When Tombstone City Marshal Virgil Earp and his deputies confronted the Clantons and the McLaurys in the empty lot between Fly's boarding house and the one-room adobe called the "Harwood house" at the comer of Third and Fremont in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, it was about half past two in the afternoon of October 26, 1881. They were down the street from the back entrance to the O.K. Corral. Marshal Earp was ordering them to "throw up your hands." In the blink of an eye, both sides were shooting at each other, and the McLaurys' lives along with Billy Clanton were lost in one of the most famous shoot-outs of the Old West, known to generations afterward as the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral."
The circumstances that brought about the gunfight have been argued ever since. Eye-witness accounts disagree on the sequence of events. From the time of their contemporaries to the latest generation of historians and fiction writers, people have speculated on what brought the combatants to the battle ground.
And of the men who fought in that bloody, vacant lot, the fame and attention have gone mostly to the victors, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday; particularly to Wyatt Earp.
But what of the McLaury brothers, Tom and Frank? What was their business in Tombstone on that overcast and windswept day in late October? How did they get mixed up in this fight, and what would they have done if they had not been killed? Their horses were saddled. Were they about to leave town? Perhaps leave the area for good?
In order to answer the question of the McLaurys' intentions, one has to go back six years to the time they left their father's home in Buffalo Township, Buchanan County. Iowa.
The year was 1875. Robert Houston McLaurv was going to turn 65 years old in August. By that time he had lived as a widower for over 15 years. He was the father of 11 children, six of them sons. But by 1875, two of his sons had already died. Hugh McLaury was only 4 years old when the house caught fire and no one could get to him in time. That was back in 1842, when the McLaurvs had recently moved to their farm in Merideth, Delaware County, New York. (1) After moving their family to a new farm in Benton County, Iowa, in 1855, Margaret [Rowland] McLaury, wife of Robert and mother of his brood, died in October 1857. (2) Within a few short years, Mr. McLaury sent two sons into the bloody conflict of the Civil War Edwin McLaury joined the 14th Iowa Volunteers, which saw action at the battle of Fort Sumter and Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh). Unfortunately, he was captured and taken to the prison at Macon, Ga. After being sent home, he died in October 1862 from the effects of starvation and disease. (3) Dying at home, he was surrounded by his father, sisters and his youngest brothers, Tom and Frank. Another brother, Will, could not be there because he was still serving in the Union army.
After the war, the McLaury family moved 50 miles north to Buchanan County, Iowa, to farm land in an unincorporated portion outside Hazelton Township known as Buffalo. (4) Tom and Frank, still in their teens, were capable of helping their father work the 800-acre farm. Five years later, only the youngest children still lived with Mr. McLaury: (5) Frank (known as "Rob" within the family because his name, like his father's, was Robert) (6), Christiana (known as "Anna"), Tom and Sarah Caroline, the youngest of the clan, who they called Carrie.
By 1875, Anna had married and moved away, leaving Frank, Tom and Carrie living at home. Only Carrie was under the age of 20. That was the year Mr. McLaury remarried. Even as he was turning 65 years old, after living as a widower for over 15 years, after seeing grown children leave the farm, he married someone half his age. She was not merely a 35-year-old woman, she was a widow named Ann Lovinia [Miller] Leigh (7) with five children between the ages of 13 and two! (8)
Ann Leigh was the widow of John Leigh, an Iowa veteran of the War who had since died on his farm in Buchanan County. Annie may have been a comely widow in distress. She may have been Mr McLaury's housekeeper. Nevertheless, the marriage precipitated a McLaury family crisis. The eldest of the clan, Ebeneezer, never spoke to his father again. Other members of the family were appalled and kept their distance. (9) Tom and Frank eventually moved out, and traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, where their brother, Will, had settled in the summer of l876. (10)
William Rowland McLaury, the brother who survived service in the Union Army during the Civil War, was a lawyer by profession. While he maintained an interest in politics, he also held political beliefs that would be more suitable to Iowa than to Texas. He went on record as a Radical Republican. (11) Needless to say, he was not voted into any office at this time, so his main source of income was as a collections agent, a tough and often two fisted endeavor. (12) He was also married with two children and another on the way.
The McLaury family were both literate and educated to some degree. Robert McLaury's twin brother back in Delaware County, N.Y., was head- master of the Roxbury School. Not only his sons, but his daughters were schooled and three of them taught school at some point in their lives. (13)
Of the five sisters, most married men who were lawyers or merchants. Of the sons, Ebeneezer became a farmer, Will became a lawyer and as for Tom and Frank: they moved farther west to Arizona Territory. And it may have been in Camp Thomas that they met the Clantons. (14) Even if the Clantons did not have the kind of education the McLaurys had, they could teach what they knew about the cattle business. Along with their knowledge of farming, the McLaurys made a successful go of a ranch along the Babocomari River in Pima County. They not only irrigated the land for grow- ing vegetables, they grew grass that was made into hay and feed for the increasing livery businesses in the nearby boom towns. (15) One such business may have been the Dexter Hay and Feed stables in Charleston (and later in Tombstone) and their proprietor, John H. Behan.
In the census of 1880, Frank is listed as a mechanic, while Tom is listed as being a rancher who sold cattle on contract to the U.S. Army. (16) The family back in Iowa understood them to be successful ranchers and business men.
But the McLaury brothers' success was marred by two events. The first was the discovery by agents of the U.S. Army and civilian authorities, including U. S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp that eight mules, stolen from Camp Rucker nearly 70 miles away, were being hidden on the McLaury ranch. The McLaury brothers were never accused of the theft of the mules, but were implicated in abetting the criminals who had altered the brand from "U.S" to "D.S" Also implicated in the crime was their nearest neighbor, Frank Patterson. (17)
Because Frank McLaury was incensed at the rumor of his complicity, he put a strenuously worded disclaimer in the August 5, 1880 issue of the Tombstone Nugget to disassociate himself from the events of the previous days, to clear his name and even to accuse the military leader, Capt. Hurst, of having schemed to steal the mules himself. (18)
The second event that marred their success at the Babocomari Rancho was a land dispute which undercut the legitimacy of their ownership of the land itself. (19) Whether the McLaurys ever intended to fight for their rights to the Babocomari land, we will never know. In late 1880 or early 1881, they relocated to the Sulphur Spring Valley, a savanna located between the Dragoon range to the west and the Chiricahuas to the east. It was not the luscious grazing land to be found in the San Simon Valley beyond the Chiricahuas to the east, (20) but it still had water close enough to the surface that the boys could irrigate the land around their ranch. (21)
Back in lowa, Robert McLaury and his second wife continued to live on the 800-acre farm in Buffalo Township. Regardless of how the older McLaury children might regard their father's second marriage, the success of the marriage of Robert and Ann McLaury was in no doubt as they added three more children to their already large family. (22) We do not know specifically how different members of the original family took the news of the arrival of half-brothers, but it was reported that relations between the older McLaury children and their father's new family were at a low ebb. (23) In modem terms, what had been a close family became a broken family. What the breakup of the family meant to the youngest sons Frank and Tom is hard to assess, but if indeed Frank had grown up being known as 'Rob,' he never went by his father's name after leaving home.
Associates of the Clantons continued to stop by Tom and Frank's ranch. Many were cowboys who worked for ranches whenever and wherever the work could be found. Some had ranches themselves. Then again, some of them were known criminals.
In one example, Sherman McMasters stole a horse belonging to E. B. Gage of the Contention Mine, one of Tombstone's biggest and richest. If we are to believe William Breakenridge, as he told the story years later, he traced the stolen horse to the McLaury ranch. He convinced Frank McLaury that it was well known that the horse was at their ranch, and well known that the McLaurys were associating with rustlers and "posing as honest ranchmen." Breakenridge recovered the horse. (24) Nevertheless, the McLaurys continued to deal with the Clantons and other rustlers of cattle. And when they bought cattle on the hoof, they often knowingly bought stolen beef to sell them at market in Tombstone and the other boom towns nearby. (25) The question remains open if they were the only ranchers to do so.
Nevertheless, the international black market back and forth across the Mexican border was getting ugly. There was great concern at the highest levels of the Territorial and Mexican government. The Mexican consul agitated for action from the Arizonans, but the politically hamstrung Territorial government dithered. (26) In May, a band of Americans were killed in Sonora, Mexico. The money found on them indicated that they never paid for the cattle they were herding north across the border. In July, a large train of Mexicans were ambushed and killed in Skeleton Cation. Despite the fact that these were smugglers, the loss of life enraged good citizens on both sides of the border. (27) Another skilmish in early August left a Mexican dead in the San Pedro Valley. Yet another ambush took place at the end of the second week of August. Among the Americans who were ambushed and killed in Guadelupe Cation on August 13 was Old Man Clanton, a man only six years younger than Tom and Frank's father. (28)
In early October 1881, Apaches running south from the San Carlos Reservation raided their way through the Sulphur Spring Valley. The McLaurys lost horses and cattle along with some of their neighbors. Frank McLaury was reported chasing the Apaches (29), even though his neighbor, Edwin Frink, was the one who recovered the livestock. (30)
A party of nearly two dozen trackers and possemen out of Tombstone tried to ride after the Apaches, only to get caught in a downpour out in the Sulphur Spring Valley. They took shelter at the McLaury ranch while the McLaurys were absent. Nonetheless Curly Bill and "two satellites" were staying at the ranch when the posse arrived. (31) The crowd stayed the night and, according to one source, used up all the McLaury's food and left the ranch house a mess. (32)
Less than three weeks later, on the afternoon of October 25, 1881, Tom McLaury drove into Tombstone in a wagon alongside Ike Clanton. We don't know all of Tom's movements on that day or the next; what we know of his activities, however, was the subject of great scrutiny in light of the gun battle that took place the following afternoon.
It had been a long day for the lawmen. The previous night there was a jailbreak in which three desperate criminals escaped. The chase involving Marshal Virgil Earp, Sheriff John Behan and two of the Sheriff's deputies and perhaps a few others started late at night. The marshal and sheriff broke off from the posse early Tuesday morning and came back to town. (33)
Late Tuesday night, Tom played poker along with his friend, Ike Clanton, Virgil Earp, Behan and another man - whose name Ike Clanton could not recall from the witness stand. The game went almost all night and only broke up at daybreak. An altercation with Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp had spoiled Clanton's night before the game began. All we know of the game otherwise is that the marshal played with his six shooter in his lap, which served to make Clanton even angrier. (34)
The next day, Ike was arrested for being armed. He was arrested and harassed at the office of Judge A. 0. Wallace in the courthouse building at Fourth and Fremont streets. (35) After Clanton was released, Tom McLaury came to the vicinity of the courthouse. As he left there to walk up Fourth Street toward Allen, he bumped into Wyatt Earp. Earp struck him with an open hand and demanded, "Are you heeled?" McLaury protested he was not, but was (as Ike Clanton had been earlier) bludgeoned with the butt end of a pistol. (36)
Shortly after that, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton arrived in town on horseback. As Will McLaury described it: "My brother Frank and young Clanton who was killed had been with other parties gathering stock for several weeks and had come to the town on business ... "They had been on the range ever since the Indian raid, rounding up cattle to herd into town. (37) Frank and Billy first stopped at the Grand Hotel, but informed of his brother's beating, changed his mind about hanging around. (38)
The McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton stopped in at Spangenburg's gun shop on Fourth Street. Yet another confrontation occurred as Wyatt Earp was either "shooing" or pulling on Frank McLaury's horse, claiming he was on the sidewalk. The horse, said to be only "half broken in," was moved off the sidewalk by a begrudging Frank McLaury. Just as Wyatt Earp was walking away, Ike joined the others in the gun shop. (39)
While three of them left for the Dexter Corral on Allen Street, Tom stopped in at Everhardy's, the butcher they were doing business with at the time. He was likely closing the deal on delivery of stock. If he was paid in cash, the wad of bills might have created a bulge in his pants pocket. (40) He then joined Frank and the Clantons at the Dexter Corral. Frank was clearly upset about his brother's beating. In a very short time, they left Dexter's. Billy Clanton leading his horse and his friend, Billy Claiborne, walked through the 0.K. Corral across Allen Street and out through an alley that led into a vacant lot at the western end of the block. The wagon that brought Tom and Ike Clanton the day before was at the West End Corral, and they called for it to be hitched up.
Frank still had possession of his horse when Sheriff Behan approached him at Bauer's Market on the south side of Fremont near the comer of Fourth Street. He was settling a long outstanding debt, a "misunderstanding" he had with James Kehoe. When Behan asked Frank to surrender his gun, Frank refused. (41) Knowing that the Earps were gathering at Hafford's - barely a block away - and knowing that they were pretty worked up over the threats made by Ike Clanton earlier, Behan sought to move Frank down the street. Brother Tom, the Clantons and Billy Caiborne were bunched together in the empty lot past Fly's house, and Behan wanted to talk sense to them: disarm them, take them into custody or get them to leave town quickly.
The Clantons, McLaurys and Billy Claiborne (newly out on bail the previous weekend on a murder charge) were in a quandary as to how quickly to leave when the sheriff saw the Earps and Holliday round the corner of Fourth and Fremont. Behan told the cowboys to stay there - in the vacant lot, off the street. He then attempted to stall the Earps and Holliday, but they brushed by him and walked right up to the men and their horses. Half a minute later, as the gunsmoke cleared, Frank was lying on his back by the sidewalk on the north side of Fremont Street. Tom lay in a crumpled heap at the corner of Third and Fremont. And they were dead.
Will McLaury, still practicing law in Fort Worth, had been widowed only months earlier by the death of his beautiful wife, Lona. (42) He was celebrating his son's eighth birthday on October 27th, when the telegram arrived informing him of his brothers' deaths. He made hasty arrangements, leaving his three children in the care of neighbors.
He arrived in Tombstone by the evening of Friday, November 4th (a week later) and wrote a series of letters to his sister, her husband (also a lawyer) and his own law partner in Fort Worth telling his version of the events and of his participation in the prosecution of the Earps and Holliday.
In a letter to his brother-in-law, David Dailey Appelgate, Will McLaury wrote, "I am very proud of the reputation the boys earned here[.] [T]hey lived on a ranch and dealt in cattle. Tom, after he was shot, was robbed of $1,600. I am trying to unearth it ... they had just sold off their stocks and would have started for my place in a day or two and they calculated to have visited their father and sisters in Iowa ". (43) According to the coroner's report, Tom had on a money belt containing "Certificates of deposit in the Pima County Bank, checks and cash in all the sum of $2,923.45. (44) If Tom had been robbed of $1,600, it would more likely have been from his pocket than from the money belt, which means he was in possession of about $3,500 at the time of the shooting.
If, as Will McLaury states, the boys planned to travel to Texas and then to Iowa, they certainly had the bankroll for it. Their visit would have coincided with the wedding of their younger sister, Sarah Caroline. The wedding went ahead as planned at the Appelgate home in Toledo, Iowa, on November 30, 1881. (45) If indeed they were going to visit their father as well, it would have gone a long way toward healing the rift that had divided the McLaury children from their father. And they could have shown themselves to be the successful Arizona ranchers as they had claimed.
As it was, the killing of Tom and Frank McLaury was deeply upsetting to the family back in Iowa. In spite of Will McLaury's best efforts, as well as the expensive lawyers hired to help in the prosecution, the Earps and Doc Holliday were exonerated and released. (46) Even after Will's return to Fort Worth, the Harps and Holliday became further embroiled in the bitter and bloody feud over the succeeding months. The events became the subject of national attention and one Iowa family's profound embarrassment. Years later, Will wrote his father about closing the book on whole episode. It had cost him money and damaged his health. "... and none of the results has been satisfactory - the only result is the Death of Morgan Earp and crippling of Virgil Earp and death of McMasters." (47) There are those who read into these words a hint that McLaury paid for the assasinations. It's more likely that he spent his money helping to finance the prosecution. Clanton and his friends didn't need money to motivate their feud with the Earps. In the end, one hears not the growl of revenge but a sigh of resignation when he admits that it was "a matter we ought to think about as little as possible." (48)
No one will know what the brothers' further intentions might have been. If they visited Fort Worth and then Iowa, might they have returned to Arizona to resume their business? Or might they have returned to sell off the property and start a new life away from the dealings with rustlers and thieves? All that we can know is that while they maintained the reputation of respectable ranchers, a web of relationships and loyalties caught them in the struggle known later as the Earp-Clanton feud.
Paul L. Johnson is a lay worker in the Episcopal Church in New York City, where he is director of a program for youth at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. He also works in the production department of a newspaper group formatting such weekly newspapers as Westsider, Our Town, Manhattan Spirit and The Amsterdam News. As a member of the New York Historical Society, he serves on an advisory committee to further the historical research on Seneca Village, a racially mixed hamlet that was located in what is now Central Park. He and his wife have two children.