Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Did Tom McLaury Have a Gun

9/5/2006 • Doc Holliday, Wild West, Wyatt Earp

One of the most candidly understated descriptions of a funeral in the history of the Old West was written by Arizona historian Opie Rundle Burgess in her 1967 book Bisbee, Not So Long Ago, when she recorded her mother’s memories of her first day in the booming town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on March 20, 1882.

Florence Robinson Rundle and her mother (Opie’s grandmother) had just arrived in Tombstone by stage, and Florence’s father, who had been mining in the area, rented a buggy to drive them to their boarding house. When they heard horses coming up behind them, her father pulled their carriage off to the side of the street, explaining that he was giving way to a funeral procession taking Morgan Earp’s body to Contention to be placed on a train. James Earp would accompany his brother’s remains to their father’s home in Colton, Calif.

Silently the Robinsons waited until the funeral procession passed. Four men rode in front with sawed-off shotguns across their laps; then came a wagon bearing the casket. Following it came a buggy with two women dressed in deep mourning. Back of their carriage rode two more men with guns across their laps. The men nodded as they passed the Robinsons.

[Mr. Robinson said:] ‘Morgan Earp was a fine man. He was murdered by a sympathizer of the Clanton gang.’

[Mrs. Robinson replied:] ‘Yes, I know. The driver of the stagecoach told us about the shooting. I never before saw guns take the place of flowers at a funeral.’

Morgan Earp was the most luckless of the six Earp brothers. He had almost died after being shot through the shoulders during the shootout near the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, allegedly by rustler Tom McLaury. Then, on the night of March 18-19 (Wyatt turned 33 on the 19th), Morgan was killed by a shot in the back while playing pool.

Mrs. Robinson’s ‘guns instead of flowers’ words sum up the tales of violence that occurred regularly in the lush grazing lands of the San Pedro River and the Sulfur Spring Valley, where cowboys and rustlers had settled even before silver was discovered in 1877. There, the words ‘cowboy’ and ‘rustler’ had become synonymous, and Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan was in cahoots with the Cowboys. Many people in Tombstone didn’t want the rustling to stop, because they liked the cheap price of rustled beef and the business the Cowboys brought to local saloons.

The Earp brothers — Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan — had become the only real law in Tombstone. In October 1881, Virgil Earp was both a deputy U.S. marshal and Tombstone’s chief of police. (The official title of the town marshal’s office had been changed to police department by the city fathers in April 1881.) Wyatt Earp was operating covertly as a detective for Wells, Fargo & Co. and on occasion served a policeman or a temporary field-commissioned deputy U.S. marshal for Virgil. Morgan Earp, too, was temporarily commissioned as a policeman. Half the town wanted the Cowboys to go. Half the town wanted the Earps to go. Something had to give, and the showdown came on October 26, 1881, at about 2:45 p.m.

Five of the Cowboys (Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Claiborne), Cowboy sympathizer Wes Fuller and Billy Clanton’s and Frank’s horses had ended up in a 15-foot-wide vacant lot on the south side of Fremont Street behind the O.K. Corral. Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton openly wore holstered revolvers in violation of a town ordinance that prohibited the carrying of guns within city limits unless the carrier was entering town, leaving town or in a corral. None of those exceptions applied to Frank and Billy.

Virgil Earp wanted to arrest the Cowboys for breaking the gun law, but the Cowboys held their ground, or at least some of them did. Billy Claiborne left the lot before the confrontation, as did Fuller. When Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp and their hastily commissioned policeman friend Doc Holliday stepped into the front of the lot, somebody pulled a gun. Ike Clanton ran. About 30 seconds and 30 shots later, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton lay dying on the ground, and Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded.

At first the Earps and Holliday were hailed as heroes. But then they were accused of shooting down unarmed men who were trying to surrender. The ‘unarmed’ claim was bolstered by the fact that Tom McLaury’s gun couldn’t be found. After a two-day coroner’s inquest and a month-long hearing to determine whether the Earps and Holliday should be indicted for murder, Judge Wells Spicer decided that they had acted in their official capacity as lawmen. So the they were never actually tried for murder.

The vacant lot where the Old West’s most famous shootout began faced the south side of Fremont Street — with the Harwood house on the west side of the lot, and Fly’s photographic studio and boarding house on the east side. There were eight people and two horses in the front of the crowded lot, and the black powder gun smoke added to the confusion and bedlam of the gunfight. Figuring out who shot whom was difficult because the Cowboy faction told lies in an attempt to get the Earps and Holliday hanged for murder, and the Earps stretched the truth to keep their necks out of nooses.

When Wyatt Earp biographer Stuart Lake questioned him about the’street fight,’ as Wyatt called it, Wyatt answered in a September 13, 1928, letter: ‘In that affair, Billy Clanton and Frank McLowry had four or five bullet holes in their bodies, and of course it would be impossible to declare who was responsible for the shots.’ That is one of the most honest appraisals ever made in the who-shot-whom controversy, which often includes the question of whether Tom McLaury used a gun during the shootout.

When the gun smoke cleared on October 26, Billy Clanton had never gotten near his horse, and he lay with his back against the Harwood house just inside the lot on Fremont Street; Frank McLaury had never gotten behind his horse, but he had led it partway into the street before it bolted and ran, and Frank lay on the north side of Fremont Street across from the vacant lot; Tom McLaury had gotten behind Billy Clanton’s horse before it ran, and Tom lay near the southeast corner of Fremont and Third streets next to a corner house that was adjacent to the Harwood house. The coroner, Dr. Henry Martyn Matthews, later dutifully recorded the serial numbers of the Colt revolvers used by Frank McLaury (No. 46338) and Billy Clanton (No. 52196) in the shootout. But Tom McLaury’s gun was still missing.

In 1929, after Lake inspected the original handwritten documents from the coroner’s inquest and the murder hearing that historians now call the Spicer hearing, the documents were put back into storage. An anti-Earp historian, Howell ‘Pat’ Hayhurst, was commissioned to put the documents into typescript for a federal Works Progress Association (WPA) project in the 1930s. Hayhurst not only failed to decipher some of the handwriting but also arbitrarily edited out wording that he decided was not relevant. As Lake later put it, Hayhurst ‘mutilated’ the text and context. Furthermore, the original documents were never returned after Hayhurst transcribed them. They have never been found.

Fortunately, reporters from Tombstone’s two newspapers — the pro-Earp Epitaph and the pro-Cowboy Nugget — also recorded the testimony at the coroner’s inquest and the Spicer hearing. But only the reporter from the Nugget knew shorthand. Thus, the wording of the testimony that the court recorder and the two newspaper reporters put on paper varied greatly. It takes months examining all three versions of the testimony word by word to fully understand how much of it was altered by Hayhurst in what historians now call the Hayhurst transcript.

Most of the pro-Cowboy witnesses who testified during the murder hearing fudged their answers by saying things like, ‘I didn’t see Tom McLaury with a gun’ or by agreeing that Tom McLaury had yelled to Virgil Earp words like, ‘I am disarmed,’ just before the shooting started. And the few objective newspaper articles that were written in the first days following the shootout could only report on hearsay. In its October 29 dispatch that appeared in the November 3 San Diego Union newspaper, stringer Clara S. Brown wrote, ‘At the inquest yesterday, the damaging fact was ascertained that only two of the cowboys were armed, it thus being a most unequal fight.’

On November 7, bartender Andrew Mehan testified at the murder hearing that Tom McLaury had checked his six-gun with him at Mehan’s saloon between 1 and 2 p.m. on the 26th, only an hour before the gunfight, and that the gun was still in Mehan’s safe. But Cosmopolitan Hotel owner Albert Billicke and U.S. Army surgeon J.B.W. Gardner offered testimony that suggested Tom McLaury had picked up another revolver while visiting Everhardy’s butcher shop.

Virgil Earp testified that when the shooting started, Tom McLaury was beside a horse and that McLaury, ‘followed the movement of the horse around, making [it] a kind of breastwork, and fired once if not twice over the horse’s back.’ Wyatt testified, ‘If Tom McLaury was unarmed, I did not know it, I believe he was armed and fired two shots at our party before Holliday, who had the shotgun, fired and killed him.’ In his 1896 San Francisco Examiner biographical interviews, Wyatt was quoted as saying that after the first three shots had been fired, ‘just then Tom McLowry, who got behind his horse, fired under the animal’s neck and bored a hole right through Morgan sideways.’

During the last 10 years of his life, Wyatt collaborated three times with biographers. In 1919 Forrestine Hooker, the daughter-in-law of Wyatt’s cattle baron friend Henry Hooker, wrote in her unpublished 85-page manuscript ‘An Arizona Vendetta’ that Tom McLaury used a gun at the street fight and ‘ducked under the neck of a horse and fired at Morgan Earp’ — a shot that Hooker also called the ‘first shot of the gunfight’ and that went crossways through Morgan Earp’s shoulders.

Wyatt’s second attempt at recording his memoirs was written by his long-time confidant John Flood Jr. in the 1920s. Flood’s 350-page tome obliquely describes Tom McLaury with a gun with the words, ‘And a ring of smoke drifted into the lot from beneath the neck of Tom McLowery’s horse, the first shot of the day.’ And a map that Wyatt and Flood drew marks a spot near the corner of Third and Fremont streets with the handwritten notation: ‘Wesley Fuller picked up Tom McLowery’s gun from body at 3rd and Fremont Street.’ So two of Wyatt’s biographers wrote that Tom McLaury not only had a gun but also fired the first shot of the gunfight.

While collaborating with Wyatt in 1928, Stuart Lake took ponderous notes that historians now call the ‘Earp/Lake Notes.’ In them, Lake wrote: ‘Tom jumped to get back of brother’s horse….Tom shot under horses neck 2 [shots] hitting Morg….Say Tom unarmed. When fell, gun in hand. Wes Fuller picked up gun, put in his pocket. [illegible; Fuller’s?] father told Wyatt, had Tom’s gun.’

When Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, Lake’s biography of Wyatt, was published in 1931, however, Lake merely wrote that after the first shots were fired by Wyatt, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, ‘Tom McLowery jumped behind Frank’s horse [it was actually Billy Clanton’s horse], drawing his gun and shooting under the animal’s neck at Morgan Earp.’ Lake added, ‘Sensing that Tom McLowery was now the most dangerous adversary, Wyatt ignored Billy Clanton’s fire as Tom again shot underneath the pony’s neck and hit Morg.’ And Lake ended with, ‘Tom McLowery was firing his third shot.’

The trouble is, some historians don’t believe that Wyatt Earp ever told the truth in his life. So that leaves us with four largely forgotten witnesses:

The first person to state in print that Tom McLaury had a gun was miner Ruben F. Coleman, who was quoted in the October 27 issue of the Epitaph. He said that on the day of the gunfight ‘Tom McLaury fell first, but raised and fired again before he died.’ But by the time he testified in the coroner’s inquest a day later, Coleman was quoted in the Hayhurst transcription as saying, ‘Tom McLaury, after the first two shots were fired, ran down Fremont Street and fell….’ Coleman added, ‘I think that the report I gave to the Epitaph was pretty near correct as published,’ but he still said nothing about McLaury raising up and firing again, as he had in the Epitaph article. And Coleman closed his testimony by flatly saying: ‘I did not see Tom McLaury with a pistol,’ adding, ‘My mind is a little confused about that part of it.’

Ruben Coleman’s son, Walter R. Coleman, owned a restaurant in Tombstone and might have been buying rustled beef. If so, Ruben, like his son, would have favored the Cowboys over the Earps. Ruben Coleman’s waffling in his coroner’s inquest statements suggests that the Cowboy faction might have ‘refreshed’ his memory in its zeal to get the Earps and Doc hanged for murder. Therefore, the logical conclusion is to believe that Coleman’s initial knee-jerk statement in the Epitaph that Tom McLaury did have a gun is the truth.

A second ‘forgotten’ witness was Mrs. J.C. Colyer of Kansas City, who was visiting with her sister in Tombstone that day. When the shooting erupted, Mrs. Colyer was sitting in a buggy in front of the post office on the southeast corner of Fremont and Fourth streets, less than a block away from the vacant lot. She returned to Kansas City, and her belated account of the gunfight was published in the December 30, 1881, issue of the Tombstone Epitaph: ‘The cowboys opened fire on them. And you never saw such shooting. One of the cowboys, after he had been shot three times, raised himself on his elbow and shot one of the officers and fell back dead….[A]nother used his horse as a barricade and shot under his neck.’ And since other testimony confirms that neither Billy Clanton nor Frank McLaury ever got behind a horse to use it as a barricade, then it could only have been Tom McLaury that Mrs. Colyer saw shooting under the horse’s neck.

The biggest key to the question of whether Tom McLaury had a gun is the testimony of another impartial witness, laundryman Peter H. Fellehy. According to the wording of the Hayhurst transcript of the coroner’s inquest, Fellehy testified:

After the shooting commenced…,[t]he younger one of the Earps was firing at a man behind the horse. Holliday was also firing at the same man behind the horse, and firing at a man who had run by him to the opposite side of the street. Then I see the man who had the horse let go the reins of the bridle and kept staggering all the time, until he fell on his back near a horse [emphasis added]. He still held his pistol in his hand, but [I] did not see it go off after he had fell.

I then went to the young man who was lying on the sidewalk and offered to pick him up….I picked up a revolver that was lying five feet from him and laid it at his side. This was the man that lay on the north side of Fremont Street.

Fellehy’s words make it clear that the ‘man behind the horse’ that Doc and Morgan were shooting at was a different man than the one that Doc shot at who ran ‘to the opposite side of the street’ and collapsed on the sidewalk on the north side of Fremont Street. Based on other testimony in the Spicer hearing, we know that this second man, who led his horse out of the vacant lot but was never behind the horse, and who then fell on the north side of Fremont Street, was Frank McLaury. So Fellehy’s ‘man behind the horse’ has to be either Billy Clanton or Tom McLaury. And we also know from other testimony that Billy Clanton never got near his horse. Therefore, Fellehy’s ‘man behind the horse’ who ‘fell on his back near a horse ‘ and’still held his pistol in his hand’ could only have been Tom McLaury.

But this basic Fellehy evidence doesn’t stop there. I emphasized the word ‘horse’ in Fellehy’s testimony, because the wording in the versions of his testimony that appeared in the Nugget and the Epitaph contains two startling exceptions to the wording in the Hayhurst transcript: The Nugget states that the ‘man with the horse…was staggering all the time until he fell; he had his pistol still when he fell.’ And the Epitaph version quotes Fellehy as saying, ‘Then I saw the man who held the horse let go the bridle and keep staggering until he fell, his back within a few feet of a house [emphasis added]; had a pistol in his hand, but I did not see it go off.’

And so, we see that the Hayhurst transcript version of Fellehy’s testimony states that the ‘man behind the horse’ with a pistol fell on his back near a ‘horse,’ while the Epitaph version states that he fell with his back within a few feet of a ‘house.’ That difference in one letter in one word of Fellehy’s testimony brings us to another ‘forgotten’ witness in the coroner’s inquest, ‘mining man’ Charles Hamilton ‘Ham’ Light, who was in his room at the Aztec House on the corner of Third and Fremont streets when he heard two shots and ‘jumped’ to his side window on Third Street looking up Fremont Street. According to the October 29 Nugget, Light testified, ‘I saw a man reel and fall on the corner of Fremont and Third streets on the south side, right directly on the corner of the house [emphasis added]….I saw another man standing, leaning, against a building joining the vacant lot….The man never stirred after he fell at the corner of the street….I did not see that man fire any shot.’

Because Light didn’t see the beginning of the gunfight, he also couldn’t have seen the man who fell on the corner fire any shots. But Light’s testimony clearly identifies two different men being shot on the south side of Fremont street — Billy Clanton leaning against the Harwood house in the vacant lot, and Tom McLaury falling on the southeast corner of Fremont and Third. Therefore, Light’s man beside the ‘house’ confirms that Fellehy’s man with a ‘pistol’ beside the ‘house’ — not Hayhurst’s ‘horse’ — could only have been the same man, Tom McLaury.

There is other fodder to add to the stewpot of controversy about whether or not Tom McLaury had a gun, the most notable being the surprising fact that Fellehy, Light and Coleman were never called to testify in the murder hearing. The reason the Earps didn’t call Fellehy was probably because in the coroner’s inquest Fellehy had also offered the damaging testimony that before the Earps and Holliday had started their walk toward the vacant lot, Fellehy had heard Virgil Earp say: ‘Those men have made their threats. I will not arrest them, but I will kill them on sight.’ And that kind of hearsay evidence could have upped the ante of potential ‘murder’ charges against the Earps and Doc to ‘premeditated murder,’ which really could have been a hanging offense! And the reason the Cowboy faction didn’t call Coleman was probably because at the coroner’s inquest he had altered his initial testimony in the October 27 Epitaph so dramatically that it was obvious that the Cowboys had influenced his ‘memory.’ And with the Cowboy strategy based on the accusation that the Earps and Doc had fired first and had also shot down the ‘unarmed’ Tom McLaury, they didn’t want Coleman reverting to his original Epitaph story that Tom McLaury did have a gun.

Thus, we have three witnesses besides the Earps — Coleman, Mrs. Colyer and Fellehy — all verifying that Tom McLaury did have, and use, a gun during the gunfight. And simple logic backs them up. One of the few things that is known for certain about the gunfight is that Doc Holliday killed Tom McLaury with a blast from a double-barreled shotgun. And in the Spicer murder hearing, Wyatt testified that he fired first at Frank McLaury and next at Tom McLaury. So the obvious question is, when Wyatt and Doc had Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury shooting at them from 15 feet away, would they have risked their lives and wasted a shot or shots firing at Tom McLaury if he didn’t have a gun?

This article was written by Old West historian, author and gun authority Lee A. Silva and originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Wild West magazine. Lee A. Silva of Sunset Beach, Calif., is a frequent contributor to Wild West Magazine. His Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend, Volume I: The Cowtown Years was published in 2002. Next up in the four-volume series is Volume II: Tombstone, the Legend Making Years. His Web site is Also suggested for further reading: Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp, by Steven Lubet; The O.K. Corral Inquest, by Al Turner; and Wyatt Earp Speaks, by John Richard Stephens.

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