Books

Author tells real story of O.K. Corral

"The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral — and How It Changed the American West" by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $27)

Once you take apart the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, it can seem so ... unromantic.

A bunch of guys in a vacant lot, hung over or still drunk from the night before, 5 feet from one another, blasting away in fits of temper and pride.

One was unarmed and ran away. Kind of random. Nearly pointless.

In reading Jeff Guinn's new book, "The Last Gunfight," the shootout itself might lose some of its allure as frontier lore — what, no black hats and white hats? But the story of the political and personal factors that led to the deadly confrontation helps to reveal the complexity of life in the American West.

"I wanted to understand more about the settling of the frontier," says Guinn. "In good and bad ways, the Earps represent the families who moved west to try to change their lives for the better. I found out the real history is more fascinating than the mythology."

Turns out people weren't any less complicated in 1881 than they are today. And boomtowns such as Tombstone had more intricate psyches than what was portrayed in your typical TV Western.

Tombstone, a silver-mining town in the Arizona territory, had no interest in a Wild West reputation, for one thing. Gunfights were rare. As proof, Guinn says, about a month before the shootout, chief of police Virgil Earp asked the city council to reduce the police force. Plus, there were gun laws. In fact, one of the issues in the shootout was enforcement of gun restrictions.

Law officers typically kept a gun in a coat pocket, not in holsters ready to draw. And nobody in the O.K. Corral fight — which didn't occur at the corral — was a particularly good shot, Guinn says. Doc Holliday famously entered a shooting contest with 15 participants and finished 14th.

Each of the Earp brothers had his strengths and weaknesses, motivations and desires. Wyatt was particularly ambitious for money but also social stature, Guinn says. He meant to achieve both by snagging the job of Cochise County sheriff.

Wyatt's plan put him at odds with the man who held the job, and his plotting, such as it was, included enlisting help from the very cowboys and ranchers with whom he and Virgil were often crossways.

Politics made matters worse. The Earps were Republicans, at the time pro-business and pro-government. The cowboys, known for their lawlessness, and many small ranchers were Democrats, who preferred that the government leave them alone.

Wyatt had little backroom-bargaining sense and failed to properly schmooze the higher-ups in town, Guinn says. "People like that get frustrated," he says, "and they eventually may do something that in retrospect was really stupid."

Besides the frontier's broad social and political factors at work in the Tombstone confrontation, part of the problem that Oct. 26 was men behaving badly. Drinking, gambling, taunting, shaming and saving face were among the more immediate precursors. One of the instigators had been drinking for 36 hours.

"They were men of their time," Guinn says. "You couldn't be seen as backing down from somebody. There was a lot of posturing."

Guinn says his research for the book took him from Kansas, through the West and to Alaska, travel that included putting 21,000 miles on his car. He loved the rugged landscapes, he says, and the historical digging.

"In a world that always seems to be getting more complicated and scary, the myths of the O.K. Corral are comforting history," Guinn says. "To me, the challenge and the fun is finding out what really happened."

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