Old West reenactments, Civil War reenactments, any kind of battle reenactment — these are fine old American traditions loved especially by men who get to dress up like gunfighters of yore, complete with vintage revolvers. Just the hats are enviable: rebel hats, Union hats and big old cowboy hats like Wyatt Earp wore.
And there’s no place better at reenactments than Tombstone, Ariz. After all, this was the scene of the great gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881, in which the Earp brothers — that’s Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil — faced off against the Clanton-McLaury gang along with Doc Holliday.
So every year, members of a nonprofit group called the Tombstone Vigilantes “throw open their town to welcome people who love the history and magic of Tombstone.” In a town of 1,300 people mostly given over to Old West tourism, a reenactment is part of any welcome. The scene looks something like this:
The Tombstone Vigilantes in 2010.
But on Sunday afternoon, what should have been a quaint spectacle turned perilous when an actor in an O.K. Corral gunfight reenactment and a bystander were shot after live ammunition was used.
“The Tombstone Vigilantes were engaged in a street skit involving animated gunfights in the 400 block of Allen Street,” the Tombstone Marshals Office said in a statement. “During the skit, Actor Tom Carter and Victim Ken Curtis were faced off against each other and when Tom Carter fired his firearm, Ken Curtis fell to the ground after being struck by a live round.”
It was not clear why live ammunition was used. Tucson’s KVOA reported that one actor “was late to the show and his weapon was not checked before the reenactment.”
“The vigilantes immediately stopped the show and Tom [Carter] was relieved of his weapon,” the statement said. “During inspection of his weapon, it was discovered that there was one live round in the cylinder with five expended casings indicating the gun had held six live rounds prior to the skit. It was later learned that at least two of the live rounds struck businesses located at the East end of Allen Street, approximately 680 feet from the skit, with one bullet striking a woman standing in front of the Bird Cage Theater identified as Debbie Mitchell and additional bullet fragments striking nearby buildings.”
Curtis was flown to a hospital near Tucson and underwent surgery Sunday night. Meanwhile, Tombstone’s mayor, Dusty Escapule, stopped future gunfight skits “until it can be determined all weapons are safely loaded with blank ammunition as required,” the sheriff said. Photos of the victim and alleged shooter in costume can be seen here.
Officials took pains to stress that this is not an everyday event.
“This incident is an isolated event which has no precedence in this area,” the statement read. “Tombstone takes pride in the safety and security of its townspeople and tourists alike and the citizens of Tombstone can be assured that stringent safety protocol will be enforced prior to allowing any further gunfight skits on Allen Street.”
The gunfight was part of Tombstone’s annual “Helldorado Days” celebration, an Old West festival that began in 1929 as the small town moved away from mining and toward tourism to survive. It’s held near the anniversary of the shootout at the O.K. Corral: Oct. 26, 1881. Though the event lasted just 30 seconds, it become an iconic moment in the mythology of the Arizona Territory and the Old West, when men — often former Confederates beefing with Eastern capitalists —nursed long-held grudges and gunned one another to death in the streets. It’s said the Earps were trying to disarm the gang, which was carrying weapons within city limits despite ordinances to the contrary, when the battle commenced.
An O.K. Corral guide told Discovery in 2012 that it wasn’t the fight itself, but the Earp brothers’ eventual quest for justice as the grudge unfolded that made the battle so famous, told and re-told and filmed countless times. Two Tombstone-themed movies — one starring Kevin Costner, the other starring Kurt Russell — were released within a year of each other in the 1990s, for example.
“It was the vendetta ride that truly elevated the gunfight in public perception,” Tim Fattig said. “The idea of a brother gaining revenge for one brother’s murder and another being wounded is compelling.”
Messages to the Tombstone marshal’s office and the Tombstone Vigilantes were not immediately returned.
Correction: A previous version of this article credited a statement from the Tombstone Marshals Office to another Arizona official.