The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is probably the most famous gunfight in U.S. history. The events surrounding the iconic shootout have been made into at least 14 movies and been showcased in various television episodes, including one episode of Star Trek.
Although it has been immortalized and sensationalized in film, the fight itself was nearly a non-event. True, three “outlaws” were killed, but the fight itself lasted only 30 seconds. Although 30 shots were fired in that short time, it is hardly the type of pitched gun battle that moviegoers love to see on the big screen.
That fight, which took place in the Arizona Territory town of Tombstone in 1881, lives on mostly because of the high-profile characters that took part in it. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were celebrities of the American West even before they arrived in Tombstone and enjoyed enhanced fame in the years after.
The Wild West offered no shortage of gun battles and they have been romanticized to varying degrees over the years. Most of them, though, were just as short-lived as the brief fight at the little corral in the Arizona Territory. And many were little more than violent ends to petty arguments over things as trivial as a card game.
But as firearm technology advanced beyond the six-shooters that settled the western frontier, the gunfights became longer and more violent. A closer look at gunfights in the United States will reveal that most of the real siege-like shootouts happened after the 19th century came to a close.
The Great Depression saw a sharp increase in bank robberies and violent crime as people grew more desperate. That ushered in a whole new era of crime that was, again, rendered immortal by the silver screen. Bank robbers like John Dillinger captivated the public’s mind and they developed a Robin Hood-like reputation during their crime sprees.
The increase in crime gave rise to the crime-fighting prominence of the FBI, an organization that, at the time, was not afraid to use gun violence to put a stop to the famous bank robbers. Many criminals came to a violent end in those days. Many of the gunfights were spectacular.
That culture of violence lives on today. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the big time shootouts of today, but the movies we watch are no less violent. Fans of the cinema still love blockbuster gunfights and, perhaps in an instance of life imitating art, violent gun battles still occur from time to time in real life.
What were some of the worst gunfights since the days of the Wild West?
Here is a look at five of the most spectacular shootouts to occur in the U.S. in the last century.
The Siege Of 90th Street
Few know that the famous final scene of White Heat, starring James Cagney, was inspired by a New York City shootout known to many as the “Siege on 90th Street.” That real-life event was the culmination of a months-long crime spree by Francis “Two Gun Frank” Crowley that occurred in 1931.
Crowley was a violent, but mostly small-time, criminal who hated the police. He developed a reputation for being quick to open fire on any officer who confronted him.
In the weeks leading up to the famous siege, Crowley was wanted in connection with a shooting death of a young woman in the city. Police came close to apprehending him one evening while he was parked in a car with his sweetheart, Helen Walsh. He opened fire on the two officers, killing one, before speeding away.
Police tracked him to an apartment on 90th street in the city. When they came to his door he kicked it open, firing shots at the police standing on the landing. He receded into the apartment shouting the now-famous words, “Come and get me, coppers! I’m ready for you!”
A two-hour gun battle ensued. It is estimated that more than 100 police officers surrounded the apartment building and fired more than 700 shots through the windows. A few officers climbed on the roof and hacked holes in the ceiling, dropping in tear gas canisters.
Wounded, bleeding severely, and out of bullets, Crowley allowed himself to be captured. He was taken from the bullet-riddled apartment on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance, where it was discovered he had two more guns taped to his calves. Crowley was not going to give up; he had planned to shoot his way out of the ambulance and escape.
That plan was foiled. He went to trial and was sentenced to death. He died in the electric chair in January of 1932.
Central Street Shootout
The “Central Street Shootout” that occurred in Bangor, Maine in 1937 remains the bloodiest gunfight in the state’s history.
After the FBI succeeded in killing Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger, in 1934, they turned much of their attention to capturing Al Brady.
Brady and his gang of two accomplices committed at least 200 hundred robberies and four murders from 1935 to 1937. They were eventually captured, but subsequently escaped.
The gang went to rural Maine to hide out and replenish their arsenal. Brady believed that buying a large quantity of guns in Maine during hunting season wouldn’t arouse suspicion. He was wrong.
After he and his two accomplices placed orders for .45 caliber handguns and a tommy gun at various sporting goods stores in the area, shop owners grew suspicious and tipped off the FBI.
On October 12, 1937 two of Brady’s men walked into to Dakin’s Sporting Goods on Central Street to pick up items from their order. Brady remained in the car outside. FBI agent Walter Walsh confronted the two men in the store. He knocked one to the ground. The other ran outside and fired a shot at Walsh, hitting him in the shoulder.
Brady jumped from the car to help his friend. Agents and police officers rained down gunfire from the surrounding rooftops. Both bank robbers died in the street, they had been hit by over 60 bullets. The gunfight lasted about four minutes.
The Battle Of Barrington
A cohort of John Dillinger’s was George “Baby Face” Nelson. He was killed in a sensational car chase and gun battle in late 1934 that came to be known as “The Battle of Barrington.”
The FBI had tracked Nelson to rural Wisconsin and agents were watching his moves closely. Nelson knew this but decided to travel with his wife Helen Gillis and crime partner John Paul Chase to Chicago to gather ammunition. While driving there the trio passed a car full of FBI agents.
They made an abrupt U-turn and chased down the agents, spraying the car with automatic-weapon fire. The agents pulled the car off to the side of the road and Nelson and his two accomplices sped off, only to be chased by two other agents, Herman Hollis and Samuel Cowley.
The radiator of Nelson’s car had been shot during the initial car chase and the group had to pull over just inside the Chicago suburb of Barrington. Nelson ordered his wife to crawl to a nearby ditch and he began firing at Hollis and Cowley who had taken up defensive positions behind their own car.
Nelson was soon hit in the abdomen by a bullet from Cowley’s submachine gun. He sat on the running board of his own car for a minute then took to his feet firing so rapidly from a .351 rifle that the agents thought he had a machine gun. He was struck six more times in the chest by shots fired from Cowley’s weapon. Hollis hit Nelson numerous times in the legs with blasts from his shotgun. In the melee Nelson somehow managed to mortally wound both Cowley and Hollis.
Nelson jumped into the agents’ car, where he waited for his wife to join him. Chase climbed in behind the wheel and the three again sped off together.
Nelson had been shot 17 times. He told Gillis in the car as they made their getaway, “I’m done for.” He died shortly after and his body was found in front of a cemetery in nearby Skokie, Illinois.
Hollis and Chase were later apprehended.
The Newhall Incident
The Newhall Incident occurred in April of 1970. It remains the single bloodiest day in California Highway Patrol history.
That day officers Roger Gore and Walt Frago pulled over a car driven by Bobby Davis. A second man, Jack Twinning, was in the passenger seat. As the officers approached the car, Twinning sprang from his seat and opened fire on Frago, killing him instantly. Davis took Twinning’s violent cue and immediately began shooting at Gore.
Twinning took a shotgun from Frago’s body just as two other officers, James Pence and George Alleyn, arrived at the scene. A five minute gun battle ensued that ended with all four officers dead.
Twinning and Davis escaped in a stolen car and later split up. A huge police search was conducted in the area.
Twinning took shelter in a nearby house, briefly holding the homeowner hostage. Police surrounded the home and shot it full off tear gas before raiding it. He killed himself with Frago’s shotgun before he could be captured.
Davis was apprehended later, stood trial, and was sentenced to die in the state’s gas chamber. California outlawed the death penalty in 1972 and Davis committed suicide in his prison cell in 2009.
The North Hollywood Shootout
Larry Phillips and Emil Matasareanu botched the robbery of a North Hollywood Bank of America on February 28,1997. Had two police officers not seen them entering the bank wearing ski masks, they might have gotten away with over $300,000 in stolen cash.
That wasn’t to be. When they exited the bank, police were already waiting for them. The problem was, the two robbers were better prepared than the cops. What happened next came to be known as the The North Hollywood Shootout.
Phillips and Matasareanu were both heavily armed and clad in body armor. They held police at bay in a sustained hour-long gun battle. The police firepower was no match for the duo’s body armor and their own armor piercing bullets.
Experts estimate the robbers were hit by police bullets more than 100 times each. It seemed nothing could bring them down. Police were forced to commandeer extra fire power from nearby gun stores in an attempt to stop them.
Eventually a SWAT team arrived and the heavier firepower began piercing their now-fatigued body armor.
Phillips was running out of bullets by this time and he took his own life as police surrounded him.
Matasareanu was brought down as police shot him in his lightly-armored feet. He died of other wounds before an ambulance could get him to the hospital.
Although many were injured, no police or civilians lost their lives in this recent shootout which was, quite possibly, the most spectacular in U.S. history.