Old West History

Assassins in Tombstone

On the night of December 28, 1881 things in Tombstone were far from peaceful. It was only two months after the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral and despite a month long coroner’s hearing at the behest of Ike Clanton, the cowboy faction of Cochise, Co. were not granted the murder trial they’d hoped for. Judge Spicer suspended Virgil Earp of his duties as town Marshal, but had simultaneously cleared the Earps and Holliday of any murder charges. The cowboys sought revenge. Close to midnight, a barrage of gunfire echoed into the night. Virgil Earp almost died from the blast and the city police did nothing to chase down his assailants. 

Where did it happen?

The gunfire was thought to have come from a construction site on the southeast corner of Fifth Street. Virgil was walking from The Oriental Saloon back to his room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. All of the Earps were staying in rooms at the hotel along with Doc Holliday. The hotel was heavily guarded by Earp cronies and thought to be much safer than each family staying in their own home.

How many shots were there?

Four shots from double-barrelled shotguns rang out although a total of nineteen shots were counted in the wall outside the Eagle Brewery Saloon. George Parsons was in the saloon at the time of the shooting and narrowly missed being shot by the spray of pellets that hit the wall. He would recount in his diary,

“Cries of, ‘There they go!’ and ‘Head them off’ were heard but the cowardly, apathetic guardians of the peace were not inclined to do anything and the other brave men, all more or less armed, did nothing.”

Where was Virgil Shot?

The blow of the shots knocked Virgil off his feet and keep in mind that he was almost six-foot tall and well-built. He managed to get back to his feet and walked back towards his brother Wyatt who, on hearing the shots, had left The Oriental Saloon and headed into the street. Wyatt and others carried Virgil back to the hotel and got medical help. Virgil was shot through the thigh, kidney, liver and spinal column. His left arm was shattered. All of these injuries were in addition to the wounds that he had received at the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

What medical attention did Virgil receive?

Virgil Earp
Virgil Earp

Doctor Goodfellow and Doctor Mathews were called. Every lamp that could be found in the hotel was gathered around the bed. The doctors worked away at cleaning the shot out of Virgil. They wanted to amputate his left arm but Virgil wouldn’t let them cut it off. Five and a half inches of bone was removed from his upper arm. The shooting didn’t kill Virgil, but it did leave him crippled. Despite his disability, he continued to work as a lawman in Colton, California. On delivering medical supplies to the doctors, George Parsons heard Virgil say to his wife, Allie,

“Never mind, I’ve got one arm to hug you with.”


In the early hours of December 29th, Wyatt Earp sent a telegram to U.S. Marshal Crawley Dake.

Virgil Earp was shot by concealed assassins last night. His wounds are fatal. Telegraph me appointment with power to appoint deputies. Local authorities are doing nothing. The lives of other citizens are threatened. Wyatt Earp

The Assassins

It’s not known for sure who the assailants were, but Virgil said that he saw Frank Stillwell enter the construction site not long before the shooting began. Ike Clanton’s hat was also found at the back of the site after the shooting was over. Friend of the Earps and diarist, George Parsons would speculate that “Ike Clanton, Curly Bill and Mclaury did the shooting.”

Wyatt Earp rides out to seek revenge in the movie Tombstone

The Posse

Wyatt deputized his brothers Warren and Morgan, Dan Tipton, Sherman McMaster, Texas Jack Vermillion, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson and Doc Holliday. It would be a departure for Wyatt. He realized there and then, that the courthouse in Tombstone would not be able to help him bring his brother’s assailants to justice. So he rode out to seek his own justice and personal revenge. An action that would be romanticized by some and forever villainized by others.

By Elena Sandidge

Elena Sandidge is a Scottish novelist with a passion for the history of the Old West and the life of the legendary gunfighting dentist, Doc Holliday. "A Gentleman in Hell" chronicles the adventures of Doc Holliday as he travels from Dodge City, Kansas to Tombstone, Arizona and on to his final home in the mountains of Colorado