It lasted just half a minute—thirty seconds, thirty bullets—but it propelled three cowboys into Boothill and four lawmen into western history.
On October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, five cowboys—Billy Claiborne, brothers Billy and Ike Clanton, and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury—shot it out with four lawmen—Doc Holliday and brothers Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp.
The gunfight took place just northwest of the O.K. Corral on lot 2, block 17, between the photo studio of Camillus Sydney Fly and the residence of William Harwood (see red X on map).
By 1881 Tombstone, Arizona was booming. Mining had done for Tombstone what cattle drives and railroads did for Fort Worth. Tombstone was founded in 1879 amid the boom in silver mining in the area. By 1881 the town had one school, one ice house, one ice cream parlor, one bowling alley, two banks, three newspapers, four churches, fourteen gambling halls, 110 saloons, and uncounted brothels and dance halls. The population in 1881 was more than seven thousand, but women, children, Asians, and Hispanics were not counted.
There had been bad blood between the Clanton brothers and the McLaury brothers on the one hand and the Earp brothers on the other hand. When that bad blood finally spilled on October 26, the gunfight was brief: about thirty shots fired in thirty seconds.
Among the cowboys, Billy Clanton (born 1862 in Hamilton County, Texas) and Frank McLaury (born 1848) and Tom McLaury (born 1853) were killed. They were buried in Tombstone’s Boothill Cemetery. Among the lawmen, Holliday and brothers Morgan and Virgil Earp were wounded. (Photos from Find A Grave.)
The Arizona Sentinel reported the “sanguinary shooting affray.”
After the smoke cleared, the four lawmen claimed that the five cowboys had been illegally armed and had threatened the lawmen. The surviving cowboys claimed that the lawmen had attacked them in cold blood.
The coroner’s jury determined that the three cowboys had been killed by the Earps and Holliday but did not use the words murder or homicide. Clip is from the Arizona Weekly Citizen.
Billy Clanton’s brother Joseph “Ike” Clanton pressed murder charges against the lawmen, and, the Arizona Weekly Citizen reported, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were arrested.
Despite its wide open spaces, the old West at times could be a small world. There are five Cowtown connections to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral:
1. Note in the above clip that among those men putting up bond for Earp and Holliday was R. J. “Uncle Bob” Winders, a friend and mining partner of the Earps and a former Fort Worth saloon owner.
2. In addition to “Uncle Bob” Winders, Fort Worth is connected to Wyatt Earp through Earp’s friendship with Luke Short. Both men would be members of the Dodge City Peace Commission in 1883.
3. James Earp, oldest of the five Earp brothers, had been a bartender at “Uncle Bob” Winders’s Cattle Exchange Saloon in Fort Worth in the late 1870s, as this 1877 city directory listing shows.
By 1880 James Earp was a saloon keeper in Tombstone, living with brothers Wyatt and Virgil, who were listed as “farmers.”
4. John Henry (“Doc”) Holliday had briefly practiced dentistry in Dallas in the early 1870s before moving on to Dodge City. In 1873 he and partner Dr. John A. Segar won awards at the county fair.
On July 4, 1877 Holliday was gambling with Henry Kahn in Breckenridge, Texas when the two men disagreed. Holliday beat Kahn with his walking stick. Both men were arrested, fined, and released. As so often happened, later that day the two men renewed hostilities. This time Kahn shot Holliday, who was seriously wounded. In fact, the July 7 Dallas Weekly Herald reported that Holliday had been killed.
But Doc had not died. He had merely gone to Fort Worth.
According to the University of Maryland’s National Museum of Dentistry, Doc Holliday, to recuperate, checked into Fort Worth’s Transcontinental Hotel with cousin George Henry Holliday. George was the son of Dr. John Stiles Holliday, for whom Doc had been named.
Note the mention of General J. J. Bryne, who in 1880 would foresee his own death. (Photo from Wikipedia; thanks to Frank Gossett for the tip.)
5. And there is still another Cowtown connection and still another brother. Tom and Frank McLaury, killed in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, had a brother, William Rowland McLaury (pictured), who was an attorney in Fort Worth for a quarter-century.
Some background: The McLaury brothers—central figures in one of the most iconic events in the history of the wild West—were Yankees by birth. As was their father, Robert Houston McLaury. The McLaurys were a branch of the McClaughry clan of Ireland.
This 1840 census of Kortright township in New York state lists father Robert Houston McLaury. Sons Frank and Tom and William were three of thirteen siblings and half-siblings. They were born in New York state and migrated west, first to Iowa. Tom and Frank then drifted into Texas and on to Arizona.
The 1880 census lists brothers Thomas and Robert Frank as stock raisers in Pima County, Arizona. Pima County is adjacent to Cochise County, where Tombstone is located.
Meanwhile brother William and wife Malona moved from Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory, and arrived in Fort Worth in July 1876 just before the first train. Wrote the Fort Worth Daily Democrat: “W. R. McLaury, a young lawyer of more than ordinary ability, has arrived with his household goods and taken up abode in our city.”
McLaury was listed in the 1877 city directory. His office was on Main Street. The “abode” of Will and Malona was on East 15th Street between Pecan and Grove streets. His Irish heritage notwithstanding, in 1878 Will McLaury helped found Fort Worth’s Caledonian Society, which celebrated all things Scottish. That year he also ran for county attorney but lost.
Attorney McLaury specialized in litigating collection suits and advertised in the newspaper for a strong arm: “Wanted—a man to collect bad debts in this city. Must be of a pugilistic turn.”
As this 1884 Fort Worth Gazette clip shows, Will McLaury had an assertive side himself. (Jonathan Young Hogsett wrote Fort Worth’s original city charter.) On another occasion McLaury and another attorney were jailed for fighting over a fee.
Will McLaury had fought for the Union in the Civil War. The S. P. Greene in the last paragraph of the above clip was McLaury’s law partner in 1883. Clip is from the Daily Democrat.
According to a McLaury family story, once while Frank and Tom were visiting Will in Fort Worth, Frank got into an altercation, and Will kept Frank out of jail and advised him to leave town. Frank and Tom took Will’s advice, but before they moved on, . . .
Just as the best-known photo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was taken in Fort Worth by John Swartz on Main Street in 1900, the best-known photos of Frank (left) and Tom McLaury were taken in Fort Worth by August R. Mignon on Main Street about 1876, probably while the two brothers were visiting Will soon after he moved to Fort Worth.
Now let us return to late October 1881. After Will McLaury received a telegram informing him of the killing of his brothers (his wife also had died that summer) at the O.K. Corral, he went to Tombstone, arriving three days after Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer began an inquest into the killings of the three cowboys. In what today would be considered a preposterous conflict of interest, Will McLaury was allowed to serve as “associate counsel” of the prosecution against the men accused of killing his brothers.
During the inquest Will McLaury wrote letters to his sister and to law partner Greene in Fort Worth. “I think I can hang them,” he wrote of the Earps and Holliday. He also wrote: “. . . this thing has a tendency to arouse all the devil there is in me. It will not bring my 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.”
Brothers Tom and Frank apparently had been planning a return visit to Fort Worth to visit brother Will when they were killed. While in Tombstone brother Will wrote to his brother-in-law, telling him that “Tom, after he was shot was robbed of about $1600. I am trying to unearth it but don’t think I can do it but shall make a strong effort—they [Tom and Frank] had just sold off their stocks and would have started for my place [in Fort Worth] in a day or two.”
In this handwritten transcription of testimony given by Billy Clanton’s brother Ike, Ike recalled that on the night before the gunfight, Doc Holliday had “abused” him and called him a “da—d son of a b—h.” (From the Arizona Memory Project.)
Photo of Ike Clanton taken by C. S. Fly. The gunfight took place outside Fly’s studio. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
According to Paul Lee Johnson in The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona, Will McLaury told his sister that when the inquest had begun, the defendants had been allowed not only to be unrestrained but also to be armed while sitting in court. Will told her that he had persuaded the court to jail the defendants without bail. He also told her that “we fear some of our most important witnesses will be killed by the friends of these brutes.”
Will McLaury took part in cross-examining witnesses and defendants and was confident of indictment of the lawmen. But after days of testimony Justice Spicer ruled that there was not enough evidence to indict the lawmen. Spicer said the evidence indicated that the Earps and Holliday had acted within the law. A grand jury later agreed. Clip is from the Los Angeles Herald.
After the inquest Will McLaury, bitter about the ruling, returned to Fort Worth and continued his law practice, eventually becoming a Superior Court judge.
Some historians have wondered if Will McLaury played a part in arranging the assassination attempt in which Virgil Earp was maimed on December 28, 1881 and in the assassination of Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882. (Contrary to Wyatt’s prediction in the report in the Miner of Prescott, Arizona, Virgil survived.)
By 1896 Will McLaury was living on Bessie Street southeast of downtown. He had remarried.
After the Oklahoma Territory was opened up to white settlers at the turn of the century, Will moved from Fort Worth to Snyder and lived there until his death in 1913.
William Rowland McLaury is buried in Snyder under a plain tombstone whose inscription gives no hint of his footnote in a chapter of the history of the West written by three sets of brothers.