The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West

by Jeff Guinn

Hardcover(Simon & Schuster)

$27.00 View All Available Formats & Editions


For the first time, and by a bestselling author, the full story of the gunfight at Tombstone's OK Corral, one of the Old West's most famous battles.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439154243
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 05/17/2011
Edition description: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Jeff Guinn is the author of Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde, which was a finalist for an Edgar Award in 2010. An award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, he is a former books editor and senior writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and has appeared on NPR's "Talk of the Nation", CNN's "Headline News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and "Fox and Friends". He lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

Read an Excerpt



Virgil Earp was determined to sleep in on Wednesday, October 26, 1881. The Tombstone police chief tumbled into bed around 6 A.M. after participating in an all-night poker game at the Occidental Saloon. Among others, he’d played against Johnny Behan, the county sheriff, and local ranchers Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury. Before sitting down to play cards, Clanton had spent much of the night threatening the chief’s brother Wyatt and Wyatt’s gambler pal, Doc Holliday. At one point he and Holliday had to be separated. Holliday eventually headed home to his room in a boardinghouse, but Clanton kept drinking and getting more worked up.

As chief of police, even off-duty and playing in a card game, Virgil Earp always remained alert to possible trouble. But empty threats were common in Western saloons. Men had a few drinks too many, promised to commit mayhem on somebody else, and forgot all about it the next day when they sobered up. Ike Clanton had a reputation in Tombstone as a loudmouth who fired off hot air, not hot lead. Virgil didn’t take him too seriously. When the marathon poker game finally concluded—afterward, nobody seemed to remember who won or lost, so no huge sums could have changed hands— Clanton swore again to Virgil that he was going to get his guns and then settle things with Holliday the next time he saw him. He added that it seemed Virgil was part of a group conspiring against him. The Earps and Doc Holliday, Clanton warned, had better get ready to fight. The police chief replied that he was going to get some sleep, Ike should do the same, and he better not cause any problems while Virgil was in bed.

Dawn on that Wednesday morning broke bitterly cold in southeastern Arizona Territory, so it was a good time to stay warm under the covers. A storm was on the way; Thursday would bring sleet and snow. Extremes in weather had been common all year in the region. The blazing heat of summer was a given, but April through early July had been the hottest and driest in memory. When rain finally did come in July and intermittently thereafter, it frequently arrived as a deluge. Just weeks earlier, much of sprawling Cochise County—roughly the size of the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined—had been drenched. The desert soil, baked rock-hard by the sun under a coating of sand, didn’t absorb moisture well, and roads throughout the county flooded. Now biting winds whipped down from the north, causing the temperature to plummet. It was not a comfortable morning to be outdoors.

Yet as Virgil Earp fell asleep, the main streets of Tombstone still bustled with people. It was always that way, every hour of every day. Tombstone was a mining town, built over a warren of underground tunnels and surrounded by a bristling ring of hoists, smelters, and other structures manned nonstop in a frenzied communal effort to wring as much profit from the earth as possible. The mines operated in shifts, never closing, so neither did many of the town’s dazzling array of shops, restaurants, and saloons. Weather, like the time of day, made no difference. Broiling, freezing, day, night, Tombstone pulsated with frantic energy. In some form or another, everyone there was on the make.

For the better part of twenty years, Virgil Earp and his brothers, James, Wyatt, and Morgan, had roamed the American frontier, trying to make the great fortune and secure the leading places in a community that their family had coveted, and failed to achieve, for generations. Tombstone, they hoped, was where their dreams would finally come true. Virgil was police chief and a United States deputy marshal, James had a “sampling room” saloon, Wyatt and Morgan sometimes worked for Wells Fargo, and all four brothers owned shares of mine property in and around town. Wyatt had hopes of being elected county sheriff in another year, a job with the potential to pay him as much as $40,000 a year—the kind of wealth that might gain the Earps admittance to Tombstone’s highest social circles. Finally, they would be somebody.

Tombstone was a place where such things could happen. Thirty miles from the Mexican border, seventy miles from Tucson, the town was well known throughout the country, mentioned frequently in the business sections of major newspapers from New York City to San Francisco. Its silver mines were said to be the richest since the legendary Comstock Lode was discovered in Nevada Territory in 1859. Legitimate investors, less savory speculators, prospectors in search of strikes that would make their fortunes, and experienced miners looking for work constantly flooded into town, along with those hopeful of siphoning off some of the rumored riches into their own pockets—lawyers, merchants, gamblers, saloonkeepers, prostitutes. In that way, Tombstone was typical of any mining boomtown.

Yet it was also unique. By design as much as by accident, Tombstone was a cultural contradiction, one where the usual mining camp demimonde delights of fixed card games, brothels, and cheap rotgut coexisted amicably with swank hotels and restaurants, world-class stage entertainment, and pricey blended whiskies of the sort sipped in the finest East Coast metropolitan watering holes. Civic leaders were about to debate the advisability of installing sewer lines, and telephones linked the major mines and the busy Mining Exchange Building, as well as a few of Tombstone’s glitziest hotels. The town was an addictive hybrid of elegance and decadence, a place soon to be described in one prominent travel magazine as “a spasm of modernism.” Tombstone deserved the description. In many ways the town was the logical culmination of what, in just over a century, the American West had come to represent: Limitless opportunities for any man to achieve any ambition, no matter how lofty or unlikely. On this chilly morning, there was no other place like Tombstone in all of Arizona Territory, or in much of America.

Thanks to stringent ordinances prohibiting guns to be carried within city limits, Tombstone was mostly a safe place, too. It was inevitable, in any community with so many saloons patronized by prideful, hard-drinking men, that alcohol-fueled testosterone overflow periodically resulted in fist-fights or drunken attempts at gunplay. More often, bellowed threats like Ike Clanton’s against the Earps and Doc Holliday were never carried out. The efficient town police force sent prospective combatants home to sleep it off, or else locked them up for the night and took them to court to be fined the next morning for disturbing the peace. As the sun rose on October 26, the vast majority of Tombstone residents had never witnessed, much less participated in, physical violence or gunplay within town limits. Billy Breakenridge, who served several years as a Cochise County deputy sheriff, later claimed that “I never heard of a house [in Tombstone] being robbed, or anyone being held up in the city, and it was perfectly safe for any lady or gentleman to pass along the streets, day or night, without being molested.” The most substantive proof came in August 1881, when Chief Earp informed the city council that things were so quiet, the town police force could be reduced to three men—himself and two officers, though he reserved the right to appoint civilians as “special deputies” if necessary. (When he testified in a trial in Tucson in mid-October, Chief Earp named his brothers Wyatt and Morgan to serve as special deputies while he was away.) In town, Virgil Earp had a well-deserved reputation as an impartial enforcer of the law; during the broiling heat of summer 1881, he even arrested Wyatt for disturbing the peace and fighting. Wyatt had to pay a $20 fine.

But there was ongoing concern among town leaders about a group they believed not only threatened local tranquillity, but Tombstone’s future prosperity. In the surrounding area, particularly in the smaller settlements of San Simon, Charleston, and Galeyville, a loosely knit band of desperadoes collectively known as “cowboys” engaged in raucous lifestyles that frequently crossed over into lawbreaking. The cowboys rustled openly; because of beef shortages in Cochise County, butchers and consumers didn’t much care where cattle were purloined, so long as the majority of them were stolen from Mexican rather than American herds. In exchange for a cut of the profits, small ranchers in the area such as the Clantons and McLaurys gladly grazed the rustled stock on their property until it was fattened enough for sale. The cowboys were also suspected—it was never proven—of attacking Mexican pack trains bringing goods across the border to trade, and of raiding Mexican settlements in much the same manner as renegade Apaches. International tension resulted. Members of President Chester A. Arthur’s cabinet were consulting with territorial officials about it.

Clashing opinions about the cowboys ramped up an already bitter political feud in Cochise County and Tombstone, the county seat. The town’s rival newspapers were engaged in all-out editorial war. The Nugget was unabashedly Democrat in its leanings, favoring minimal government intervention in territorial and local issues, and claiming that “cowboy depredations” were grossly exaggerated by area leaders who wanted to enrich themselves at the expense of individual freedoms. The Republican Epitaph took the opposite view: The cowboys were menaces not only to local safety, but to Tombstone’s reputation. There had been several area stage robberies in the last seven months, surely carried out by cowboys. The Epitaph demanded federal intervention, currently forbidden by congressional edict; meanwhile, John Clum, the newspaper’s publisher and mayor of Tombstone, joined other civic leaders to form the Tombstone Citizens Safety Committee, ready when needed to mete out swift vigilante justice. In an August 1881 editorial, Clum wrote, “When the civil authorities are insufficient or unwilling to protect a community, the people are justified in taking the law into their own hands and ridding themselves of the dangerous characters who make murder and robbery their business.” It was a slap at county sheriff Behan, who rarely arrested cowboys and occasionally managed to let them escape jail when he did, and an equally blunt warning to Tombstone police chief Earp: If he ever failed to keep the cowboys under control while they were in town, his bosses would do it for him.

The last thing Virgil Earp wanted was armed, trigger-happy civilians stalking cowboys on Tombstone’s streets. It took the judgment of an experienced lawman like the town police chief to know when to act decisively, and when to let situations fizzle out of their own accord. Ike Clanton’s babbled threats to “fix” Doc Holliday and the police chief and his brothers were good examples. Virgil could have arrested him, but guessed that Ike would cool down. As the sun came up on Tombstone that Wednesday, Clanton was probably snoring in a drunken stupor in a town hotel. When Ike woke up with a hellacious hangover, he’d stumble back to his ranch. It was nothing to lose sleep over, and Virgil didn’t intend to.

But around nine in the morning, policeman A. G. Bronk roused Virgil after just a few hours of slumber to tell him that Ike Clanton was staggering around town, now armed and still drunk, threatening to kill all the Earp brothers and their friend Doc Holliday on sight. The chief told Bronk not to worry about it, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

About six hours after that, three men died, with a fourth soon to be assassinated and a fifth crippled for life. Yet the impact of the bloody events in and just outside a cramped Tombstone vacant lot extended far beyond the fates of the eight men directly involved. What has come to be called “The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” became a pivotal moment in American annals because misunderstandings, exaggerations, and outright lies about it provided impetus for future generations to form a skewed, one-dimensional view of frontier history. In fact, it represented an unintentional, if inevitable, clash between evolving social, political, and economic forces, though the Earps and the Clantons and the McLaurys and Doc Holliday had no notion of that when they began pulling triggers. The real story of Tombstone, and of the American West, is far more complex than a cartoonish confrontation between good guys and bad guys. Much of the subsequent misinterpretation can be directly traced back to that critical moment on a freezing October morning in 1881 when sleepy, well-meaning Virgil Earp guessed wrong.

© 2011 24Words LLC

Table of Contents

7 It Begins 11911 8 Cochise Co


9 The Benson Stag

15111 10

Plans Go Awry 16511 11

18111 12 The Night Be

19711 13 The Gunfight 20511

The Inquest and t

23711 15 "Blood Will

25911 16 The Vendet

27511 17 Legend

29501 Note on Sourc

32301 Notes 32701 Bib

36501 Acknowl

37501 Index 377

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"There are no black and white hats in this gripping revisionist account of the famed 1881 showdown. There are only mixed motives, murky schemes, and misguided hotheads." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 54 reviews.
DaQueenSpeaks More than 1 year ago
A must read! I'm a city girl, and never imagined how the griping and detailed accounts of frontier life, and the lives of those involved in the gunfight in the now infamous town of Tombstone could more than capture my attention, but it did! I wanted to be there; in fact, I felt I was. This book disspells the myths and legends of that era. There are many cited references that provide credibility to Guinn's version of The Erps and Doc Holliday's time before arriving in Tombstone, the events leading up to the gunfight errorneously known as the O K Corral, and the aftermath that followed. The only negative thing I can say about this book is that it ended before I was willing to let go! Thus, I'm officially in mourning.
Sarah_Stegall More than 1 year ago
If you know nothing about the so-called Gunfight at the OK Corral, "The Last Gunfight" will be a fascinating introduction to a very complex subject. If you come to it already well-versed in the history and controversy surrounding the shootout, you will not find anything new or radical in this book. Despite the cover blurbs, Jeff Guinn does not really have anything new to present in a field which has been as thoroughly researched and debated as the Kennedy assassination. More than 125 years after that violent thirty seconds, the events of October 26, 1881 can still draw as much debate, passion and disagreement as a debate on the death penalty. Wyatt Earp, more than 80 years after his death, is still a lightning rod in any discussion among Western history buffs. The chief value in this book is Guinn's meticulous round-up of every source he could find, whether pro-cowboy or pro-Earp. He appears to have gone to great lengths to balance conflicting sources and insights, and in his extensive footnotes he details his sources and the reasons he accepted or rejected their contributions. As a scholarly summary, it can't be beat. The biggest obstacle Guinn, or any Gunfight researcher, must overcome is not the paucity of material (there's plenty of material) but the corrosive atmosphere of Earpiana research. The gunfight over the OK Corral is probably as heated as the gunfight itself. There are scores of books that laud the Earps as saints, or "debunk" the myth. (At this late date, I don't think it's any more necessary to "debunk" the Earp myth than it is to "debunk" the myth about George Washington and the cherry tree. Adults know these are fables.) There are plenty of literary minefields in this story, and plenty of books that take a more or less heated view of the events of October, 1881. Guinn has adroitly sidestepped most of the controversies, calmly documenting them where he can, and clearly explaining why he accepts or rejects one argument or another. In the overheated context of Earpiana research, his is a refreshingly moderate voice.
Zor-El More than 1 year ago
If you haven't read Jeff Guinn you are in for a treat. He has a way of making a historical event come to life. In this case he delves into the classic "Gunfight at the OK Corral". You find out who the Earps and Cowboys really were rather than the black and white hero/villains of hollywood. As with his Bonnie and Clyde book he immerses you into the time period. Some persons have noted that he doesn't necessarily introduce anything new and that very well may be but the strength of this book is that once you have read it you have the complete picture. If you have done your dissertation on this subject it might not be for you. If you are like the rest of us you will love it. I give this 4 stars (I tend to be stingy with my stars. His bonnie and clyde book got a rare 5 from me).
HuskyBill More than 1 year ago
Although I have a strong background in history, The Last Gunfight is plainly written for the average reader to enjoy. Having no basis for comparison other than what I've seen in the movies, it seems to me that Mr. Quinn has objectively presented not only the story of the famous confrontation in Tombstone but also the complex series of events leading up to it and the lives of the players involved. In the instances where the lack of documented information forces a conclusion, those drawn by Mr. Quinn are based on logic stemming from the very thorough body of research as indicated in the footnotes. The real story is quite different from the popular legend. I found it difficult to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is not just a story about a shootout, but a well researched description of life during the cowboy era, about mining, about the rise of small towns and the impact of railroads, of cattle, indians, and frontier justice. And yes, the complex ambitions of the Earp brothers. Well wriiten, unsensational. Very satisfying.
GilbertBlackHawk More than 1 year ago
I like reading about history but it can be dry depending on how it is presented. I was shocked when I read this and realized it was hard to put down. I know the story from the movies but I almost called in sick right before the big fight because I was really engrossed in the description of what was happening. If you like reading about how families and friends can be there for each other then you will probably not be disappointed.
JJG2 More than 1 year ago
Good book on one of the "Wild West's" most famous characters. Lot's of details I did not know about everyday life. The black and white TV serials we grew up on were two dimensional and too sanitized. Interest leve kept me reading to the end.
Opinionated on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pretty much the definitive account of the misnamed Gunfight at the OK Corral. Author Jeff Guinn is very good on the history of the old west, the founding of Tombstone and the back story of the Earps and the Cowboys .....the word Cowboys in those days being an insult, respectable people being called cattle ranchers. And he is excellent on the dynamics of the gunfight, caused, as he says, by 8 men finding themselves in a position when they just didn't trust each other anymore. As another reviewer has mentioned, the fact that 8 men fired 30 shots in 30 seconds from an initial distance of about 6 feet, and only 3 died, says everything about the unreliability of guns in those days and probably just as well. Guinn is also excellent on the aftermath of the fight - the court case, the assassination of Morgan Earp, the attempted assassination of Virgil Earp, and the vendetta ride of Wyatt Earp and friends. All of this was new to me and expertly recounted. And Guinn also brings to life what is often forgotten in the very male West - the absolutely rotten hand most women in the West had dealt to themIf I don't give this book a 5 its because of course, the title is wrong. This gunfight didn't change the West - its more the case, that the fight reflected how the West had changed. In fact in a way its quite sad; in a few years Tombstone was in decline and the surviving protagonists scattered to the wind. And yet its a poignant and very human story that most of us could relate to. Recommended
drneutron on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jeff Guinn, in The Last Gunfight, cuts through the myth-making to tell the true story of the fight between the Earps and Clantons that became to be known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral. In October 1881, Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and friend Doc Holliday met Ike and Billy Clanton and two friends in one of the classic gunfights of the Old West. Modern myth - driven by spin-doctoring by survivors and the desire to sell an image of the Wild West - paints the conflict as upright lawmen against rustlers and outlaws. The reality is, of course, more complicated, and Guinn does a nice job of presenting it.The Earps, especially Wyatt, used law enforcement as a way to get the respect he thought he deserved. He served time as Deputy Sheriff, with an eye on election in the top job. Virgil was Deputy Marshall and Tombstone police chief. But they weren't the upstanding citizens Wyatt wanted to be remembered as - gamblers and saloon keepers, even running a brothel at one point. The Clantons weren't the outlaws they've been portrayed either. Yes, they helped rustlers sell cattle stolen from ranchers in Mexico, and yes, Ike Clanton was a drunk and was looking to pick a fight. But mostly he was a poor farmer trying to get by, and the famous gunfight was really more an over-reaction by the Earps to a loud drunk who was on his way out of town. Oh, and the fight didn't even happen at the OK Corral - it was more an ambush in an alley behind the corral.Guinn's book is pretty well written, and the story's fascinating. His concentration on the people involved really made the story come to life. Recommended!
glauver More than 1 year ago
The story of the OK Corral shootout between the Earps and the Clantons has been told dozens if not hundreds of times in print and film. Writer Jeff Guinn approaches the confrontation from a social and political standpoint. He synthesized the research done by other researchers with his own observations to write his account. (His notes are very generous to other historians.) I can't say if there is anything really new in The Last Gunfight, but it seems to be a solid, up to date overview of the confrontation in Tombstone. I do have doubts if Wyatt Earp and the other participants saw the situation in the same light Guinn sees it in the twenty-first century. I still think To Die In The West by Paula Mitchell Marks might be the best account of the OK Corral saga.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story and interedting history.
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tjohn33791 More than 1 year ago
A thoroughly researched book that gives a balanced account of the historical shootout and what lead up to the event.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book i know so much about the last gun fight my grandparents told me all bout and this book has alot og the facts. SO READ THIS BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The best book i have ever read concerning the gunfight. A wealth of detail on the social and political goings on in Tombstone. A very balanced and even handed account.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyable book for anyone interested in the history of the Old West, without the exaggeration of the legends. Jeff Guinn tells of the real events without judgments and makes the real events of these characters as interesting as the movie or TV versions.
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