In 1885, Joseph Isaac Clanton, known to his friends as “Ike,” surrounded himself with men such as Lee Renfro, G. W. “Kid” Swingle, a man named “Longhair” Sprague, Billy Evans, and Ebin Stanley (Ike’s brother-in-law). They were a scruffy lot, all of them low-IQ bullies who terrorized law-abiding citizens in southeast Arizona.
Even though Ike managed to escape death at the hands of Wyatt Earp during Earp’s now-famous vengeance ride (March-April 1882), he never learned any lessons about socially acceptable or law-abiding behavior. And, while it is true that vigilantism is not a very civilized response to outlawry, Earp was frustrated with what he believed was the law’s continual failure to hold criminals accountable for their crimes. But Earp was wrong: it wasn’t a failure in the law. It was a failure of men to uphold it.
Wyatt Earp was a sworn officer of the law whose frustration led him to pursue extralegal means of enforcing the law. But Mr. Earp wasn’t alone in his frustration. Arizona Territorial Judge William Henry Stillwell was frustrated, too. He called Earp aside one day and told him, “You’ll never clean up this crowd [by arresting them]; next time, you’d better leave your prisoners in the brush where alibis don’t count.”
According to the Apache County Critic on 30 July 1887:
“Sometime last fall, while [Isaac] Ellinger was temporarily absent from his ranch, which was situated just across the territorial line in New Mexico and known as the Cottonwood Ranch, one Craig, at the instigation of [Lee] Renfro, ‘jumped’ the property.
“Mr. Ellinger had purchased the place more than a year previous and had made it his home and headquarters.
“On or about the 6th of November last, he in company with Wilds P. Plummer [known as Pratt] went to Cienega [sic] Amarilla, the Clanton ranch, and it being about noon Ellinger and his friend Plummer, upon the invitation of the Clanton’s, dismounted and took dinner. Besides these two gentlemen, Ike and Phin Clanton, Lee Renfro, and Bill Jackson were present at the table.
“While dining, the subject of the jumping of the ranch came up, but no one passed any hard words. The first to finish eating were Mr. Ellinger, Ike Clanton, and Lee Renfro, who arose and passed to Phin Clanton’s cabin, some ten or twelve steps distant. They had but entered the room when Renfro commenced abusing Ellinger for something reported said about the jumping of the ranch, at the same time picking up his six-shooter from the table and walking toward Ellinger.
“At this junction, Ike Clanton stepped in between them, but Renfro suddenly threw his pistol around Ike and shot Ellinger in the breast. Mr. Ellinger lived for several days in great agony, suffering a thousand deaths, and died on or about the tenth day of November last.”
Over those four days, as Isaac lingered in death, he consistently claimed that Renfro had shot him in “cold blood.” Isaac and older brother William Ellinger were members of the Apache County Stockman’s Association. The stockman’s association not only made Isaac and William well-known but politically influential as well. William Ellinger owned ranches in several states and territories.
A year later, in an unrelated event, Billy Evans shot and killed Jim Hale in cold blood because he wanted to see “if a bullet would go through a Mormon.”
By April 1887, several grand jury indictments came down against the Clanton’s and their friends. Authorities arrested Phin for cattle rustling. Additional indictments named Renfro as a defendant in the murder of Isaac Ellinger. Following the indictment, Apache County Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens dispatched deputies Albert Miller and “Rawhide” Jake Brighton to arrest Ike and Phin Clanton. In addition to serving as a deputy sheriff, Brighton was also a constable at Springerville and a range detective. Perry originally intended to hire the legendary former-Texas lawman, Jeff Milton, to bring the Clanton’s in, but Milton, at the last minute, accepted a position as a customs officer.
After three days, Brighton and Miller spent the night of 31 May at “Peg Leg” Jim Wilson’s ranch near Eagle Creek, south of Springerville. Ike Clanton rode up to Wilson’s home as Pete, Jake, and Miller took breakfast the following day. Hearing the horse outside, Brighton walked to the door with rifle in hand (with Miller covering him) and opened it. Clanton and Brighton saw each other at the same instant. Ike Clanton turned his horse to run while at the same time drawing out his rifle from its sheath. Brighton fired first, shooting Ike through the left side, the bullet exiting Clanton’s right side. Clanton was dead before he hit the ground.
Unsurprisingly, historical revisionists question whether Ike Clanton was resisting arrest at the time Brighton shot him. I fail to see the relevance of such an argument. Ike was a wanted man. In recognizing Brighton, he attempted to flee — while taking up his rifle, which is a good indication that Clanton intended to use deadly force in making good his escape. I would judge Brighton wise in shooting Clanton, lest Clanton shoots him first.
The inane (modern) argument is that so-called sociological experts think law and order are nothing but a game. Observe:
Extract, Recidivism, and Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders: A Carrot and Stick Evolutionary Game
“We have proposed an evolutionary game that incorporates both punishments — the “stick” — and assistance — the “carrot” — to study the effects of punishment and rehabilitation on crime within individuals’ model society. At every round, each of the Nk players that have committed K crimes may re-offend and join the Nk+1 pool or choose not to re-offend and remain in the Nk pool. We also allow players within that decided not to re-offended to join the paladin pool P of players that will not commit any more crimes in the future. Finally, upon being arrested R times, players join the pool of un-reformables U. Within this context, the index K also represents how hardened or experienced the criminal has become.”
—Bijam Berenji, Thom Chou, and Maria R. D’Orsogna
A game —but one in which that for every single incidence of crime, there are multiple victims who, in most cases never fully recover from its effects. We speak of PTSD among those who suffer the consequences of combat, but what of those who are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, raped, and robbed in our modern city streets? The survivors of murdered victims will never see their loved ones again. If these people are looking for justice, they won’t find it in modern-day America.
The problem is not a recent phenomenon, and we only must look to past events in Pima/Cochise County, Arizona (1876-1889) to see how this plays out. County sheriffs fraudulently elected as Democrats gave free rein to the Pima/Cochise County Cowboys, who terrorized citizens through murder, armed robbery, cattle rustling, and graft. These government officials are sworn to uphold the law either violated the law themselves or they “enabled” the Cowboy’s ruthless outlawry —and did so to retain political power and enrich themselves from their corrupt practices.
Ike Clanton was one of the “Sons of Little Dixie,” born in Callaway County in 1847. He was one of seven children of Newman Haynes Clanton (later known as “Old Man Clanton”) and Mariah Sexton Kelso Clanton. After his mother died in 1866, Ike remained with the family when they relocated to the Arizona Territory —around 1877 when Tombstone was little more than a sparsely populated mining camp. Newman established a ranch at Lewis Springs (12 miles west of present-day Tombstone and about 5 miles from Charleston). Newman’s ranching efforts included frequent armed raids into Mexico, where he helped himself to other people’s cattle and horses. We credit Old Man Clanton with starting the “Cowboys” organization, known for banditry, murder, and intimidation.
We only remember Ike (and the other Clanton’s) because of his conflict with The Earp’s, who migrated to Tombstone to seek their fortunes. The Clanton and Earp families soon developed personal, political, and legal differences. Mild irritation between the two groups grew in intensity. The Clanton’s saw the Earp’s as carpet-baggers and county interlopers —post-Civil War Republicans who couldn’t keep their damn noses out of Clanton’s several enterprises. For their part, the Earp’s viewed the Clanton’s for they were — outlaws supporting corrupt Democrats in the county and Territorial government. Ike was a source of irritation because he was a loudmouth, a braggart, a drunk, and dangerously quick-tempered — and, the Earps suspected, a low-down back shooter, as well.
Shortly after arriving in Tombstone in 1879, an unknown individual stole Wyatt Earp’s horse. About a year later, an informant told Wyatt that if he had been a betting man, he’d bet that Wyatt could find his horse at the Clanton ranch outside Charleston. After obtaining written proof that he owned the animal, Wyatt, and his friend John Henry Holliday (also known as Doc Holliday), rode out to the Clanton spread where they found the horse. 18-year old Billy Clanton turned the horse over to Earp, but not without insolently asking Wyatt if he had any more horses to lose. Wyatt’s horse’s recovery angered Ike Clanton, which is enough to cause a person of average intelligence to scratch his head because, at that moment, Ike was lucky Wyatt and Doc didn’t shoot his dumb ass.
In 1881, while sitting in the Allen Street saloon, Ike got into an argument with a gambler named Denny McCann. At some point in the discussion, Ike insulted McCann, who then reached across the table and slapped Ike in the face. The incident caused both men to leave the saloon, “to get heeled,” and meet in the street to solve their problem. Town marshal Virgil Earp stopped the fight. Without knowing anything about Denny McCann, the Earp’s assessment of Ike’s character (or lack of it) was accurate. He was a crude, slow-thinking loudmouth bully.
Spreading disinformation was one of Ike’s strengths. One of his rumors held that the actual robbers of the 15 March 1881 stagecoach robbery was the Earps. At the time he started this rumor, Ike knew it wasn’t true. Of course, the rumor irritated the Earps — one more annoyance to add to a growing list of frustrations.
On 25 October 1881, Ike was fulfilling the role of an obnoxious drunk when Doc Holliday approached him and said that he’d heard Ike’s rumor — and then he called Ike a damn liar. Well, of course, in those days, calling a man a liar was equal to slapping his face. The two men squared off. There is little doubt that Holliday was looking for a fight. Once again, Virgil Earp intervened. Doc went home, and Ike went back to drinking and stewing about Holliday’s “insult.”
After Doc went home, Virgil began playing cards with Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan (and one other unknown man). The game lasted into the early hours of 26 October, when Earp went home to bed. Ike and Tom had nowhere to go (to sleep it off).
At 8:00 a.m., Mr. E. F. Boyle observed the drunken Ike Clanton weaving back and forth in front of the town telegraph office. Boyle suggested that Ike get some sleep. Ike told Boyle to mind his own business. But Boyle noted that Ike was even too drunk to realize that his six-gun was visible on his hip — a violation of the town ordinance. Boyle, the good citizen, reached over and covered the gun with the flap of Ike’s jacket and went on his way.
In later testimony, when asked about Ike Clanton’s frame of mind, Boyle said, “Clanton told me that as soon as the Earp’s and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open —they would have to fight.” He also admitted to having informed Virgil Earp of the conversation. In his testimony, Ike Clanton denied that he ever met Boyle that morning.
Here we find an interesting discrepancy in testimony about the events that day (there is always some discrepancy in testimony). If Ike Clanton carried a concealed firearm at 8 a.m., why was it necessary for Ike to retrieve it from the West End Corral later that day?
Sometime around mid-morning, Mr. Ed Frink, a neighbor of Frank McLaury over near Antelope Springs, informed Frank that his brother Tom and Ike Clanton were stirring up trouble in Tombstone. Frank collected Billy Clanton, and the two men headed for town.
At noon, Ike was drinking again (or still), was clearly “heeled,” and went looking for Holliday or one of the Earp’s. An hour later, either Ike stumbled into Virgil and Morgan, or vice-versa, noting that Ike was “heeled,” the Earps took him into custody.
It was typical of the Earps to avoid gunplay whenever possible. Their standard tactic was to “buffalo” armed men they placed in custody. Buffaloing was the act of clubbing a man on the head with a firearm. Once the arrestee was unconscious, the Earps disarmed him and took them to jail.
Ike Clanton was no exception. After clubbing Ike, the Earps took him to see Judge Spicer. The judge imposed a fine of $25.00 and sent the still-inebriated Ike on his way. Virgil informed Ike that he could pick up his weapon from William Soule, the jailer, a few days later.
It wasn’t long after the incident with Ike that Wyatt, at a different location, pistol-whipped Tom McLaury for the same offense. Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton arrived in town around 2:00 p.m. Both men carried pistols and rifles, which was customary given frequent Apache hostilities around Tombstone.
Frank and Billy learned about the arrests of Ike and Tom while drinking with a few of their Cowboy friends at the Grand Hotel. The angered men looked for Tom without first turning in their firearms to the barkeep at the Grand Hotel, as required by law. Of course, there was some ambiguity in the town ordinance about the concept of “a reasonable time” for turning in their weapons. A citizen named Coleman informed Virgil that the Cowboys were heading for the O.K. Corral and still armed. Virgil decided to disarm the Cowboys; he wanted Wyatt’s help.
Someone told Virgil that Wyatt was over at Spangenberg’s gun shop talking with a couple of the Cowboys. En route, he stopped by the Wells Fargo office and borrowed one of their shotguns. Thus armed, he continued toward Spangenberg’s. He found Wyatt, Morgan, and Holliday standing just outside Hafford’s Saloon. Virgil traded the shotgun for Holliday’s walking stick.
From Spangenberg’s, the Cowboys moved off toward the O. K. Corral, where, according to witnesses, the “lawbreakers” were loudly discussing ways of killing the Earps. After a few minutes, the Cowboys proceeded down the street to an empty lot next to Fly’s Boarding House (where Doc Holliday lived).
Within a few minutes, Virgil received word from several citizens that the McLaury’s and Clanton’s had gathered on Fremont Street and were packing heat. Billy Claiborne and Wes Fuller joined the group a few minutes later.
Perhaps it was in Virgil’s mind that the McLaury’s and Clanton’s had gone “too far.” Disrespecting sworn lawmen was one thing, but flaunting the law was worse —it was something that required a response. Or, it may have occurred to Virgil that unenforced law had the effect of no law at all. Several members of the community’s vigilance league offered to support Earp, but he declined. He instead called upon his deputized brothers, Morgan and Wyatt. He also deputized Doc Holliday.
Ike Clanton had spent most of the day mouthing off about how he intended to gun down the Earps. In this respect, Stephen Lang’s portrayal of Clanton in Tombstone (1993) was accurate. Several days earlier, Ike had even recruited Billy Claiborne, a gunslinger, to help kill the Earps.
At around 2:30 p.m., Virgil and his deputies began their walk down Fourth Street toward Fremont Street to confront the Clanton’s and McLaury’s, admonishing them for violating the city law respecting firearms and disarming them.
A few moments earlier, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan had been conversing with the cowboys. What they were talking about is anyone’s guess, but it was no secret to anyone that trouble was brewing between the Earp’s and Cowboy’s. While still en route to Fremont Street, Behan approached Virgil. Now, there are two accounts of this encounter. In the first, Behan told Virgil that he attempted to persuade the cowboys to disarm themselves, and they refused. In the second, Behan told Virgil that he had personally disarmed the Cowboys. These possibilities are plausible, but if Behan told Virgil that he had disarmed the cowboys, he lied.
As the Earps and Holliday approached the O. K. corral’s rear entrance, just past Bauer’s butcher shop, they saw Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton standing together against the east side of the building, opposite the vacant lot, west of Fly’s photo gallery. Frank was holding the reins of his horse. Ike, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller stood opposite, about halfway between Fly’s and the adjacent building on the west. Fuller was standing closest to the back of the vacant lot.
As Virgil approached the Cowboys, he carried Holliday’s walking stick in his right (gun) hand. He later testified that he was not expecting a fight. When the six Cowboys spotted the Earp’s, they stepped away from the building’s hardwood side. Virgil Earp stood to the far left of his posse, just inside the vacant lot nearest to Ike Clanton. Behind Virgil, to his right, was Wyatt. Morgan’s position was to Wyatt’s right standing on Fremont Street, and Doc Holliday was a few feet to Morgan’s right on Fremont. Virgil announced, “Throw up your hands, boys. I’ve come for your guns.”
Within mere seconds, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton began to unholster their weapons. Virgil loudly said, “Hold! I don’t want that …” McLaury and Clanton’s actions prompted the Earps to draw their guns. No one knows for sure who fired the first shot. The testimony of witnesses was contradictory. Black smoke from erupting handguns produced a dense fog inside the vacant lot. Virgil said that he recalled hearing two shots together, one of them from Billy Clanton. Billy Clanton was aiming at Wyatt but missed his target. Wyatt ignored Billy Clanton and fired at Frank, who Wyatt knew was a more accurate shooter, hitting him mid-torso. What Virgil heard then was the first shot by Billy Clanton and the second fired by Wyatt. When the shooting began, Holliday took out his coach gun, stepped around Tom McLaury’s horse, and shot him center chest. Tom, mortally wounded, stumbled away from his horse into Fremont Street, where he collapsed.
Gutshot, Frank took his horse by its reins and struggled across Fremont Street. He attempted to withdraw his rifle from its scabbard but failed to do so, lost control of his horse, and began shooting at the lawmen with his revolver. Holliday and Frank exchanged several shots. One of Frank’s bullets pierced Holliday’s holster, grazing him. Holliday exclaimed, “That son of a bitch has shot me, and now I am going to kill him.” Morgan also fired at Frank. Within a few seconds, Frank McLaury fell on the east side of Fremont Street.
Amid all this gunfire, Ike ran toward Wyatt, screaming, “I am unarmed; I do not want to fight.” Wyatt told him, “Go to fighting or get away.” Ike ran through the front door of Fly’s Boarding House and escaped unwounded. Billy Claiborne and Wes Fuller also ran out of the kill zone. Later testimony suggested that once Ike was out of the line of fire, he produced a concealed gun and began firing into the vacant lot, emptying the pistol before exiting through the back door of Fly’s and running down the street. Within the space of thirty seconds, seven or eight men fired more than thirty rounds.
After the fight, three men lay dead: Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton. Virgil received a wound in his calf. A grazing bullet bruised Holliday. Likewise, a bullet grazed Morgan across both shoulder blades. Throughout the entire gunfight, Wyatt Earp stood his ground and courageously returned fire. He alone of the posse was unhurt in the exchange.
Ike Clanton later filed a complaint against the Earps alleging murder. A lengthy investigation found that Virgil and his posse acted lawfully in their effort to enforce Tombstone Ordinance No. 9. Ike Clanton continued running his mouth at every opportunity. Later implicated in the ambush of Virgil Earp and the murder of Morgan Earp, no direct evidence ever tied Ike to either event. At the beginning of Wyatt’s vengeance ride, after killing Frank Stilwell, Wyatt Earp allowed Ike to live and “spread the word” that Wyatt was going after the Cowboys.
Despite all we know about the Lily-livered Ike Clanton, revisionist historians claim that Ike’s death at the hands of Jake Brighton was unfair. Right. Unfair. What was unfair was that Ike Clanton continued preying on innocent people long past 25 October 1881. The terrorism of Billy Clanton and the McLaury’s, on the other hand, suddenly came to an end when lawmen stepped up and ended the terror.
Isaac Ellinger struck down at the age of 26-years, might have produced offspring who discovered a cure for cancer. But no, Ike Clanton made sure that wouldn’t happen.
America’s justice system ought to provide justice. These days, it doesn’t — and the people responsible for this shameful situation are those who think that low-life criminals, wife-beaters, child abusers, thieves, and muggers somehow deserve a second chance.
If we today expect to realize our future dreams and hopes, we must support a no-nonsense approach to law enforcement. This is not to say we should abide by police who abuse their power; we simply want people to realize that a police officer can be your best friend or your enemy. People get to choose for themselves which of these becomes their reality.
No one seeking to murder, rob, burn down our cities, or cut down our children in drive-by shootings deserves a second chance. Based on what we know about the recidivism rate in this country, second chances only subject innocent people to greater jeopardy.
What we can say with certainty about the American Justice System is that it’s in a shamble. Victims get no second chances. Repeat offenders congest our courts. And part of the reason for this is that government attorneys are little more than politicians seeking reelection. Law-abiding citizens deserve better.
- Caplan, L. The Invisible Justice Problem. Daedalus, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019
- Marks, P. M. And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight. New York: Morrow Press, 1989
- Tefertiller, C. Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1997.
- Turner, A. E. The O. K. Corral Inquest. College Station: Creative Publishing, 1981.
- Love, D. The Problem with Prosecutors. Philadelphia Citizen, 2016.
- Walker, S. Police Accountability and the Central Problems in American Criminal Justice. Columbia School of Law, 2010.
 Jumping property was the intention of squatting on, possessing, illegally making use of property that lawfully belonged to someone else.
 Reported in the Apache County Critic on 18 June 1887.
 Contrary to most of Hollywood’s fairy tales, Virgil Earp was the law in Tombstone; Wyatt was merely his deputy.
 The Earps carried their handguns in their overcoat pockets or in their trouser waistband, as they normally did. Wyatt’s handgun was an 1869 model Smith & Wesson .44 caliber six-shooter. Holliday carried his holstered nickel-plated six-shooter and Virgil’s shotgun beneath his overcoat.