DID THE McLAURYS THREATEN THE EARPS?

The legend of the Gunfight at the OK Corral involves two groups pitted against each other, following a long-smouldering feud. The traditional, pro-Wyatt Earp version, tells a story of three brave peace officers (and their friend, the deadly dentist) facing an armed gang of cowboys who have sworn to kill them. In the anti-Earp version, Wyatt Earp provokes a feud with the Clantons and the McLaurys in order to further his political aims.

The classic pro-Earp version is still John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE – beautifully lit and photographed, shot in Monument Valley (though the Tombstone set was built across the border in Utah, on the road to Gouldings Trading Post). Ford plays fast and loose with history, and has the Clantons murder two of Wyatt’s brothers prior to the gunfight at dawn.

Examples of anti-Earp versions are Frank Waters’ book The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, and Frank Perry’s Western, DOC. Waters is an excellent writer and, bizarrely, as a little boy he knew the widow of Virgil Earp, who went from door to door in Los Angeles, selling plastic flowers. From this encounter came a book which focuses on the wives of the Earps and Holliday, and is a tremendous read. It is also selective history, tending to make Wyatt look bad. DOC is a lively movie shot in the set of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. Harris Yulin plays Wyatt as a crooked, exploitative politician who provokes the cowboys so as to secure the lucrative job of sheriff.

Both versions of the story rely on a build-up of hostilities between the Earps and the cowboys. This is good drama – and it’s important for the pro-Earp version to have the brothers face an appropriately threatening set of adversaries. The joy of TOMBSTONE RASHOMON is that we’re not limited to either variant. Wyatt Earp, Ike Clanton, and Sheriff John Behan all told different stories, and we can depict them – and more.

But researching these events, I’ve discovered that most of the literature (whether pro-cowboy or pro-Earp) goes back to the transcript of the coroner’s inquest and a judge’s hearing, and to the daily reports of same in the Tombstone papers, the Nugget and the Epitaph. The Epitaph was owned by the mayor of Tombstone, John Clum. Its politics were Republican. It supported the interests of the city, opposed lawbreakers and stage-coach robbers, and approved of the Earps. The Nugget was the Democrat paper; it too was opposed to crime, but its constituency was more rural, it defended the cowboys, and its preferred lawman was Sheriff Behan.

Both newspapers carried detailed reports of the inquest and of Judge Spicer’s hearing. (Despite the movies, the Earps weren’t put on trial after the gunfight. Instead there was a hearing in which a judge determined whether or not to advise a grand jury to consider the case. But it was a serious proceeding, and both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were denied bail and imprisoned in Behan’s jail for a portion of it.)

We’re lucky that both newspapers covered the trial (even when they contradict each other) since the original coroner’s and court records have disappeared. Apparently, in the 1930s an individual named Pat Hayhurst received WPA money to copy and edit the original transcripts. Unfortunately Hayhurst had an agenda – he was anti-Earp – and his edit of the documents is suspect. Worse, he did not return them to Cochise County – they were supposedly lost in a fire or thrown away after he died. How could this be? Sadly it’s an example of what often happens when government money is in play. Cash is allocated to initiate the project, maybe even to finish it. But is there oversight or follow-up to make sure the money was well-spent, the project accomplished and the original materials safeguarded? Clearly, here there wasn’t.

Hayhurst’s copy was re-edited by Alford E. Turner and published in 1981 as The OK Corral Inquest. This book – together with the newspaper articles, if you can access them – is the original testimony heard at the inquest and the hearing. It is, for researchers, the equivalent of the Warren Commission’s 26 Volumes of Evidence (though thankfully less full of irrelevancies and more logically laid out!). Whatever you read in a book or article about these events, it is either relating some old timer’s story (for example, Allie Earp’s reminiscences in Frank Waters’ book) or it refers to testimony at the inquest or the hearing.

Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight is a fine book about the shootout. Following a generally-agreed-upon sequence of events, it recounts an on-going feud between the McLaurys and the Earps, based on three or four specific events. The first of these occurred when Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp accompanied Lieutenant J.H. Hurst to the McLaury ranch to recover some stolen Army mules. The McLaurys weren’t there, and one of their ranch hands, Frank Patterson, persuaded Lieut. Hurst to go away, promising to deliver the mules to him later. This he did not do.

Several books are cited as Guinn’s sources for this story – but if you follow the citations, the original and only source is Wyatt Earp’s testimony at Judge Spicer’s hearing. Wyatt stated, “Captain Hurst cautioned me and my brothers, Virgil and Morgan, to look out for those men, as they had made some threats against our lives.” Per Wyatt, he met Tom and Frank McLaury a month later and they threatened that “if I ever followed them up again as close as I did before, they would kill me”. (Turner, pg. 156). The mule incident made it into the Epitaph of July 30, 1880, where it was reported that Hurst had put up flyers accusing Frank McLaury of theft. This incensed Frank, who took out a paid advertisement in the Epitaph of Aug 5, calling Hurst “a coward, a vagabond, and a malicious liar” and stating, “My name is well known in Arizona, and thank God this is the first time in my life that the name of dishonesty was ever attached to me.”

Lieutenant, or Captain, Hurst, did not give evidence at the hearing so we have only Wyatt’s hearsay account of his alleged warning. Per the Epitaph, it would seem Frank McLaury was enraged at the Lieutenant, not at the Earps. Casey Tefertiller, in his book Wyatt Earp (pg.44), tells a story of Virgil being threatened by Tom and Frank in very similar terms: “If you ever again follow us as close as you did, then you will have to fight anyway.” The source for this is unclear.

In September, supposedly the McLaurys threatened Virgil again. According to the generally-accepted narrative, Frank stopped Virgil in the street and asked if he was involved with an alleged vigilante group. Virgil denied that he was. Frank replied, “I will never surrender my arms to you. I would rather die a-fighting than be strangled.” Jeff Guinn (pg. 189) cites Tefertiller, pg. 110, and Paula Marks (And Die In The West), pg. 181, as the sources for this. Tefertiller is quoting from the Epitaph report of November 22 1881, combined with the Hayhurst document; Marks is quoting from the Nugget report of the same date (probably cross-referencing Hayhurst/Turner). In other words, the original – and only – source of this story is Virgil Earp’s testimony at the hearing.

The fourth, and final, piece of evidence as to a pre-existing McLowery grudge against the Earps appears on pg. 191 of Guinn’s book: after the arrest of his friends Stillwell and Spencer for stagecoach robbery, Frank tells Morgan, “I have threatened you boys’ lives, and a few days later I had taken it back, but since this arrest it now goes.” What is the source for this? Wyatt Earp’s testimony at the Spicer hearing, on page 159 of Turner.

Guinn quotes former deputy Billy Breakenridge as confirming that Virgil was certain the McLaurys were out for blood: “I laughed at [Virgil] as I knew about the feud between them” (Breakenridge, Helldorado, pg. 287). Deputy Breakenridge (writing in 1928) said he spoke to Tom McLaury, who said “it was none of his fight and he would have nothing to do with it.”

Wyatt Earp mentioned in his testimony that several other individuals had warned them of threats by Tom and Frank, including “Marshall Williams, Farmer Daly, Ed Barnes, Old Man Urrides [also known as Old Man Winter], Charley Smith and three or four others” – none of whom testified.

What does all the above tell us? The obvious thing: that only Wyatt Earp and Virgil Earp reported being threatened by the McLaurys prior to the day of the gunfight. They mentioned Lieutenant Hurst and brother Morgan as being threatened, but neither Hurst nor Morgan testified (Judge Spicer was extremely lenient regarding heresay evidence), so we are left with only two actual witnesses as to the prior animosity of the McLaurys: the men who killed them.

Now, let us turn to the day of the gunfight itself. Less than an hour before the difficulty, Wyatt Earp attacked Tom McLaury, urging him to “Jerk your gun and use it!” and pistol-whipping him when he did not. If there was ever a time when Tom and his hot-tempered brother would be apt to issue threats against the Earps, and especially Wyatt, this would be the time.

Some thirty one witnesses gave testimony at the inquest and the hearing. At the hearing, both the prosecution and the defense called and cross-examined witnesses. Several (Ned Boyle, R.F. Hafford, Julius Kelly, H.F. Sills) testified as to threatening speeches by Ike Clanton, who was drunk, armed and aggressive up to his arrest. At least four witnesses (Billy Claiborne, Wes Fuller, William Allen, Johnny Behan) can be considered partisans of the cowboys, and hostile to the Earps. Half a dozen witnesses (the coroner, those who arrived after the gunfight) could not testify as to the actions of the McLaurys.

So, if we exempt the latter six (their number includes a prime witness, Frank McLaury’s lawyer, Marcus Aurelius Smith, who was – amazingly – excused from testimony by the coroner), we are left with 25 witnesses who saw the gunfight or witnessed events preceding it. How many of them reported hearing threats made by the McLowrys? None at all.

Neither Virgil nor Wyatt reported being threatened by the McLaury brothers on the day of the fight. Wyatt pistol-whipped Tom without engaging him in conversation; they did not speak thereafter. Predictably, none of the McLaury partisans reported any threats from them; but nor did Andrew Mehan, the bartender to whom Tom checked his pistol, James Kehoe, the butcher who spoke to Frank just before the gunfight, or Albert Billicke, J.B.W. Gardiner, J.H. Batcher, or Thomas Keefe, all of whom saw Tom before the fight. Not even H.F. Sills, the defense’s “dream witness” – who knew none of the participants – accused the McLaurys. Sills only identified Ike Clanton as “threatening to kill Virgil Earp on sight.”

What does this tell us? Again, the obvious – that despite all the turmoil and rumour-mongering in Tombstone on that fateful day, no witness heard the McLaurys threaten the Earps, or Holliday. Whereas two other individuals were clearly identified as making murderous threats: Ike Clanton, and Virgil Earp. One coroner’s witness – P.H. Fellehy, a laundryman – quoted Marshal Earp as stating “These men have made their threats. I will not arrest them, but will kill them on sight.” (Turner, pg. 37)

What does it mean? I think it means that, just as Behan and the cowboys apparently coordinated and to some extent concocted their testimony in an effort to incriminate Holliday and the Earps, so Wyatt and Virgil coordinated and concocted theirs, and agreed upon a story in which the McLaurys were presented as an on-going threat to public order, and the Earps’ personal safety.

Was the feud story true? Or was it an invention of Wyatt, Virgil and their attorneys, to justify the extreme police measures they employed that day?

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