Trouble in Tombstone

Things got worse when Behan arrested Earp’s friend John Henry “Doc” Holliday on suspicion of being part of the gang that robbed the stage, following an affidavit by Holliday’s live in girl friend Big Nose Kate, implicating him in the robbery. She had been kicked out by Holliday after a drunken argument and Sheriff Behan saw an opportunity of exploiting the situation. He plied her with drink and persuaded her to sign the statement. Wyatt and a local saloon keeper posted a $5000 bail.

Doc Holliday was a one time dentist who gave up his practise in Atlanta Georgia after being diagnosed with tuberculosis and moved to the South West in the hope that the climate would improve his health. He became a professional gambler and gained a reputation as a gunfighter. He is known to have taken part in at least eight gunfights and killed two men. He had been friends with the Earps for many years and in 1878, had saved Wyatt’s life in a barroom shootout. It is thought that he moved to Tombstone from Dodge City to help the Earps in their confrontation with the cowboys.

Holliday was acquitted of the charge by a Grand Jury, but Virgil Earp retaliated against Behan by arresting Behan’s deputy Frank Stilwell on suspicion of robbery. On June 23rd, the Arizona Daily Star recorded that two of the suspected stagecoach robbers, Bill Leonard and Harry Head had been shot and killed in Eureka New Mexico, by the Haslett brothers.

With tension increasing and feelings running high, the city council passed an ordinance banning the carrying of weapons in the town. In August, a Mexican mule train with $4000 in bullion was ambushed in Skeleton Canyon and all the mule drivers killed. It was an open secret that the Clanton gang were responsible. A few days later, Newman “Old Man” Clanton was ambushed and killed in retaliation by Mexicans in Guadalupe Canyon, together with Dixie Lee Gray, Charley Snow and Jim Crane. One outcome of the killings was that there was no accomplices left that could testify against Doc Holliday as being part of the stage robber’s gang.

Ike Clanton remained convinced that Holliday had been involved and began spreading rumours to that effect. For his own reasons Holliday encouraged this and taunted Ike with titbits of information that appeared to confirm his involvement. He also told Ike that he knew of Wyatt’s offer of a reward for help in catching the stage robbers and threatened to let it be known that Ike had considered ratting on his friends. Ike Clanton arrived in Tombstone on the 25th October 1881 and accused Earp of leaking his secret to Holliday. Earp denied this and sent for Holliday who was in Tucson. The two met in The Alhambra, a Tombstone lunch house where Clanton was eating a sandwich. Holliday, backed up by the Earps, accused Clanton of spreading lies about him and called him” a damned liar” and dared Clanton to go for his gun, but Clanton refused as he was unarmed. Holliday is reported to have replied,” The next time we see you Ike, we are going to kill you”. The Earps broke up the fight and Wyatt escorted Holliday back to his room at Fly’s lodging house.

Strangely, after retrieving his gun, Clanton sat down to a poker game with Virgil Earp, Tom McLaury and John Behan. The game broke up around 7 am and Clanton told Virgil,” Tell that son of a bitch Holliday that he has got to fight”. Virgil replied, “I am a law officer and I don’t want to hear you talk that way, I’m off to bed and I don’t want any disturbance”. Clanton retorted, “You may have to fight before you know it”. Ike Clanton spent the rest of the morning drinking heavily and lurching from saloon to saloon and making threats against the Earps, telling anyone who would listen that, “As soon as the Earps or Holliday appeared on the street they would have to fight”.

Around noon, Virgil and Morgan spotted Ike carrying a six shooter and a rifle. Virgil struck him on his gun hand and then the head with his pistol and dragged him down to Judge Wallace’s courtroom. Wyatt Earp then entered the room and called Clanton a dirty cow thief who had threatened the lives of the brothers, saying, ” I would be justified in shooting you down anyplace I would meet you”. Clanton replied angrily, “If you fellows had been a few seconds later, I would have furnished a Coroner’s inquest for this town”. Morgan held up Ike’s gun and taunted him saying he would pay the fine if Ike would make a fight of it. Ike refused saying he did not like the odds, he was fined $25 for carrying a weapon in town limits. Virgil told Ike that he would leave his confiscated weapons at the Grand Hotel which was favoured by cowboys when in town.

In the street outside, Wyatt got into an argument with Tom McLaury after asking him if he was armed. Mclaury said he was not, but Wyatt later testified that he saw a pistol in plain sight on McLaury’s hip. The argument ended with Earp slapping the cowboy and beating him over the head with his pistol. Meanwhile, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton had arrived in town to back up their brother after hearing from a neighbour that Ike had been stirring up trouble and they were drinking in the saloon at the Grand Hotel when their friend Billy Claiborn told them of the beating. Frank said angrily that he would not drink and they left the bar to seek out their brothers. By law they should have left their weapons at the Grand Hotel, but they remained fully armed.

By early afternoon, Tom and Ike had seen doctors for their head wounds. They were not in the best condition with the weather chilly and snow still on the ground in places. They had spent the night drinking and gambling without sleep. Tension grew in the town and all knew a fight was brewing. Wyatt later testified that he saw the four cowboys buying cartridges in Spangenbergs gun shop and filling their gunbelts. In Ike’s testimony after the gunfight, he stated that he had not heard Virgil tell him where his guns had been stored and tried to by a pistol from Spangenberg. The gunsmith, noticing his wounds and condition, refused. A local man named Coleman told Virgil that the four cowboys had just left the Dunbar and Dexter stables and were heading for the OK corral and were still armed and making threats against the Earps. Virgil then decided that they had to be disarmed.

At 2.30pm, Sheriff Behan saw the four in a narrow empty lot west of Fremont Street where Holliday’s room was located and was also the route to the Earp’s homes. Their location may have been viewed as a threat by the Earps and Holliday in light of Clanton’s threats. Behan tried to persuade the men to give up their weapons, but Frank insisted that they would only do this if the Earps were also disarmed. Ike later testified that the four were about to leave town on business and were not seeking trouble. Virgil collected a 12 gauge short double barrelled shotgun from the Wells Fargo office and gave it to Doc Holliday who concealed it under his overcoat. Virgil took Holliday’s walking stick in return.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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