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Vigilante justice paves a centuries long history for Tombstone

A reenactment of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. The O.K. Corral has been reenacting the famous gunfight with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp since the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of the O.K. Corral)

A gunfight that happened in less than a minute in Tombstone on Oct. 26, 1881, left the town with an immortalized piece of history, and a place on the map.

The shootout between Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, Doc Holliday against Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne became the picture of vigilante justice in the Old West. It became good vs. evil, cowboys vs. the law and a shootout in a soon-to-be washed up silver mining town.

News of the shooting at the O.K. Corral reached far beyond the town of Tombstone. This less than a minute of western warfare spurred the potential of Tombstone to evolve into a tourist destination today.

“A face down, gunfight between men on both sides, the law and the cowboys, there were very few facedown gunfights in the old west, especially involving multiple men on both sides,” said Mark Boardman, the editor of the national edition of The Tombstone Epitaph.

The shootout drew excitement from people across the country. At the time, the town had two newspapers with a fierce rivalry, as they played on opposite political sides.

The next day, both papers published stories the observational accounts of what had happened.

Wyatt Earp’s pistol at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tucson, Ariz. on Oct. 4, 2017. The pistol was made in 1883, and was in Earp’s possession until his death in 1929. (Photographed by Leah Gilchrist/ Arizona Sonora News)

Over time, the gunfight ignited a spirit in Tombstone that served the town well over the next century.

Erika Way, the park manager at the Tombstone Courthouse, said the two accounts of the paper differed, and led to the creation of a legend. Way said books and movies created after the shootout reflect the initial difference in perspective.

“Even from the very next day, the reporting started having their own twists and turns based on what served whose agenda better,” Way said. “This has carried through as time has marched forward, and there are people who absolutely love Wyatt Earp and his crew and then you have other people who feel very strongly the other way too.”

In 1882, one year after the gunfight, Wyatt Earp and his supporters took to horseback over several days, scouring the countryside looking for and executing any cowboys who had wronged his brothers.

“Ironically at the time if you look at the coverage outside of Tombstone, around the country, and around the world, the vendetta ride by Wyatt Earp got more play during that time because it looked like he was just going out to wipe out his enemies,” Boardman said.

For the next 40 years, the town limped along, keeping itself above becoming a ghost town only because it was the Cochise County seat in government until 1929, when it moved to Bisbee.

“The corral was unimportant until the first book came out in 1929,” said Bob Love, the owner of the O.K. Corral. “Up until that point, nobody cared. Wyatt Earp had been trying to sell the story of his life and nobody cared. The first book came out, and that started the interest.”

Helldorado Days celebrating the culture of the West in Tombstone, Ariz. The first Helldorado Days were held in 1929, and brought legends such as Wyatt Earp to life again. (Photo courtesy Arizona Parks and Trails)

1929 became a pivotal year in Tombstone’s history. It was when the town held its first Helldorado Days, a celebration of all things western. At the time, interest in the great American West grew like wildfire. Authors sought newspapers and writings on Wyatt Earp. Walter Noble Burns’ Tombstone was published in 1929, the first of many books and movies that would capture the stories of the Old West.

Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, a biography of Earp’s life, published in 1931, two years after Wyatt Earp’s death.

“In fact it sort of blew up bigger at that time than it had in the history of Tombstone, when the gunfight actually took place,” Boardman said, “and the town, as I say, from ‘29 on, was really promoting the gunfight as being the seminal bit of history for all of Arizona territory and people began to go with it.”

Again and again, the story has been retold in books and films, from My Darling Clementine in 1946 to Tombstone in 1993 and Wyatt Earp in 1994.

Love’s father bought the O.K. Corral property in 1963 after the owners went bankrupt.

The O.K. Corral began to do gunfight reenactments in 1971, according to Love. Initially the reenactments happened closer to celebrations, or once a month, but slowly expanded to seven days a week in the early 1990s.

The most celebrated retelling of the gunfight might be the 1993 movie Tombstone, which starred Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

“Because since that movie came out, it’s improved tourism,” said Liz Haney, the manager of the Tombstone Visitor’s Center and Boothill Graveyard.

When Kilmer visited town this summer, Haney said tourism spiked. She estimated about 10,000 people visited when he was here.

“As those stories are something that other generations grew up with, they want to introduce it to new generations coming forward.” Way said, “But people absolutely come here and they’re looking for a gunfight while they’re here.”

Leah Gilchrist is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at leahgilchrist@email.arizona.edu.

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