Time Before Now, October, 1881 – The U.S. and Russia both suffered assassinations; Tsar Alexander II died when a bomb exploded beneath his carriage and President James Garfield died in September of complications after being shot by Charles J. Guiteau in JULY. It was a big year for foundings. Clara Barton established the Red Cross, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell formed the Oriental Telephone Company and education pioneer, Booker T. Washington founded Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. The real bright spot; London’s Savoy Theatre opened on October 10, the first public building lit by electricity.
October 26, 1881
On this day, Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury all died in Tombstone, Arizona, casualties of the frontier’s most famous 30 seconds in history.
Tombstone, Arizona in 1881
Millions of words and miles of celluloid have been spent on the event, many getting most of the details wrong. “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” somehow caught the public’s attention the way “Gunfight on a Vacant Lot” or “Shootout Near C.S. Fly’s Boarding House” couldn’t. The Earps were getting most of the press. At first they benefited from well-burnished reputations that were later disected by a number of historians.
Wyatt, (right) Virgil, Morgan and wing man, Doc Holliday, weren’t all the heroes that were portrayed. Wyatt’s career as a lawman got expanded over time and Holliday’s unsavory past was obscured in a fog of literary mystique. The four men representing the estalishment’s law and order, however, were a cut above their opposition. The three men who died at their hands that day also got worked over by history and were found to be pretty much about as bad as portrayed.
Rustlers all, they had been implicated in a number of murders on both sides of the Arizona, Mexico border. In addition to a variety of of violent crimes, they all had one thing in common, experiencing motherless childhoods from an early age.
William “Billy” Clanton (right) was just four when his mother died, leaving him to follow too closely in the footsteps of his boisterous older brother, Ike. In addition, Newman “Old Man” Clanton was reportedly a poor role model for his seven children. Unsuccessful as a day laborer, miner and farmer, he had taken up cattle ranching in Arizona, mostly with other people’s cattle.
Ike and Billy were part of the loose-knit gang, pejoratively known as “cowboys.” They’d made a practice of steeling steers in Mexico and selling them in Tombstone. It earned them a fan club of sorts with local butchers happy for the cheap beef, but they were roundly disliked by many of the town’s citizenry.
Brothers, Robert “Frank” Finley McLaury (right) and Tom, (below) were far more advantaged than the Clantons. They could have, should have, turned out differently. Born in New York, the family moved to Benton County, Iowa, in 1855. Father, Robert, was a prosperous farmer and successful lawyer. Frank was 9 and Tom just 5, when their mother, Margaret Rowland McLaury, died of typhoid.
The elder McLaury remained a widower for the remainder of their growing-up years but at 65 abruptly married a 35-year-old widow with children of her own. Several of the young McLaury siblings were still living on the family’s 800-acre Iowa farm and McLaury declared he needed someone to help care for them. The marriage, however, caused a permanent rift with his ten older children, including Frank, 22, and 17-year-old Tom.
The disaffected pair packed up and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where their older brother, William, (right) was an established attorney and headed for a judgeship. Both brothers briefly studied pre-law and should have stuck to the books. Signing on as drovers and ranch hands instead, it may have been while working on one of John Chisholm’s cattle drives that led them out of Texas.
Sometime after landing in Arizona, they became ranchers on the San Pedro River and took up rustling Mexican cattle, selling them to their best customers, the Clantons. The brother’s first brush with the law, however, came when they met Curly Bill Brocius, (right) already considered a dangerous gunman and general hell-raiser. While accompanying Brocius to Tombstone on a drunken spree, Brocius accidently shot Tombstone marshal, Fred White. The trio was arrested by Wyatt Earp and briefly held for questioning before being released. Brockius later stood trial for the killing but was acquitted largely on the strength of the victim’s deathbed statement.
But the incident only added fuel to the McLaury’s simmering feud with the Earps. They were beginning to put a crimp in the McLaury’s illegal activities. A glaring physical disparity between the brothers and the Earps, may have also played a role, according to a number of armchair psychologists. Tom McLaury stood just five feet three and Frank an inch taller. The Earp brothers all stood over six feet and were considered intimidating figures. (Right, the Earps, standing with Newman and Ike Clanton, in front.)
In addition, Billy Clanton had not endeared himself to Wyatt, when unrepentant and arrogant Wyatt’s favorite horse which had been stolen was found in Clanton’s possession.
The theft of Mexican cattle had increased by 1880 to the point it had become an international incident. The U.S. government had its own issues with McLaurys when a number of stolen Army mules were discovered on their ranch.
By the time Ike and Billy Clanton, the McLaurys and Billy Clayborne swaggered into Tombstone that fateful day they were already suspects in a stage holdup and a string of ambush-style murders. In fact, Newman Clanton (right) had been killed by Mexican Rurales a few months earlier, believed to be payback for the murders of several Sonoran ranchers.
The slain rustlers were mourned by their supporters, their deaths celebrated by opponents. None the less, their funerals drew huge crowds estimated at as many as 2,000. All were laid to rest in Tombstone’s Boot Hill.
Boot Hill markers in Tombstone
The McLaury’s lawyer brother, William, traveled to Tombstone in an attempt to have the Earps and Holliday indicted. He claimed his brothers were simply in town to conduct some final business before leaving to join him in Texas.
Ike Clanton (right) also sought to have the Earps charged with murder and did succeed in having them arrested. They were eventually exonerated. Like his brothers, on June 1, 1887, Ike died near Springville, Arizona, at the hands of a cattlemen’s detective, Jonas V. Brighton, while fleeing a sheriff’s posse.
Curly Bill Brocius, 36, also suffered death by Earp a year later. A suspect in the murder of Morgan Earp, a posse led by Wyatt and Warren stumbled on a Cowboy camp near Iron Springs. According to Wyatt’s account, he killed Brocius and seriously wounding Johnny Barnes while returning fire in a shootout.
Billy Claiborne (left) was the fifth and final rustler involved in the Tombstone debacle, barely 21 at the time. He was killed a year later in a drunken altercation with Frank Buckskin Leslie, a bartender at Tombstone’s Oriental Saloon.
Morgan Earp had been assassinated by one or more of the cowboys at age 30. Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles at 81, old but poor. Virgil died at 62 in California, as well, after another two decades in law enforcement.
Writers may have gotten much about the famous shootout wrong and Hollywood continued to commit their mistakes to film. The Earps, however, became legends and the cowboys all died young.
Boot Hill Graveyard, 408 Arizona Hwy 80, Tombstone, is the final resting place of the “cowboy” casualties at the O.K. Corral as well as Newman Clanton, Billy Clayborne and Fred White, the marshal shot by Curly Bill Brockius. Founded in 1878, it was closed five years when a new city cemetery was opened. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it is managed by the City of Tombstone
A number of outlaws lynched or shot in Tombstone are among the 250 buried there, as well as victims of accident, suicide or misadventure, leaving behind little more than sad stories. Admission is $3 for adults, children under 15 are free and it’s open to the public daily from 8 to 5. For more information go to tombstoneboothillgiftshop.com or call (520) 457-3300. For information on museum’s and other historic sites, go to tombstonechamber.com.
© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.