The Day that Brought Infamy

When Doc arrived in Tombstone in September of 1880, he was seeking a fresh start with new opportunities. His friend, Wyatt Earp, had convinced him that Tombstone was the right place for doing so. The new boomtowns in the Arizona Territory were proving to be gold mines for business savvy individuals like the Earp brothers. By the time of Doc’s arrival, the Earp brothers had already established themselves into the community of Tombstone and were holding multiple titles including marshal, sheriff, bartender, real estate owners, businessmen, and gamblers.

Photograph of Tombstone, Arizona circa 1881 by Photographer C.S. Fly
Photograph of Tombstone, Arizona circa 1881 by Photographer C.S. Fly

Doc quickly joined in on the Earp family’s multiple business investments, especially the ventures into poker and faro. The group became regulars at the lavish Oriental Saloon, and soon they were well-known throughout town. But sometimes being recognized comes with a price, especially in a place like Tombstone. Other opportunists, like the cowboy bands and established crooks, felt that their slices of the pie were getting smaller.

A number of confrontations between other prominent Tombstone residents and Doc and the Earp faction would lead to an event that continues to marvel people today. This single day would change Doc’s life forever, causing his course to once again shift directions. Instead of a fresh start and stability, Doc gained infamy.

Bad Blood

The infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral was not a random occurrence; it was the climax of continuous tensions that had built up over a year between two powerful groups, both fighting for power. Despite what some sources portray, Doc’s loyalty to Wyatt Earp was not the only factor influencing his participation in the shootout. Doc’s involvement in a number of preceding events directly impacted the momentous moment’s happening. Learn more below:

  • In October of 1880, Doc got into an argument at the Oriental Saloon with a man named Johnny Tyler, who frequently harassed other gamblers there. After drawing their guns, both men were disarmed and kicked out by Milt Joyce, partial owner of the saloon. Tyler swore he would get his revenge on Doc, meanwhile Doc intended to get his gun back from Joyce. Upon re-entering the saloon, Doc demanded his piece from Joyce, who refused to return it. Within a few minutes, Doc was back in the saloon, but this time he was armed with a revolver. Joyce knocked Doc to the ground, and the firing began. Joyce was shot in the left hand, and his partner behind the bar sustained a wound in his foot. When Doc appeared before the Justice the next day, he entered a plea of guilty to a misdemeanor charge of ‘assault and battery’, causing the charge of ‘assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill’ to be dismissed. Joyce, in danger of losing his hand, began to understand Tyler’s desire for revenge against Doc.
Clipping from The Weekly Arizona Citizen, October 16, 1880 reporting of an incident between Doc and Oriental Saloon owner, Milton Joyce. The report mistakenly referred to Doc's last name of Holliday as “Hoyle"
Clipping from The Weekly Arizona Citizen, October 16, 1880 reporting of an incident between Doc and Oriental Saloon owner, Milton Joyce. The report mistakenly referred to Doc’s last name of Holliday as “Hoyle”
  • In mid-March of 1881, Doc took a ride out of town to visit his friend from Las Vegas, William Leonard. After dinner, Doc went to the Alhambra Saloon to play faro. That same evening, a Kinnear stagecoach carrying nine passengers and eighty thousand dollars in silver bullion was fired upon by robbers. The shotgun messenger employed by Wells, Fargo and Company was able to return fire and regain control of the vehicle. Unfortunately, the stage’s usual driver and one other passenger were killed. When word reached Wells, Fargo agent Marshall Marsh Williams in Tombstone, he immediately formed a posse that included Wyatt Earp and two of his brothers.
Alhambra Saloon, ca. 1880. Engraving from the Arizona Quartlerly Illustrated, April 1881.
  • The posse caught up with one of the suspects, who admitted that he held the horses during the holdup attempt and stated there were eight holdup men total. The suspect also gave up some of his accomplices, naming three men including Doc’s friend, William Leonard. A rumor quickly spread that Doc must have been involved with the attempted robbery, given his friendship with Leonard and his visit to him that night. This rumor was perpetuated by the various cowboys being looked at as possible suspects themselves, a move that infuriated Doc. Doc believed that the crooked Tombstone Sheriff John, ‘Johnny,’ Behan and his friends were trying to pin the double murder on him in order to distract attention away from their own illicit activities. By this time, the Doc/Earp clan and Behan/Joyce faction were at treacherous odds with each other.
  • Less than one month after the stagecoach incident, Doc was indicted in court for the ongoing feud with Oriental owner, Joyce. Doc was facing the following charges: ‘threats against life’, and ‘attempting to kill a saloon-keeper who objected to his presence in the house.’ While in court, Joyce called Doc a “stage robber” – a comment Doc could not ignore. A fight broke out, but the charges were dismissed once Doc agreed to pay the court costs.
  • Doc was soon in court again, this time for federal charges regarding the stage robbery attempt and consequent murders. Doc appeared in court with his attorney on four consecutive days, each time getting a continuance. The case was continued into the next session, before it was eventually removed from the schedule altogether. Doc spent a majority of his summer trying to disassociate himself from the stagecoach incident, a rumor being sustained by local cowboys and rivals. Unfortunately, Doc was soon betrayed by an unlikely enemy.
  • Doc’s on-again, off-again partner, Kate, came to Tombstone to celebrate the 4th of July with Doc. After the two got into an argument, Kate comforted herself by going into town for a night of drinking with Doc’s foes, John Behan and Milt Joyce. Behan took advantage of Kate’s obvious intoxication, convincing her to sign an affidavit stating that Doc confessed to murdering the two victims of the attempted stage robbery. The next day, Doc was arrested for murder and assessed a large bail of five thousand dollars, which Wyatt and other allies were able to raise. When Kate, who was also charged with being drunk and disorderly, sobered up, she immediately redacted her statement. With no other evidence for the claim, the murder charge was dismissed, and Kate sheepishly left town.
Cochise County Sheriff John Behan, ca. 1885
  • Hostilities between rival cowboy bands was at an all-time high, prompting the United States government and Mexican law enforcement officials to focus more attention towards resolving the violence and robberies happening near the border. The federal government also offered a reward for the capture of the stagecoach robbery suspects. With the other members being dead already, the only other known suspect that could clear Doc’s name from the event was Jim Crane. Knowing that capturing Crane would not only help his friend Doc, but also increase his chances of winning the upcoming sheriff election, Wyatt quickly worked on a plan. As a current detective on the Wells Fargo payroll, he discreetly offered the reward money to Ike Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Joe Hill if they’d reveal Crane’s whereabouts. When he learned that Crane had been seen at Newman Haynes ‘Old Man’ Clanton’s ranch near Cloverdale, New Mexico Territory, he gathered a posse to begin pursuit.
  • Wyatt, who was likely deputized by his brother Virgil for the pursuit, and his posse (which included his brothers Morgan and Warren, as well as Doc) found the cowboys’ campsite near the Mexican border. Jim Crane was camping for the night, along with Old Man Clanton, Dixie Gray, Charles Bud Snow, William Lang, Billy Byers, and Harry Ernshaw. At daybreak, Wyatt’s posse made their presence known with gunshots. Refusing to be taken prisoner, the cowboys returned fire. Within a few minutes, five of the seven cowboys lay dead, while two escaped. Of those dead, Crane’s death was most detrimental, as the posse could no longer extract his confession to clear Doc’s name as a suspect in the stagecoach robbery. Additionally, both Doc and Warren sustained gunshot wounds, with Doc’s being in his leg. Returning to Arizona just in time for his thirtieth birthday on August 14, 1881, Doc was nursing his wound. He was seen using a cane from this time on.
    • It is important to note that some historians believe that the death of Old Man Clanton and his cowboys, including Crane, was due to an ambush by Mexican vaqueros, in retaliation for an earlier attack and raid by Clanton’s gang. We will never know for sure whether Doc and the Earp faction did in fact kill Ike’s father, thus prompting the hostilities to finally boil over, but the fact that the possibility exists speaks to the level of disdain between the two groups.
  • After being at the fiesta in Tucson for about four days, Morgan Earp approached Doc with an urgent request – return to Tombstone immediately. Doc headed for Tombstone that very night, unaware of what was about to unfold. When he arrived the next day, October 25, 1881, so did Ike Clanton. Ike, believing Wyatt had disclosed their secret arrangement for catching the Kinnear stage robbery suspects, had become extremely aggressive towards the Earp brothers and Doc. Additionally, Ike feared for his life. His father, Old Man Clanton, was one of the people killed during the shootout attempt near his ranch. Ike was afraid of what the other cowboys would do to him if they learned that he sold out Crane and the other members of the Kinnear robbery, and he resented that the Earps and Doc were the ones in charge of this secret.
  • That evening, Clanton confronted Wyatt of revealing their deal, saying that Doc told him he knew of their arrangement. Wyatt denied the claim, stating that he could prove otherwise once Doc returned to Tombstone. When Wyatt found Doc at the Alhambra Saloon later, he divulged the details of his argument with Clanton. Doc continued playing faro and drinking, before eventually heading to A.D. Walsh’s Can Can Lunch and Eating Counter at 1:00 am for some food. Upon seeing Clanton there, Doc cursed him and called him a “lying cowboy”. Clanton, most likely bluffing, told Doc that the only reason he told Wyatt of Crane’s whereabouts was in order to lure them out of town so that the cowboys could kill them. In shock, Doc likely revealed his involvement in the death of Clanton’s father. Virgil Earp, acting Marshal for Tombstone, threatened to arrest the two. Although Doc returned to his room for the night, Clanton continued drinking and festering his anger into the next morning. By 11 am, he was overheard by a policeman bragging about his intention to kill Doc and the Earp brothers. Word quickly got around, and it became apparent that tensions had reached their boiling point.
  • Kate returned to Tombstone in October of 1881. Her and Doc were on-again, and he invited her to travel with him to the San Agustin Fiesta in Tucson. In addition to the dancing, eating, drinking, and gambling, Doc had another reason to visit Tucson. After being previously accused of robbing the Sandy Bob Stage, but being released on bond, Pete Spence Spencer and Frank Stilwell were now facing federal charges for robbing the mail, executed by U.S. Marshall Virgil Earp. Also, in attendance at the hearing were some of Doc’s cowboy rivals, including Ike Clanton and William Billy Allen. Doc was hoping to see justice brought to the individuals ruining his reputation, but justice was going to be served in a quite different way.
Joseph Isaac Clayton, better known as ‘Ike,” ca. 1881

The Shootout at the O.K. Corral

At around 11:00 a.m. on October 26, 1881, Virgil Earp left his house and found Ike Clanton walking down Fourth Street with a rifle in his hand and a pistol in his pants, Wyatt arriving soon after him. A scuffle ensued, but Virgil was able to prevent Clanton from getting a shot off by hitting him over the head with his own gun. Clanton was arrested for violating the city’s ordinance against carrying firearms, and fined by the judge. Virgil headed to the Grand Hotel, the spot Clanton designated for his weapons to be deposited, leaving Wyatt behind to berate Clanton. Wyatt angrily told Clanton that he’d go anywhere on the earth to fight him. On his way out of the courtroom, Wyatt also ran into Tom McLaury, and a scuffle quickly broke out. After hitting McLaury across the head, Wyatt muttered that he could kill him.

After bandaging his head wound, Clanton went to the Grand Hotel to retrieve his guns. He then headed to the boarding house Doc was sleeping at, looking for blood. The owner was able to keep him from finding Doc’s room, and Kate was warned about the incident. When Kate informed Doc, he responded, “If God will let me live to get my clothes on, he shall see me.” Doc met up with Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan at Hafford’s Corner Saloon at Fourth and Allen Streets. A local miner approached the group, telling them he just saw Ike and Billy Clanton with Frank and Tom McLaury standing in front of the O.K. Corral, armed and looking for trouble. Virgil took Doc’s cane, and gave Doc his shotgun to carry. Marshal Virgil Earp and his formidable group, acting as deputies, began their approach up Fourth Street to disarm the Clanton and McLaury brothers.

The O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, after a fire in 1882, approximately one year after the gunfight.

Upon turning the corner onto Fremont Street, they noticed that Billy Claiborne had joined the four waiting outside Fly’s Boarding House, in the vacant lot west, hoping to ambush Doc. Unaware that Doc was not still in there, they meant to fulfill Ike’s threat to kill him. When Marshal Virgil Earp called to the cowboys to throw up their hands, two shots were immediately heard. It is unknown who fired the first shots, but regardless, many more rang out within the next twenty to thirty seconds. It is believed that Wyatt likely fired the first shot, hitting Frank McLaury in the stomach. Billy Clanton was taken down by several bullets. Doc fired his shotgun, striking Tom McLaury, who died after running down Fremont Street. Morgan was shot in the right shoulder, but the bullet luckily exited through. Virgil was shot through the right calf. Doc tossed his shotgun, drawing his pistol to fire at Frank McLaury, still lying wounded on the street. Frank McLaury shouted to Doc, “I’ve got you this time,” to which Doc famously responded, “Blaze away! You’re a daisy if you have.” Both Morgan and Doc returned Frank’s fire.

Tombstone lithograph map of the infamous shootout. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral began in a narrow 18 feet wide lot (highlighted in green) on Fremont Street between Fly’s Photography Studio and the Harwood House and spread onto Fremont Street. The O.K. Corral itself (highlighted in yellow) is located on Allen Street. The gunfight took place six lots west of the rear entrance to the Corral.

Doc, being struck on his holster, yelled that he was shot right through. Morgan and Frank both fell, being struck as well. Doc ran towards Frank, yelling that he had shot him, and he intended to kill him in return. This wish was fulfilled, as Frank died from the wounds to his head and abdomen. Within a minute, the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton were dead. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne escaped death by fleeing the scene. Doc returned to his room at the boarding house, and according to Kate, began crying about the awfulness of it all. Three days later, Doc and the three Earp brothers were charged with the killings.

Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, the three casualties of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

This event, which likely lasted no longer than thirty seconds, would significantly impact Doc’s final years of life. The violence was nowhere near over, and Doc’s reputed body count would soon grow exponentially. The scandal of the O.K. Corral shootout would follow Doc wherever he ran, as he tried to avoid serious jail time. He feared the shame that the incident might bring to his family back in Georgia.

The Consequences

Although Doc and all three Earp brothers were charged with killing Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, only Doc and Wyatt were arrested by Sheriff John Behan, because the other two were sustainably injured. Even though Doc and Wyatt were each able to raise the necessary funds to meet their bonds, they would not be out of jail for long. Attorney Will McLaury, the brother of the two dead, arrived in Tombstone to put pressure on the Judge to reincarnate them. In November of 1881, a writ of habeas corpus forced the Judge to set a larger bond, but with the help of many friends, Doc and Wyatt were released once again. On November 29, 1881, the Judge gave his ruling that the Earps and Doc were acting within their official duties and would not be convicted of any offence on the evidence by a trial jury. This verdict outraged the cowboys, who openly threatened to kill the Earps and Doc.

An attempt to assassinate Virgil while he was walking back to the hotel from the Oriental Saloon occurred on December 28, 1881. Most of the town’s residents believed that Will McLaury had organized a party to seek revenge, consisting of Ike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius, Hank Swilling, and Frank Stilwell. Then, a confrontation between Doc and John Ringo, known for both his quickness and deadliness, in January of 1882 narrowly missed becoming another shootout. The worst was yet to come. On March 8, 1882, Morgan Earp was fatally shot while playing billiards in Campbell and Hatch’s Billiard Parlor on Allen Street. As Wyatt held his dying brother, he promised to get revenge; a promise he would keep.

Morgan Seth Earp, murdered in Tombstone, Arizona, ca. 1881

Over the next couple of months, Wyatt assembled a crew of vigilantes, including Doc, to avenge his brother’s murder. Before leaving Tombstone, Doc compiled a letter from a large number of the town’s residents, exonerating him from the charge of willful murder. Doc did not want his family to bear the shame of him being involved in the disgraceful case, although his loyalty to Wyatt would not allow him to abandon the violent cause. Their vengeful journey resulted in the deaths of Frank Stilwell, Florentino Cruz, Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Barnes, and possibly John Ringo. Their “vendetta ride” across the nation was followed by the public like celebrity news, making their ability to hide from the law and their enemies difficult – something that would haunt Doc in the following years.

Doc’s involvement in the O.K. Corral shootout would later cause him to be wrongfully arrested and jailed, painted as a serial criminal to the newspapers, confined to states where he was safe from pending warrants and spiteful adversaries, and antagonized into confrontations. Additionally, the constant fleeing, lack of rest, and strain on his mental wellbeing was detrimental to his already frail health. Once he was finally able to settle down for a moment, Doc’s tuberculosis caught up with him. His final days reflected that of a man seeking normalcy, not a gunfighter looking for a final fight.


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The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry is an auxiliary enterprise of the University of Maryland, School of Dentistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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