For a 27-second gunfight, the October 26, 1881, clash pitting brothers Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday against brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy and (unarmed) Ike Clanton, and (unarmed) Billy Claiborne has certainly gotten a lot of fanfare. Surprisingly, however, two of the men killed, the McLaury brothers, have received minimal attention. Although he can’t answer all the questions, historian Paul Lee Johnson of New York finally gives the McLaurys—and their attorney brother Will—their due in The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O.K. Corral Obituary, published by the University of North Texas Press. Johnson has written several articles on the fabled gunfight and been a guest speaker at the annual Tombstone Territory Rendezvous. Johnson took time to talk to Wild West about the McLaurys, Tombstone and his book.
‘Good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is primarily the stuff of fiction. Frank and Tom McLaury were ordinary men with an ambition to make money and provide for their future
How did you get interested in the McLaurys and the O.K. Corral?
I have always loved American history. I became fascinated with the Old West following phases about the Alamo (6th grade) and Titanic (7th grade). After reading Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, I discovered Frank Waters’ The Earp Brothers of Tombstone and was baffled by the huge differences. Reading more about Tombstone and the Earps, I came across a book that showed pictures of the McLaurys and Ike Clanton. It said that letters by another McLaury brother were in the New-York Historical Society. We lived about 50 miles outside New York City. I had just turned 14 and begged my mother to let me come into the city and see these letters for myself, believing as a 14-year-old might that the letters could resolve my questions. Not only did I see the letters, I took home photocopies of them, along with a copy of newspaper clippings and copies of the photos. Since then I’ve never stopped being interested in the subject and have researched many years trying to answer the questions raised by the texts of those letters.
Little has been written on Tom and Frank McLaury. How difficult was the research?
I did not research it all in one patch. As a teenager I read general interest books and articles about Tombstone, the Earps and the gunfight. In my 20s, when we actually moved into New York City, I took up research more intentionally. I spent many hours at the New-York Historical Society, the Genealogical and Biographical Society and the New York Public Library. I met the grandnieces who donated the letters to the historical society (and still had family memorabilia). I interviewed them, having read and learned the family genealogy. I also made a research trip to Arizona and Tombstone, where I met a couple of Earp experts.
But all this was avocational. As my career took a different direction, the research stayed packed up in a suitcase for many years, until 1998. By then I had a job that was heavily invested on the weekends and left me flexible time during the week. I took up a renewed interest in the McLaurys and spent many, many more hours at the libraries. I also met a new generation of experts in the field and made research trips to New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. And even those trips would not have uncovered sufficient material if it were not for the help of people I befriended along the way.
Jeff Guinn (The Last Gunfight) and others have said the McLaury brothers were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. What are your thoughts?
Jeff and I sat over coffee and discussed this while he was in New York, viewing the McLaury file at the New-York Historical Society and in the process of writing his manuscript. I agree with that assessment, but calling them “victims” must not absolve them from culpability. Frank would have been a good deal wiser to hand his gun over to Sheriff [John] Behan. After his brother was bludgeoned to the ground, he was in no mood to receive the same treatment. Still, their real interest in being in town that day was to settle up their affairs before traveling to Iowa to see their little sister get married. It’s one reason why Tom had so much money on him.
What are Tom and Frank’s origins, and how did they wind up in Tombstone?
They were born in the fourth generation of a family that emigrated from Scotland to Ireland and then made their way to the headwaters of the Delaware River in the late 18th century. Being Scots, their family valued three things in particular: family, education and the church. In the 1850s, when the boys were still quite young, their family moved to Iowa. Their father was a farmer who also tried his hand at land speculation. Their mother died only two years after the move to Iowa. There are still many things about the McLaury brothers that remain to be unearthed. Why they located in southeastern Arizona Territory is one. I believe they were part of a crew working for John Chisum, who delivered cattle from New Mexico Territory to the Vail ranch in Arizona Territory. They were in the vicinity of Camp Thomas for a short time, relocated to the Babocomari Valley for about a year and finally established their own ranch on a quarter section in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
What was their relationship with the Clanton family?
This is another murky area. They may have met the Clantons while working for Chisum. There is a story of Billy Clanton and Tom McLaury hitting it off in the Camp Thomas area (where Clantonville was meant to be). The McLaurys’ ambition to be ranchers is something they worked toward. The Clantons established themselves with a ranch in the San Pedro Valley early on, so there may have been a mentor/mentee relationship. One thing is certain: As the McLaurys became involved in the cattle trade, their business involved both the legitimate and black market. Ultimately, they were middlemen for the cowboys who stole cattle and sold them to local ranchers (not just the Clantons and McLaurys) who could resell them to local butchers and the Army.
And the Earps?
Not much of a relationship there. Only Frank McLaury seems to have had any contact with them, yet he said nothing about the Earps when he blasted Lieutenant [Joseph] Hurst for accusing him of mule theft (Nugget, August 5, 1880). Nothing to say about them when their ranch was invaded by Indians (Nugget, October 6, 1881) or afterward, when the Earps were part of a ‘militia’ that unsuccessfully hunted Indians and then helped themselves to breakfast at the McLaury ranch.
In fact, any relationship or threats we know of were all reported by the Earps themselves. I think the only real relationship the Earps had with any of the McLaurys or Clantons was with Ike Clanton.
Where does Will McLaury factor in?
Will was Tom and Frank’s next older brother. He was a late entry into the Civil War (Iowa 47th). His older brother, Edmund (Iowa 14th), was captured at Shiloh and died at home after being exchanged as a prisoner. Some of the temper displayed by Frank is evident in Will’s personality as well. After the war he left home and settled in Dakota Territory, where Iowa neighbors had gone as a result of the war. There he became a lawyer in Sioux Falls and married. His younger brothers went to work with his in-laws in Texas. That’s where they got started as cattlemen. His wife’s health began to fail, so Will and his wife and children moved to Fort Worth.
How did he help/hurt in the Earp-Holliday hearing?
Will learned of his brothers’ deaths the day after the shooting. He arrived in
Tombstone a week later, on the evening of November 3, four days after the hearing began. The lead prosecution council was Ben Goodrich, assisted by James Robinson and District Attorney Lyttleton Price. Will attached himself to the prosecution in order to have Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday’s bail rescinded and them confined to jail. In that he succeeded, but thereafter it’s hard to see what effect he had on the hearing, other than to locate and bring in Tom Keefe as a witness. His reasons for finding Keefe went beyond the purposes of the hearing, however. He also took credit for hiring the lawyer Robinson. Hard to say how smart that was; Robinson was a corporate lawyer. His partner was a renowned criminal attorney.
Is there any credence to the theory Will McLaury played a hand in the O.K. Corral aftermath, specifically the shooting of Virgil Earp and the killing of Morgan Earp?
Now we’re dealing with “Uncle Ned” history. Will, in later years, left behind some pretty windy stories. One (written down by his grandson) recalled the time he was shot at while he was in his room at the Grand Hotel. He described how he took Frank’s gun off his dresser and snuck out of the hotel and up to the back of a saloon and shot Morgan Earp. In the same article he supposedly left $1,000 with Ike Clanton to have the Earps murdered. It sounds breathtaking, until you realize he was actually in Fort Worth at the time of Morgan’s murder and found it out by telegram a day later. You be the judge. Another argument made in favor of the assassination money was that Will McLaury was a wealthy man. He wasn’t at the time of his journey to Tombstone. His wife (mother of his three children) had died the previous August, and when he returned from Arizona, his law partnership of just one year dissolved. Two years later he complained that he didn’t have enough money to keep a horse of his own.
What happened to Will McLaury after he left Tombstone?
Will’s career in Fort Worth was a tough slog. In the fall of 1882 he remarried. His second wife’s family was from Georgia, and with her he fathered five more children. By the mid-1880s his law practice fared much better, and he achieved being called “Judge McLaury” (although he was never actually any kind of judge). He was prosperous enough by 1904 to retire and bought about 900 acres of Oklahoma farmland.
Frank and Tom—good guys, bad guys or somewhere in between?
“Good guys” and “bad guys” is primarily the stuff of fiction. Frank and Tom McLaury were ordinary men with an ambition to make money and provide for their future. They adapted to the climate of the cattle business and consorted with law-abiding citizens and outlaws alike. They were also different from each other in temperament and skill-set. Tom had the business skills, Frank was good with his hands. Both were good men in the saddle and handy with a gun—necessary assets for men living on the frontier.
And Will McLaury?
As I said, he exhibited some of the temper most associated with Frank, and he made his share of questionable choices. His letters from Tombstone contain a lot of what I describe as “Hamlet” passages; he was equally desirous of vengeance and justice by due process of law. I believe the latter won out. His later life and career were exemplary.
Why are we still fascinated by those events of October 1881?
The story is a tangled weave of personalities, events and happenstance. The roots of it were laid long before, and the tendrils of the aftermath scattered in many directions. Some of what fascinates us is about what we know, but there is much more to know—and that is fascinating.
What’s next for you?
My book on the McLaurys came out of my own deep fascination about those events and a special angle (which occurred to me at age 14) that the losers had people who grieved their passing, something that never happened in all the Westerns I ever saw growing up. Later, I made a promise to the McLaurys’ grandnieces that I would write the book. I fulfilled that promise 25 years after making it. That’s sort of a life’s work. I have an idea to pursue Tombstone’s social life of that era, focusing especially on three musicians: Myron Kellogg, Mendel Meyer and Thomas Vincent.
Any closing thoughts for prospective researcher-writers?
The best moments as a researcher are the surprises. Finding evidence that the McLaury’s nephew, Charles Appelgate, was in Tombstone helping his uncle or that Frank took on a new name (instead of Robert) after spending a month in jail in Iowa were like finding gems embedded in the earth. I guess researchers are prospectors, too. As a writer, weaving multiple layers of fact and giving them a narrative voice was a great adventure, which is probably my best motivation for going further. I’m still interested in Tombstone and those events.