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

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

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

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