The Truth About Ike Clanton's Bloody Death

Question: What's the best way to survive a gunfight? If you answered, "Run away, leaving your teenage brother to die, then you're not alone.

That's how Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton managed to get through at least part of the O.K. Corral dustup on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Clanton, about age 34, and his 19-year-old brother, Billy, were among the five cowboys confronted by the Earp brothers and a dentist that fateful day. According to John Richard Stephens's book Wyatt Earp Speaks!, Wyatt testified, "After about four shots were fired, Ike Clanton ran up and grabbed my left arm. I could see no weapon in his hand, and thought at the time he had none, so I said to him, 'The fight had commenced; go to fighting, or get away.'" Good advice, and Ike took it. Was Ike a coward, or prudent?

We know that he was a man who liked to drink way more than was good for him. Part of the prelude to the O.K. Corral fight was Ike getting well and truly hammered the day before and threatening to shoot Holliday and/or Earps; he didn't seem particular.

Those Clanton boys

The Clantons were part of the loose confederation of cowboys (in those days, it wasn't a compliment) — basically thieves, rustlers, bullies, and generally lawless. The various groups regularly raided ranches on both sides of the border with Mexico, stealing with abandon. Ike was known to brag that the reason why he was such a successful cattleman was because he never had to pay for his cows. Except time, perhaps. Surely his time was worth something.

Ike not only escaped the O.K Corral, but also Wyatt's vendetta ride afterward. Some people would be grateful and decide it was time to find a more peaceful line of work. Something that didn't involve quite so many gunshots at close range.

But not Ike. A loudmouth, a thief, and a drunk, nobody seems to associate "bright as a new penny" with Ike Clanton.

... but not Ike Clanton

Eventually, of course, it all caught up with him, as such things tend to do. Six years after the Corral, people had had enough of rampant crime. Deputies went after Ike's known associates and found them — or at least, ropes and bullets did. They stopped their search for Ike to rest at Peg Leg Wilson's ranch. Ike rode in the morning of June 1, 1887, and was recognized.

Ike recognized the lawmen, too. He wheeled his horse around, making a run for it while pulling his rifle from his scabbard and aiming it across his left arm. Deputy Rawhide Jake Brighton fired once. The bullet hit Ike and passed through his torso. Brighton fired again, grazing Ike's leg, and Clanton fell from the horse. By the time the deputy reached him, Clanton was dead. Friends were brought over to identify the body, which was then wrapped in a piece of canvas, along with his guns, and buried somewhere on the Wilson ranch. The remains have never been found.