Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday notwithstanding, the classic Western Tombstone is filled with characters based on real-life outlaws and gunslingers.
As a Western, Tombstone is both a cult classic and a riveting piece of historical fiction. Wrapped around all of those great one-liners, particularly by Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, is a tale that has a firm foundation in real-life historical events.
While Holliday and the Earp brothers are stars of the show and the history books, however, Tombstone incorporates a number of minor and secondary characters that add a rich subtext to the story — and are themselves drawn from counterparts that once lived, fought, and died in the Old West.
10. Ike Clanton
Actor Stephen Lang stole any scene he was in as the imminently quotable Ike Clanton, and like his on-screen counterpart, the real-life Clanton begged for his life during the gunfight at the OK Corral. He would later press murder charges against the Earps for the shootings that day and was suspected of being a part of the attempt on Virgil Earp’s life, but his fellow cowboys provided him an alibi.
According to True West Magazine, justice soon caught up with Clanton, however, and in 1887, he tried to flee from the law after being suspected of cattle-rustling. He was buried in an unmarked and unknown grave, although in 1996, a descendent discovered what he believes to be Ike’s final resting place near Eagle Creek, Arizona.
9. “Curly Bill” Brocius
Few lines have been made into memes more than Powers Boothe’s reaction to the Earps leaving town after the death of younger brother Morgan in Tombstone. Whether or not the real “Curly Bill” said, “Well … bye,” isn’t part of any official historical record, but most of the other big-screen deeds done by Brocius, one of the film’s, and the Western genre’s, cruelest bad guys, are verified.
He did shoot Marshal Fred White but was exonerated. He was suspected as one of the shooters who took Morgan’s life. And he did meet his end when he and Wyatt Earp engaged in a shootout on the banks of Iron Springs, during which Earp’s 10-gauge shotgun is said to have nearly torn Brocius in half.
8. Johnny Ringo
In one of his coolest movie roles, actor Michael Biehn’s steely-eyed intensity and ominous intonations — “I want your blood … and I want your soul!” — made the on-screen Johnny Ringo a formidable opponent of the Earps and Doc Holliday. The real-life Ringo was heavily involved in the skirmishes depicted in the film, but the ending takes poetic license with reality.
According to historical records, it’s unknown who killed Ringo. His body was found against the trunk of a tree with a single gunshot wound to the temple, and the absence of a single round from his six-shooter led to a ruling of suicide, an action he apparently threatened over the years despite the alternative theories that have arisen since his death over how it may have actually occurred.
7. Frank McLaury
McLaury and his younger brother, Tom, drifted to Texas from Iowa, eventually finding work as cowboys in Arizona, where they crossed paths and became friends with Ike Clanton and Curly Bill. Despite being suspected of stealing cattle, the McLaurys eventually established a ranching operation outside of Tombstone that was modestly successful.
However, an ongoing dispute with the Earps led to their deaths at the O.K. Corral. While actor Robert John Burke didn’t get a lot of lines as McLaury in Tombstone, his wide-eyed trepidation in the moments leading up to his death made for excellent on-screen tension.
6. Frank Stillwell
Tomas Arana is a character actor with a face more recognizable than his name, and Tombstone fans remember him as one of the Cowboys who attempted to ambush the Earps as they put their families aboard a train out of Arizona. The historical Stillwell met a similar end, but what’s fascinating about him is how much his life veered in a completely opposite direction from that of his brother.
Simpson Stillwell was a soldier, scout, deputy U.S. marshal, judge, and commissioner; his younger brother was acquitted of murder and robbery, suspected of playing a role in Morgan Earp’s death, and was found dead alongside the train tracks where he and Ike Clanton attempted to ambush the injured Virgil Earp and the Earp wives.
5. Sherman McMaster
Actor Michael Rooker would find greater fame in other roles, including a star turn as Daryl Dixon’s brother Merle in The Walking Dead, but as outlaw-turned-lawman Sherman McMaster, he was a reliable ally of the Earps — on film and in real life.
Although he was affiliated with the Texas Rangers, the historical McMaster was also suspected of stealing mules and robbing stagecoaches, which led him to exchange gunfire at one time with Virgil Earp. By the time the Earps-Cowboys feud was in full swing, however, McMaster stood with the former. It’s unclear when exactly he died, with Wyatt himself claiming McMaster became a soldier in the Spanish-American War, but estate records filed by his family indicate he likely passed in 1892 in Colorado.
4. “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson
Played by actor Buck Taylor (who got his start on Gunsmoke), Johnson was part of a “pair of fellow sophisticates” recruited into the Earp gang by Doc Holliday, Tombstone‘s star character whose one-liner introducing the pair was one of many that made the movie memorable. His true-to-life counterpart was believed to have ridden with the real Wyatt Earp as well, the two having possibly met during times they both were in Dodge City or Deadwood, two notorious Old West locales.
Born John Johnson, he actually drove cattle alongside “Curly Bill” Brocius, played with devilish aplomb by Powers Boothe, and after getting out of Tombstone at the end of what was known as the Earp Vendetta Ride, it’s believed he died of tuberculosis in 1887 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
3. “Texas Jack” Vermillion
Born John Vermillion and joining the Earps in Tombstone alongside Johnson, the real Vermillion was also saddled with another nickname: “Shoot-Your-Eye-Out” Vermillion, allegedly for doing just that. A former Confederate soldier, the death of his wife and children to diphtheria sent him on a grief-fueled sojourn that landed him in on the side of the Earps during their crusade.
He would later return to his home state of Virginia to marry and father more children, but the lawless nature of the West pulled him back, and he rode with legendary con artist Soapy Smith until a shootout in Idaho sent him back home, where he died peacefully in 1911.
2. Billy Claiborne
Like many of his Cowboys counterparts, the real-life Billy Claiborne demonstrated both sadistic and cowardly tendencies according to the website History. After the death of Billy the Kid, he demanded that he be referred to by the moniker, and he allegedly killed a man who refused to do so.
However, when it came to the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Claiborne — played in Tombstone by Wyatt Earp III, the real Earp’s fifth cousin — fled from the scene with the Earps and Doc Holliday confronted the Cowboys gang. Little is known about his end, except that he was shot in 1882 and is interred in Tombstone’s Boot Hill Cemetery.
1. Billy Breakenridge
At the height of his Beverly Hills 90210 fame, Jason Priestley seemed like an odd addition to Tombstone at the time, so it’s little wonder that his character gets little in the way of a story. The real-life Billy Breakenridge was far more fascinating, according to Legends of America.
For example, he — like Wyatt Earp — lived into the 20th century, and Breakenridge interviewed Earp in the late 1920s for his memoir, Helldorado: Bringing the Law to the Mesquite. Earp would later protest that Breakenridge’s unflattering portrait of him was inaccurate, but the book’s popularity spawned the Helldorado Days festival in Tombstone.
BY STEVE WILDSMITH