Tombstone. To get there take Interstate 10 east to Benson and then follow state Highway 80 south to Tombstone. For more information call (800) 457-3423 or visit www.okcorralgunfight. com.

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