What really happened at the OK Corral? I’ve consulted a couple history books, and they don’t even mention it, yet it’s the stuff of Wild West legend. My suspicion is that it was far tamer than the kind of thing that goes on in some parts of my own city, yet it’s been in a whole bunch of movies and even an episode of Star Trek. What’s the real story on Wyatt Earp? –Stephanie Faul, Washington, D.C.

Three men died at the OK Corral, Steph, and three others were wounded. Not my idea of tame, even by D.C. standards. Exactly what happened between Earp and friends and the rival Clanton gang on October 26, 1881, will never be known. The shootout took less than 30 seconds. Eyewitness and newspaper accounts and later trial testimony were highly partisan and contradictory. Vilified at the time, the Earp bloc got the upper hand in the long-term public-relations war on the strength of an adulatory biography of Wyatt that appeared two years after his death, in 1929. TV writers subsequently created the myth of Wyatt Earp the righteous western hero. But many have always regarded him as a murderer.

The Earp brothers (in addition to Wyatt, those relevant to this story include Virgil and Morgan) were professional gunmen. Like many of their kind they sought employment as lawmen or guards so they could display their skill as “shootists” and generally throw their weight around. Still, they kept the peace after a fashion and many considered them efficient, aggressive cops. Though not flagrantly criminal themselves, the Earps did have some shady friends, notably Doc Holliday, a tubercular dentist with a temper and a drinking problem who everybody pegged as a desperado.

The Earps drifted into Tombstone, Arizona, scene of the legendary shootout, around 1880. Virgil eventually got a job as city marshal, while Wyatt hired on as a saloon bouncer. Tombstone was a typically rowdy frontier boomtown with the usual fights and shootings, which the townsfolk tended to blame on “the cowboys,” meaning the motley collection of ranchers and rustlers who lived outside the city limits. Among the rustlers were two sets of brothers, the Clantons and the McLowrys.

The trail of events that led to the face-off between the Earps and the Clanton-McLowry crowd is tangled. In March 1881 a gang attacked a stagecoach and killed the driver. Doc Holliday was friends with one of the principal suspects and was rumored to have pulled the trigger. A reward having been offered, Wyatt offered a deal to Ike Clanton: Ike could have the money if he’d betray the bandits, who were friends of the Clantons. Ike later testified he refused; Earp supporters say he didn’t, and that he went gunning for Wyatt later for fear his treachery would be revealed.

Whatever the reason, Ike Clanton began threatening the Earps during a visit to town on October 25. One thing led to another and by the next day both sides were itching for a fight. Learning that Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLowry had gathered near the OK Corral, Virgil Earp decided it was his duty as marshal to arrest them. Accompanying him were Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday, all legally deputized. The two sides confronted one another, and shots rang out. In the ensuing melee Billy Clanton and the McLowrys were killed, Virgil and Morgan were wounded, and Holliday was grazed. Shocked locals hung a banner over the coffins: “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.”

In the subsequent trial each side accused the other of shooting first. The most detailed account, by historian Paula Marks, suggests that Morgan Earp and Holliday fired the initial shots and that two of the Clanton-McLowry group were unarmed. The Earps were acquitted on the grounds that they were just lawmen doing their duty, but Virgil was suspended as city marshal and a few weeks later was wounded by mysterious assailants. Morgan was killed in an ambush the following March; Wyatt and friends subsequently killed the two leading suspects. There’s more, but you don’t want to hear it. I won’t say the violence makes D.C. look peaceful, but it does put matters in perspective.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.