New epitaphs for dead in O.K. Corral shootout

Past Boothill Graveyard and around the bend where Arizona 80 becomes Fremont Street, a larger-than-life statue of a man rises from a low sandstone pedestal. Clad in a duster and broad-brimmed ha...

Past Boothill Graveyard and around the bend where Arizona 80 becomes Fremont Street, a larger-than-life statue of a man rises from a low sandstone pedestal. Clad in a duster and broad-brimmed hat, a sawed-off shotgun over one shoulder, Wyatt Earp stands guard at the entrance to this dusty town that calls itself "too tough to die."

Since the Oct. 26, 1881, "gunfight at the O.K. Corral," the famed frontier lawman has loomed large over this former boomtown. The silver deposits that gave birth to the city have long since been played out, but Tombstone has survived largely by mining the legend of the West's most infamous shootout.

And in popular culture, the Earps have always been the good guys; the McLaurys and Clantons, the bad guys.

But something peculiar has happened at the O.K. Corral: The white hats and the black hats have all gotten a bit grayer.

Hanging on the stucco wall surrounding the little amphitheater where the fusillade is re-enacted daily is a tiny bronze plaque. Unpretentious and easy to miss, it is dedicated, not to the badge-wearing Earps or their tubercular friend, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, but to the memory of brothers Frank and Tom McLaury — two of the three men who died that day.

Beneath oval portraits of the two is a short, but enigmatic epitaph: "One owes respect to the living, but to the dead, one owes nothing but the truth."

To movie-goers who thought they knew the real story of the O.K. Corral, the McLaury clan's message is unmistakable.

"The stars of the gunfight were the winners," says Pam Potter of Mountain Center, Calif., the brothers' great-grand-niece.

Two new books seek to even the score a bit.

"In no way did the shootout represent a clearly defined duel to the death between Good and Evil," says former journalist Jeff Guinn, author of the just-released "The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral — And How It Changed the American West." ''But the poor McLaurys have gotten short shrift all these years, and they don't deserve it."

Paul L. Johnson agrees.

"They weren't angels," says the New Yorker, whose childhood fascination with the gunfight has resulted in "The McLaury Brothers of Arizona: An O.K. Corral Obituary," currently being vetted by the University of North Texas Press. "Innocent's a hard word to apply, because they were complicit in the various illegal dealings going on. ... It's this nuance business."

The shootout lasted just 30 seconds. But its echoes continue to reverberate 130 years later.

The immediate cause of the gunfight was Police Chief Virgil Earp's attempt to enforce the local ordinance against carrying firearms. But Guinn's research reveals that tensions between the Earps and the cowboys had deep roots.

The McLaurys came to the San Pedro Valley from Iowa in 1877 for the promise of cheap and abundant grazing land. The Earps, particularly Wyatt, followed a couple of years later with dreams of cashing in on the silver boom.

In a series of movies — starting in 1934 with "Frontier Marshal," based on Stuart N. Lake's flattering and deeply flawed biography of the same title, continuing with John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" in 1946 and Kevin Costner's "Wyatt Earp" in 1994 — the Earps have come across as straight-shooting, law-and-order types. But Guinn says it wasn't that simple.

Never mentioned are Wyatt's own brushes with horse theft and misappropriation of funds, or his time working in the floating brothels in Peoria, Ill., Guinn says. Also omitted is the fact that Wyatt's and at least one of his brothers' "wives" were convicted prostitutes.

"He (Wyatt) broke jail on a charge of horse theft back in Indian territory as a young man," he says. "Technically, he was a fugitive from the law his entire life. Nobody out in the West was completely pristine."

Wyatt had a well-earned reputation for toughness from his days as a deputy in the Kansas boomtowns of Dodge City and Wichita, preferring to "buffalo" — or pistol whip — his adversaries rather than shooting them. But while those methods worked with the itinerant cow-town populations, they didn't sit well with the "much more permanent" residents of Tombstone, says Johnson.

Wyatt had recovered some stolen Army mules from the McLaury ranch. And it is widely believed that the brothers were fencing rustled Mexican cattle for the Clantons and others.

But Guinn and Johnson argue they were no worse than other local ranchers trying to feed the insatiable appetites of the U.S. Army and Tombstone's burgeoning population.

The Earps were Republicans, while Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan and members of the cowboy faction were members of Democratic Party, the one more closely aligned with former Confederates. Wyatt desperately wanted Behan's job — and its lucrative tax-collecting duties — and saw a crackdown on the lawless cowboys as a way to achieve that goal, Guinn says.

Most historians agree that Ike Clanton was the fight's chief instigator. He had been drinking the night before and into the morning, and was going around town threatening to kill the Earps the next time he saw them. Virgil Earp arrested Ike on Oct. 26, but he was quickly released after paying a fine.

Adding to the tension: The Earps had publicly pistol-whipped both Clanton and Tom McLaury in the hours before the gunfight.

The McLaurys were about to leave for Iowa to attend the wedding of their sister, Sarah Caroline — Pam Potter's great-grandmother. They stuck around Tombstone just a little too long.

One common misconception is where the shootout took place. While the Clantons and McLaurys were hanging out at the corral, the confrontation actually began in a vacant lot several doors east of the back entrance on Fremont Street, beside C.S. Fly's photo studio and boarding house.

Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury had checked their pistols in town, but Frank McLaury and Ike's younger brother, Billy, were carrying six-shooters. When Chief Earp — with brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and a shotgun-toting Holliday in tow — ordered them to throw up their hands, all hell broke loose.

When the smoke and dust cleared, Billy Clanton and the McLaurys lay dead. The only men not injured were Wyatt and Ike Clanton, who fled as the shooting started.

It is unclear who fired first. Initially, public opinion sided with the Earps.

The Daily Epitaph, run by Republican mayor and Earp supporter John Clum, ran the story under the headline, "EARP BROTHERS JUSTIFIED."

"The feeling among the best class of our citizens is that the Marshal (the town fathers had recently changed the title to police chief, Guinn says, in an attempt to seem more cosmopolitan) was entirely justified in his efforts to disarm these men, and that being fired upon they had to defend themselves which they did most bravely," Clum wrote. "If the present lesson is not sufficient to teach the cow-boy element that they cannot come into the streets of Tombstone, in broad daylight, armed with six-shooters and Henry rifles to hunt down their victims, then the citizens will most assuredly take such steps to preserve the peace as will be forever a bard to further raids."

The Epitaph was an Associated Press client, and it was Clum's pro-Earp version of events that readers across the country got first.

Locally, reactions were more mixed. The day after the shootout, three open caskets sat in the funeral parlor window under a sign that read, "MURDERED IN THE STREETS OF TOMBSTONE." More than 300 mourners on foot, 22 carriages, and dozens of riders on horseback accompanied the bodies to Boothill, while another 2,000 citizens lined the route, says Guinn.

Ike Clanton succeeded in obtaining murder warrants, and there was a monthlong preliminary hearing in which Sheriff Behan testified for the prosecution. While Justice Wells Spicer agreed there was credible evidence that at least one of the dead — Tom McLaury — was unarmed, he concluded that the killings were "a necessary act, done in the discharge of an official duty."

The Earps and Holliday, Spicer ruled, "saw at once the dire necessity of giving the first shot to save themselves from certain death. They acted; their shots were effective, and this alone saved all the Earp party from being slain."

This was not the end of the saga of the Earps. When Virgil Earp was partially crippled in a December 1881 assassination attempt, Wyatt took his place as deputy U.S. marshal. After younger brother Morgan's murder in March 1882, Wyatt went on the notorious "vendetta ride" that resulted in the killings of cowboys Frank Stilwell, Florentino "Indian Charlie" Cruz, "Curly Bill" Brocious and, some believe, Johnny Ringo.

Wyatt lit out for Colorado. Behan filed murder charges against the former lawman, but the governor refused to extradite.

The Earps may have won the national public relations battle, but they were essentially finished in Tombstone.

Tombstone has survived, says Guinn, "by offering a very simplistic, black-and-white, almost cartoonish version of events."

Women in bustles and men sporting six-shooters stroll the plank sidewalks along Allen Street. Next door to the original O.K. Corral office, tourists can purchase T-shirts and fake marshal's badges, catch a Tombstone documentary at the Historama narrated by late horror actor Vincent Price, then head down to the Crystal Palace Saloon for "Buffalo Burgers Good Whiskey (and) Tolerable Water."

"It's like a B-movie set," says Guinn. "You can't blame the people there for doing it. ... If you go to Disneyland, you suspend disbelief that a large mouse is really your host and will have his picture taken with you."

A docent at the O.K. Corral offers a balanced account of the gunfight. But the overall focus is still very much on the Earps and Holliday.

"I mean, you go into Tombstone and you can find mugs and T-shirts with Wyatt and Doc," says Potter, who has represented the McLaurys for the History Channel and just about anyone else who'll listen. "And the only pictures you can find of Tom and Frank are the coffin photo."

Bob Love, whose family has owned the gunfight site since 1963, says the truth is more interesting. But, he concedes, "It's harder to market."

"If you've ever traveled, by the afternoon you're tired, you've seen a lot of stuff and you can only process some much information," says Love, who put up the plaque of the McLaury brothers several years ago at the behest of their descendants. "So, yes, I think people would like simple, straightforward kinds of history. And this is not simple, straightforward."

Every day — twice daily most weekends — players re-enact the shootout in a little open-air theater behind the livery and feed lot's office, not far from the actual site. Stephen Keith, who portrays Holliday as a drunken, swaggering dandy, says he structured the play as "a Greek tragedy with cowboy hats and six-guns."

"Basically, I wrote the play as a kind of counter to the normal thing," says Keith, who's been staging the play there for four years. The Clantons and, especially, the McLaurys "are always targets in the movie, you know. That's all they're there for. And so I say that they're real people. They had lives; they had girlfriends and issues and everything else."

Keith admits to having taken copious poetic license. The play spends a lot of time on an alleged dalliance between Wyatt's niece, Hattie Earp, and one of the McLaurys, giving the playwright his Wild West version of the Capulets and Montagues.

But the play at least acknowledges the historical ambiguity. At show's end, Doc, acting now as Greek chorus, picks up his dusty cloak and addresses the audience directly:

"A tombstone marks each fallen head,

And graven there to see,

The charge of murder, made with lead,

. And murder it may be."

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