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Fiction, History, and Tombstone

Last month on the seventh, I was on my way to Tucson to spend a week hanging out and doing touristy things with friends. This month, I want to talk about one of those touristy things, namely the town of Tombstone, Arizona, and the questions that Tombstone made me think about.

Tombstone is famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral–and that right there is an example of the thing that fascinates me about Tombstone, because, in fact, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral did not happen at the O.K. Corral. It happened half a block away, in the vacant lot next to Fly’s Boarding House. Now, on one level, this is only a detail: why get worked up over whether it was the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral or only the Gunfight near the O.K. Corral? But, from a different perspective, the place a gunfight happened is kind of an important detail about that gunfight. And, in the larger picture, this piece of misinformation, trivial though it may seem, is symptomatic. Nearly every detail about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is subject to this kind of uncertainty, from the exact events of the fight itself, to the motives of the participants, to that simplest and yet most difficult of questions, the question fundamental and beloved of the Western (a genre one of whose taproots is sunk deep in the clusterfuck of October 26, 1881): who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?


The important thing to remember about the Gunfight at (or near) the O.K. Corral is that it breeds misinformation like stagnant water breeds mosquitoes. Some of this is due to deliberate lies, like the farrago of nonsense Ike Clanton produced in court; some of it is due to the fact that Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury were hardly dead before they, and the Earps, became symbols and pawns in the vicious political fighting between the Democrats and Republicans of the Arizona Territory; some of it is due to the inevitable erosion which the passing of time causes to the human memory. Wyatt Earp didn’t try to tell anyone his version until he was in his seventies, and other participants or near-participants likewise didn’t commit their stories to paper, or an interviewer’s tape recorder, until so much time had passed that it would be miraculous if there weren’t mistakes, conflations, narrative splices, and all the rest of the changes, subtle and otherwise, that go towards turning a historical event into first a story and then a legend. And even those witnesses who testified before Judge Spicer–and who were doing their best to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth–could give only partial views. And they contradicted each other just as much as they contradicted the versions presented by the participants. The truism about the untrustworthiness of eyewitness testimony is amply proven by the evidence of Tombstone. The entire thing is an object lesson in the action of the unreliable narrator.


We all know Han Solo shot first, but did Wyatt Earp?


It’s difficult, if not impossible, to condense the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral into a manageable precis. I can tell you, for instance that Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, along with Doc Holliday, confronted Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury in the vacant lot next to Fly’s Boarding House; that when the dust cleared, Frank was dead, Tom and Billy were dying, Virgil and Morgan were wounded, Doc has been creased along the hip, Ike had fled, and Wyatt was unharmed. But that’s not a story. I can tell you that there’s no agreement on who shot first, or on how many of the Clanton/McLaury party were armed, or on whether they tried to surrender. But the story is in the why and the why of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is . . . It’s partial and complicated and I think it’s one reason why so many stories have been told about this gunfight.

Fiction likes actions to have comprehensible, consistent and, insofar as possible, singular motives; furthermore it wants the motives and the actions to belong to the same people. But that’s not how real history and real people work. From a fiction-writer’s perspective, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t work. It’s too messy. Ike Clanton, who’d spent the previous twelve to twenty-four hours telling everyone who would listen that he wanted a showdown with the Earps, was clearly unprepared when he actually got one: he was unarmed. The McLaurys and Ike’s brother Billy may not ever have understood why they were fighting. (Nobody else was entirely clear on that either.) The Earps and Holliday were responding to Ike’s threats, but they were also acting on a piece of spectacular miscommunication by John Behan, the Sheriff of Cochise County, who led them to believe he had disarmed the Clantons and the McLaurys when in fact he had not. They weren’t ready for the gunfight, either. And as for Ike’s motivations in stirring up the hornet’s nest, from what we know, they don’t even make sense. About the most useful thing a historian can say about Ike Clanton’s inner workings on October 25-6 is, “Well, he was drunk.”

And so people make motives. Ike did it in his testimony, although he made them all Wyatt’s motives, not his own. Wyatt himself was prone to conspiracy theories, especially as an old man. Witnesses, gossip-mongers, story-tellers, historians, novelists (and on this particular subject, the dividing line between those latter two categories is not nearly as clear as one might like): everyone provides a different framework in which to place the gunfight, some plausible, some ludicrous. Although it’s nonsense on the face of it to think the Earps were involved in robbing stage-coaches, the idea persists, and it persists because it provides that singular, comprehensible motive that fiction wants, and it gives the motive to the men who acted.

Human beings are pattern-making animals. History and fiction are two of the ways in which we seek to pattern our lives, and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral shows the deep permability of the boundary where one leaves off and the other takes over. Because that boundary is where the discourse about the gunfight always has and always will take place.

1 comment to Fiction, History, and Tombstone

  • S. Kess

    Completely irrelevant? That’s usually the case where my responses are concerned (which is why I so rarely give them). Nevertheless, the sheer confusion surrounding the events at–or, as you have pointed out, near–the O.K. Corral put me in mind of Kurosawa’s Rashamon (which was actually based on Akutagawa’s ‘In the Grove’, and not his short story ‘Rashamon’–which has one of the most stunningly visual openings I have ever read in Japanese lit). Perspective does, indeed, play havoc with the facts, and even the attempt to dig out the truth just leaves the investigator straddling the border of fact and fiction.
    The condition of the historian, I suppose.

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