This story by Paul Lee Johnson won the Wild West History Association’s 2014 Six-Shooter Award for best article in a general Western publication. It appeared in the October 2013 edition of Wild West.
On Thursday afternoon, October 27, 1881, an incoming signal rattled the telegraph key in Leonard Trimble’s Fort Worth grocery store. The half-rate message came from Luther Halstead, formerly of Fort Worth and now living far to the west, in Arizona Territory. Trimble rushed the telegram to its destination five blocks away—the home of William R. McLaury. In it was the terrible news that McLaury’s two brothers had been killed in Tombstone the day before. Not only was the news appalling, the timing couldn’t have been worse. McLaury’s wife of nine years had died only 10 weeks before, leaving him with three young children to raise by himself. And this day was his son’s eighth birthday.
Despite his responsibilities, 36-year-old Will McLaury was determined to settle in person the affairs of his slain younger brothers—33-year-old Robert, who went by the name “Frank” after leaving the Iowa family home in 1875, and 28-year-old Thomas. Frank, who sometimes had trouble managing his anger, left Iowa after serving 30 days in jail for assault with a deadly weapon. The weapon was a knife. He had been convicted after three rounds in circuit court and two hung juries, and the conviction was upheld on appeal to the district court. Tom, the more even-tempered of the two, went west with his brother. They eventually became partners in a cattle ranch in Pima County, Arizona Territory. When U.S. Army quartermaster Lieutenant Joseph H. Hurst accused Frank of participation in the theft of Army mules, Frank answered his accuser in the Tombstone Daily Nugget with scathing prose and counteraccusations. After that episode the brothers continued to ranch and farm together, but Tom alone handled business matters.
Early in 1881 Tom and Frank moved to the Sulphur Springs Valley in newly created Cochise County, where they built a substantial adobe ranch house, a barn, two corrals, a well and a series of irrigation ditches for farming. They owned a herd of 140 cattle, eight horses and two mules. The ranch was something to be proud of, and they were planning a visit to Iowa, where Sarah Caroline McLaury, the youngest of their siblings, was due to be married on November 30. Along the way they figured they would stop off at Fort Worth to see older brother Will. Of course, all that changed with the October 26 gunfight near the O.K. Corral, in which the McLaurys, two Clanton brothers and Billy Claiborne faced off with brothers Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp and friend Doc Holliday. Both sides fired many shots in just 30 seconds, but Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton got the worst of the flying bullets. All three died with their boots on.
So now Will (as the family called him; he used his initials, W.R.) was headed to Tombstone instead. He lived closer to Arizona Territory than his 48-year-old eldest brother, Ebenezer, or their 71-year-old father, Robert. An attorney, Will was also more qualified to settle the affairs of his late younger brothers. His brother-in-law, David D. Appelgate, was a far more experienced attorney, but like Will’s other siblings and in-laws he lived in Iowa. After sending Luther Halstead’s devastating telegram to married sister Margaret Appelgate, Will packed for the 900-mile journey to Tombstone. He left his law practice in the hands of his capable partner, Captain Samuel P. Greene, and his three children in the care of Fort Worth wagon yard owner Jonathan B. Billingsley and wife Susan, who were raising Susan’s 11-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage.
From Fort Worth, McLaury took the Texas & Pacific Railway as far as Sierra Blanca, Texas—the end of the line until the rails could be completed to El Paso. He traveled the 90 miles from Sierra Blanca to El Paso by stage, and it was a rough trip. At one point the horses ran away with the coach; McLaury and fellow passengers were unhurt but all badly shaken. In El Paso he read some lurid press dispatches about his brothers’ tragedy. One newspaper report described how, before the shootout, Tom and Frank were among a group of cowboys who were drinking heavily, parading the streets of Tombstone and threatening to take over the town. That didn’t sound like his brothers. He also read that Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan had arrested their killers for murder. Will then boarded a Southern Pacific train, which took him to Benson, Arizona Territory. The last leg of his trip was 25 miles on the Benson-to-Tombstone stage. He arrived in Tombstone on Thursday evening, November 3, and checked into the Grand Hotel on Allen Street. He had much on his mind and much to do, not the least of which would be to ensure his brothers’ killers got what was coming to them. But the long trip had exhausted him. So the best thing for Will McLaury to do was to turn in for the night and hope to get some sleep.
The lawyer from Fort Worth had already seen much of the West. After his discharge from the 47th Iowa Volunteer Infantry after the Civil War, Will McLaury was unemployed, broke and in ill health. For five or six months he recuperated in the company of his family in central Iowa. During the next two years he worked as a freighter in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nebraska and Dakota. By 1870 he had settled in Dakota Territory, where he determined to become a lawyer. He applied himself to “reading the law” in Sioux Falls and was active in local politics. In February 1872 he received an interim appointment as clerk of Minnehaha County. When he ran for re-election, however, he was turned out of office. He did become a member of the bar, an achievement he celebrated with his three examiners and other members of the legal community. To the amusement of all, he had so much to drink that he was unable to deliver his speech thanking the judge and the rest of the group.
During the summer Will met a woman who had come to town as a seamstress and milliner. On December 19, 1872, he married Malona Dewitt. John Dewitt McLaury was born the following fall, on October 27, 1873, during a blizzard.
Years later W.R. McLaury recalled his approach to furthering his legal education: “When something comes up you don’t know,” he said, “go over to the saloons on Main Street and find a fair son of Harvard Law School that his family sent west to earn his mark. They are broke, drunk and gambling and will readily draw any writ instanter on a sheet of paper on the bar for a few dollars or a drink or two. What better legal education could one get than from Harvard?” McLaury helped to lay out the town of Wicklow on the Dakota prairie, while his legal practice handled small lawsuits and divorces. His wife’s sister Katherine visited them in Sioux Falls in the summer of 1875, and the next year, when Will and Lona had their second child, they named her Elona Katherine McLaury.
It is uncertain whether Frank and Tom McLaury also paid brother Will a visit that year before making their way to learn the cattle business from a pair of Lona’s uncles who lived outside of Paris, Texas. At the same time Malona’s health was frail, and she needed a more favorable climate. In June 1876 Will and Lona and their two young children moved from what would become South Dakota to Fort Worth, Texas.
Will saw little of his younger brothers in the Lone Star State, as Frank and Tom soon moved to either west Texas or New Mexico Territory and then farther west to Arizona Territory. Early on they stopped in the Gila Valley, where the Clanton family ran a ranch and faltered in an attempt at town-building. While they were there, local constable Melvin Jones deputized Frank, who helped round up three soldiers who had stolen property and were on the run. Tom worked for neighboring ranchers, including Jack McKenzie, who co-owned a ranch and stage station at Croton Springs with Tom Steele. Before long the McLaury brothers set themselves up in a ranch above the Babocomari Valley, near Mustang Springs, and hired on Wesley Pearce, a young man they knew from Paris, Texas.
Back in Texas, Will McLaury established a law practice and was soon involved in politics, but Fort Worth was not very hospitable to a Northerner hanging out his shingle—let alone running for office—in the South. His first partnership, with a man named Johnson, lasted less than a year. In his first bid for public office he ran for county attorney. It only netted him 16 votes, the least votes polled by anyone running for office in the fall of 1878. Lona bore their third child, Margaret, that year.
Despite Will’s difficulties in the political realm, his social activities expanded. He joined the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and helped found the Fort Worth chapter of the Caledonian Club for the propagation of all things Scottish. The Caledonians met at his home on 15th Street and named Will its first secretary. Among his friends he counted Jonathan Y. Hogsett, a prominent lawyer who wrote the city charter of Fort Worth, and attorney Captain Samuel Greene, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who had served with the Georgia 39th Infantry, the “Gilmer Tigers.” Greene and Union veteran McLaury formed an unlikely partnership in the autumn of 1880. With the help of these and other friends, McLaury exercised some political muscle, replacing Fort Worth’s postmaster in the spring of 1881.
Unfortunately, the spring of 1881 also marked the return of Malona’s chronic illness. Her health slipped so quickly that she made a will in July and died just four weeks later, on the morning of Saturday, August 13. Hogsett and Greene were witnesses to the will and later acted as appraisers of the McLaurys’ community property.
On the very day Malona died, Mexican rivals ambushed a half-dozen cowboys in Guadalupe Canyon, on the Mexican border near the Arizona–New Mexico line. Among the slain cowboys was Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton, the father of Phin, Ike and Billy. The incident was part of a pattern of reciprocal violence that had been escalating along the international border for more than a year. The deaths of Mexican smugglers had immediately preceded this ambush, and the deaths of American cattle thieves had preceded the smugglers’ murders. The border violence hadn’t extended to the McLaury ranch, now on the open range of Sulphur Springs Valley, but it did affect their business. While raising their own legitimate herd, Frank and Tom also had dealings with the cowboys who rustled cattle south of the border. They then sold cattle—legal and illegal alike—to quartermasters at Army outposts and to the butchers in Tombstone. The McLaury brothers were doing pretty well, but the people they did business with were creating mayhem in the countryside. Some were notorious outlaws. When people suffered at their hands, they cried out for stricter enforcement of the law.
But law enforcement in Cochise County, founded in February 1881, was tangled in personal and political rivalries. Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp was also Tombstone’s chief of police. The ambitious Earp brothers, Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan, did not get along with or cooperate with Cochise County Sheriff John H. Behan. Likewise, Milton E. Joyce, chairman of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, was a rival of Tombstone Mayor John P. Clum.
Since the dreadful day Will McLaury learned of his brothers’ deaths, the business that lay before him in Tombstone was the settling of his brothers’ estates and the daunting task of convicting their killers in court. An evidentiary hearing, presided over by Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer, had already begun in the district courtroom on Fremont Street, just 300 feet from where Frank and Tom had died. On his first full day in Tombstone, Will was astonished to find two of the defendants, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, sitting at the hearing fully armed. The other two defendants, Virgil and Morgan Earp—wounded during the exchange of gunfire—were confined to beds in the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Will met Ike Clanton, who had fled the gunfight and whose brother Billy had been killed. Ike was the one who brought murder charges against the Earps and Holliday.
During that first day McLaury also introduced himself to District Attorney Lyttleton Price and the other attorneys on the prosecution team—John M. Murphy, James Robinson and Ben Goodrich. Will wasted no time making known his opinion, blasting the prosecution lawyers for allowing the defendants’ to walk about on bail armed as they were in court. He demanded their bail be revoked. No argument from the district attorney as to the enormous support the Earps had within the community would dissuade McLaury from his desire to see them put in jail. The district attorney allowed Will to associate himself with the prosecution. If anyone was to make the motion to revoke bail, Price figured to let McLaury do it.
Three days later, on Monday, November 7, Spicer did revoke bail. McLaury’s argument prevailed: The testimony heard thus far made a case for holding Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in jail. On the day following the court decision Will wrote to his sister: “I send you papers containing the evidence. I shall try to have these men hanged.” To his law partner, Captain Greene, he wrote, “As to the perpetration of the crime, I can only say it was as cold-blooded and foul a murder as has been recorded.” Both letters bragged of his own courage in putting the defendants behind bars and exuded confidence he would be able to get a conviction. He also boasted of being the center of attention: “Last night after it was known the murderers were in jail, the hotel was a perfect jam until nearly morning. Everybody wanted to see me and shake my hand.” It led McLaury to believe he had the backing of the whole town. But in this he was badly mistaken. Will also believed Ike Clanton’s version of events, saying, “After Frank was mortally wounded, he shot Holliday, Morgan and Virgil Earp, wounding Morgan and Virgil severely.” It is uncertain whether Ike truly believed all he told Will, but McLaury was convinced the Earps and Holliday had opened fire from behind a veneer of law enforcement and were complicit in a scheme to rob stages.
Will’s passion was to see his brothers’ killers convicted by law and punished by whatever means. In a letter to law partner Greene, an elder in the Presbyterian church, McLaury waxed spiritual: “This thing has a tendency to arouse all the devil there is in me—it will not bring my dead brothers back to prosecute these men, but I regard it as my duty to myself and family to see that these brutes do not go unwhipped of justice.”
On Wednesday November 9, Will wrote to brother-in-law David Appelgate, an eminent attorney in Toledo, Iowa. He described his court victory and gave a complete rendition of the chain of events, as he understood them. “[T]he cause of the murder was this,” he wrote. “Some time ago [Doc] Holliday, one of the murderers, attempted to rob the express of Wells Fargo & Co. and in so doing shot and killed a stage driver and a passenger, and the other parties engaged in the murder with him, the Earp brothers, were interested in the attempt at the exp[ress] robbery.” On the same day McLaury wrote to Appelgate, Ike Clanton began his testimony and made the same claims from the witness stand. Both men claimed it had all started when Holliday shot stage driver Eli “Bud” Philpott and a passenger during a botched holdup on March 15, 1881, and the Earps wanted it covered up. Clanton was the last witness to testify for the prosecution.
The defense lawyers, led by Thomas Fitch, picked apart the prosecution’s case, and the Spicer hearing ended November 30 with the judge exonerating the Earps and Holliday, ruling, “When, therefore, the defendants, regularly or specially appointed officers, marched down Fremont Street to the scene of the subsequent homicide, they were going where it was their right and duty to go; and they were doing what it was their right and duty to do; and they were armed, as it was their right and duty to be armed when approaching men whom they believed to be armed and contemplating resistance.”
Will McLaury had a different opinion. “It was in my opinion on this proof as brutal and cowardly a murder as has been recorded—the men who committed the murder caused the sending out of the dispatches in the manner it was done,” he wrote to brother-in-law Appelgate. The folks back in Iowa needn’t be ashamed because of the lurid news stories.
Meanwhile, Will McLaury had his hands full with the task of paying his brothers’ debts and collecting from those who owed them money. He was joined by Charles R. Appelgate, his 21-year-old nephew (his sister’s oldest son) from Iowa. A recent graduate of the University of Iowa law school in Iowa City, Charles had gone into partnership with his father. The young Appelgate came to Tombstone to assist his uncle and encourage him to return to Fort Worth. McLaury and his sister sharply disagreed over Will’s usefulness in Tombstone. Her stated concern was for Will’s motherless children, anticipating his return to Fort Worth. McLaury responded to her on November 17. “I do not like your letter,” he wrote. “It does not suit my mind or temper. My children will be provided for, and I don’t think a father would be any great advantage to them who would leave it to God to punish men who had murdered their uncles.”
While McLaury wanted to see the Earps and Holliday pay for killing his brothers and Billy Clanton, he repeatedly declared he wanted this done lawfully. That said, if all else failed, he seemed willing for others to take measures beyond the law. In the same letter to his sister, he wrote: “I am trying to punish these men through the courts of the country first. If that fails—then we may submit.” There was no question of his having the sympathies of “Texas friends here who are ready and willing to stand by me, and with Winchesters if necessary.”
Even after Spicer’s decision McLaury remained in town, waiting for the grand jury to bring an indictment against the Earps. But an indictment was unlikely. Several members of the grand jury were Earp partisans, including Marshall Williams, the Wells, Fargo & Co. agent whom both McLaury and Clanton accused of being complicit in the attempt to rob the stage.
Before he left town, Will wrote a hasty note to his sister: “Court will adjourn here about [December] 20th, and I will then leave for home. Don’t send mail to me here after that. I think the postmaster here is a scoundrel—my health is much improved today. I am truly your brother.” Less than a week later someone fired on a stage carrying the postmaster and Mayor Clum, likely in an attempt to scare or assassinate the mayor. McLaury finally left Tombstone on Monday, December 26. Two days later unseen assailants fired on Virgil Earp in a night ambush that crippled his left arm for life. Meanwhile, Ike Clanton continued to pursue legal means to punish Billy’s killers. In February 1882 he again brought a murder charge against the Earp brothers and Holliday using the same legal team that failed to get an indictment the first time. The legal maneuvers lasted five days, bouncing from one judge to another, trying to settle a defense motion of habeas corpus. The case was eventually dismissed.
Wyatt Earp, who replaced brother Virgil as deputy U.S. marshal, twice led posses into the countryside, only to come up empty-handed. In January the Earp posse was looking for Johnny Ringo and Ike Clanton, who managed to elude the posse and turn themselves in to Sheriff Behan. In February the Earp posse went after stage robbers but never found them. Then, on Saturday night, March 18, 1882, gunmen ambushed and killed Morgan Earp while he was playing billiards with Wyatt in Tombstone. The news reached Will McLaury in Fort Worth the following Monday. If he was somehow responsible for the assassination, he was not present at the time. Years later he would claim a personal involvement in avenging his brothers’ deaths.
For the next three weeks press dispatches held the nation’s attention as Wyatt Earp and his vendetta posse killed some of the Cowboys suspected of involvement in the killing of Morgan, if not the crippling of Virgil, while Sheriff Behan’s posse pursued Earp and associates. Things seemed so lawless in southeastern Arizona Territory that on May 4, 1882, U.S. President Chester Arthur threatened to declare martial law.
Back in Fort Worth, W.R. McLaury no longer had a law partner. Soon after his return from Tombstone, Captain Greene ended their partnership for reasons unknown. Greene then went into partnership with Jonathan Hogsett. In December 1882 widower Will married Lenora, the daughter of grocery store owner Leonard Trimble. The children of his first marriage continued to live with him and their stepmother. He and Lenora had four boys and a girl of their own. Not long after their first son was born, Will wrote a letter to his own father, who evidently had inquired about any further debt collections made on Frank and Tom’s behalf. Will said there were two remaining debts, but they could not be collected. With his Tombstone memories clearly still raw, Will added, “My experience out there has been very unfortunate—as to my health and badly injured me as to money matters—and none of the results has been satisfactory.” He noted the death of Morgan Earp and the crippling of Virgil Earp (and wrongly stated that Earp posseman Sherman McMaster had been killed), concluding there was nothing more to add, “Unless it would be to talk over a matter that we ought to think about as little as possible.” By that time the McLaurys had collectively turned their backs on the troubles in Tombstone. They did not seek sympathy; no family member sought revenge or any further publicity. In his later years, while relating his Tombstone exploits, Will never lost his passion about his brothers’ deaths. He embellished and exaggerated the details, holding listeners spellbound with tales of dark conspiracies and a miscarriage of justice. In the main, however, Will continued to dutifully practice law in Fort Worth until 1904. He retired with his family to a 960-acre farm outside Snyder, Okla., and died there at the age of 68 in 1913.
Paul Johnson writes from New York City, where he lives with his wife and directs the “Nightwatch” program at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. His 2012 book The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O.K. Corral Obituary is the fulfillment of a promise to elderly twin sisters whose grandmother was Margaret McLaury Appelgate, Tom and Frank’s elder sister. Also suggested for further reading: Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller; Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, by Gary L. Roberts; and Tombstone, A.T., by William B. Shillingberg.