Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday have earned quite a reputation thanks to numerous Hollywood incarnations over the years. Arguably one of the most popular was with Tombstone. Let’s find out how historically accurate it was.
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- Amazon.com: Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend eBook: Casey Tefertiller: Kindle Store
- Drift & Ramble Podcast: Drift and Ramble Podcast EP 14 Doc Holliday
- Drift & Ramble Podcast: Drift and Ramble Podcast Ep 17 Josephine Marcus
- Drift & Ramble Podcast: Drift and Ramble Podcast EP 15 Wyatt Earp
- Tombstone (film) – Wikipedia
- Tombstone (1993) – Full Cast & Crew – IMDb
- Tombstone (1993) – Synopsis
- The true story of Tombstone – Review of Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, Tombstone, AZ – TripAdvisor
- The Real Tombstone Travesty – Tombstone History Archives
- Doc Holliday dies of tuberculosis – Nov 08, 1887 – HISTORY.com
- Debunking History: The Real Doc Holliday – 1723 Articles – A Barrel Full of Trivia
- The Real “Doc” Holliday
- Doc Holliday – Wikipedia
- Wyatt Earp – Wikipedia
- Gunfight at the O.K. Corral – Wikipedia
- William Brocius – Wikipedia
- William “Curly Bill” Brocius (1840 – 1882) – Find A Grave Memorial
- Nicholas Porter Earp – Wikipedia
- Morgan Earp – Wikipedia
- Cochise County Cowboys – Wikipedia
- Wyatt Earp – Facts & Summary – HISTORY.com
- Wyatt Earp – Law Enforcement – Biography.com
- Johnny Ringo – The “King of the Cowboys”
- Johnny Ringo – Wikipedia
- Johnny Ringo History Page
- Johnny Ringo | American outlaw | Britannica.com
- Johnny Ringo (1850 – 1882) – Find A Grave Memorial
- Gunfighter John Ringo found dead – Jul 14, 1882 – HISTORY.com
- Doc Holliday – Folk Hero – Biography.com
- Doc Holliday | HistoryNet
- Legendary Lawman Morgan Earp | Officer.com
- Virgil Walter Earp (1843 – 1905) – Find A Grave Memorial
- Josephine Earp – Wikipedia
- Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp, by Ann Kirschner | HistoryNet
- Death of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, widow of Wyatt | Jewish Women’s Archive
- ‘Mama’ Director in Talks to Helm ‘Mummy’ Reboot for Universal (Exclusive) | Hollywood Reporter
- The Depression of 1873-1879
- Bubbles, Panics & Crashes – Historical Collections – Harvard Business School
- Financial Panic of 1873
- Financial Panic of 1873: Causes & Summary – Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com
- Panic of 1873 | Teachinghistory.org
- Panic of 1873 – Wikipedia
- Silver standard – Wikipedia
- Ordinances enforced by the Earps in the OK Corral shoot-out
- Shootout at the OK Corral – Oct 26, 1881 – HISTORY.com
- Decision of Judge Wells Spicer in the Earp and Holliday Case
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
It’s 1879. The Civil War has ended and there’s an economic explosion causing a lot of people moving west to find riches.
Included in those moving west are legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, who’s retired now and wanting to settle down with his family, and John “Doc” Holliday, who’s hoping the dry weather will help his tuberculosis.
Both Wyatt and Doc end up in Tombstone, a budding boomtown in Arizona where silver was recently discovered.
Meanwhile, over 100 outlaws which are exiled from Texas have banded together to form the earliest example of organized crime in America, a gang they’ve named themselves as “The Cowboys.”
So how much of this introduction we saw in the movie was true? We’ve got a lot to break down here, so let’s start with the year.
It is true that the American Civil War was over in 1879. That lasted from April 12th, 1861 through May 9th, 1865. So what about the economic explosion after the war?
Well, yes, that is sort of true. During the Civil War, the government printed about $365 million dollars’ worth of cash. This was cash that wasn’t backed by gold or silver like most money was before the war, but rather promissory notes—money backed by, well, pretty much good intentions and promises.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the economy in America was arguably better than it’d ever been. A huge part of that economic boom was because of the rise of a new invention: Railroads. They were being built around the country making new jobs, and at the same time connecting towns in ways that people had never seen.
But that was a benefit for the job seekers and consumers. On the back end, railroad companies had either been infused with cash from the war or were borrowing the money they needed to finance it all.
In 1879, though, when the movie starts the United States was actually coming off of a depression. Not the Great Depression from the 1930s, but rather a period from 1873 to 1879 that’s commonly referred to as the Long Depression. Although, at the time it actually was referred to as the Great Depression up until the 1930s.
Anyway, after the short period of prosperity there was a series of events that started the depression. It started in 1871 when Germany ended using silver as money, instead backing the deutschmark with only gold. The effect of this was that deutschmarks rose in value, since it was only backed by more valuable gold.
Another effect was that silver wasn’t traded in Germany, so the supply of silver began to rise in other countries. That meant countries that still backed currency with silver started to see their currency drop in value. That, in turn, had economic impacts which then pressured those countries to follow Germany’s lead.
The United States was one of those countries who used silver to back currency so, in 1873, the U.S. Congress passed the 1873 Coinage Act to end the use of silver to back currency. The hope was that the value of currency would rise, like it did in Germany once it was only backed by gold. Oh, and the U.S. Treasury also released about $26 million currency into the market.
The additional cash along with rising costs of currency meant interest rates bolted up and all of a sudden those railroad companies that had borrowed greenbacks to build their companies had to pay it back in gold.
As you can probably guess, that didn’t go over too well.
The first of the banks to go bankrupt was Jay Cooke & Company out of New York City. The owner, Jay Cooke, in particular had invested a lot of money into those railroad companies. It was, after all, an emerging technology.
But when everyone saw such a huge bank fail, panic set in. People rushed banks, demanding their money from the vaults. The panic that started in New York trickled to Washington DC and Pennsylvania before spreading down the coast to Virginia, Georgia and heading inland to Indiana, Illinois and Ohio—midwestern states in the U.S.
In all, about 100 banks went under. The economy in the United States went into a tailspin. In 1878, the Bland-Allison Act was passed that essentially brought silver back into the picture. They still weren’t backing cash money with silver, but rather the Bland-Allison Act ordered the U.S. Treasury to buy silver from domestic sources and start minting silver coins.
That helped, and in 1879 the depression was officially over, making it, at least as of this recording, the longest-lasting contraction in American history. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a contraction is identified as starting at the peak of a business cycle and ending at the trough—or the bottom. Yes, the five years and five months from October 1873 until March of 1879 was longer than the Great Depression, whose contraction lasted from August 1929 until March of 1933 for a total of three years and seven months.
That’s why, once the Great Depression came about the former depression was renamed by historians to the Long Depression to differentiate between the two.
So all of that…is the history of the first few sentences in the movie.
But I really felt it was important to dig deep into the background of what happened leading up to the events in the movie, because it really was much more than just the end of the Civil War.
And it also helps give some insight into what it must’ve been like to discover silver in Arizona. That, like the movie says, did happen.
In fact, many historians consider Tombstone one of the last big boomtowns from the old west when a prospector named Ed Schieffelin found silver in 1877. Two years later, he established Tombstone.
Oh, and a boomtown is a slang term for a town that was built really fast, usually after an onslaught of people move nearby to mine some sort of a natural resource—silver, gold, oil, and so on.
One moment it’s an empty plot of land, then someone finds something and: Boom! There’s a town there.
Finally, we’ve got the people mentioned in the movie’s intro. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and of course the 100 Texan outlaws known as “The Cowboys.”
All of those are real.
The legendary lawman, as the movie calls Wyatt Earp was a very real person. He became a lawman after his first wife died from typhus in 1870. Devastated with her passing, Wyatt left his hometown of Lamar, Missouri spent years roaming the Midwest until moving to Wichita, Kansas. While in Wichita he had two jobs, he worked as a police officer and he also opened up a brothel with his brother, Virgil.
Virgil Earp, by the way, is played by Sam Elliott in the movie. Oh, and Wyatt is played by Kurt Russell in the movie.
Wyatt earned a name for himself in Kansas and eventually became the city marshal of Dodge City, Kansas.
It was here that Wyatt met up with John Holliday, who’s played by Val Kilmer in the movie. John was more commonly called “Doc” thanks to a previous career as a dentist before being charged for murder after a shootout to settle a card game gone bad. He then spent years moving around the country, making a living off gambling, his preferred game was faro, and ultimately becoming the gambling gunfighter we know of through history.
There could be an entire episode just on Doc Holliday—each of the real people that the characters in the movie were based on could be an episode each. In fact, our friends over at the Drift & Ramble podcast have done some great episodes on Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. I’ll put a link to their show in the notes for this episode. Go check them out!
While it doesn’t look much like winter in the movie, it was in December of 1879 when Wyatt Earp moved to Tombstone, Arizona with his two brothers Virgil and Morgan, who’s portrayed by Bill Paxton.
Of course, Tombstone is in Arizona. For my friends outside the United States, that’s in the southwestern region of the country where temperatures are typically between 60°F and 80°F in December. That’s between 15.5°C and 26.6°C.
So it’s not really that cold.
Oh, and it was true that Doc Holliday had tuberculosis, a disease that was aggravated by the heavy drinking and late nights that accompanied his lifestyle.
And speaking of which, Doc wasn’t really in Tombstone when the Earps arrived. In truth, Doc arrived in September of 1880, about nine months after the Earp brothers did.
Back in the movie, there’s another main character who comes to town. Accompanied by Billy Zane’s fictional character, Mr. Fabian, enters an actress by the name of Josephine Marcus along with the rest of their theater troop.
Josephine is played by Dana Delany in the movie.
Unlike Mr. Fabian, Josephine Marcus was a real person. However, the events we see here aren’t really true.
We know that because the timeline doesn’t match what we see in the movie. Remember when we learned that the Earp brothers arrived in Tombstone in December of 1879?
Well, we also know from history that after Josephine ran away from her parent’s home in San Francisco at the age of 14 in 1874, she fell off the historical map for a while. Some historians believe she went from San Francisco to Prescott, Arizona using the fake name Sadie Mansfield, a name that also popped up in Tombstone, but we don’t really know for certain.
When records of her resurfaced, it was in Tombstone in October of 1880, when she went back to using her real name. The movie doesn’t really mention dates it seems to imply that she arrived in town almost right after the Earps, but in truth she arrived almost a full year after Wyatt Earp did.
Another little fact that the movie failed to mention is that Josephine didn’t move to Tombstone with a theater troop, but rather moved there at the request of Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan.
That character is played by Jon Tenney in the movie.
We know this because of a letter Josephine sent to Johnny, the latter of whom promised to marry Josephine if she moved to Tombstone. When she did, he decided not to marry her after all but still managed to convince her to stay. Most historians refer to Josephine as having been a common-law wife of Johnny Behan’s.
Being a common-law wife essentially means they lived together for an extended period of time. So basically everyone considered them married, even though they never got officially married as far as the government is concerned.
At this point, in 1880, Josephine would’ve been 17 years old and Wyatt Earp would’ve been about 32.
Going back to the film’s timeline, the Earp brothers are dragged into being the lawmen in the town when a member of the Cowboys murders the current town marshal. Soon after, Sam Elliott’s version of Virgil Earp decides to replace the marshal to help bring some law to the town.
That’s actually true. Well, the spirit of the story is at least.
In the movie we saw Tombstone’s Marshal, Fred White, get killed by “Curly Bill” Brocius. That happens well after both Wyatt and Josephine are in town.
This event did happen, but it happened on October 30th, 1880, so right around the same time Josephine arrived in town and less than a year after Fred White was elected City Marshal on January 6th, 1880.
Oh, and in the movie Fred White is played by Harry Carey Jr. while Curly Bill is played by Powers Boothe.
Of course, we don’t know if the exact specifics of what we saw in the film are true, what we do know is that Curly Bill’s killing of the Marshal seemed to have been an accident—an accidental murder.
After Fred’s death, the movie makes it seem like Virgil Earp just became the next Marshal without any election. In truth, the position was an elected position but because of the sudden death of the previous Marshal, instead Virgil was appointed the position. So it would seem the movie is accurate here.
The going salary at the time for City Marshal in Tombstone was about $100 a month, which is about the same as $2,500 today. That’s not including his cut of the city taxes that he also was in charge of collecting.
Just like the movie shows, after becoming Marshal, Virgil called on his brothers Morgan and Wyatt to be deputies.
It was as acting Marshal that Virgil and his brothers started trying to enforce the peace, thereby making some enemies out of the Cowboys.
Here’s where the movie starts to derail from history a little more.
You see, in the movie, Virgil’s first act as Marshal is to enact a law that prohibits anyone from bringing a gun into town. He does this in hopes that it’ll stop the murder in the streets, like what happened to Fred White.
While there was such a law passed, Virgil wasn’t the one who passed it. Why? Because unlike what we saw in the movie, Virgil wasn’t the City Marshal for very long.
After being appointed the position in October of 1880, Virgil was only the interim Marshal up until the city could hold a special election to determine the next Marshal. That was held on November 13th, and Virgil Earp didn’t even run for the position at first.
Two of Tombstone’s policemen who didn’t make it into the film, James Flynn and Ben Sippy, ran for the office. Then, for reasons we don’t know, James backed out and Virgil took his place running against Ben Sippy. Despite this, Ben came back with 311 votes to Virgil Earp’s 259 votes, so Ben Sippy became the Marshal of Tombstone.
But that didn’t deter Virgil, because Ben’s term was only until the next regular election just a couple months down the road.
On January 4th, 1881, the city held its first regular election since the emergency election after the death of Fred White. Virgil and Ben were the candidates and, again, Ben Sippy beat out Virgil Earp.
So when the movie shows Virgil as the City Marshal enacting the law against carrying weapons in town, that’s not really true. But Virgil did stay on as a policeman, so he was still involved with the law. And just because it wasn’t Virgil enacting the law doesn’t mean the law didn’t exist.
In fact, there were two city ordinances that went into effect that are relevant here. The first one is City Ordinance Number 7 and went into effect on April 12th, 1881:
Section 1. It shall be the duty of all policemen to arrest all parties found in the public streets within the city limits, engaged in brawling, quarreling, etc., and all persons who be shall found in any disorderly act whereby a breach of the peace might be occasioned.
That one isn’t about carrying weapons, but it’s something we saw enforced in the movie—even if the film didn’t really call it out as such. Remember when Stephen Lang’s version of Ike Clanton was arrested and put in jail for drunken threats he was making against the Earp brothers?
Well, that really happened and it was this ordinance that the real Virgil Earp used to arrest the real Ike Clanton.
According to the movie, though, that little drunken charade by Ike isn’t the reason for the climactic gunfight. Instead, that’s because of outright disobedience for the city ordinance against carrying a gun in town.
That, too, is true. Here’s the Tombstone City Ordinance Number 9 that went into effect on April 19th, 1881:
Section 1. It is hereby declared unlawful to carry in the hand or upon the person or otherwise any deadly weapon within the limits of said city of Tombstone, without first obtaining a permit in writing.
Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.
Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.
In the movie, it’s Sam Elliott’s version of Virgil Earp trying to enforce this ordinance that led to the showdown.
Despite all of this, the movie is correct here. I know that might sound confusing, but Virgil ended up being the City Marshal even after losing the election.
The election in January of 1881 saw Ben Sippy become the City Marshal, but for reasons historians don’t really know Ben Sippy seemed to have had some financial troubles. On June 6th, 1881, he requested a leave of absence from his job as City Marshal so he could deal with those troubles. It was only supposed to last two weeks, but no one saw him in Tombstone again.
On June 28th, 1881, Tombstone’s Mayor, John Clum, appointed Virgil Earp as the permanent City Marshal. No more elections.
Mayor John Clum is played by Terry O’Quinn in the film.
So that’s why the movie is correct when it’s showing Virgil Earp trying to enforce the ordinance leading to the showdown. Of course, the specifics were creatively dramatized for the movie, the basic gist is close enough that we can call it pretty accurate. By that, what I mean is that it was Virgil Earp’s trying to enforce the ordinance against carrying weapons in town that seemed to have been the final straw in the feud between members of the Cowboys gang and the Earp brothers.
On October 26th, 1881 at about 3:00 P.M., the infamous gunfight at O.K. Corral started. And on October 26th, 1881 at about 3:00 P.M., the infamous gunfight at O.K. Corral ended.
The entire thing lasted about 30 seconds. Arguably the most famous 30 seconds in the history of the American west.
In the movie, we see the showdown take place right out front of the O.K. Corral. If you look closely in some of the shots, there’s the letters “O.K.” above a rickety wooden gate leading into the horse corral.
Surprisingly, even though the movie shows it happening here and everyone remembers the name O.K. Corral, it’d be natural to assume it took place in the corral. That actually not quite true. It actually happened in a vacant lot behind the corral. According to some historians, that’d be about six doors to the west of the back of O.K. Corral.
The movie did a pretty good job of depicting the two sides of the gunfight. On one side there was the three Earp brothers: Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan. Then there was Doc Holliday and Johnny Behan. If you remember, he was the one who was sort of married to Josephine Marcus. In the movie, he’s the one who’s walking with the other four and then ducks into a nearby building before the shootout.
On the other side in the real gunfight, there was Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne.
It happened so fast, we don’t really know for sure who started the gunfight.
In the movie it started when Thomas Haden Church’s character, Billy Clanton, started pulling his gun as a reaction to a silly grin from Val Kilmer’s version of Doc Holliday.
Most historians believe it started with Billy Clanton, but not by him pulling his gun. Instead the accepted belief now is that the gunfight started when Virgil Earp pulled his gun and shot Billy Clanton point-blank in the chest. Simultaneously, Doc Holliday hit Tom McLaury in the chest with a shotgun blast.
That’s how it started.
30 seconds later, about 30 shots had been fired. At least that’s what historians now believe. There’s been some conflicting stories and it’s likely we’ll never know for sure.
Because of how famous those 30 seconds have become, I think now would be a great opportunity to travel back in time and hear what it was like then, because it tells a little different story than what we saw in the movie.
This is an article from just four days after the gunfight at O.K. Corral took place. It was published by the Arizona Weekly Citizen newspaper on Sunday, October 30th, 1881 and has a headline of: A Bloody Battle in the Streets of Tombstone.
Tombstone, October 26—A fatal shooting affray occurred on Fremont street, near Third, about three o’clock this afternoon. It appeared that a number of cowboys have been in town for a few days past and have been drinking heavily and making themselves generally obnoxious. This morning V.W. Earp, City Marshal, arrested one of them, Ike Clanton, and was fined twenty-five dollars in the Justice’s court, and disarmed. He left the court, swearing vengeance. The Earp brothers shadowed them. Sheriff Behan also met four of them coming out of the O.K. corral and tried to pacify them. Just after he left them, the Earl brothers and “Doc” Holliday came along and hostilities at once commenced. It is not known who fired the first shot. About twenty-five shots were fired in quick succession. When the smoke of the battle cleared away it was found that Jim and Frank McLowry [sic] were killed and Bill Clanton mortally wounded, and is now dying. Ike Clanton was slightly wounded and is now in jail. All these were cowboys. Morgan Earp is badly wounded in the back and V.W. Earp has a flesh wound in the calf of the leg. Holliday has a slight scratch in the leg. The streets were immediately thronged with excited citizens, many of them armed with rifles and pistols. The Sheriff summoned a posse, who are now under arms. No further trouble is apprehended.
I think it’s interesting that the article mentions the citizens armed with rifles and pistols. Despite the ordinance to not be armed in town, it didn’t seem to take long to be armed once the gunfight broke out.
The movie doesn’t really mention this, but three days after the gunfight, Ike Clanton pressed charges claiming his brother was murdered. As a result of this, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were arrested and there were hearings held by Judge Wells Spicer.
Those trials lasted from November 2nd until November 29th. After all of the testimonies were done, Judge Spicer rendered his verdict on November 30th, 1881. His final verdict is over 3,000 words long, so too much to share here, but I’ll make sure to include a link to that in the show notes if you want to read it.
There’s one paragraph that sums it up pretty well though:
“In view of all the facts and circumstances of the case, considering the threats made, the character and positions of the parties, and the tragic results accomplished in manner and form as they were, with all surrounding influences bearing upon resgestae of the affair, I cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides-that it is a necessary act, done in the discharge of an official duty.”
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were set free.
Even though the movie doesn’t show these proceedings, I think they’re important to mention because despite the violent bloodshed at the gunfight it would seem that Ike Clanton tried to resort to legal means instead of jumping to retaliation by way of murder.
When legal means didn’t work, though, he considered the event unresolved.
In the movie, there’s a moment where Wyatt and Morgan Earp are enjoying dinner when their brother Virgil leaves in perfect health only to stumble back in a few moments later, covered in blood.
Dramatized as it was for the movie, this retaliation happened. It was on December 28th, 1881 around midnight when Virgil Earp was walking between two buildings in Tombstone, one called the Oriental Saloon (remember, it’s 1881 so names like this were common) and the other called the Crystal Palace. Somewhere between the two he was jumped by three men. We don’t know for sure who the men were, but we know they were carrying shotguns and shot about five times. Two of those hit Virgil, one of them hitting his left side and back while the other completely shattered his left arm.
Again, the movie doesn’t show this, but there were six men charged with the attack on Virgil. Ike Clanton, Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Hank Swilling, Pete Spencer and Johnny Barnes were all Cowboys and were charged with the crime. Other members of the Cowboys gang came to back up their story in court, claiming that most of those men had been out of town at the time. Judge Spicer released the charged men.
Like the movie shows, though, as critical as they were, Virgil Earp didn’t succumb to his wounds. His left arm was crippled for the rest of his life, though.
Back in the movie, the intensity of the feud continues as more blood is drawn. This time it’s Morgan Earp, who is playing pool across town while Virgil is being tended to. Kurt Russell’s version of Wyatt Earp leaves Virgil’s room and runs into a few Cowboys who decide to leave the gang, instead siding with the Earps. Then a gunshot is heard over the thunder. Morgan crumples beneath the pool table.
The movie is fairly accurately carrying the spirit of the story here, even though we don’t really know if those Cowboys ended up leaving the gang and siding with the Earp brothers like that.
The biggest inaccuracy here is in the timeline.
We know Virgil Earp was shot on close to midnight on December 28th, 1881.
Morgan Earp was ambushed at around 10:50 P.M…on March 18th, 1882, a Saturday.
Not even close to when Virgil was shot. So there’s no way Wyatt could’ve gone from Virgil recovering from his wounds to hearing Morgan getting shot across town.
Despite this change in the timeline, the movie was correct with the method. Morgan was playing pool at the Campbell & Hatch Billiard Parlor in Tombstone against the establishment’s owner, Bob Hatch.
While the movie shows Wyatt Earp on his way between Virgil and Morgan at the time, in truth, Wyatt was watching his brother play against Bob along with a couple of their friends.
From outside the window, two shots rang out and instantly Morgan crumpled. He had been shot from the upper half of a windowed door that led to the dark alley between Fremont and Allen Streets in Tombstone. At the time, he was only about ten feet from the door. One of the shots missed, lodging itself in the wall just over Wyatt’s head. The other one struck the right side of Morgan’s body, shattered his spine and exited on the left side. We know this because it actually hit another bystander, hitting a man named George Berry who was also watching the game.
So the circumstances were quite different from what we saw in the movie.
Sadly, the results were the same.
Immediately after he was hit, Wyatt was at his brother’s side, trying to help him to his feet.
Morgan pleaded with his brother, “Don’t! I can’t stand it…this is the last game of pool I’ll ever play.”
Morgan Earp passed away on March 18th, 1882 at the age of 30.
Going back to the movie, the Cowboy’s leader throughout the film is Powers Boothe’s portrayal of Curly Bill Brocius. After a flurry of shots where we see Cowboys being shot by the lawman, there’s a battle between Wyatt and Curly Bill at a river. After a few missed shots by Curly Bill, Wyatt raises his shotgun and kills Curly Bill.
We don’t really know enough specific details of what exactly happened to be able to say if the movie is accurate here, but let’s find out what we do know so you can judge the film’s accuracy for yourself.
This article comes from the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper, published on March 27th, 1882 under the headline A Head to Head Encounter in Which Curly Bill is Killed:
The town has been full of reports for the last two or three days as to the whereabouts of the Earp party, and their probable movements. No sooner had one report got well underway before another was started that contradicted it.
There has been marching and countermarching by the sheriff and his possee [sic] until the community has become so used to the ring of spurs and clank of steel that comparatively little attention is paid to the appearance of large bodies of horsemen in the streets.
Yesterday afternoon the sheriff with a large force started down the road toward Contention, possibly to follow up the report that the party had been seen in the Whetstone mountains, west of the San Perdo river, with their horses completely fagged out and the men badly demoralized. This, like the many other reports, was as baseless as the fabric of a dream.
Yesterday afternoon, as the sun was descending low down the western horizon, had a person been travelling on the Crystal or Lewis Spring road toward the Burleigh Spring, as our informant was, he would have seen one of the most desperate fights between the six men of the Earp party and nine fierce cowboys, led by the daring and notorious Curly Bill, that ever took place between opposing forces on Arizona soil.
Burleigh Spring is about eight miles south of Tombstone, and some four miles east of Charleston, near the mine of that name, and near the short road from Tombstone to Hereford. As our informant, who was traveling on horseback leisurely along toward the Burleigh, and as he rose a slight elevation in the road about a half mile south thereof, he observed a party of six men ride down to the spring from the east, where they all dismounted.
They had not much more than got well upon their feet when there rose up at a short distance away, nine armed men who took deadly aim and fired simultaneously at the Earp party, for such the six men proved to be. Horrified at the sight, that like a lightning stroke flashed upon his vision, he instinctively stopped and watched for what was to follow.
Not a man went down under this murderous fire, but like a thunderbolt shot from the hand of Jove the six desperate men charged upon their assailants like the light brigade at Balaklava, and when within easy reach returned fire under which one man went down never more to rise again.
The remaining eight fled to the brush and regained their horses when they road away toward Charleston as if the King of Terrors was at their heels in hot pursuit. The six men fired but one volley and from the close range it is supposed that several of the ambushed cowboys were seriously if not fatally wounded.
The six men returned to their horses where one was found to be in the agony of death, he having received one of the leaden messengers intended for his riders. The party remained at the spring for some time refreshing themselves and their animals when they leisurely departed, going southerly as if they were making for Sonora.
After the road was clear our informant rode on and came upon the dead man, who, from the description given, was none other than Curly Bill, the man who killed Marshal White in the streets of Tombstone, one year ago last September.
Since the above information was obtained it has been learned that during the night the friends of Curly Bill went out with a wagon and took the body back to Charleston where the whole affair has been kept a profound secret, so far as the general public is concerned.
In the movie, there’s another showdown when Michael Biehn’s character, the gunslinger Johnny Ringo, challenges Wyatt Earp to a duel in a rather non-descript wooded area. Except instead of fighting Wyatt, Val Kilmer’s version of Doc Holliday shows up and manages to outgun Johnny.
That might be true.
The true story is something that, well, we honestly don’t know.
What we do know is that on July 14th, 1882, an unnamed person walking the property neighboring their own happened upon Johnny Ringo’s body near Turkey Creek Canyon just outside Tombstone.
He was already dead, lying against the trunk of a tree and there was a bullet wound in his right temple and an exit wound in the back of his head. Interestingly, we see Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday hit Johnny Ringo in the left temple in the movie. It’s on the right side according to the way the camera is angled from behind Doc’s back but it’s actually Johnny’s left temple.
Anyway, that same neighbor claimed to have heard a single gunshot around 2:00 P.M. the day before, but didn’t really think a lot about it at the time. After all, this was the American old west.
To add to the mystery, someone had wrapped Johnny’s feet in strips of cloth that had been torn from his own shirt.
Johnny was found with a gun hanging by one finger from his hand and it was fully loaded with the exception of one round that had been fired.
Officially, Johnny Ringo was determined a suicide. The judge determined the one bullet expended to have been the one that entered his own head.
But was it? About two miles away, they found his horse with his boots tied to the saddle. That was a common thing to do at the time to make sure scorpions didn’t climb inside the boots.
But why would that matter if he planned on committing suicide?
It’s a mystery that we just don’t know. Today, Johnny Ringo is still lying beneath the tree. He was buried just a few feet from where his body was found.
As is the case with any mystery, there’s a lot of theories. According to historian Glenn Boyer, who we learned about earlier, there was a manuscript from Josephine Earp who said Wyatt and Doc Holliday stumbled upon Johnny Ringo at Turkey Creek Canyon and Wyatt shot him with a rifle as Johnny tried to run from the two.
Another theory is the one that we saw in the movie, where Doc Holliday took Wyatt’s place for a challenge between Johnny and Wyatt. With that theory, things went down pretty much like we saw in the movie—Doc shot Johnny in a duel.
There’s plenty of other theories including other characters that don’t show up in the movie. The point here is that, well, we just don’t know the truth.
With the two main leaders of the Cowboys gang dead, the movie comes to a close as we see the fate of the main characters.
It starts with a camera pan up from a sign that says “Glenwood Sanitorium, Colorado” to where we see Val Kilmer’s version of Doc Holliday bedridden from his tuberculosis. Although we don’t see him die, there’s an emotional moment when it’s obvious death is near and he asks his good friend Wyatt to leave his bedside so he doesn’t see the moment of passing.
While dramatized, the spirit of the story is accurate here. Probably the biggest surprise would probably be with the timeline. Since there’s not much time in the movie from the duel between Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday to the scene in Glenwood, it’s hard to know how much time is passing.
So for a bit of context, we know Johnny Ringo’s body was found on July 14th, 1882.
It was at about 10:00 A.M. on November 8th, 1887 when John “Doc” Holliday passed away due to his tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He was 36 years old.
Two months later, word of Doc’s death made it to Wyatt Earp.
At the end of the movie, despite the death we’ve seen so far it’s a somewhat happy ending as we see Kurt Russell’s version of Wyatt Earp propose to Dana Delany’s version of Josephine Marcus that the two of them run away together.
Then, with the two of them kissing as snowflakes fall, the movie’s narrator mentions a few facts:
Ike Clanton died of a gunshot two years later.
Mattie overdosed and died after she left Tombstone.
Finally, Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929.
Let’s start with Ike Clanton. The movie is half true. He did die from a gunshot. On June 1st, 1887, Ike and his brother Phil Clanton were charged with the crime of cattle-rustling. While Phil—his full name was Phineas—surrendered to authorities, Ike resisted. He was shot and killed.
So the other half there is that while he did die from a gunshot, Ike Clanton did not die two years later. He actually died on June 1st, 1887—160 days before Doc Holliday died.
As for Mattie Earp, who was played by Dana Wheeler-Nicholson in the movie, that’s another mystery where we’ll never fully know the truth. Her real name was Celia Anne Blalock, but most people called her “Mattie”. The movie doesn’t really mention this, but prior to becoming Wyatt Earp’s common-law wife, Mattie was a prostitute. The last name of Earp was something she earned after she was considered the common-law wife of Wyatt Earp. The two were never officially married.
Mattie died on July 3rd, 1888 in the town of Pinal, Arizona. That’s a town that doesn’t exist anymore. The official cause of death on her death certificate is suicide by opium poisoning. She was 40 years old.
As for Wyatt Earp, the movie is correct in stating that he died in 1929 in Los Angeles, California.
To be more specific, it was January 13th, 1929.
After the events we saw in the movie Tombstone, Josephine Marcus left the city of Tombstone on March 25th, 1882. She was bound for San Francisco, the city she’d left years before as a teenage runaway.
In July of 1882, Wyatt Earp joined Josephine in San Francisco.
The two stayed there for about nine months until leaving together for Colorado, where there were budding gold and silver mines. That was the first boomtown the two lived in, but it wasn’t the last.
For the next four decades, Wyatt and Josephine moved around the country together as husband and wife even though the two had never officially been married. On January 13th, 1929, Wyatt Earp passed away from a urinary tract infection known as cystitis. He was 80 years old and, at the time of his death, the last surviving participant of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
According to the movie, the Hollywood actor William S. Hart attended Wyatt Earp’s funeral. Himself an acting legend who starred in 74 movies, William Hart befriended Wyatt Earp in Wyatt’s later years. But that’s not all he did.
Josephine Earp, who had taken her common-law husband’s name after living together for 46 years until his death, finally died at the age of 83 on December 20th, 1944.
When she died, she had nothing. Her family had all passed and she was completely broke. It was William Hart who paid for her funeral.