story has been told and retold. In fact, one could not relate
the build-up to the gunfight on Fremont Street without including
the account about the Benson stage robbery attempt and the shooting
of Bud Philpot. It is one of the major peripheral factors in the
events of October 26, 1881.
As it turns out, it may
be even more important than that! It has been one of the enduring
mysteries of old Tombstone... did Doc Holliday really have anything
to do with that attempted robbery and did he actually shoot Bud
For me the story was a paradox.
On the one hand, though I believed Doc Holliday to be capable
of almost anything to do with money, I really had a hard time
seeing him as a highwayman. After all, wasn't he a smartly dressed
urban man who loved the atmosphere of saloons, cigar smoke and
playing cards? Yes, indeed, so what would entice him to be out
on a dusty desert road with a bunch of rough cowboy types holding
up a stage? It just didn't fit my image.
But then there was the other
side of the coin. Kate Elder, his common-law wife. Now, Kate and
Doc had a very volatile relationship as was well known at the
time. There is some indication that it occasionally came to blows.
And these kinds of fights often result in a temporary loss of
loyalty by one party or the other. Perhaps this happened in Kate's
case, for she did indeed turn on Doc in a way she had not done
before. She accused him of murder!
But let me give you the
background knowledge you need to understand this whole story.
On March 15th, 1881, the Sandy Bob stage out from Tombstone and
on its way to Benson was robbed. Actually, it was an attempted
robbery. The driver, Bud Philpot, was in reality to be the shotgun
messenger at the time, and Bob Paul was to have been the driver.
But at some point and for some reason, they changed positions,
perhaps to give the driver a chance to warm his hands, as March
can be chilly in this desert. As the stage slowed for a small
incline in the road, a masked bandit appeared in the path of the
coach and demanded that the driver pull up. Bob Paul immediately
raised his shotgun to resist the attempt, but the gunman fired
first, killing Philpot. The startled horses bolted and the highwaymen
took off, losing out on the desired Wells Fargo booty of twenty-six
thousand dollars in pure silver. I cannot tell you how much that
would be in today's money, but the general consensus seems to
be to multiply by ten.
The driver was able to get
the team under control and drove it into Benson where he quickly
sent a telegram to Tombstone with the necessary information regarding
the attempted hold-up and the subsequent murders of Philpot and
Peter Roerig, the hapless passenger who had been shot at as the
horses sped away. A large posse was gathered and took off after
the robbers in a cloud of dust and excitement. This would seem
to be some time after ten o'clock at night when the news arrived
and was probably closer to midnight by the time men and horses
were choking the road with heel dust. There were two posses, one
led by Virgil Earp. With him were Wyatt, Morgan, Bat Masterson,
Doc Holliday and Marshall Williams. A formidable bunch to be sure.
The other group was led by Johnny Behan and did not include such
Jim Crane, Harry Head, and
Billy Leonard were accused of the crime but were never located.
One man who was with them, Luther King, was found and brought
back to the sheriff's jail, but miraculously escaped shortly thereafter
and was never heard from again.
I am not going to ramble
on with the continuing details of posse accounts and resulting
disappointments for all. The case was never really solved. The
outlaws that were believed to be involved met various violent
ends in a short time. All except one. It seems there was another
man with Leonard, Head and Crane. We are not talking about the
in and out escapee. He just held the horses and seemed to have
little stomach for the rough stuff; but there was someone else
who disappeared into the night right after the attempted hold-up.
At this point I am going
to quote an item from a Tucson newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star,
dated March 26th, 1882. The article is titled "The Vendetti,"
and was written after the so-called vendetta ride of the Earp
gang after the brothers were attacked. The news piece attempts
to review the events leading up to and after the Fremont Street
"...The trouble between the Earps and
the Clanton and McLowry boys grew out of the robbery of the Benson
stage. On March 15th1881, the stage with Wells, Fargo & Co.'s
express left Tombstone for Benson with a large treasure, 'Bud'
Philpot driving and Bob Paul as Wells, Fargo & Co.'s messenger.
The coach left at 6:00pm and at 7:30pm, while only 200 yards out
from the first station, the order to halt was given. Simultaneously
with it two shots were fired, one of which killed the driver and
the other perforated the cushion upon which Paul was setting.
The driver fell off, carrying the lines with him, and the horses
ran away. Paul emptied his gun, returning shot for shot, but without
effect. The horses kept running, and the robbers kept shooting,
and in all fired some twenty shots at the retreating stage with
its load of ten passengers. They succeeded in killing one man
who was on top. Paul managed to stop the team, gathered up the
lines and drove rapidly to Benson, where he telegraphed the news
to Tombstone. Immediately all was excitement. Agent Williams of
Wells, Fargo & Co. and the Earp brothers were rushing around,
preparing to hunt the robbers. At 8:30 that same evening Doc Holliday
rode up to a saloon in Charleston, ten miles from the scene of
the attempted robbery and inquired of Billy Clanton. On being
told that he was not there, started in the direction of Tombstone,
which was nine miles distant, and about 10:00 o'clock rode up
to a saloon on a back street in Tombstone and called for a big
drink of whiskey, which he drank at a gulp, without dismounting.
His horse at the time was covered with foam. This all happened
before the news of the murder reached Tombstone. At midnight the
agent and the Earp brothers, with Holliday, left town to meet
Paul. It was too dark to follow a trail when they arrived on the
ground, so they camped until morning. They found three masks made
of hay rope and about twenty large-size rifle cartridges. They
then took the trail and followed it for about three weeks without
catching any one but a supposed accomplice, and he was assisted
by some unknown person to escape from the custody of the sheriff
while consulting with his lawyer...."
So now you have been over
the account twice and it sounds like a pretty routine stick-'em-up
for the time period. But wait... it gets better.
Let's take the notorious
Ike Clanton and try to flesh him out a bit. He is always spoken
of as that miserable loud-mouthed coward that got his kid brother
killed and then ran away, groveling somewhere under somebody's
back stoop. The movies show him off even worse, almost licking
Wyatt Earp's boots as he begs for his life. Wow! If that were
really so, I don't think Ike Clanton could have spent another
24 hour period in the whole of Cochise county. Cowards were not
suffered gracefully by the cowboy crowd and Ike's existence would
have been too miserable to bear. Actually, reminiscing old timers
around Charleston recall that it was Billy Claiborne and Johnny
Behan that were censured by the folks around for not helping the
McLaurys and Billy Clanton. There was no bad feeling about Ike
Clanton. There has got to be more to the story.
To quote the succeeding
paragraph... "The news of Holliday's ride becoming known, coupled
with the facts that he was seen mounted and armed in the early
part of the afternoon, ostensibly to go to Mexico, caused many
surmises, and not a few made the remark that the 'robbers were
hunting themselves.' Before the return of the agent's posse it
became known that Billy Leonard, Jim Crane and Harry Head were
interested in the murder, and it was their trail that Paul was
following. Wells, Fargo & Co. offered a large reward for them,
but it was of no use...."
Our interest in these lengthy quotes is in regard
to John Henry Holliday and his late night ride to... Mexico?...
then Charleston... then to a back street saloon in Tombstone...
and then to join the midnight ride of the posses. If we go back
to the middle of the account, we see that about 8:30 pm, an hour
after the attempted hold-up and only nine miles away, Doc Holliday
turns up in a saloon in Charleston, of all places, when he has
been reported to be on his way to Mexico for an extended period
of time. In Charleston he is asking for Billy Clanton! He has
never met the nineteen year old cowboy and logically, should have
no interest in him whatsoever, yet here he is well off his supposed
path to Mexico to seek this very person. Why? What reason could
he have to make such an effort?
Possibly the answer might
be found in the correspondence of Will McLaury, the older brother
of Frank and Tom McLaury. Will had come to Tombstone just a few
days after he received word of the deaths of his two brothers.
The older McLaury was a lawyer and joined the prosecution team
at the Hearing proceedings against the Earps and Doc Holliday
regarding the gunfight known as the O.K. Corral showdown. He wrote
to his brother-in-law, D.D. Applegate in Toledo, Ohio, a letter
wherein he describes what he understands to be the cause of the
gunfight. I'll quote the pertinent portion ... "The cause of
it was this; some time ago, Holliday, one of the murderers, attempted
to rob the express of Wells-Fargo & Co. and in so doing killed
a stage driver and a passenger and the other parties involved
with him the Earp brothers were interested in the attempted express
robbery and young Clanton, who was killed, a boy 18 years old,
knew the facts about the attempted robbery and had told his brother,
J.I. Clanton, Thos. and Robt. And they had got up facts intending
to prosecute him Holliday and the Earp brothers and Holliday had
information of it. It is now known that the other two men who
knew of the murder in the attempted robbery have since then been
killed in Mexico, the report was by 'greasers' but at the time
they were killed, Holliday was out of town 'said to be visiting
relatives in Georgia.'"