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The shootout lasted only 30 seconds. But in that 30 seconds, 30 bullets flew between the good guys and the bad guys. That half-minute, over 100 years ago, sealed the idea of right and wrong in the American Old West and lit up the imagination of the entire country when they learned about the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Today, reliving those wild, lawless days makes Tombstone a popular place for families to visit.
In the 1880s, Historic Allen Street, the major artery leading into Tombstone in Southern Arizona, brought prospectors, cowboys, and merchants into town looking to find their fortunes in the Good Enough Silver Mine. Today, it is a great place to take your family and fantasize, for a few hours, of living life, strapped to a six-shooter or swinging your frilly skirts around the dance hall of the Bird Cage Theatre.
My boys strutted ahead of me and my husband on Allen Street when we first arrived at Tombstone. They pretended to be cowboys, walking with a slow swagger, knees turned out as if sore from the horse they had just gotten off after riding for hours. I could almost hear the clank of spurs as their boots hit the ground.
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How To Get Your Kids Excited About Tombstone
Some of my fondest childhood memories were of watching Westerns on TV with my dad. We had emigrated a few years earlier from the Soviet Union so, like many immigrant households, my parents both had to work a lot of odd jobs, until they learned the language well enough to work less. So, my dad didn’t often get the chance to sit but when he sat with me, I felt special.
So, when my husband and I took our kids cross country on our RV road trip through the United States, I made sure we got to stop in the old western town of Tombstone, Arizona. I couldn’t wait. I immediately set out to find a way to ignite my boys’ enthusiasm and fire up their curiosity about the famous town.
I started by renting the 1993 movie Tombstone with Val Kilmer, who did an incredible job playing Doc Holliday, and Kurt Russell, who was passable playing Wyatt Earp (Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp was terrific!). We gathered in the backroom of our travel trailer and watched it on our flatscreen, sprawled across the bed, munching on popcorn. We talked about what would happen if the boys were sworn to defend the people of Tombstone in the wild west and a bunch of outlaws threatened the hard-working people who sacrificed everything to work around the silver mines. Of course, their imagination threw them into the starring roles with bullet holes pockmarking saloon walls, horses riding through alleys of blazing bullets, and the final resting place of the bad guys thanks to the sharpshooting skills of my two heroes.
History of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
The first thing people will tell you when you visit Tombstone is that the famous gunfight at the historic O.K. Corral didn’t actually happen at the O.K. Corral. I was disappointed to learn that’s a bit of Hollywood liberty. “A gunfight at the OK Corral” sounds way better than “a gunfight in the alley between C. S. Fly’s Photographic Studio and William Hartford’s house on Fremont Street, six doors west of the O.K. Corral’s rear entrance”. Right?
Details of the shootout varied with the teller of the tale, the newspaper they read (and whose side they were on) so there are many versions written about the fight but what is considered “the real story” came out during the Earp’s and Holliday’s trial after Ike Clanton accused them of murder.
However, one thing is for sure: the bullets that went flying all started and found their targets on Fremont Street or between the two buildings. The shootout began about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, between the Cowboys, a gang of cattle thieves and robbers, and the Earp brothers; Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan, with their loyal friend, Doc Holliday. All held positions of law enforcement during the shootout. Virgil was both Deputy U.S. Marshal and town marshal, while Wyatt and Morgan served as special policemen. Virgil had sworn Doc Holliday in as a policeman that morning.
The three brothers had come to Tombstone with their wives to reap the benefits of the cosmopolitan town that had sprung up around the riches of the silver mines (there were over 3000 mining claims nearby Tombstone). Wyatt had also decided to retire from law enforcement and try his hand at business in the boomtown. Because money always attracts greed which always drags in drama, lechery and lawlessness lurked all around the newly wealthy old west town. Wyatt was described as a good-looking, fearless man who didn’t drink alcohol. While Wyatt’s wife became an opioid addict after she got hooked on laudanum, a common remedy prescribed at the time for headaches. He eventually left her for an actress, Josephine “Sadie” Marcus.
Doc Holliday was a child prodigy, having graduated college with a medical degree while he was still too young to legally practice medicine. He contracted tuberculosis after taking care of his mother, as a teenager. He became a dentist but lost his business because patients feared they too would develop his malady. So, instead, Holliday became a gambler and opportunity seeker. Holliday regularly had drunken blowouts with his girlfriend, Mary Katherine Horony, nicknamed Big Nose Kate. Hungarian-born Big Nose Kate became a prostitute after running away from foster care at 16 when her parents died. She said she liked the work and no man was her boss. Doc Holliday considered her his intellectual equal.
The Cowboys weren’t just cowboys. They were a gang of cold-blooded killers that stole from the U.S Army, ranchers, and desperate miners. There was a lot of alcohol and gambling involved the day before the shootout, consumed mostly by Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton, one of the Cowboys who had gone around town for several months telling everyone he planned to kill the Earp brothers as soon as he saw them. Clanton and the other Cowboys all desired the demise of the Earps because before the Earps arrived in Tombstone, all the Cowboys’ treacherous activities went unchallenged.
And this is where the trouble started. It’s almost like jailing Al Capone on tax evasion charges. There was so much more that the Cowboys had done that was so much worse, but this is what stuck.
Ike Clanton had come into town the morning before the shootout with Tom McLaury, a rancher and fellow Cowboy, to sell Tom’s (possibly stolen) cattle. Tom and Ike played cards against Holliday and Virgil until Ike and Holliday got into a heated, drunken argument over an old grievance and Virgil escorted Holliday home to sleep it off. Ike continued to drink into the morning of the gunfight. As morning arrived, he continued to stumble around town telling everyone he encountered that he planned to kill Holliday and the Earps as soon as he saw them. To make good on his threats, Ike retrieved his guns from the West End Corral where he had deposited them, as required by law, after stabling his horses. When Virgil heard of Ike’s drunken threats, he woke Holliday to accompany him in an effort to disarm and arrest Ike for illegally carrying guns in town. When they found him, Virgil cocked Ike over the head from behind and disarmed him, bringing him before a judge to pay a fine. Virgil confiscated his guns and deposited them at the Grand Hotel for Ike to pick up when he was ready to leave town.
Wyatt Earp had met Virgil at the courthouse while they waited for the judge. When Wyatt left, as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, he literally ran into Tom McLaury and saw a revolver hidden in his pocket. Wyatt called him out on it and Tom denied having a firearm, after which witnesses said Wyatt pistol-whipped Tom over the head two times, leaving him bleeding on the street. Wyatt didn’t know this but later, Tom decided to follow the law and turned his gun in at the Capital Saloon, about two hours before the gunfight.
The other Cowboys who were involved in the encounter, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, brothers of Tom and Ike, plus their friends, Billy Claiborne and Wes Fuller, had come into Tombstone the morning of the shooting to join them. They stopped by the Grand Hotel and heard about the trouble between the Earps and their brothers.
Now, there was also a bad Sheriff involved in the melee, as there always are, named Johnny Behan. Conchise County Sheriff Behan felt threatened by Wyatt’s increasing popularity because Wyatt planned to run against him for the position of Sheriff the next term. Both men also admired the same woman, the actress, “Sadie” Marcus. And for whatever reason, Sheriff Behan also happened to be a close friend of the outlaw Cowboys (kickbacks?).
As the fateful encounter drew closer, the Earps, along with Holliday, set off to disarm the newly arrived Cowboys, who townsfolk had told them were carrying weapons long after they arrived in town. The good guys met on the corner of 5th and Allen Streets after Virgil stopped by the Wells Fargo building to pick up his shotgun. The group encountered Sheriff Behan on Allen Street on their way to where they thought the Cowboys had stabled their horses, the O.K. Corral. Sheriff Behan falsely reported he had already taken the Cowboys’ weapons. Feeling more at ease, the Earps and Holliday adjusted their guns to areas in their coats and pants where they were more comfortable but not as easily accessible. They turned right on 4th Street to walk toward Fremont Street, the next block over, where townsfolk reported the Cowboys could be found.
Then the lawmen turned left on Fremont Street, toward 3rd. They spotted the Cowboys gathered in the vacant lot between the photo studio and William Harwood’s house. Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton stood by their horses. The lawmen immediately saw they still carried their guns in their holsters and scabbards. Virgil, now alarmed, called to them, “Throw up your hands! I’ve come for your guns!” At which both Frank and Billy drew their firearms from their waist and cocked their six-shooters. “Wait!” Virgil cried, “That’s not what I meant!” But at that point, it was too late to stop it.
No one knows who fired the first shot. Some claimed it was Billy Clanton, some said it was Wyatt Earp, but most agreed that it sounded as if the shots rang out simultaneously. Ike Clanton ran to Wyatt and grabbed him by the coat, saying he didn’t want to fight after all. He was unarmed. To which Wyatt, sick of Ike’s constant threats, told him he should fight or run. Ike turned and ran into the photo studio and out its back. Billy Claiborne and Wes Fuller, also unarmed, ran too. Spectators said it was hard to tell what was happening because of all the black smoke from the gun powder but six or seven men shot at each other as long as they could. Billy Clanton fired at Wyatt, but Wyatt knew Frank to be a better shot so he instead aimed his gun at him and put a bullet into Frank’s gut.
Once the bullets started flying, Tom, who had stood with a saddled horse by his brother, Frank, tried to use his horse as a shield to scoot across the street. None of the law enforcers knew that Tom had surrendered his gun earlier and was unarmed. Holliday walked around Tom’s horse, aimed his double-barrelled shotgun at him, and pulled the trigger. Tom stumbled, dazed, down the road until he fell against a telegraph pole. He sat against it, staring forward, and never got up again.
Frank and Billy continued to fire at Holliday and the Earps. After Wyatt shot Frank in the stomach, Frank too tried to use his horse as a barrier to get across Fremont street for better positioning. But Frank lost control of the horse after he tried to grab his rifle from the horse’s scabbard. Suddenly exposed, he continued to fire his revolver, grazing Holliday’s pistol pocket against his hip and causing a bruise. Holliday, with his unique flourish, exclaimed, “That son of a bitch has shot me and I am going to kill him.” Both Holliday and Morgan continued shooting at Frank.
Morgan tripped over road work during the fight but continued to shoot from the ground. Billy caught him on the blades of his shoulders but Morgan got himself up and continued to fire. Frank made it across the street until a bullet from Holliday or Morgan struck him in the side of his head. He collapsed and tried to speak, a bystander reported, but his words never came.
The Tombstone Epitaph reported later, “Wyatt Earp stood and fired in rapid succession, as cool as a cucumber, and was not hit.” Virgil, meanwhile, was struck by Billy Clanton in the calf.
Bullets hit Billy Clanton in the wrist, chest, and gut. His legs buckled and he folded against the C.S Fly Lodging House. He propped his revolver against his leg and continued shooting at the Earps until he ran out of bullets. C.S. Fly gently lifted the gun out of Billy’s hands as Billy called for more bullets. Billy died slowly, calling for the gathering crowd to move away so he could breathe. As his brother sat dying, Ike, who had started the entire fight was still running. A bystander testified Ike passed him on Allen Street and Sheriff Behan reported he saw Ike a few minutes later on Toughnut Street.
Townspeople carried the wounded lawmen to their homes. Wyatt was the only one unwounded from the battle. As they passed Sheriff Behan’s office, Behan told Wyatt, “I will have to arrest you.” Wyatt stopped, looked Sheriff Behan in the eye, and in a leathery voice said, “I won’t be arrested today. I am right here and am not going away. You have deceived me. You told me these men were disarmed; I went to disarm them.”
What To Do In Tombstone
The entire town of Tombstone is a historical monument devoted to that 30-second shift in history and its aftermath. Most forms of entertainment are somehow related to that day. However, there is also a separate celebration of the frontier way of life encapsulated in storefronts and saloons. The super cool thing is that the people who work and hang around modern-day Tombstone still dress and behave as if they didn’t, as if time had stopped and the shootout had just happened.
The first historic building you’ll see when you walk into town on Allen Street is the O.K. Corral and its small museum.
Now, there are some people who are whizzes at planning and scheduling their family holidays. I am not one of those. I am more of an “on the fly” kinda planner.
So, it wasn’t until we arrived in Tombstone during our cross country RV trip, that I started to try to research all the fun Tombstone attractions that would also educate my boys about these historic sites.
First off, let me say, COVID was still a big thing when we visited, so many of the best sounding tours were still dark. Hence, I made some booking mistakes.
My biggest desire was to find an authentic guided tombstone walking tour to take us through the popular attractions in the historic town. I also very much wanted to see a recreation of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral to help my boys envision what had happened. Instead, we found the slapstick show.
O.K. Corral Gunfight Reenactment
The best things to do in Tombstone start on Allen Street. It was when we came upon the original O.K. Corral, that I realized my mistake. This is the show we should have watched. While I was planning, I had tried to coordinate showtimes to times we could watch them (after distance learning). Since I hadn’t really been sure which of the gunfight shows was the right one, I didn’t book this tour because it seemed too close to their school dismissal time. It killed me when we walked into the small attached museum and I saw ancient photos and newspaper clippings from the front pages of the country’s oldest, continuously running paper, the Tombstone Epitaph (which you can still visit and even subscribe to today!). I walked to the cowboy sitting behind the window of the ticket booth and he confirmed what my gut had already told me. This was the show I had wanted to see but now it was sold out. We wandered around the small gift shop, reluctantly making our way out to find the show we had actually booked.
Old Tombstone Western Theme Park
About a five-minute stroll from the O.K.Corral is a small amusement area devoted to the pioneering days of Tombstone. There is a shooting gallery, photos to take in a jail plus a restaurant and bar. And, of course, there is the gunfight show staged in the set of a western town. You can even buy combo tickets that include town trolley tours for times after the show. The performace we watched was strictly for giggles and groans and didn’t even mention the O.K. Corral.
It was a gunfight, but one that involved flour thrown into faces, outhouse humor, and bullet punctured jugs emptying their contents in a silly stream. The boys didn’t know any better so they loved it. Younger kids would really appreciate the wholesome fun too. After, they can walk around and take photos with the actors and of all the fun offerings.
Oriental Saloon and Theater
If you prefer your gunfights over a cocktail, then you’ll want to head over to Wyatt Earp’s Oriental Saloon and Theater. Wyatt owned the gambling concession in the Oriental Saloon which he bought after realizing his plan to open a stagecoach company, when they first arrived, would be met with too much competition from the two existing companies. Today, the Oriental Saloon hosts an indoor family-friendly gunfight that will leave your kids smiling. On weekends, they have live music too.
Big Nose Kate’s Saloon
If you’re going to eat in Tombstone, this is where you should do it. Big Nose Kate’s Saloon was once the site of the Grand Hotel, where all the best of Tombstone legend stayed. Unfortunately, the original Grand Hotel succumbed to a fire that destroyed all but a few of its arches and floor joists. Upon reconstruction, the long bar, once set in the basement was moved into Big Nose Kate’s Saloon where guests could prop their elbows on the very same wood that held the shooting arms of Wyatt and Doc Holliday. In fact, the Grand Hotel is where all the Earps stayed when they arrived in Tombstone and was a favorite of the Cowboys.
Today, saloon girls and barkeeps, in fun period attire, serve food and drink to visitors in the restaurant and bar. The stairway that goes down from the dining area leads to a gift shop and mining tunnel that makes its way to the Toughnut Mining District. There are reports of a ghost named the “Swamper” who stays in the tunnel, still trying to protect his silver.
When we visited, there was a great bluegrass band playing and we enjoyed clinking beer mugs and soda cups to our good fortune of having landed in the fine establishment.
30 bullets in 30 seconds. Take your kids to find out what really happened at the O.K. Corral. Here are the best things to do in Tombstone, Arizona.
One of my favorite ways to learn about the history of a location is by hearing the spooky stories that haunt the places around it. An area rich with gambling, booze, bordellos, and the greed of silver mines cannot help but have many restless spirits waiting to avenge the injustice of their deaths. We missed these tours because the boys could only do so much touring in a day before they start practicing their gunslinging skills on us. So these are the tours I would have loved to have taken if we had been able to spend more time in Tombstone.
If you can ditch the kids (THAT’S what we should have done!), take the adults-only Bullets and Bordellos Ghost Tour and learn the gritty details of Tombstone’s past walking through a night thick with darkness with only the sickly cast of yellow streetlamps to guide your way. Crumbs of betrayal, heartbreak, murder and suicide will be the trail you follow. If you can break up your daytime activities to give your kids a break, take them on the Dead Men’s Tales Walking Ghost Tour. It’s a more PG-rated version of the debauchery that regularly danced within city limits.
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We ended our time in Tombstone by hoping into a horsedrawn stagecoach with Old Tombstone Historical Tours that took us around town like the civilized pioneers into which Tombstone had transformed us. We learned much more about the town and rode past the Good Enough Silver Mine where visitors can take underground tours, the Bird Cage Theater, today a time capsule preserving a moment over a century old, and the Boothill Graveyard, where many of Tombstone’s original graves still exist. If you’re quiet as you stare over the rows of grave markers, you might see something that explains why they call Tombstone “The Town Too Tough To Die” and wonder if that applies to its inhabitants too.
When You Go
If you drive your car, the (approximately) 850-mile road trip will take about eight and a half hours through the I-10E then the AZ 80-E. If you’re pulling a trailer, you could probably double that or break up the trip like we did. If you opt to fly, many carriers offer a non-stop route to Phoenix, which takes about an hour and a half. You’d have to rent a car to drive the approximately 3-hour journey of 190 miles. At the writing of this, Frontier was offering this trip for $38 roundtrip but they’re infamous for nickel and diming passengers so check the fine print.
Here’s a great resource to get the best deals on flights to the area.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Tombstone RV Park and Campground which was about a five-minute drive from the town. It was very deserty but had a pool and a nice grassy area where I did yoga in the mornings.
If you want to take your cowboy and outlaw dreams to another level, you can bring your family to the Tombstone Monument Ranch where they offer guests packages that include participating in a cattle drive! How cool would THAT be? The rooms are all western-themed and there are all-inclusive options. Instructors are available to teach your family to shoot a gun or a bow and arrow. Trails surround the ranch for hiking and horseback riding.
High-end cabins are available within a few minute’s walk from Tombstone’s popular attractions at Katie’s Cozy Cabins.
Use this interactive map to find where you want to stay and the prices of when you want to go!
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