‘Tombstone’ hits mark retelling OK Corral story

By Ted Ayres | February 5, 2021

“Tombstone” by Tom Clavin (St. Martin’s Press, 386 Pages, $29.99)

On Oct. 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Ariz., 30 bullets were exchanged in 30 seconds, leaving three men dead and three others wounded. And with that exchange of gunfire, the Earp brothers, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, Billy and Joe Clanton and the OK Corral were forever etched into the annals of the history, folklore and mythology of the American Old West.

I had previously read Clavin’s 2017 book, “Dodge City,” so when “Tombstone” came out in 2020, I did not delay in adding it to my library. Subtitled “The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday and the Vendetta Ride from Hell,” this book is rich with references to Kansas and offers significant insight on the settlement and taming of the Old West. Abilene, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Fort Scott, Hutchinson and Wichita had contributing roles in the Wyatt Earp legend. 

Clavin writes in an earthy, informal style, which is fitting for the subject matter. He acknowledges that the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral has been told many times before but says he wanted to tell “my version of the Tombstone story, to have it refracted through my lens, and along the way provide new and previously overlooked characters and details.” I believe he succeeded.

“Tombstone” is comprehensive in scope. Clavin tells of the exploration of Arizona and the Southwest by the Spanish and provides information about the life of Native Americans in the area, including Geronimo and Cochise. Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, Johnny Ringo and Billy the Kid are all accounted for in “Tombstone.”

Clavin writes of the early days of the Earp family, including Wyatt’s birth in Illinois and his first experience serving as a lawman in Lamar, Missouri. He follows Earp to Dodge City and Wichita, where at age 26 Wyatt worked as a brothel bouncer and gambler. Clavin tells the story of how Wyatt met Doc Holliday; the numerous ladies in Wyatt’s life; how and why he found himself in Tombstone with his brothers Morgan and Virgil; and the circumstances leading up to the shootout and the significant consequences thereof —the Earps, Tombstone and the Old West.

If you have an interest in Kansas history, enjoy tales of the Old West or —  like me — were entranced by the 1993 movie  Tombstone, I believe you will find Clavin’s new book an entertaining and fun read.

Contact Ted Ayres at ted.ayres@shockers.wichita.edu.