Guns are ablaze at the OK Corral
Lawmen trade bullets with a gang of outlaws in a shoot-out that goes down in Wild West legend
In the popular imagination, the gunfight at the OK Corral has become shorthand for a vanished age of daring outlaws and rugged lawmen, facing each other in the dust of the Old West. The reality, however, was a long distance from the Hollywood portrayals seen in numerous westerns.
Founded near the Mexican border, Tombstone, Arizona was only two years old in 1881, but people flooded in every week. The settlement boasted scores of saloons, a bowling alley, two newspapers and an opera house. It was not a contented place, though. Political rivalries, feuds and communal tensions were rife, not least between the rich saloon interests and rural cowboys. This was where the Earp brothers, representing the town, and the Clanton and McLaury brothers (the cowboys), came in.
After weeks of simmering tension, matters came to a head on 26 October 1881. The famous gunfight was an attempt by Tombstone’s newly appointed marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan and friend Doc Holliday to disarm members of a gang of outlaws, who had defied the law by bringing weapons into the town. Contrary to popular belief, the shooting did not happen at the actual OK Corral, but at a scruffy lot nearby. And it was all over in moments.
The trigger was Virgil’s cry: “Boys, throw up your hands. I want your guns!” Two cowboys drew their revolvers and then somebody (accounts of who that person was differ) fired the first shot. The air was thick with gun smoke, then 30 seconds later, the guns fell silent. Three cowboys lay dead, but a legend was born.
Burt Lancaster (right) stars as Wyatt Earp in the 1957 western Gunfight at the OK Corral. A biography of Earp published in 1931 made the shoot-out a household name