OK Corral 140 Years Later: Between Frontier Violence and the Emerging Rule of Law

OK Corral 140 Years Later: Between Frontier Violence and the Emerging Rule of Law

Author: Prof. Dr. Milan Jazbec

It was a hundred and forty years ago today that Wyatt Earp took his group to fight the outlaws of the Clanton gang. It was a bright, windy and chilly day of October 26, 1881 that – without its actors being exactly aware of – paved the way for the rule of law to become an irreversible fact. Hence, it has become an outstanding value that decisively marks the value system of contemporary international community, stemming originally from the heart of the Western civilization.  

Justice, Rule of Law and European Integration Process

There is a telling, primary and basic articulation in the Bible of what we understand today as a rule of law: “treat others as you want to be treated”. The Ancient Roman law puts this more precisely and it is still relevant nowadays, both among lawyers and among the societies: let there be justice so that the world will not collapse (as a part of Habeas Corpus). The French Revolution of 1789 defined it with a timeless slogan Equality, Brotherhood, Liberty (and with the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen). Magna Carta Libertatum from the year 1215[2], as the legal and political foundation, as well as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights from 1948, as a political and policy derivate, confirmed it. One could find numerous, more or less exact principles and anchors to understand as well as to comprehend justice. People do want justice to rule their lives; they want everybody to be just and fair, doing nothing on the account of the others. 

Generally speaking, this originates from the eternal question of good and bad, and how to provide the former and to prevent the latter. Closely related to this is the issue of honour and duty as well: Doc Holliday, a controversial figure of the Western frontier, “saw what he did on the street fight and afterwards as a duty”, since “honor mattered to him at a level few realized”; he believed “that he was doing something right and good”.[3]   

Justice could be defined as a result of a process, through which formal authorities try to find out or to judge fairly what is right and what is wrong and to punish those who do not stick to defined rules or disrespect and disobey them. Commonly, the popular notion of justice and fairness overlaps with the formal expression, with the codified legal systems. Therefore, law must be just and fair, doing and enabling to do right.    

Referring to this, the principle of the rule of law is a value and a value system by itself, stemming from justice. It means that only law and nothing else should govern people. There should not be any place for tyranny or arbitrary behavior, but only for righteousness. The rule of law (access to law by everybody, free and fair trial, and equality under the law for everybody) is a cornerstone of any contemporary democratic society, meaning it is an internationally accepted doctrine. It is the basic principle of the European Union, but also of the whole web of international governmental and nongovernmental organizations, movements and groups, including the United Nations Organization and its system of specialized and other institutions. One could easily claim that the European integration process stands up for its production of values, where rule of law is in the forefront[4]. Around this cornerstone, democracy, independent courts, human rights, market economy, free and fair elections, and freedom of media, to name the most outstanding ones, form a huge cluster of articulating, expressing and above all implementing of what is just. 

This set of values is directly bound to an individual. Individuality, as an emanation of a human being that is free in its original position, derives directly and clearly from the heritage of the French Revolution. In the 21st century, an individual is characterized by emancipation and protection. Hence, a person is universally free and protected by a set of legal instruments that shall guarantee his or her rights at both national and international levels. An individual has a political right and a legal possibility to seek protection by international institutions when being oppressed by national institutions of his or her own state. When speaking of the EU, everybody has a legal possibility to seek protection and justice from one’s own state before the European Court of Human Rights, when legal venues in one’s own state are procedurally exhausted. 

Together with the abolition of the death penalty and the right to a clean and healthy environment, this presents the most far-reaching advancement of the European integration process.

Booming Western Frontier and the Need for Rule of Law

In the second part of the 19th century, the American West, meaning western from St. Louis, across the Mississippi river all the way to the Rocky Mountains, to Mexico and Canada, was a huge, borderless territory, where no law was known, apart from violence. What was right was defined by a stronger rifle, muscles and a bigger number of members of the group, gang or similar: “… in those days [when] the pistol instead of law determined issues”.[5] Wild West was a mixture of everything that people, moving to that part of the continent, in a search for a new and better life, were bringing with them. Along moved groups of outlaws, smugglers, killers, adventurers, seeking wealth and power. Formal structures of law, though slowly growing, were thin and weak in number of personnel and executive power (i.e. capability of shooting and fighting skills to face the outlaw forms of all possible kinds). From one point of view, the lawmen were under huge expectations of populations to protect them, and from another, they were under contradicting huge pressure from outlaws of all possible kinds.   

It was usually a discovery of gold, silver or a similar mineral that brought crowds from everywhere to a single place, forming a booming town. Such a town grew practically overnight, with stores, magazines, saloons, hotels, churches, courts, jails and schools. It is not difficult to imagine how dynamic, chaotic and ruthless those places were. Consequently, law and order was something that came on the agenda later on. Working, drinking, gambling, all that was in the forefront of social behaviour. The end of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) added to that mess numerous groups of disillusioned soldiers, jobless adventurers and criminals that spread across the West, and with them violence in various forms. However, it consequently also resulted in slow, but steady, rise of law and order.    

Tombstone, a small frontier booming silver mine town in the southwest Arizona Territory, not far away from the Mexican border, was a typical example of such place. It was founded in only 1879 with just around 100 citizens, but growing rapidly in two years to more than 7,000, becoming the most booming frontier town of its wider area. Consequently, all kinds of people were coming there and all aspects of life were present: “…by 1881 the town boasted fancy restaurants, a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, an opera house, two banks, three newspapers, and an ice cream parlor, along with 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls, and numerous brothels, all situated among a number of dirty, hardscrabble mines”.[6] A rather picturesque, but highly realistic description of what a romantic western scenery was supposed to look like in those pioneer days.

Too many challenges for justice to be cemented, but at the same time also enough opportunities for heading firmly that way.

The Gunfight at OK Corral

The shootout by itself was a result of tensions and conflicts between the local authorities with Virgil Earp as the City Marshall, and various outlaw gangs, the Clanton one as one of the most exposed. They were dealing with smuggling from Mexico different minerals on which the US Government imposed high taxes, stealing and reselling cattle, and demonstrating violence of any possible kind. 

A chain of events led to the countdown. During the last few days prior to it, mostly by Ike Clanton provoking the Earps and swearing how he was going to kill them. City people were provoked and disturbed by this, not least the Earp brothers, whom people kept on reporting about those threats. Gambling and drinking were just adding to the heating atmosphere. A dialogue between the bartender Clem and Wyatt minutes before the fight is very clear: “Is there gonna be a fight, Wyatt?” – “I think there must be.”[7] It was all not exactly planned, but primarily produced by highly unavoidable stream of events that inevitably led to the fight. 

It happened on the Fremont Street, close to the OK Corral, however the latter became a symbol of the countdown and the whole truth as well as myth around it. Formally, the City Marshall Virgil Earp tried to disarm the group, since it was forbidden by a decree to carry guns within the city limits. Out of that unsuccessful effort, the fight erupted. Nine persons were involved all together, four lawmen: Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp as well as Doc Holliday, and five outlaws on the other side: Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, with Billy Claiborne as well.

Now let us try to imagine it: Less than a minute of heavy shooting from the closest vicinity, between two to three meters only, took place in an area of approximately 10 x 10 meters. A heavily crowded small place, with two groups of nine people standing and facing each other. Shooting, shouting and killing filled the place when men with guns fired about 30 shots in a bit more than 30 seconds, (“The fight was hardly started before it was over.[8]”). Bullets were flying all around in the air and created hell on Earth. Smoke, powder, smell, heavy, hot air, hot blood marked the small lot, full of destiny, past and future. A mess, chaos, and a countdown was how the cradle of the rule of law must have looked like in brutal reality. 

Two shots followed Virgil’s demand to hand over the guns, and then the cannonade erupted. The first two shots were almost indistinguishable, but logically: Billy Clanton most probably drew first and Wyatt immediately after. However, since he was so incredibly fast with the gun, it happened practically at the same time. The result of the gunfire was clear: three dead (Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton), three wounded (Morgan and Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday touched by a bullet) and two escaped (Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran away). 

In addition, it was the figure of Wyatt Earp standing up, decisive and determined, coldblooded, full of courage, without any scratch. He was never touched by a single bullet in his 80 years long life, although being involved in many fights and situations on the very edge. His previous work as a sheriff in Dodge City earned him an image and steeled him. As Bat Masterson claims, the top shooter has to be armed with courage, experience and deliberation.[9] Only this combination makes him the best. Briefly, “Wyatt Earp was a hard man who lived in troubled times”[10].  All that earned him a status of a legend.

The Countdown and its Aftermath

There are at least two sorts of ground-breaking consequences of the fight, namely immediate and long-term.

After an initial shock and recovery, things began to clear down. There were instantaneous newspaper reports, both the Tombstone ones as well as those around the US. The former covered everything in details, the latter more generally and in an Aesopian way, but the majority favoured the lawmen. A one-month long court hearing let Earp’s company off the hook, although disputes about who started the shooting did not settle down for decades. However, a careful and abrupt examination of the dead bodies showed that they could not have their hands up as some witnesses, including Ike Clanton, who sued the file for murder, claimed it. 

Wyatt Earp became the centre of the OK Corral legend ever since. Not only was he quiet and rather introverted, but also known for the fact that “he never, at any time in his career, resorted to the pistol excepting in cases where such a course was absolutely necessary.” meaning that “he always arrayed himself on the side of law and order”.[11]  Perhaps a brief evening discussion between young Wyatt and his father Nicholas on their way towards West, best explains the gunman’s attitude towards the rule of law: “I got to tell you something, Wyatt. You know I’m a man that believes in the law. After your family, it’s about the only thing you got to believe in”[12]. The latter becomes clearly visible in Wyatt’s brisk reply to the friends remark that he has to stick to the law: „I won’t let them use law to kill me and my family, John.„[13]    

A triangular matrix best defines Wyatt Earp from this point of view: family, law and friendship. The three Earp brothers present a unique case in the history of the Wild West. Combined with Wyatt’s relation and friendship with Doc Holliday (being all in one: dentist, sporting man, adventurer, and gambler, drunk and above all a scrupulous, unachievable gunman) shows, how difficult is the way towards creating and cementing what are indispensable values.

In the long run, the event in Tombstone, close to the Fly’s shop, became known as the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West. Controversies about what was right and what wrong at the broader scenery remained alive for more than a century. It showed that a strive for the rule of law is a process and not a one-time achievement. Each generation has to contribute to it with its deeds and above all with the universal spread of its validity and acceptance, showing that the rule of law shall remain the fundamental criteria for a just and lasting humane society. 

The Epilogue

The gunfight at OK Corral with its main figure is an archetype image of the West, its protagonists, contradictions and solutions: violence, justice, gunfight, saloons, drinks, poker and women, cattle, marshals/sheriffs and outlaws, Cowboys, local newspapers, court hearings, political backgrounds, jealousy, murders, revenge, just name it. But at the end of the day it all comes down to the issue of ensuring justice for innocent people and their families. It could be fairly claimed that this awareness was initiated in Tombstone on that very afternoon. 

This epitome codified the rule of law as a value, a norm and a benchmark as we know it today, although it was perhaps less noticeable on the spot. The historical process would have led to this anyway, but much later, being less dramatic, spectacular and impressive, and much less decisive, too. 

The real dimension of the most famous shooting of the West is sliding into the past, but it is its symbolic value that is, on the contrary, gaining on importance. Not directly, though, but as a cornerstone of the European integration process that has made Europe the most attractive place to live in. This is the result of a long, complicated and heavy political and diplomatic process that has one of its strong roots in a bright, long gone early Wednesday afternoon in the frontier town of Tombstone. It would be quite enough if this was remembered for the next period.

About the author: 
Dr. Milan Jazbec is a Slovene diplomat, professor of diplomacy, poet and writer, employed at the Slovene Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and member of the first generation of Slovene diplomats. He was Ambassador to North Macedonia (2016-2020) and to Turkey (2010-2015, accredited also to Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria). He published over sixty books and is the author of more than 130 articles on diplomacy and related topics, all in fourteen languages. From 2009 he is the founding editor of the international scientific journal European Perspectives. Views, presented in this article are solely of his own and do not represent those of his employer.   

Ljubljana/Tombstone/Brussels, October 26, 2021

[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.
[2] Comp. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290625240_The_Influence_Of_Magna_Carta_Libertatum_In_The_Development_Of_The_Principle_Of_Rule_Of_Law (October 12, 2021) as well as https://www.probono-india.in/book-review-interviews-detail.php?id=576 (October 12, 2021). 
[3] Roberts, G. L. 2006. Doc Holliday: The Life and the Legend. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons. P. 319. 
[4] Jazbec, M. 2019. European Integration Process Thirty Years after the End of the Cold War. European Perspectives, October 2019. Vol. 10, No. 2 (18), pp. 127 – 152.
[5] Masterson, W. B. (Bat). 2017. Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, p. 35. 
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunfight_at_the_O.K._Corral#cite_note-wgbh-5 (October 12, 2021)
[7] Wyatt Earp, the movie, 1994, 2hs 17 min. 
[8] Masterson, ibid., p. 61.
[9] Ibid., p. 25.
[10] Roberts, G. L. 2019. Wyatt Earp: The Search for Order on the Last Frontier. In: Young, B. R., Roberts, G. L., Tefertiller (Eds.). 2019. Wyatt Earp Anthology: Long May His Story Be Told. Denton: University of North Texas Press. P. 25.
[11] Masterson, ibid., p. 56.
[12] Wyatt Earp, the movie, 1994, the 17th minute.
[13] Wyatt Earp, the movie, 1994, 2hs 28 min.

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