The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp

The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp
Lucretia Garfield: Sports and Popular Culture

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: One to three weeks


On October 26, 1881, about one month after the death of James A. Garfield from the wound he had received from an assassin’s bullet, Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday killed three men at what has become known as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral. Subsequently, Wyatt and his fellow shooters were put on trial for the killings.  Like the assassination of President Garfield and other Presidents, the celebrated story of the OK Corral illustrates the ongoing place of the gun—especially if handled by an individual—has in the heart of American culture.


Students who participate in this activity will study the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral through re-enacting the sub subsequent trial of Wyatt Earp.  The re-enactment will be based on a careful reading of a paper by Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, published in the University of Colorado Law Review, and by additional research on the people who populated Tombstone, Arizona, and farther reaches of what we often call “the Great West” and the time of the OK Corral incident.  Students will also learn something about trial law in American jurisprudence through this simulation.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials about the West in general, and about the Earps, Doc Holliday, Ike Clanton, etc.; several copies of the Lubet paper for students in the class to use as a good reference; art materials and/or props as needed for the simulated trial.


Introduce the lesson with a discussion of what students know about the gunfight at the OK Corral, including mention of where they might have learned what they know (likely from television programs or movies).  Ask students if they believe that Wyatt Earp was justified in his actions that day, and if he should have become a legendary hero of the old West.
Provide an opportunity for all students to explore the “OK Corral Trial” website listed first, below.  In addition, students may read the paper by Steven Lubet. It is written for a law review, so it is adult reading, but it is also “readable,” and students shouldn’t have too much trouble with it.   Instructors would be well advised, however, to read the paper ahead of time so that provision can be made for helping students with unfamiliar terms or ideas.   
When all students have a clear idea of the major outlines of the story and the trial, the time for planning the re-enactment of the trial is at hand.  Class members will serve in the following capacities (a good list of actual participants in the trial is available on the “OK Corral Trial” website: 
  • Major players in the trial – judge, prosecutor (may be a team), defense counsel (may be a team), Wyatt Earp, all witnesses as described.
  • Script writers (may be a team, but the team should be small)
  • Set designers – whose responsibility is the design of the “courtroom”
  • Prop people – whose responsibility is the making or obtaining of necessary props for the re-enactment
  • Historical consultants – whose responsibility is to provide background research on the era, the location (Tombstone, Arizona), and a general picture of “law in the old West.”

Each person who has a named role in the trial (e.g., judge, prosecutor, defense, witnesses) should be responsible for finding out as much as possible about his (or her) character.  The second website listed below is a good source of a lot of material, but students should be encouraged to be creating in searching out as much information as possible.
Script writers should look at the chronology on the “OK Coral Trial” website and/or re-read the Lubet paper carefully, laying out a “storyboard” that shows the events and characters of the trial in sequence from beginning to end.  Then, using their own storyboard, they should write lines for the participants in the trial. (It is up to the instructor whether or not lines need to be memorized; it is not necessary, but there should be enough rehearsals so that students are a least familiar with their own lines).
As the script is being written, all other participants should be engaged in their own aspects of research.
When the script is written and the players are cast, rehearsals should begin.  Three rehearsals should be sufficient.  A date for the presentation of the re-enactment should be set well in advance so that scheduling work and rehearsals is possible.  When the time comes for the actual re-enactment, students should invite other classes to provide the audience.
After the re-enactment, but before the verdict is read, the audience can be asked to vote on the outcome.  Is Wyatt Earp guilty?  Then the judge’s decision can be read.
To conclude the lesson, students might be asked to write a short paper on the way in which they believe “the law” was, or was not, carried out in this trial, and whether or not they believe that justice was served. 

Extending the Lesson:

This is a very complex lesson which can be extended, if desired, by such means as video-taping the re-enactment for showing to other students.  It can also be scaled down, if necessary… for example, by producing a newspaper that focuses on the trial, rather than re-creating it.

Sources & Resources:

Fattig, Timothy.  Wyatt Earp, the Biography. 2005.
Gatto, Steve and Carmony, Neil, eds. The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography. 2000.
Turner, Alford, ed. The OK Corral Inquest. 1992.
            The OK Corral Trial (of Wyatt Earp) 

            The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp 

            Gunslingers and Outlaws 

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.