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Tombstone Politics and the O.K. Corral


January 15, 2022 by Pamela Nowak

This week, I thought I’d touch a bit on the complicated politics of Tombstone. What happened at the O.K. Corral and thereafter had its roots in politics, power, personal rivalry, and hot-headed and long-standing feuds with multiple layers.

Tombstone was a mining town, through and through. Ed Schieffelin, an Army scout at Camp Huachuca (near Tucson), found silver in the Goose Flats area, the vein estimated at fifty feet long and a foot wide. He and partner William Griffith files a claim which Schieffelin called “Tombstone.” Allegedly, fellow scout Al Seiber had once told Schieffelin that the only valuable rock he’d find in the area was his own tombstone. It didn’t’ take long for word to get out and other prospectors to flock to the area.

The Goodenough strike occurred soon after and mining companies backed by former Territorial Governor Anson Safford built a stamp mill about eight miles from the initial settlement. A new town site was completed in March 1879 and the town took its name from Schieffelin’s initial strike.

It didn’t take long for politicians to recognize the value of Tombstone. All silver drawn from the mines was taxed. The Tough Nut Mine alone was working a vein 90 feet across that assayed at $170 a ton. Some of the silver was valued at $22,000 a ton. All that silver meant a huge tax revenue. This made the area politically powerful. City and county officials, including the sheriff, would be responsible for collecting, recording, and managing those tax dollars. As tax collector, the county sheriff would be entitled to a percentage of taxes collected as payment for his efforts.

Initially, Tombstone was located in Pima County. The county was large and it was difficult to manage the growing population in the Tombstone area (thousands were settling there, bringing saloons, brothels, and crime) from the county seat of Tucson. Therefore, in February of 1881. Pima County would split and a new county, Cochise County, would be formed. With the new county would come a host of new county offices including that extremely profitable office of sheriff.

The nature of the wealth in the future Cochise County gave rise to political tension. Mining capitalists and northerners settling in town were largely Republicans. Most of the surrounding ranchers were southerners, former Confederates, and Democrats. (Remember that political parties in the 1870s and 1880s were different than today’s parties.)  This led to tensions between rural areas and Tombstone.

Complicating the political divide were the rustlers and criminals preying about the opportunities in the area. Though the Clanton Gang/Cowboys were among the southern ranchers, they were also rustlers. As such, they provided a cheap source of meat to local restaurants, butchers, and mercantiles. Despite differences in political beliefs, the townsfolk were thus willing to ignore their criminal enterprises. Where profit comes into play…

When the Earps arrived in Tombstone, the town already had an established power-base. Johnny Behan had been lured to the area by its wealth. As a former sheriff and territorial legislature, Behan was well aware of the wealth and power in Tombstone. He had friends in high places, willing to lend their power to see that Behan rose to power in Cochise County. Behan also had a keen sense of how to operate behind the scenes to use others to his advantage.

Behan and his political allies recognized groups like the Cowboys were willing to shift their political allegiance if there was profit in it for them. This meant that outlaw groups would do favors in exchange for lenient treatment from the legal system. Some of the Cowboys even served as inspectors at polling places in the county and were accused of ballot fraud (stuffing the ballot box) in the election for Pima County Sheriff (the person who would appoint the sheriff in the new Cochise County). This made the Cowboys enemies of Wyatt Earp, who was supporting the opposing candidate in the hope that he would be appointed the Cochise County Sheriff.

Upon that political rivalry, a personal feud had been brewing. The Cowboys had been targeting the Earps and Doc Holliday with accusations of stagecoach robberies that they were likely committing themselves. In retaliation, the Earps who held law-enforcement power (Virgil was Federal Marshal and Town Marshal for a time and Wyatt was appointed to various offices under the County Sheriff), focused arrests and investigations on the Cowboys.

There were also hot-headed exchanges and threats exchanged. Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp were known for their tempers when drunk. So were Ike Clanton and various other Cowboys. They frequently threatened one another and were involved in fist fights.

Layered within the unstable situation in Tombstone were two other factors. Virgil Earp had lost the election for Town Marshal but had been appointed to the office in June 1881 when Marshal Sippy skipped town with city funds. Virgil was then both Town Marshal and Federal Marshal, able to appoint his brothers to serve under him and reap the benefits of power, favoritism, and profit that came with such positions.  But Virgil also dealt with a local vigilante committee and the leaders of the town, many of whom supported this Committee of Public Safety. On the day that Ike Clanton was roaming the town drunk and determined to kill Wyatt Earp, Virgil was under scrutiny by those same town fathers who had indicated they would have the Committee of Public Safety disarm Clanton if Virgil couldn’t do it.

Finally, the fact that Josephine Marcus had been involved with Johnny Behan for years and was now the mistress of Wyatt Earp may have increased tensions. Behan’s treatment of Josie must have rubbed at Wyatt and the problems Josie had created for Behan must have added fuel to his already fiery relationship with Wyatt. Combined with their conflict over the office of Sheriff, they were not inclined to support one another in any way by October of 1881.

On the day that the Cowboys and the Earps met at the O.K. Corral, tensions were high between the groups and had been fueled by political alliances, rivalries, feuds, and a night of drinking by several of those involved. It was a bomb waiting to explode. As Josie later fashioned Wyatt into a hero, many of those “wires” attached to the bomb were buried.

NECESSARY DECEPTIONS releases February 16 and explores the forgotten stories of Josie and Mattie, Wyatt’s second and third wives and the parts of their lives buried in the legend. I’ve enjoyed sharing bits of my research with all of you as we near release date. We only have a few more weeks to go!

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