The (near) Trial of Wyatt Earp

Even before he hunted down and slaughtered three cowboys on his 1882 “vendetta ride,” many throughout the west considered Wyatt Earp a bona fide murderer. At no other time was this speculation put more to the test than the Tombstone, Arizona preliminary hearing of brothers Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, and their friend Doc Holliday. Following a chaotic face-to-face shoot-out in which Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank Mclaury wound up fatally wounded, Tombstone was suddenly divided. Some called it a vulgar display of power on the part of City Marshal Virgil Earp, a convenient excuse to settle old scores once and for all, while yet others argued the Clanton-McLaury gang had it coming. On Halloween, 1881, Judge Wells Spicer opened up hearings to decide the merit of this dispute.

Tom McLaury

Going into the hearing, the prosecution had a convincing case. They had lead witness Billy Allen who testified to having seen most of the fight. According to Allen, as the Earp-Holliday party met with that of the Clantons and McLaurys, Wyatt Earp seethed, “You sons-of-bitches, you have been looking for a fight!” In response, Tom McLaury opened his coat and declared himself unarmed while William Clanton raised his arms and said, “I do not want to fight.”. A split second later, the Earps and Holliday, as if it had been their intentions the whole time, opened fire.

But perhaps most damning of all for the Earps and Holliday was the fact that Virgil Earp, in response to word that the Clantons and McLaurys were walking illegally within town limits while bearing arms, enlisted the service of his two brothers and friend, the disreputable Doc Holliday. Instead of settling the problem with other local lawmen Virgil Earp seemingly chose to make the problem more personal, not to mention dangerous.

Thomas Fitch

The case for the prosecution was compelling. But unfortunately for them however, their tactics were not. Witnesses for the prosecutors found themselves debased and tongue-tied during defense attorney Thomas Fitch’s cross-examinations. Fitch showed Allen to be unsure of what exactly he saw of the gunfight and brought into question his dubious character. When questioning Sheriff Johnny Behan, Fitch made the argument that Doc Holliday, who normally carried a nickel-plated pistol but during the shooting bore Virgil Earp’s shotgun, shot first seem incredible. He raised the defense’s assertion that Behan told the Earps and Holliday that he had disarmed the cowboys, which if true was dangerously deceiving, and then brought forth a witness who had overheard Behan assure Virgil Earp after the shooting that, “You did perfectly right.” And in an instance of brilliant, patient maneuverability, Fitch capitalized on Behan’s use of the word “cowboys” in describing the Clanton-McLaury gang, the word being, as even Judge Spicer knew, an inference of lawlessness.

Frank McLaury

What would ultimately seal the prosecution’s fate however was Behan’s initial encounter with the Clanton-McLaury gang. After demanding that the men surrender their weapons, Billy Clanton lied and claimed he was on his way out of town while Frank McLaury refused outright, insisting on his guns, “without those other people [the Earps and Holliday] being disarmed.” It was a statement that even Ike Clanton, the gang’s lone survivor, could not dispute.

On November 30th Judge Spicer exonerated the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday of all criminal wrongdoings and the case ended. In explanation of his decision, Spicer cited the gang’s refusal to give up their weapons, saying, “…and at the same time for men to parade the streets armed with repeating rifles and six-shooters and demand that the chief of police and his assistants should be disarmed is a proposition both monstrous and startling!” The judge acknowledged that Virgil Earp had reason to suspect the gang meant severe violence, stating, “Virgil Earp, the chief of police, honestly believed… that their purpose was [either] to attempt the deaths of himself and brothers [or] at least to resist with force and arms any attempt on his part to perform his duty as a peace officer…”

Virgil Earp

The Earps were not off the hook completely though, at least not Virgil. Spicer would add in his decision that the City Marshall had committed a “censurable act” in enlisting his brothers and Holliday in his handling of the affair and that, “Whether or not ‘Doc fired first’ his presence in the posse was a needless provocation, providing significant evidence that Virgil and the others acted improperly in a ‘spirit of revenge.’”

What is known for sure is that the infamous 1881 Tombstone gunfight was a result of hot heads and bad judgment on both sides. Still, as was decided by Judge Spicer, hot-headedness and bad judgment does not always translate to criminality. Most likely the full story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral will never be known. The narrative is too befuddled by too many narrators – all with different convictions as to who shot first, whose hands were up, who said what. Thus to some it remains doubtful that Wyatt Earp and his posse were entirely innocent, even if their arguments are not so convincing.

Sources used:

Lubet, Steven. Murder in Tombstone: the Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

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About adamjamesjones

A historian of the American West, Adam James Jones is the author of "The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa." He lives in New Mexico with his wife, the actress Catharine Pilafas.
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