By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
In the aftermath of perhaps the most famous gunfight in the American West, tensions grew in Tombstone, Arizona, and public opinion became divided. Many supported the actions of the Earps and Holliday, but there were others (including the newspaper The Nugget) who felt the infamous gunfight was nothing short of murder.
A Preliminary Hearing was held before Judge Wells Spicer between November 9th and November 15th 1881, to determine if murder charges should be filed against Virgil Earp, then Chief of Police of Tombstone and a US Deputy Marshal, as well as his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, and family friend, Doc Holliday. Having read both the testimony of various witnesses for the prosecution and for the defense, including statements by Wyatt and Virgil Earp, I must say one could make viable arguments for both cases even today.
Ultimately, no charges were filed and the rest, as they say, is history.
But what truly led up to such a deadly gunfight in the middle of the day? Was it justice or a case of the Earps and Holliday taking the law into their own hands to settle a personal account? It would seem the latter since Sheriff Behan had tried to intervene and stop the Earps, according to his sworn testimony. Ike Clanton also testified that after the Sheriff had spoken to them (meaning him, his brother, and the McClaurys), and told them to ‘stay where they were’, Behan then approached the Earp party with his hands up and told them he had everything under control and to stop. The Earps and Holliday, obviously intent on their course, ignored the Sheriff and walked right by him. The distance between the two parties at that time had been a mere 20 paces. The actual gunfight took place at very close range as pictured in the re-enactment here.
Whether Ike Clanton had been drinking with friends and said something in a private conversation about Holliday that was overheard and reported back to the dentist turned gunfighter, one can only speculate now. If, as Holliday alleged, Ike Clanton had threatened the Earps, why was Morgan Earp just watching the altercation unfold and not saying anything until Ike Clanton was leaving the lunch stand? Was this an attempt at intimidation by two men highly skilled with guns or a justified argument with a braggart who had been mouthing off about Holliday and the Earps? Like they say, there are always two sides to every argument.
Needless to say, it involves no stretch of the imagination to consider not just the origin but evolution of 'gunfights' (that could involve several people) or the act of 'calling someone out' (between two armed men). Put simply, I believe there is a strong argument the Old West way of settling disputes evolved from the practice of duels.
With its medieval origins of chivalry, a duel was an arranged combat between two individuals wherein they had equal or matched weapons and rules of conduct. In the 17th and 18th century, the weapons of a duel included swords. But with the advancement of weaponry, the late 18th century and 19th century primarily involved pistols. And like many practices adopted from England and Europe in the Colonial United States, the considered gentlemanly art of dueling became one of them.
First blood meant that the duel would end when one individual was wounded, even if it were minor. A duel’s terms could also be established that it would continue until one participant was too injured to continue. As a result, it could be quite a lengthy ordeal. However, these type duels were primarily fought with swords. Duels involving pistols were usually based on each party firing one shot. If no one was struck, and if the challenger felt his honor had been ‘satisifed’, the duel could end. If, on the other hand, the challenger felt his honor still insulted, the duel could continue until one person was injured or killed.
An interesting aspect regarding duels was the act of deloping, where a participant fired into the air or at a tree because they felt their opponent was not worth shooting. Deloping was viewed as dishonorable for it cheated the other participant of obtaining satisfaction. In fact, Rule 13 of the Code Duello of 1777 banned the practice of deloping.
Pistol duels were common in Colonial America, and involved many respected political leaders of their times. Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, dueled with Lachlan McIntosh (a political opponent) on 16 May 1777. Both men were wounded, and Gwinnett died three days after the duel. One of our nation’s most famous duels involved United States Vice President Aaron Burr and the former United States Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
In a pistol duel, both participants would stand back-to-back with matching loaded weapons in hand. They would then walk a prescribed number of paces, turn to face one another and fire their weapon. An interesting side note is that the more severe the insult that precipitated the duel, the less number of paces taken which separated the opponents. Some pistol duels stipulated that shots would not be fired at the same time, but that each participant took a turn with the challenged participant firing first.
Dueling pistols were made to exact specifications using calibers of .45, .50, .and .65. They were sometimes custom-made and often intricately embellished. As a result, a matching set of dueling pistols was prized and often became family heirlooms. Pictured below is a matched set of Italian flintlock pistols (circa 1765) I purchased for my husband years ago in New Orleans.
The Code of Honor, Or, Rules for the Government and Principals and Seconds in Duelling (1784-1849), a 22-page booklet published by John Lyde Wilson, (a former governor of South Carolina), states if an individual believes they have been insulted, either in public or by words or behavior, they are encouraged to “be silent on the subject, speak to no one about the matter, and see your friend, who is to act for you, as soon as possible. Never send a challenge in the first instance, for that precludes all negotiation. Let your note be in the language of a gentleman, and let the subject matter of complaint be truly and fairly set forth…” “When your second is in full possession of the facts, leave the whole matter to his judgment, and avoid any consultation with him unless he seeks it. He has custody of your honor, and by obeying him you cannot be compromitted.”
But just as there have been men who felt they had every right to defend their honor in a duel, there have always been people who denounced the practice of dueling. During the American Revolution, George Washington asked his officers to refuse challengers, believing (and rightly so), it would threaten the success of the war. And after the Burr-Hamilton duel, Benjamin Franklin openly criticized the practice.
By the end of the 1800s, laws were established to prevent duels, but they still took place – particularly in the south and American West. Yet, the armed combats that took place on the frontier followed few, if any, rules. In a climate where lawlessness often prevailed, where drunken cowboys could ride hell-bent up the street shooting off their guns for the fun of it, and tempers could flare in a heartbeat after a night of too much drinking or one bad hand of cards after another, the established rules and regulations of dueling were cast aside. The age of gunfights prevailed.
There were no seconds making sure each man was armed with an identical weapon, or marking off the distance between adversaries. As stated earlier, by the time Sheriff Behan tried to stop the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday from their appointment with destiny, they were only 20 paces away from where the Clanton-McLaury parties stood. Neither was just one bullet fired at your opponent. Quite the contrary, they kept firing until their ammunition ran out. Bullets flied, often striking innocent bystanders and damaging both public and private property. There would be so much smoke from the gunpowder, that until it settled it was difficult to know who was still standing…if anyone.
One such ‘calling out’ occurred on 21 July 1865 between Wild Bill Hickok and David Tuff. After an argument over cards, the two men decided to shoot it out in a gun fight. Tuff was killed. Another famous ‘calling out’ type duel happened in Fort Worth, Texas on 08 February 1887 between Luke Short (incidentally, a good friend of Wyatt Earp), and Jim Courtright.
And yet, although duels have become obsolete and we now use dialogue, mediation, litigation and the courts to settle disputes, some states still do not have any laws prohibiting duels—although individuals may be prosecuted under established laws such as assault or manslaughter. Interestingly, even in the 21st century, the state of Kentucky still requires officials taking office, from a judge or county official to and including the state’s governor, to say the following oath when being sworn into office. Pay particular attention to the second paragraph.
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky as long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of ______, according to law, and,
I do further solemnly swear (or affirm) that since the adoption of the present Constitution, I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”
[Source: The National Conference of State Legislatures]
I hope you enjoyed this post about Dueling and my opinion of its influence on gunfights in the American West. As always, thank you for taking the time to visit the Sweethearts of the West blog. ~ AKB
NOTE: As recently as 2010, the “Kentucky Dueling Language Amendment” was supposed to be placed before the Senate and House of Representative for a vote in the state’s General Election. However, the Legislative session ended without the amendment being voted on; consequently, it was not on their November 2, 2010 ballot.
Turner, Alford (Ed.), The O. K. Corral Inquest (1992)
Wilson, John Lyde, The Code of Honor: or Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling (1838, 1858)
Lubet, Steven, Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp (2004)