Who Shot First?

About 3 o'clock on the afternoon of October 26, 1881, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against four members of Tombstone's cowboy contingent in the most famous gun battle of the Old West, which occurred not in the OK Corral but in an empty lot nearby.

Witnesses say they heard an initial volley of shots, then a pause, and, as Wyatt Earp testified later, "the fight then became general."

The battle was over in 30 seconds, leaving three men dead or dying--brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. Billy's brother, Ike, had run away during the fight.

Morgan and Virgil Earp had each been wounded; Doc Holliday had been grazed in the hip. Wyatt Earp hadn't been touched.

The combatants and witnesses differed greatly over who started the shooting, and 117 years later it's still a raging debate.

Many writers have turned to Glenn Boyer for guidance. Passed from researcher to researcher, Boyer's various accounts of the fight have infused scholarly work as well as the popular imagination.

The 1994 movie Wyatt Earp, for example, is largely a Boyer version of the gunfight, although Boyer was not consulted in the making of the film.

Since 1976 and the publication of Boyer's I Married Wyatt Earp, many writers have relied on the words of Josephine Earp, who says that Wyatt Earp lied about the fight in his court testimony. She says that Wyatt admitted to her that he had lied under oath and that the cowboy supporters were correct: Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday had fired the first two shots.

Then in 1994, Boyer changed history. In a True West article, Boyer said it was actually Wyatt Earp himself who fired the first two shots, based on a previously unknown account Doc Holliday had told the newsman Theodore Ten Eyck in 1885.

Later, Boyer admitted that he was Theodore Ten Eyck, casting "Holliday's" account into doubt.

Holliday supposedly told Ten Eyck: "Wyatt said, 'You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight and now you can have it.' They had their hands on their six shooters and started to draw them when Wyatt plugged Frank and Billy so quick they didn't know what happened. . . ."

If Boyer is Ten Eyck, did he simply make up the quote and try to pass it off as historical fact?

Boyer says the quote is real even if Ten Eyck is not. He says he was told Holliday's account by a woman named Ada Givens whom he talked to in Denver. Ada had heard Holliday's words from her husband Mort. And Mort, Boyer says, learned Holliday's account from his father, a gambler who used to hang out with Holliday.

Boyer, however, presented the words in quotation marks and attributed it to a newsman taking careful notes in 1885. He didn't seem to understand why that might be considered unethical.

"I don't have it in writing from her anywhere, the recollection of what the woman said. She didn't have it in writing from her husband. He didn't have it in writing from his father, who didn't have it in writing from Doc. Now, do you want this stuff brought down to you, or do you want me to leave it to die somewhere?" Boyer asks.

Now, critics suspect that Boyer invented Josephine Earp's account of her days in Tombstone, casting Boyer's first version of the fight into doubt as well.

Neither of Boyer's versions, they say, agrees with the best research on the gunfight.

Casey Tefertiller and Allen Barra, authors of two recent books on Wyatt Earp, say they each prepared their gunfight accounts with help from the person they consider today's foremost authority on the second-by-second action of the battle, Jeff Morey. Morey sells advertising for Guns and Ammo magazine, but his passion is Western history. He worked as the historical consultant on the film Tombstone.

Comparing voluminous testimony by partisan and neutral witnesses--some of which has been repeatedly ignored by other researchers--Morey comes to the conclusion that things happened pretty closely to the way Wyatt and Virgil Earp said they did.

The Earps testified that Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury reached for their six-shooters. Wyatt's brother Virgil, Tombstone's city marshal, held up his hands and said, "Hold, I don't want that." But Clanton lifted his cocked pistol out of his holster.

Two shots rang out almost simultaneously, one from Billy Clanton's gun, the other from Wyatt Earp's.

Clanton's bullet hit nothing, but Earp's slug hit Frank McLaury in the stomach. After a pause, the fight was on in earnest.

Historians say Boyer's versions still hold great sway, and it will be difficult to correct misconceptions long accepted as fact.

"The tragedy is that even if [Glenn Boyer] has found the truth, it is so buried in a crazy quilt of obfuscation and deceit that serious researchers will not believe it. . . . He has succeeded in becoming a part of the Earp saga that cannot be ignored. But at what cost to history?" asks Western history professor Gary Roberts.

 
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