...The debate has raged on for 120 years as to who fired first. The quest for a true understanding of events has been confused by a series of later writers advancing inaccurate or simply false information from supposed secret sources. Stuart Lake, in his classic Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, stated flatly that the Cowboys drew and fired on the Earps, which is contradictory to the Earps’ own version in the Spicer hearing. Frank Waters, in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, quoted alleged eyewitnesses who were never called to testify in saying the Earps fired first at surrendering Cowboys. It has since been discovered that Waters tampered with material in the book, diminishing its credibility.
The issue seemed resolved in 1976 when Glenn G. Boyer’s I Married Wyatt Earp appeared, asserting that Josephine Earp, Wyatt’s third wife, had secret information that Doc Holliday had actually fired the first shot and that Earp lied in the Spicer hearing to cover for his friend. However, Boyer has since admitted that this book is not actually Mrs. Earp’s memoir but rather a creative exercise. Boyer further confused the issue with his 1993 Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone Vendetta, in which he now claimed Holliday told a confidant that Earp himself fired the first two shots so quickly they sounded as one. Four years later, Boyer acknowledged that this was also novelistic. The fictional and fantastic later writings must be discarded in order to gain an understanding of what actually occurred on that dusty street on October 26, 1881. By returning to the original sources, we can finally gain a grasp of what started the gunfight that refuses to die.
The Behan/Cowboy version of the initial gunfire is based on the first shot being fired from Holliday’s revolver at the surrendering Clantons and McLaurys. For this to be accurate, Holliday would have needed to stage a sort of juggling act, firing the revolver, then going to the shotgun to shoot Tom McLaury, discarding the shotgun and returning to the revolver as he chased Frank McLaury into Fremont Street. And he would need to have done it without either the witnesses or survivors seeing it. Behan claimed to have his eyes fixed on the Earp party, and the other pro-Cowboy witnesses testified that the Clantons and McLaurys were lifting their hands to surrender.
However, Addie Bourland, a dressmaker watching from her shop across the street, testified that she clearly saw that none of the Cowboys had their hands in the air. Behan’s credibility would emerge as an issue late in the Spicer hearing. Deputy district attorney Winfield Scott Williams testified that the sheriff had inaccurately depicted a conversation with Virgil Earp after the gunfight in which, according to Williams, Behan told Virgil that one of the Cowboys had drawn his gun to start the fight. Equally important, documents were located in 1997 showing that Behan served as guarantor of a loan to Ike Clanton during the Spicer hearing. With Wyatt Earp seeking Behan’s job in the next election, the sheriff had much to gain from seeing his rival face a murder charge.
And then there is Richard Rule. It is one of those flukes of history that the Nugget story ever appeared as it did. Publisher Harry Woods also served as Behan’s undersheriff, but he was off in El Paso fetching a prisoner at the time of the gunfight. This left the talented and experienced Rule to oversee the newsgathering and writing of a story that would be essentially pro-Earp. With the Nugget’s connections to the sheriff’s office, it would be logical to seek out Behan as a source for the story. What makes this even more probable is that the Nugget story, without attribution, states, “The Sheriff stepped out and said: ‘Hold up boys, don’t go down there or there will be trouble; I have been down there to disarm them.’” Behan would repeatedly insist he told the Earps that he had been down to disarm the cowboys, not that he had actually done the disarming. The article relates details of the conversation Behan had had with the Cowboys. The story further states that Behan “was standing near by commanding the contestants to cease firing but was powerless to prevent it” — a claim that sounds as if it came from Behan’s own mouth. It is hard to imagine the Nugget not interviewing Behan for this story. By Williams’ account, immediately after the gunfight, Behan told Virgil Earp a story similar to the Nugget report before changing his story at the coroner’s inquest.
For the Behan/Cowboy version of the first shots to be true, Doc Holliday would have had to orchestrate an incredible revolver-shotgun-revolver shuffle, an officer of the court would have had to lie under oath and both the Nugget and Epitaph would have had to have missed the biggest story of their existences. This remarkable chain of events is so unlikely as to render it unbelievable.
After generations of lies, deception and confusion, it appears that we finally have a true understanding of how the firing began. When all the evidence is weighed, there can be little doubt that the frontier’s most storied gunfight began just as the Earps testified, with Wyatt Earp firing in response to Frank McLaury’s motion for his gun.
Jones, W.S. Williams was a newly appointed assistant District Attorney who testified about a conversation he heard John Behan have with Virgil Earp on the evening of October 26th. He was not a witnes... more
...I am wondering why you visualize Tom McLaury, who the Earps claim was armed with a pistol and actually attempted to use it, trying to get a rifle off of Billy's horse?
If Tom had a pistol, with ... more
When I first started the project I didn't know who fired the first shots. So I just left everyone's hands at their sides, then continued on with the rest of the fight. After the fist two shots the t... more
...to reject Kehoe's testimony, I think you might examine it again. He is an excellent position to see what happened in the street. He cannot see into the lot as he is in front of Bauer's, but the Ear... more