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Crime News Fatal Family Feuds

How the Clanton and Earp Feud Made Wyatt Earp Famous 

The 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral left three men dead and immortalized Wyatt Earp a symbol of frontier justice.

By Joe Dziemianowicz
A portrait of Wyatt Earp

Tight family bonds and alliances work both ways. They’re powerful sources of strength and joy, but when things get ugly, they can ramp up rage and violence.

How to Watch

Watch Fatal Family Feuds on Oxygen Saturday, Saturdays at 9/8c and next day on Peacock.

Fatal Family Feuds, premiering Saturday, Dec. 2 at 9/8c on Oxygen, covers chilling examples of how the closest relationships in people’s lives can lead to deadly consequences. 

The legendary late 19th century gunfight at the O.K. Corral offers compelling evidence. The conflict left three men dead and etched Wyatt Earp into the history books as “the most famous lawman in American history,” according to The New York Times

“People are so into Earp it’s almost at the cult stage,” a distant cousin of the marshal’s nemesis told The Los Angeles Times. “He’s like Superman or Spider-Man to them.”

RELATED: The Hamilton and Burr Family Rivalry Ended in Bloodshed

 

a view of the OK Corral

 

Where was the gunfight between the Earps and Clantons?

The 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral in the mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, was a defining moment in the turbulent history of the untamed Wild West. 

The blood-soaked saga involved the Earp brothers – Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil – and the Clanton-McLaury gang, led by Ike Clanton, along with his brother, Billy, and Tom and Frank McLaury. 

Wyatt Earp had spent much of the 1870s rambling from one job to another. His work included being a bouncer in a brothel, a buffalo hunter, a professional gambler (which is how he met his friend John Henry “Doc” Holliday), and a marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, according to history.com

Earp landed in Tombstone in 1879. He was 31 and found work as a law officer. The Wild Wild West is infamous for being a lawless landscape. One of Earp’s assignments was tracking down the Cowboys, a gang “who had been waylaying stagecoaches, rustling and generally wreaking havoc,” per the LA Times story.

The O.K. Corral Gunfight

The mission ignited animosity and a feud between the men on opposite sides of the straight-and-narrow. On October 26, 1881, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with Doc Holliday, faced off with Billy and Ike Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury in an empty lot behind the O.K. Corral.

“Thirty seconds. Thirty bullets. Three die. Two are severely hurt. One is grazed.” That’s a rapid-fire summation of the killer clash by TrueWestMagazine.com.

In that half a minute, both McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton were killed. Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded, and Doc Holliday suffered injuries. Wyatt Earp, meanwhile, had sealed his place as a symbol of rough frontier justice. 

But the aftershocks were not cut-and-dried, like symbolic black and white cowboy hats. Tombstone was thrust into controversy, as citizens on both sides lobbed accusations about Wyatt Earp. He was branded both a hero — and a killer, according to Stuart Lake’s 1931 authorized biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.

The Earps and Holliday were arrested for murder and eventually cleared of the charges in November 1881, according to the History.com account. But the feud was far from over. 

The Clanton Gang

The Cowboys took revenge two months later. Virgil Earp was severely wounded in an ambush. Not long after that Morgan Earp was assassinated, adding a tragic layer to the already blood-soaked saga. 

Wyatt Earp, aided by a posse, killed gang members in revenge. The act tarnished his reputation and he left Tombstone, History.com reported.

Wyatt Earp ultimately settled in Southern California, where he supported himself through gambling, training horses, promoting boxing prizefights, and consulting on Hollywood Westerns. He died on Jan. 13, 1929 at age 80. 

Wyatt Earp’s role in the O.K. Corral gunfight and subsequent exploits, whether as a lawman or a gambler, elevated him to the status of a Western icon.

The glowing legend of Wyatt Earp was bolstered by Lake’s biography that came out just two years after its subject died. Numerous books, movies, and TV shows cover the exploits of Wyatt Earp, who’s been played by Hollywood stars including Henry Fonda, James Garner and Kevin Costner.

According to The Los Angeles Times report, “Earp groupies leave gifts of poker chips and bullets” at his grave at Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, Calif.

Fatal Family Feuds premieres Saturday, Dec. 2 at 9/8c on Oxygen.