About Those O.K. Corral ‘Losers’
All of us from coast to coast have heard of the October 26, 1881, fight in a vacant lot off Fremont Street in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, even if some of us (but nobody reading this magazine) know it only by its not-quite-accurate common name—Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We hear it was the most famous gunfight in the Old West, and we hear that so often, we know it must be true. We hear the shootout pitted two factions against each other: the close-knit, law-and-order-minded Earp brothers (assisted by the incorrigible but true-blue pal Doc Holliday) and two sets of Cowboy outlaw brothers, the Clantons and the McLaurys. And we hear the good guys won. Of course, those of us who have studied the fight to any degree know it didn’t all happen in black and white. The players cast plenty of gray shadows that fall afternoon in Tombstone. As Wild West History Association President Pam Potter puts it, “The Earps and Holliday were no angels either, but as we all know, history is written by the winners.” We also know there was quite an aftermath for the survivors, featuring accusations, hearings, ambushes, vendettas, extraditions and in some instances new frontier adventures.
In “Gunfighters and Lawmen” Arizona author Scott Dyke writes about the Clanton family—not so much on Old Man Clanton, who died violently a few months before the gunfight, or young Billy Clanton, who died of gunshot wounds suffered in the gunfight, but on Ike Clanton, who ran from the gunfight and lived to run another day, and Phin Clanton, who was apparently off tending family cattle (or someone’s cattle) during the gunfight. Ike also survived Wyatt Earp’s vendetta against the Cowboys, but he did not count his blessings. Instead of reforming, he reverted to form and, with Phin by his side, remained active in the illegal cattle business (i.e., rustling). Ike in due time met his own violent end, and only Phin, as Dyke tells us, “managed to accomplish what his father and brothers could not”—namely, dying with his boots off.
Brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, who had no time to kick up their boot heels in the gunfight, have always gotten second billing as bad guys to the Clantons. Potter, whose great-grandmother Sarah Caroline McLaury was Tom and Frank’s youngest sister, doesn’t mind that at all. She mostly blames unlikeable Ike for the gunfight that cost the lives of two of her ancestors, arguing that things would not have come to a head on October 26 if not for Ike’s drunkenness and threatening behavior. Potter acknowledges that Frank and Tom were not “innocent cowboys caught in the crossfire,” but she has researched them for a quarter century and tires of them “being generalized as rustlers and stagecoach robbers when they were never legally charged or convicted of any crimes in Arizona Territory.”
Author Paul Lee Johnson provides insight into the characters of these two “villains/losers” in his 2012 book The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O.K. Corral Obituary and also in our October cover story. But the focus of his fascinating Wild West article is Frank and Tom’s older brother Will McLaury, a Fort Worth attorney who traveled to Tombstone after the gunfight and took part in the effort to prosecute the Earps and Holliday. Although Will remains far lesser known than Frank or Tom, Johnson has uncovered far more information about him, the man who sought justice for his dead brothers. It didn’t work out too well, at least not legally. “No doubt,” writes Johnson, “Will McLaury, his father and other members of his family had no love for Earp—they bore a grudge for the rest of their lives.” But they did go on with their lives. “Everyone in the [McLaury] family was devastated by the killing of Tom and Frank, and for at least a couple generations the family talked little about Tombstone,” says Potter. If nothing else, Potter, Johnson and Dyke have made it clear that, for better or worse, the McLaurys and Clantons enjoyed as much loyalty and family togetherness as the Earp family. Not that Tom and Frank always saw eye to eye. Johnson even suggests the brothers “might have parted company over their differences” had they not become victims together in the gunfight.