Just days after the infamous shootout at the OK Corral, the Cochise County coroner convened an inquest to hear testimony from the witnesses and survivors.
On Wednesday, the yellowed and taped original hand-written minutes of that inquest made their way to the state Department of Library and Archives where officials hope to properly preserve them so they’re around for researchers for the next half millennium.
It turns out that they were stored away — and forgotten about for about 50 years. That was until Michelle Garcia and Bonnie Cook, two court clerks assigned to clean out a closet holding court exhibits, stumbled across an old box marked “juvenile.”
Inside, Denise Lundin, the chief court clerk, said her staffers found a manila enveloped with the words “keep” and “1881.” That had the official notes of the inquest.
The Oct. 26, 1881 incident has become internationally known. Lawman Wyatt Earp, along with Doc Holliday and Virgil and Morgan Earp, confronted Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury.
The McLaurys wound up dead, as did Billy Clanton.
That shootout has since been chronicled and even embellished in books and movies and become part of the lore and legend of Tombstone, with the fight reenacted regularly.
The best accounting, though, may come from the inquest by coroner Henry Matthews. His panel actually heard from Ike Clanton and others about what happened.
There never was a trial. But the documents survived.
Lundin said she knew the documents written by the court’s inquest recorder were around — somewhere — as her office had a thermofax made in the first days of that photocopy technology. But that, she said, was around 1960. And no one had seen them since.
It was the fact that those poor quality copies were still around, she said, which enabled her staffers to recognize what they found.
Reviewing the actual documents, state librarian GladysAnn Wells said there were a few surprises.
“Doc Holliday was carrying his weapon under his coat,” she said.
Wells said she always thought of that era as people with guns strapped to their hips. And she found the disclosure interesting what with the governor just having signed a measure to let virtually all adults carry hidden weapons without getting a state permit.
“It just was a little moment of insight,” she said. “But that’s why people study history, for those moments of insight.”
One of those insights, Lundin said, was the indication that the notes were taken very quickly, without attention to penmanship, as the clerk was trying to keep pace with what the witnesses were saying.
Lundin said the original documents provide the sworn testimony of those who were actually there.
“So I just think they’re a little extra special,” she said. “You can really feel that.”
Lundin also described the documents as “just beautiful.”
Court staffers taking copious notes “is an old way of doing business,” she said. “We’re totally close to having all our records born digital,” created on a computer screen, sent electronically to the courts and never actually reduced to ink on paper.
“So to have things on paper, to have things in handwriting, is really a lost art,” Lundin said.
Wells said the documents will now be digitized. That will allow them to be posted on the Arizona Memory Project website her agency runs “so people across the world can see them and read them 24/7 at their own convenience.”
More to the point, she said, the documents will be safe in the new Polly Rosenbaum state archive, where the paper can be handled in a way to prevent further deterioration.
The documents already are breaking down.
While they remain legible, they have yellowed, especially the parts under the cellophane tape. And Lundin said the paper itself, while of better quality than the newsprint of the time, is crisp, like potato chips.
So why the need for originals?
“There is no substitute in the whole wide world, for a serious scholar, to have the original,” Wells said.