I don't know what 34 year old Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton was thinking on the evening of Tuesday, 25 October, 1881 as he drove his buckboard into Tombstone (above). It remains unclear why Ike made the 4 hour drive from the Clanton Ranch near Antelope Springs across 12 miles of blowing sand on this particular windy evening. The wagon he was driving carried only a saddle and tack, with a single horse on a lead behind. Seated beside him was Tom McLaury, and the horse in tow seems evidence Tom had come along as an idependent agent, there to keep an eye on Ike and maybe cut lose if the mission went awry. But what exactly was the mission this cold autumn evening?
His arrival was not a surprise to the Earp brothers, but it was very troubling. A few hours earlierthe Wells Fargo agent in the mill town of Charleston, J.B. Ayers, had telegraphed a warning that 2 well known Cow Boy actors, Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne, were in his town, freely talking about traveling to Tombstone tomorrow, to meet Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury. And their behavior made Ayers suspicious, prompting him to alert the law officers in Tombstone. And now, here were Ike and Tom entering town, late in the afternoon, too late to do much business. It looked to the Earps as if the Clantons and McLaury's were planning something for Wednesday.
Issac had always been the odd son out. Since coming to Arizona Territory in the late 1870's, his father Newman Hawes, older brother "Phin" and younger brother "Billy" Clanton had built the family business of rustling, robbing and murdering in Sonora, Mexico, while north of border posing as lawful suppliers of beef to Tombstone. But Ike had also tried a different course.
In 1878 the then 31 year old had opened a "luncheonette" in Milltown (above), on the San Pedro. But even with a family discount on fresh beef, and a business model based at least in part on laundering money stolen in Sonora, Isacc's little restaurant had failed. And it was a curious choice of business, given that his friends Curley Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo and even his own father had owned saloons. Perhaps his family had learned Ike could not be trusted around alcohol. Perhaps. But for such a well known braggart, Ike remains a cypher, the mysterious central character in the final 24 hours before the Gunfight at the OK Coral. But we do know that during most that time he would be drunk.
It had been a hard summer for Ike. In late May there had been the supposedly secret deal with Wyatt Earp, to turn in three Cow Boys who had botched the Benson Stage robbery and killed a popular driver. But it seems the secret betrayal had leaked almost immediately. On Thursday, 9 June, 1881, Ike was drinking in an Allen street saloon when he was confronted by a gambler, "Denny" McCann. It has been said that Ike had insulted McCann, but what was undisputed was that the gambler had slapped Ike. Both men were unarmed, per city ordinance number nine, but they agreed to "get heeled" and meet in front of the Wells Fargo Office, on the south side of Allen, between Fourth and Fifth Streets.
Virgil Earp (above), who had been privy to the deal, got wind of the potential fight and stepped between the two before shots were exchanged - proof again that the ordinance saved lives because it bought time. And in this case, it seems likely the life saved had been Ike's. But more significantly, upon sober reflection, Ike must have begun to comprehend the trap he had stepped into by agreeing to the deal.
Any leak would double the enemies the Clantons and McLaurys faced. Not only the Earps were now a threat, but also any ambitious member of the Cow Boys with suspicions. In the chain of command, a boss who betrays his followers receives and deserves no support from them. And Ike could have little doubt that if faced with a revelation, the McLaury's would pin the entire debacle on Ike. That may have explained his morning bender even before his meeting with Denny McCann.
Things got worse when Joe "Hill" Olney returned from New Mexico in late June with word of the plan's collapse. All the suspects in the Benson robbery were dead. Tensions increased even more thanks the frame thrown over Doc Holliday for the botched holdup. That had been the work of County Marshal Johnny Behan (above), and for his own reasons. But it was natural that Doc would blame Ike Clanton. Doc had been looking for Ike in Charleston on the night of the robbery. He might have been lured there to implicate him. And then in mid-August had come the devastating news from Guadalupe Canyon. Not only had Ike's father been killed, but the pipeline from Sonora to Tombstone, the source of all Clanton wealth and power, had been turned off. And who could say for how long it would remain closed? A few months, or years?
So whatever Ike Clanton's reasons for coming to Tombstone this Thursday, the trip left Ike looking like the prodigal son. Ike stabled the buckboard and horse at the West End Corral, and then he and Tom McLaury checked into rooms at the Grand Hotel, on the south side of Allen, next to the Wells Fargo Office. Then they parted company. Around midnight, on his own, Ike went to dinner at the narrow Alhambra Saloon, just across Allen Street from the Grand. And there he ran into a slightly drunk and very angry 30 year old John Henry "Doc" Holliday.
Doc had a lot to be angry about. For the last 8 years he had been living with a death sentence, diagnosed with Tuberculosis just a year after beginning his dental practice in Atlanta, Georgia. He moved to Dallas Texas in 1874, hoping the dryer climate would improve his health, but it did not. When his coughing fits drove away patients, Holliday was forced to shift to poker for an income. In 1875 he moved to Denver and took on the nom de plume of "Tom Mckay" He found that faro provided a dependable income, but after "Tom" almost killed another gambler in a knife fight, Doc was forced to move on. Following gold and silver strikes, faro providing him a steady and comfortable income.
In 1877 Doc returned to Texas, where he was shot and almost killed by fellow gambler Henry Kahn. While recovering in Fort Griffith, Texas, Doc met the only woman he would ever have an emotional connection with, the "tough, stubborn and fearless," prostitute Mary Katharine "Big Nose Kate" Harony (together above). Also in Fort Griffith, Doc first met lawman Wyatt Earp. In 1878 Doc and Katherine moved to Dodge City, Kansas where Wyatt was a deputy marshal, and a faro dealer. While there, Wyatt credited Doc with saving his life. After a short stay in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Doc and Katherine followed Wyatt again, this time to Tombstone, arriving in September of 1880.
Then in March of 1881 came the Benson stage robbery. When Doc insisted on joining the posse with Wyatt, Katherine went on a drinking binge. Cochise County Marshal Johnny Behan took advantage of a miserable and drunken Kate, getting her name on an affidavit claiming Doc had confessed to taking part in the robbery. Returning from the posse, he was arrested on the charge. When Wyatt sobered Kate up, she repudiated the affidavit, but the haunted dentist felt betrayed. He left Kate and took a room of his own, at 312 Fremont Street. Lonely and feeling isolated, the final straw came when Ike Clanton told Wyatt that Doc Holliday was spreading the truth about the betrayal of the Benson stage robbers. And this Thursday was Doc's first opportunity to confront Ike Clanton with the accusation, in the Alhambra saloon.
You could understand Doc's frustration. He had just sacrificed the woman he came closest to loving, to protect his relationship with Wyatt Earp. And now Ike was telling a lie which seemed designed to cause the law man to distrust him. And you could almost feel sorry for Ike. He was sitting on a sprung trap, whose teeth could slam shut at the first hint of his betrayal of his fellow Cow Boys. And there he was, reasonably sober in the Alhambra saloon, trying to eat a sandwich, when the volatile and drunk Doc Holliday started a verbal assault loud enough to draw attention. The next words out of the tubercular dentist's mouth might have put a target Ike's back. They certainly put him on the defense. So he started to yell back. So Doc yelled louder. So Ike stood up. And Doc stepped back.
If either man were armed, somebody would have been shot or stabbed right there, and again it would probably have been Ike Clanton. But Wyatt Earp had been watching the confrontation and warned Deputy City Marshal Morgan Earp (above), who was working security for the Alhambra. Morgan stepped between the two, and walked Doc out into cold air of Allen Street. Remember, being lawmen, the Earps had guns. No one else in town was supposed to. Ike followed the two outside and the argument continued in the center of the wide dirt road, until Deputy Federal Marshal Virgil Earp appeared and threatened to arrest them both for disturbing the peace. The Earps seemed to be keeping a close eye on Ike Clanton this evening. Everywhere he turned, it seems an Earp was waiting to catch him, as if he were a tube of nitroglycerin.
Threatened with arrest, Doc Holliday staggered pasted Fourth Street and one block over, to his room in the 2 story 12 room boarding house at 312 Fremont Street, owned and managed by 32 year old Camillus "Buck" Sydney Fly, and his 34 year old wife, Mary E. "Mollie" Fly. Behind this, and up a 15 foot wide alley was the couple's photographic studio, where they both practiced the alchemy of photography. By one that morning, John "Doc" Holliday was asleep in his bed, awakened only periodically by his own coughing.
Ike Clanton however was faced with the visage of 33 year old Wyatt Earp (above). But Ike had reached his breaking point. He would confront Doc Holliday in the morning , he told Wyatt, Then he added, "I'll be ready for you in the morning." And he reminded Wyatt he had his guns just across the street. Wyatt told him to leave them there, and walked into the Oriental Saloon. Ike followed again, and after a drink at the bar, in his passive aggressive way, warned Wyatt again , "You must not think I won't be after you all in the morning."
Wyatt left, and Ike then joined a poker game with Johnny Behan, Tom McLaury, and a few others. After a few minutes they were joined at the table by Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp. Those four, with a few others, continued to drink and play cards far into the night. The game didn't break up until the cold morning sky was brightening. The big loser of the night was Ike Clanton. It was the morning of Wednesday, 26 October, 1881.
And as Virgil Earp stood, Ike Clanton saw the lawman had his big Colt revolver sitting on his lap, and that startled the drunken Cow Boy. Maybe Virgil was just more comfortable sitting for hours with the gun out of his pocket. But what if Virgil had been expecting trouble? What if the plan, whatever it was, for the next day, had been blown? , Had Virgil sat at the table, intending to shoot Ike, or defend Ike? And what would Behan and McLaury think, if they had noticed the gun? Whatever the reality, in Ike's befuddled mind, Virgil's caution had been an insult.
Tom McLaury urged Ike to go back to his room and sleep. And after buying a bottle of whiskey at the bar, Isaac Clanton did return to the Grand Hotel. But he did not go to bed. Instead he checked out. It was the only way the desk clerk was authorized to return his Winchester rifle and revolver to Isaac Clanton. When the now armed Isaac stepped outside, the wide cold expanse of Allen Street was almost deserted.
There were how less than 7 hours until the first shot of the Gun Fight at the OK Corral.