The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has become a sort of American myth. The tale of a violent showdown in the dusty streets of Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 has for a century been immortalized in history text and Hollywood script.
Various cinematic treatments of the story have given us the indelible image of steely-eyed, mustachioed Wyatt Earp staring down his gun barrel at cattle rustlers. That image turned into a belief that the showdown was a classic fight between the forces of good and evil.
It also contributed to the popular notion that Tombstone was a violent, lawless place where everybody carried guns and frequently used them.
Jeff Guinn says most popular versions of the story of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral exist largely for entertainment purposes. But the truth is far more complicated. And interesting.
Guinn spent several years researching the facts behind the gunfight and has written a book about it. For “The Last Gunfight,” he pored over numerous historical documents and firsthand accounts of the gun battle and even spent time studying Wyatt Earp's diaries.
Guinn concluded that the myths surrounding the shootout helped create our somewhat idealized version of the west. He points to Tombstone's current celebration of its past, along with its daily staged mock shootouts.
“They're selling a very cartoony, black and white, good guy, bad guy version of what happened,” Guinn says. “And it can be entertaining, but it doesn't have a whole lot in common with the way Tombstone really was in 1881.”
Guinn says Tombstone was actually one of the nation's most sophisticated cities in 1881. Its citizenry was relatively cosmopolitan by frontier Arizona standards and they demanded law and order. Gunplay was rare in the town, and high-noon shootouts on city streets were virtually unheard of. Although one could carry a firearm in town with a permit, few actually did. Tombstone, it seems, had relatively strict gun control in the so-called wild west.
Guinn's research also led him to conclude that the gunfight was actually an attempted arrest that went wrong. And it was no grim showdown in a dusty horse corral. Rather, it was a ragged chase through Tombstone streets, with bullets flying and citizens cowering.
Today, Tombstone capitalizes on its historical fame. In most ways, it's a modern functioning town, with gas stations and even a few chain motels along the highway. But downtown is still largely faithful to history, and most of the businesses proudly show off the western kitsch. Everywhere are commemorative shot glasses, t-shirts and plastic six-shooters. Stage coaches filled with gaping tourists rattle through the streets and men and women in frontier garb stroll down the boardwalk arm in arm.
Listen to the entire interview with "The Last Gunfight" author Jeff Guinn: