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Counting the Cost of the Gunfight at the OK Corral

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Yesterday was St. Crispin’s Day (Oct 25). Anyone familiar with Henry V and Agincourt knows about St. Crispin’s Day. Maybe it is irony that the Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred on October 26, the day after traditional celebration of that saint’s day.

Yesterday I had an experience that was new to me. I’ve had the honor of being the author to transcribe, footnote, and annotate Endicott Peabody’s diary of the construction of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in Tombstone. He was here for a six-month period during the most turbulent days of the Earp era. The importance of the diary is the fact he did not have an ax to grind and didn’t take sides in the argument.

Yesterday, I wanted to stop by St. Paul’s to see when the Sunday service was (10:30AM). As I walked into the church and went up to the altar to bow and cross myself in the traditional Episcopalian manner, I realized I was the first person, since Endicott Peabody and George Parsons were in the church in the 1930s, to know the full story about how it was built. It was a very strange feeling to walk into a building and look at the pews and remember how hard Peabody worked to have them cleaned and polished for the first service. I was flooded with impressions of the diary and his stories. I realized, until today and the arrival of the newly published book, no one knew those stories but me.

This brings me back to the Gunfight at the OK Corral. A few weeks ago, on one of the Internet forums dedicated to the Wild West, someone posted a think piece about not going into the festivities with a light heart. I thought very little about it until I walked into St. Paul’s yesterday. It gave me an entirely new perspective. I don’t even know if I can enjoy all the exciting events that are planned now. People died here. Families lost loved ones. Lives were ruined. Futures were destroyed. Families were uprooted. This was not a three-ring circus. It was a life and death struggle to the bitter end. It was a war. Granted, it was short and relatively quiet as wars go, but it was a war.

Instead of celebrating the events that mark the shooting, perhaps we should step back and think about the lives of those involved in a two-year struggle between law and disorder. It was not pretty. It was cruel, dirty, and vicious. It involved betrayal and lies. Do we celebrate this? As the young Endicott Peabody discovered when he arrived here, reality isn’t pretty. It was brutal to the point he became weighted down with the sadness of life here in Tombstone.

Let’s start with the Earps.

Morgan was murdered. Virgil spent the rest of his life in pain and crippled from his injuries. Hattie Ketchum married a man she did not love and ended up divorcing him. Frank split with his stepfather, James Earp, and broke his mother Bessie’s heart. She died a few years after leaving Tombstone, broken by the desertion of her children. Wyatt and Mattie’s divorce ended once and for all. His future changed. He lived under the shadow of his actions for the rest of his life. Warren was murdered in Wilcox in 1900. Mattie Blaylock Earp was murdered (I think) in 1887.

Doc Holliday, suffering from tuberculosis, was forced to leave a climate that was very healthful to him, thus shortening his life by many years. He died in 1887. Newman H. (Old Man) Clanton was killed in 1881. A few months later, Billy died in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Frank and Tom McLaury lost their lives in the shootout. William McLaury suffered financial hardship due to his determination to see the Earps prosecuted. Judge Wells Spicer, of the OK Corral Inquest, disappeared into the desert, never to be seen again. Suicide was suspected.

Fred White was killed by Curly Bill. Milton Clapp committed suicide a few years after leaving Tombstone. John P. Clum experienced financial and professional recriminations for his support of the Earps. Milt Joyce faced financial hardship (due to his own devices). Martin Peel was murdered the same night Morgan Earp lost his life. Frank Stillwell was shot by Wyatt Earp.

Florentine “Indian Charley” Cruz was shot by Wyatt Earp. Curly Bill Brocius was shot by Wyatt Earp. Johnny Ringo was a possible suicide. Billy Claiborne was killed by Buckskin Frank Leslie. The Hastert Brothers were killed. Mike Gray’s son Dixie as killed at the same time as Old Man Clanton.

Charley Snow also lost his life at that time. “Budd” Philpot was killed during the most infamous of stage robberies. Zwing Hunt was in a shootout with Billy Breakenridge and may have died later. Billy Grounds died in the same shootout. And so on.

Life was not pretty.

Each one of these people had someone who loved them, who missed them, and who mourned for them. Even Johnny Ringo, the notorious Ringo, was survived by a family who dearly loved him, but had no illusions as to his behavior. Things do not happen in a vacuum. To think we have a hold on heartache and sadness in 2006 is false. The burning question of the day is this: Was it all worth it?

Is it worth fighting the battle of good versus evil? Was it good versus evil or just the macho posturing of two alpha males as some modern scholars would have us believe?

The bottom line is this: Because of the depravations of the Cowboys, the United States was on the verge of another war with Mexico. Because the country was just regaining its footing after the disastrous Civil War, the United States could ill-afford yet another war at the time.

Thousands of head of cattle were being stolen. So many horses in and around Cochise County had been stolen it was difficult for a lawman to find enough of them to mount up a posse to go after bad guys. After Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride, cattle rustling subsided. Stage robberies were no longer in vogue. His actions did have an effect on the criminal activities in and around Cochise County.

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About SJ Reidhead

  • Iloz Zoc

    Lots of information I didn’t know. After catching the Ghost Hunters at the OK Corral on the sci-fi channel, this provided much needed insight. Thanks.

  • Donnie Marler

    I agree with Eric!! I’m enjoying this series tremendously.
    I guess my family leans toward outlaws! My wife’s great-great grandfather knew Jesse James and my grandfather had a run-in on the road with John Dillinger.
    SJ, there was an old man around here that died back in the 50’s at the age of 111. He’d been an outlaw in the old west. He and his family lived way back in the hills and the first time he ever saw an automobile he ran inside, got his shotgun and blew a hole in the radiator. The driver ran away, and according to his son, when his wife asked “what’s that thing” he replied, “I don’t know, but I made it let that man go!” lol

  • This is great and interesting stuff SJ! Thanks so much for sharing.