Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

A classic Wild West confrontation between cowboys and sheriffs, subsequently made famous by books and movies and dubbed ‘Gunfight at the O. K. Corral’, took place in Tombstone, a silver boom town near the Mexican border, exactly 140 years ago today. Extraordinarily for the time and place, one resident of Tombstone, George Whitwell Parsons, was also a keen diarist. Though not in town on the day of the gunfight itself, he returned to Tombstone the following day, and wrote about the gunfight, and how ‘bad blood’ had been brewing for some time.

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place on 26 October 1881. Although it lasted less than a minute, three of the cowboys were killed, and three of the sheriffs’ group (two of the Earp brothers, but not Wyatt, and Doc Holliday) were wounded. It is generally regarded, Wikipedia says, as the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West and has come to represent a time in American history when the frontier was open range for outlaws confronted only by sparse or non-existent law enforcement. The inter-personal conflicts and feuds, however, leading to the gunfight were complicated - see Wikipedia or History Net for more information.

The gunfight’s path to iconic status began in 1931 when author Stuart Lake published a fictionalised biography of Wyatt Earp. John Ford’s famous movie, My Darling Clementine, based on a Stuart Lake book, came out in 1946. And a decade later, John Sturges directed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. Since then, the same story has been portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy in many other Western films and books.

The Earps and Doc Holliday were charged with murder but were eventually exonerated. However, in December the same year, Virgil Earp was maimed in an assassination attempt, and in March the following year, Morgan Earp was killed. This led to a series of further killings and retributions, Wikipedia notes, with federal and county lawmen supporting different sides of the conflict, which became known as the Earp Vendetta Ride.

Given the seeming familiarity of Wild West towns, especially the lawless ones like Tombstone which have been recreated so often in movies, as well as their inhabitants and their lifestyles, it comes as a something of a surprise to learn that one of Tombstone’s long-term residents was a diarist. George Whitwell Parsons was born in Washington, D.C., in 1850, and guided towards a career in law by his father.

However, Parsons must have wanted more excitement because he moved to Florida, where he helped with the salvaging of shipwrecks. He nearly drowned in a hurricane, and took off, in mid-1876, for Central America, before returning by ship to the US West Coast, where he took employment as a bank clerk in Los Angeles for several years. He then went to Tombstone, Arizona, to establish, with a friend, a new mining company, Parsons and Redfern. In time, he became a prominent citizen, a member of the Council of Ten, a vigilante committee, edited The Tombstone Epitaph, and founded the town’s library.

Parsons returned to Los Angeles in 1887, where he became a charter member of the Chamber of Commerce, and did much to promote the mining industry as well as oil and mineral exploration. He was involved in developing the Los Angeles harbour, and other civic projects. He died in 1933. There is a little more information about Parsons at Wikipedia, The Earp Gang website, and The Earp-Holliday Trial: An Account.

Parsons began keeping a diary in 1869, after his mother’s death, and continued for most of the rest of his life. A portion of these diaries was given to the Arizona Pioneers Historical Society, and these were transcribed and published by the Department of Library and Archives of the State of Arizona in 1939 as The Private Journal of George Whitwell Parsons. The full transcription is freely available online thanks to the HathiTrust, a partnership of major research institutions and libraries ‘working to ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future’.

Much more recently, in 1996, Westernlore Press published A Tenderfoot in Tombstone: the Private Journal of George Whitwell Parsons - The Turbulent Years, 1880-82 edited by Lynn R Bailey. Another version - The Tombstone Years 1879-1887: The Private Journal of George Whitwell Parsons - was transcribed and edited by Carl Chafin.

Chafin - who claims to have spent 30 years transcribing 51 years of the diaries and identifying the more than 6,000 people - says (on the Find a Grave website, as well as elsewhere): ‘This current publication of his journal covers the period from March 27, 1879 to March 31, 1887 (in two volumes of about 400 pages each), six weeks after he arrived in Los Angeles. I have transcribed the Los Angeles years 1887 to 1929 and they will be published in the near future. The period from June 28, 1882 to October 31, 1882 was serialized in The Tombstone Epitaph from December 1967 to April 1968, and the entire year of 1880 ran in The Tombstone Tumbleweed during 1996.’

Here, though, are several extracts from Parson’s diary (as found on the HathiTrust website) concerning the gunfight at the O. K. Corral, and its aftermath.

26 October 1881
‘Started out again this AM and first saw the ‘Phoenix’. Seems more promising than any other claim. Ledge about 18 inches and going down straight. ‘White Star’ next. Small ledge, rather flat, but fair rock. I left at Bells and went home. Rain this afternoon and very pleasant. Fired at mark this afternoon and I beat with rifle, 75 and 250 yards. Tailings sampled by Wendt this evening and liked. Chicken dinner. Skunk excitement tonight, but didn’t get him. Tomorrow for Tombstone.’

27 October 1881
‘Snow this morning. Windy and extremely cold and disagreeable. Wendt, Heyne and I started this AM for Tombstone and Ray went with us over the mountains to where a wagon was which H & W had, driving the burro before him loaded down with samples from different mines. Very disagreeable ride till we harnessed and drove out of the cold mountains into the sunshine on the Mesa beyond. I led Haynes horse and read of one of the Strallus’ long European letters given me this morning by Capt Hanson who arrived at last, much the worse for his 3 weeks absence. It seems almost as though the Capt was gone in. I hope he has not yet lost his grip.

At Charleston we dined by invitation of H and reached Tombstone about 5 o’clock. Much excitement in town and people apprehensive and scary. A bad time yesterday when Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp with Doc Holliday had a street fight with the two McLowerys and Bill Clanton and Ike, all but the latter being killed and W and M Earp wounded [in fact it was Virgil wounded not Wyatt]. Desperate men and desperate encounter.

Bad blood has been brewing some time and I was not suprised at the outbreak. It is only a wonder it has not happened before. A raid is feared upon the town by the Cowboys and measures have been taken to protect life and property. The ‘Stranglers’ were out in force and showed sand. My cowboy appearance and attire was not in keeping with the exited mind. Loud talking or talking in groups was tho’t out of place. Had to laugh at some of the nervousness. It has been a bad scare and the worst is not yet over some think.’

31 October 1881
‘Met Wyat Earp in hotel who took me in to see Virgil this evening, he’s getting along well. Morgan too. Looks bad for them all thus far.’

28 December 1881
‘Was much provoked at Capt H this AM and told I was sorry to have ever met him. I have stood more than any of his friends and have had enough. Was quite short with him. Hohstadt cannot seem to get him out of town. Every liquor saloon is a stumbling block. Bad times in office too. I wish whiskey was all poured in gutter.

Tonight about 11:30 Doc G had just left and I tho’t couldn’t have crossed the street - when four shots were fired in quick succession from very heavily charged guns, making a terrible noise and I tho’t were fired under my window under which I quickly dropped, keeping the dobe wall between me and the outside till fusilade was over. I immediately tho’t Doc had been shot and fired in return, remembering a late episode and knowing how pronounced he was on the Earp-Cow-boy question. He had crossed through and passed Virgil Earp who crossed to west side of 5th and was fired upon when in range of my window by men 2 or 3 concealed in the timbers of the new 2 story adobe going up for the Huachuca Water Co. He did not fall, but recrossed to the Oriental and was taken from there to the Cosmopolitan being hit with buck shot and badly wounded in left arm with flesh wound above left thigh.

Cries of ‘there they go’, ‘head them off’ were heard but the cowardly apathetic guardians of the peace were not inclined to risk themselves and the other brave men all more or less armed did nothing. Doc had a close shave. Van and I went to the hospital for Doc and got various things. Hotel well guarded, so much so that I had hard trouble to get to Earps room. He was easy. Told him I was sorry for him. ‘It’s hell, isn’t it!’ said he. His wife was troubled, ‘Never mind, I’ve got one arm left to hug you with,’ he said.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 26 October 2011.

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