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IN DEFENSE OF THE OUTLAWS
Part 1
by Joyce Aros
Read what other travelers have to say about hotels in Tombstone Arizona

      What about our outlaws? Were they a really bad bunch of men that terrorized the town of Tombstone and every community for miles around, as well as threatened the safety of every lawman in the district? The way the movies and some of the books written about this area show them, one would think even Geronimo and Cochise felt the need to run for their lives. Many writers describe them as scruffy, bummy characters who just hung out in saloons day and night; that is, when they were not killing Mexicans.

   I read many of the books on the wonders of Wyatt Earp and his crew many years ago and was, like most others, totally enamored of the man. Then along came the Wyatt Earp TV production and it just couldn't get any better. Not only was he the fastest man with a gun, the most just and fair defender of the law, but he was the snappiest dresser ever portrayed in a western genre. Not like those disgusting cowboys.

   Over the years as the popularity of the westerns faded and television offered a greater selection of unwholesome programs, I was more involved with raising my seven and enjoying the Sesame street gang. Though I had lived on cattle ranches and experienced some of the life of a working cowboy, my husband and I parted and the children and I became city dwellers. Fast guns and fast horses faded into the background.

   But the children are grown and gone and I have more time for my own immediate interests and the western movies have improved somewhat. I was drawn to the likes of Silverado and Open Range. All the old pleasures of a life long gone began to surface and I started reading again. Of course, I had to start with the old Stuart Lake paperback on Wyatt Earp. What else?

   Only now I am a little older and wiser, (I like to think ) not so impressionable perhaps, and more prone to meditate on the written word and think about what is behind it. I read several books and found that too much was beginning to sound absurd. I would go back and underline certain things because I was sure I missed something somewhere. And I began to realize that some of the character of Wyatt Earp that was coming off the page was not too admirable.

    I think I have a lot to say about Wyatt Earp and his brothers, but I really want to get back to the outlaws.

   It began to dawn on me as I read, that the outlaws didn't seem to come to town very often and when they did, they didn't cause any serious trouble. For example, when the cowboys were heading to the vacant lot near the O.K. corral, one of the witnesses at the later hearing made the comment that Billy Clanton asked him where the West End corral was. It was just over on the next corner; the whole town wasn't a mile long. Yet Billy Clanton was not that familiar with the layout of the town. Obviously, they didn't come to town often enough to really know their way around. There were undoubtedly many miners and "sporting men" that created enough disturbance on a regular basis that I don't know how the cowboys got such mushrooming reputations. Outside of the unfortunate shooting of Marshall Fred White by Curly Bill, there doesn't seem to be any real trouble that constitutes terrorizing or "treeing" the town by the cowboys in the area. In fact, it seems they spent far more time in Charleston and Gayleyville. Old man Clanton has not been known to come into town at all, according to Ben Traywick, our local historian, and Phin Clanton seems to be rarely mentioned. The picture I've been getting is of many hard working men who didn't mind bending the law a little here and there. Much like many people today who wink at some lesser forms of law and order, cheat a little on their taxes, speed habitually on the highways and often, even in town. And yet they view themselves as pretty solid and patriotic citizens, just as Frank McLaury did when he was accused of stealing some government mules. Maybe he just let someone else use his property for his or her financial venture and chose to look the other way. Who knows? People do that kind of thing today and just say, "I don't want to know."

   There's no doubt that many of these guys were cattle rustlers, raiding the herds across the border as often as needed. But in those days, even respectable ranchers fattened their herds with cattle from across the border. Given the morality of the times, robbing and killing Mexicans was considered fair game. I found little to support the idea that the Clantons and McLaurys were stage robbers and wanton killers. They seemed to be cowmen and small ranchers for the most part, though they were definitely in on the lucrative meat market supported by rustled cattle from across the border.

    Now don't get the idea that I condone crimes of a lesser or greater magnitude as something to be winked at. I am just trying to put these fellows in perspective and figure out how they got to be the "Bad Bascombs" of their time. Certainly some of their associates were worse than others and yet tolerated or even liked and supported by the local cowboys. Men like Pete Spence seemed to sit a little lower on the steps of social acceptance and likely did rob stages and steal from merchants, killing when it became convenient. The same seems to be true of Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo, both having some record of discord with the law in Texas and New Mexico, though few killings to their credit. Well, maybe I need to dig a little deeper there. But I don't see that in some of the other characters of Tombstone's history. But then again, maybe I'm missing something.

   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.

    Ike has a record of being in at least one other confrontation with a fellow gambler in Tombstone. Seems they had a falling out over whatever too sauced card players fall out over and it came to blows. Ike headed out to get a gun and do the job right and so did the other guy. They walked toward each other with full intent of a shoot-out, but Virgil Earp came between them and put a stop to the whole thing. Ike didn't show any cowardice there from my point of view. And during his disagreement with Doc Holliday the day before the O.K. Corral shoot-out, he seemed willing enough to fight it out if he could get his hands on a gun. Holliday was fully armed though, despite the prohibition against arms in town, and that's a long time mystery. Virgil Earp was in on that argument and didn't arrest Doc for brandishing a weapon nor take it away from him. Can you blame Ike for thinking that there was little reason to respect the Law in that town? Consider the night before card game at the Occidental saloon. Virgil Earp played cards most of the night with Ike, Johnny Behan, Tom McLaury, and maybe even Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday and kept his six-shooter in full view as intimidation even though Ike had NO GUN! Something seems to smell bad here regarding the attitude of the Earp men. What was the reason for such a move? And don't forget that Doc still had his weapon on him. When Ike went looking for the Earps in the morning, drinking along the way, he was brandishing a Winchester rifle and a six-gun. The Earps had to know that Ike was full of whiskey and braggadocio, and though armed, posed little real threat. Consider how the Earps later made such an issue of the cowboys being armed and yet, when MAYOR CLUM ran into Ike on Fourth and Fremont he joked with him and showed no concern for Ike's weapons, which goes to show how little real enforcement there was in the town even under the Earp's supervision. Why didn't Mayor Clum, a staunch Earp supporter, run to the Earps to warn them of Ike's armed behavior? Makes one wonder how much the Earps exaggerated the situation to make themselves look threatened.

   Soon, Virgil and Morgan came along and had no problem sneaking up behind the drunken Ike and clubbing him alongside the head, taking him off to the courthouse. Ike was so drunk and likely stupefied from lack of sleep, that he neither heard nor saw them coming. Some threat! Now he has a major concussion to add to his condition. Not to mention he was still mourning his father's death not long before. All this makes a good case for a man whose emotional stability is mush. To top it off, he was humiliated on the street and probably in front of passers-by. Public humiliation can really fuel even a smoldering fire. So there is a lot to take into consideration here. Ike unwisely shot off his mouth even more to the Earp brothers, and they didn't handle it well either. Morgan even offers to pay Ike's fine if he'll get his gun and fight it out! Whoa! It seems the Earp brothers played around with the Law a lot when they chose to and that was likely well known by the cowboys. Ike seemed to know who he was dealing with and should have had more sense. Had it not occurred to him that the Earp brothers were perfectly capable of "framing mischief by law", so to speak, and commit murder under the guise of lawful action? I think it did, and it fueled his rising paranoia. But again, the combination of all night drinking, a hangover, a concussion and painful headache...throw in the public humiliation, and you have someone who was not exhibiting self-control or good judgment. It occurs to me that the Earps desperately wanted a showdown and their one chance to promote a fight was to keep hammering away at the volatile Ike.

   So now we get to the OK Corral confrontation. You know, for some reason, when the whole thing started, in my mind's eye I never saw Ike as part of the showdown. He seemed to be in the shadows somewhere. But as I read and reread differing accounts, I think I got a clearer picture. He was actually standing right alongside his brother and the McLaurys, as was Billy Claiborne. Claiborne left as soon as the Earp party arrived close to the scene, but Ike was still there. I don't think the cowboys really expected the whole thing to be pushed that far. If they had, I am sure the two unarmed men, Ike and Tom, would have gotten the rifles out of the saddle scabbards. Nevertheless, though it was a threatening situation, they stood their ground. There was no cowardice among these men. That was certainly proved without a doubt, especially in the case of young Bill Clanton. But it's likely they would have moved on if they believed the Earps would come out shooting. There will always be the question of whether Frank was reaching for his gun to shoot or to throw it down on the ground in surrender.

   And when the shooting started, after a few seconds, Ike ran through the hail of bullets to reach Wyatt and put a stop to it. I have been trying to picture this. Billy and Frank were already mortally wounded and Tom was likely dead or dying in those few seconds. In desperation Ike ran right across where all the bullets were flying probably in an attempt to save his brother. Now, this is not a popular thought, but in all fairness, this is what the evidence reveals. Everything was happening very, very fast. Ike may even have been the reason that Wyatt came out without a scratch. With Ike in the line of fire, it may well have affected how the cowboys were directing their shots, and Ike may have inadvertently caused their deaths as well, as they would have to be more cautious about shooting. Valuable seconds and decisions could have been lost that might have been to their advantage. Unarmed, and adrenalin pumping, Ike had no choice but to get out of the line of fire when Wyatt shoved him aside. And lets not hang onto the old viewpoint that Wyatt was magnanimous in his generosity. More than likely he was frantically trying to shake Ike off because his attention was on the bullets flying around him and Ike was definitely spoiling his aim. Ike had done what he could when he was pushed aside and then Johnny Behan grabbed him and pulled him indoors. It was at that point that he drew Doc Holliday's attention and fire as Doc shot at his back, narrowly missing him. Ike was in survival mode and kept on going. Didn't Billy Claiborne and even Johnny Behan head for cover? If Behan had stepped out in the middle of that, there would have been no shooting. He lacked the intestinal fortitude to stand behind his badge; but then again, perhaps he knew the Earps better than the cowboys did! Yet I don't believe the Earps would have dared to shoot down the Sheriff in broad daylight and the cowboys wouldn't have done it either.

   At any rate, Ike took off through Fly's and kept going. That's the only part I have trouble with because there is no further information. No one at the time thought to ask Ike where he went. At least there is no existing information along those lines that I've been able to find. Was he actually in a state of shock and grief somewhere, rather than cowering in a corner? Try to put yourself in his shoes for a moment. Did he go back to check on his brother? Was he looking for help? Was he at the Coroner's later in the afternoon? What was he doing? No one asked those questions at the time or even a little later, so we'll never know. Was he scared? Yes! Those Earps meant business. A mystery to me is why Wyatt didn't just push him in the line of fire? He probably didn't think about it at the moment because he was concentrating on the men with the guns.

   And before we come down too harshly on Ike Clanton, let's stop and think a minute. I'd like to pose an interesting scenario, if the reader doesn't mind. Let's say, in the middle of all this, Virgil Earp's gun jams, really jams! What does Virgil do? Does he stand there and wait for a bullet to hit him? Or does he jump behind one of his brothers, distracting them and maybe endangering them even more? Or does he do what any sensible man in his situation would do; get out of there and fast! And if he retreated under those conditions, would that make him a coward?

   Or how about the famous event when Wyatt Earp's posse surprised Curly Bill Brocious and some cowboys? According to Wyatt Earp, he was caught in a regular shooting range that nearly finished him. The interesting thing was.... Doc Holliday and his men had all taken off for cover ... and left Wyatt out there alone! Apparently Wyatt did not realize the men had gone and left him at first. Do you think he was mad when he found out he'd been abandoned by his friends? Do you think that caused a rift between him and Doc, as they seemed to drift apart after that? And did anyone, any writer, ever accuse Doc and the others of cowardice? No! It seems that thought hadn't been programmed into them by the books. Only the idea that Ike Clanton had left the scene of a gunfight when he was not armed and could do nothing for anyone.

   I realize much of what I am saying is mere speculation, but it certainly raises some interesting questions and hopefully asks us to take another look at Ike Clanton. The old timers say that Ike was a broken man after the shoot-out and the disappointing hearing was over. Desperation and anger might well have driven him to become involved in the later assassination attempts on the Earps, as he certainly recognized there would be no justice through the court system. He had tried that twice. They say he never smiled anymore and soon gave up living in the area, moving up north where his brother Phin had relocated. Interestingly, after Billy's death, Phin and Ike went out to Skeleton Canyon and dug up the decomposed remains of their father who had been killed a couple of months earlier. They buried him at Boothill cemetery next to his youngest son. I would say these men were people with feelings like ours. This could not have been an easy thing to do and yet it was important to them. I, for one, have taken a whole new look at Ike Clanton. Perhaps, though a little bit of a blowhard, a man who was anything but a coward.

Joyce Aros ~ joyce@tombstonetimes.com

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Murdered on the Streets of Tombstone
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from Joyce Aros
MURDERED on the streets of TOMBSTONE.
This book may just lead you to concur that Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury were MURDERED on the streets of TOMBSTONE!
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