Tombstone Times Tombstone News, History and Information
Part II - What about those McLaurys?
by Joyce Aros
Read what other travelers have to say about hotels in Tombstone Arizona

Frank and Tom McLaury   Now here are a couple of interesting characters that require a second look. Two very handsome young men from a very good family, and both hard working and ambitious. Their history is perhaps a little surprising considering the light that has been cast upon them by the Earp fans. Most books about the time period favor the Earps shamelessly, and I might add, thoughtlessly. The McLaury brothers are described as blood thirsty desperados, as dangerous as men can get! Once again, as I read and re-read the books on Tombstone's historic and colorful past, I'm inclined to read between the lines and take a closer look at these people. For people they are, and fascinating!

   I won't go into the whole family history of names and dates, but from what I could find out, the family had a history of raising pure-bred sheep, likely in the old country. The family name has oft been misspelled, but the popular spelling seems to be McLaury so we'll stick with that. The father of these boys was a successful attorney and sired a generous-sized family of eleven children. Robert Findley McLaury (Frank) was the eighth in line in 1848, and Thomas Clark McLaury came along in 1853 as the tenth child. In 1855 the family made a move to Iowa. It was in Iowa that the boys got their education, actually studying pre-law, likely geared to following in their father's footsteps. In fact, an older brother, Will, did become a distinguished lawyer and later a Superior Court Judge in Fort Worth, Texas.

   So it would seem the boys were off to a good start. But what happened? Frank and Tom left Iowa to join their older brother Will, the lawyer, in Fort Worth, Texas. They planned to settle there and study Law. However, instead they kept right on to Arizona, settling at first in the Hereford area, and at this time made the acquaintance of Billy Clanton who was staying at a neighbor’s ranch. This led to a friendship with the whole Clanton clan. Billy was described as a friendly and likable young man, as well as a hard worker and a good cowhand to have available during the round-ups. All three seemed to hit it off at once though Billy was probably only seventeen. However, there's no doubt the boy was much older than his years in many ways. Boys started doing a man's work at an early age in those days, and considered themselves men in their early or mid-teens, often carrying a gun responsibly.

   The brothers had purchased a herd of Mexican steers with money they brought with them from Iowa and sold the steers at a good profit. They recognized a good thing and decided to go into the cattle business. With Fort Huachuca so close and all those soldiers needing beef, it was an opportunity not to be missed. And with the fledgling boomtown of Tombstone firing up, there seemed to be room for everyone.

   However, these boys were not ones to put all their eggs in one basket. They actually labored long and hard in the open laying out alfalfa fields and irrigation for such. This required long, hard hours in the sun pushing a small plow behind a mule or two, I would imagine, and digging irrigation ditches by hand. They pioneered alfalfa growing in this region. These guys really worked, had excellent reputations among their neighbors, and rarely went to Tombstone. They were not known to be troublesome, and they were reputed to be snappy dressers. An interesting side point; looking at the cowboy's photos, notice how most had good haircuts and were clean-shaven or neatly trimmed. They owned suits and good shirts and it's said they usually dressed nicely when coming to town. The movies always make them look like scruffy bums. I realize that coming to town with a load of beef or driving cattle might mean they were in their work clothes, but it seems for the most part that coming to town once in a while was special and they dressed for it. The only photo I've seen of a cowboy in a studio setting that looked like he slept in his clothes was the one of Billy the Kid.

   The brothers were friends and business partners in the cattle business, loosely translated stolen meat market, with the Clantons. Their ranch was always open to travelers going by, and Frank made it clear that "nobody goes hungry when they stop by our ranch." Hospitality in that harsh land was a given and there were no questions asked. Therefore, due to desirable location as a crossroads between source and market, along with coffee, beans and biscuits the McLaury ranch became a popular spot for rustlers to stop and refresh themselves. And though they were outlaws, how could one help but form friendships? Even criminals have a sense of humor, charming personalities, and often a sense of fair play and loyalty. The brothers had a lot of friends, and as mentioned before, rustling cattle from across the line was not taken too seriously by even so-called respectable ranchers. So we can see how these ordinary hard working young men got into the 'cowboy club' without even half trying.

   Now, it seems that early on the Earps were on a fairly friendly basis with all these fellows, as the general consensus was that they were all pretty much in the same line of work. Doc Holliday seemed to trigger some irritation among them, but that seemed to be his personality. I don't think he liked anyone except Morgan and Wyatt. Some of the witnesses that observed the big shoot-out on Fremont Street commented on the fact that it was the falling out between bad men on both sides that brought the whole thing to a climax. Witness the fact that they all played cards all night before the fight. How do you do that? Those Earps were a cold-blooded lot. Imagine sitting drinking, telling jokes, playing cards, and even eating together yet viewing the cowboys as enemies. That seems strange to me, but then, I'm just thinking out loud, so to speak.

   Tom McLaury was there in the game, but Tom was an easy-going fellow not given to trouble making. Most describe him as the harder working of the two brothers and unlikely to start any rowdiness. He was very well liked. How could the Earps hate this guy so much? Interestingly, something happened the next day that makes one wonder even more. After Ike Clanton had been beaten up by Morgan and Virgil Earp and dragged off to the courthouse, Wyatt ran into Tom McLaury on the street as Wyatt was leaving the building. According to eyewitnesses, Wyatt immediately became abusive to Tom. Tom was standing with both hands in his pockets and not wearing a gun, yet as the two men faced each other, Wyatt either slapped or punched Tom in the face, demanding to know if he were heeled or not. A lawman challenging someone on the street to a gunfight for no good reason? Wyatt looks worse and worse as I turn pages! As Tom backed away, protesting that he was not armed and "had nothing to do with anybody," Wyatt kept coming, pulled his pistol out and slammed Tom up against the head and shoulders several times with it. Tom fell to the street, bleeding profusely as head wounds do. He was dazed and confused as well, and in some fair amount of pain. Three pounds of iron has got to hurt.

   Now, the thing that interests me most about this encounter is why Wyatt Earp, after turning away from the badly hurt cowboy laying in the dirt, muttered audibly "I could kill the s-o-b!" I'm sure you'll agree that when someone like Wyatt Earp said something like that in that day and time, he meant it literally. No idle threat, this. But what in their history could have happened to make Earp feel so venomous toward this young cowboy that he had little contact with? It's already clear the cowboys came to Tombstone seldom. Tom and Frank were not troublemakers though Frank was less likely to back off from trouble if it were thrust upon him; and the one incident about the army mules could not have brought on such resentment. It was far more than that. It had to be something very personal. Perhaps the talk about James Earp's young stepdaughter Hattie was at the bottom of it. Aha! The plot thickens. As the French say, find the woman! According to the recollections of Virgil Earp's wife, Allie, it was known by the extended family that frisky sixteen-year-old Hattie was climbing out the window some nights to meet a cowboy she was sweet on. The women all believed it was one of the McLaury boys but didn't know which one. Looking at their pictures and thinking on what I have read about the two, I am convinced it was Tom. Frank was said to be a bit of a ladies man and was also older. He just looks like he would be attracted to women closer to his own age. But that Tom. He has such an open face, a little rascally. It's got to be him. And can you imagine how the Earp men would react to that? The Earp women were never allowed into town. Many in town didn't know the Earps were attached at all. The women lived in a very male-dominated society and didn't give any back talk, and Hattie would have been expected to be a respectable young lady. Apparently she felt the need to flee the confines of the convent-like life the men imposed on them; but they found out, and were waiting one night when she got home. According to Allie Earp, it was Wyatt, Virgil, James and his wife Bessie who were waiting up till midnight for fun-loving Hattie. The men beat her long and hard with a leather strap to get her to tell who she was with, and Hattie could be heard screaming all over the Fremont and First street corner. Even Pete Spence's curtains were pulled open.

   But that account is found in Frank Water's book and some think that there is not much support for the story. However, Stuart Lake, the author of "Wyatt Earp; Frontier Marshal," seemed to know something about this. In a letter he wrote to a friend he referred to the problems that young Hattie had caused the family by her association with one of the McLaury boys. Wyatt apparently felt strongly about it and had warned the cowboy away. Whether the young man took the warning seriously we may never know. But that would be something that would cause some really bad feelings if the cowboy was persistent. The story goes that Hattie ran off to Willcox with one of the cowboys and Wyatt and his brothers had to go get her back. Family scandal when the Earps were trying so hard to be accepted by the political "powers that be" in Tombstone.

   With the romance rivalry between Wyatt Earp and Johnny Behan over Josie, and now one of the outlaws fancying one of the Earp women ... well, think about it. Makes the whole silly idea of the Democrats and Republicans feuding pale by comparison. I know it's mere speculation. But I'm thinking that's why Wyatt wanted to hurt Tom McLaury badly enough to near kill him.

   Now Frank seems to be another story. He came into town later that day with Billy Clanton. They had been up Gleeson Road rounding up some cattle and stopped for breakfast at the milk ranch before heading in to meet their brothers and have a few drinks before heading home. Frank and Billy stopped for a drink when they got into Tombstone and were immediately informed by a friend that Tom had been beaten up by Wyatt Earp. This smelled like trouble and they started out to find Ike and Tom so they could get them out of town before any more problems could erupt. Frank who was understandably angry about what had happened to Tom and Billy was anxious to get Ike out of town and sobered up. They had some business to take care of and seemed genuinely intent on leaving once that was accomplished. But Frank had a small run-in with Wyatt shortly due to his horse stepping up on the boardwalk when Frank was inside doing business. Wyatt roughly backed the animal onto the street and he and Frank had words. Even then, Frank did not trigger anything. Whatever else, the cowboys had to know they could not openly attack a lawman, so the usual verbal exchanges were all that happened. But Frank was angry, and was not the type to back down even if in the wrong. He had made that clear on several occasions; the incident a year before with the army mule problem was a case in point. His brother must have been a buffer for many near serious encounters. Nevertheless, as mentioned before, both men were liked and respected.

   To jump ahead to the scene of the final confrontation, it seems reasonable in light of the many witness' accounts, that it is unlikely that Frank was really responsible for starting the shoot-out. When the Earps and Holliday confronted them, only Billy and Frank were armed. Some say, "heavily armed". Each man's horse had a rifle in the scabbard, not unusual for men who spent long days in the open range. Hostile Apaches and other dangerous elements stalked, from rattlesnakes to cougars. They each had a six-gun on them. Common for men who worked in that part of the country or anywhere the same conditions existed; heavily armed seems a convenient enlargement. Were they in violation of the city ordinance to not wear guns in town? That seems a debatable question. If one was planning on leaving town shortly, it was not required that the guns be turned in. Also, as mentioned in the previous article about Ike Clanton, it doesn't appear that the law was strictly enforced, as the Mayor, John Clum, met Ike on Fourth Street brandishing both a rifle and sidearm with a few threats thrown in and the Mayor didn't seem to notice or feel the need to alarm anyone else. Is it any wonder that the cowboys kept their guns for the couple of hours they thought they'd be in town? It looks like the Earp bunch used that as an excuse to trigger something, as not much else had worked.

   So the cowboys didn't seem to be fully prepared for a serious fight. The Earps and their testy companion approached and according to the findings at the hearing later, Wyatt for sure had his gun out and in his hand. Doc Holliday had a shotgun in the open though he was trying to conceal it. The other two had guns though likely Morgan was the one whose gun was at the ready. In light of that sinister group approaching, and with only Billy and himself against four armed men, it is unlikely that Frank was so senseless as to try to shoot it out. It is more reasonable to assume that he was responding to Virgil's demand for their weapons and actually was reaching to throw out his gun. Even a hothead like Frank could see the odds were not in his favor and it might be best to live to fight another day. Tom had already stated that he was unarmed and Billy had said he didn't want to fight. This was not an organized united front! If it was, surely Ike and Tom would have gone for the rifles on the saddles instead of standing there watching the Earps approach. It is clear to me that the Earp party, most notably Doc and Morgan, were as wired as could be and let the adrenalin call the shots. They had to have shot first and it amazes me that those cowboys, quickly and mortally wounded, were able to defend themselves so fast. Certainly fear and shock must have overcome them. Who knows what was going through their minds in those seconds? But they put up as brave a defense as any I've ever heard of. Had they had a better chance, they would have been formidable!

   Tom was finished off quickly by Doc Holliday with the shotgun. It's also reasonable that the debate over whether or not Tom was really armed is silly. To be shot under the arm he had to have his arm raised up, reaching over the saddle to get his hands on the rifle in an attempt to protect himself. That has been determined by several eyewitnesses. Why would a man in such a dire situation waste precious seconds trying to get the rifle off the frightened, plunging horse when he had a handgun available? How could that even come up for discussion?

   Frank fought gamely and almost got Doc Holliday in return, but the bullet to the head by either Doc or Morgan finished the rancher once and for all.

   A sad ending for these two promising young men. Frank was thirty-three years old and his younger brother Tom was only twenty-eight. Though they were dealers in stolen cattle, they were not the professional gunslingers that some of the cowboy element were, nor were they stagecoach robbers like Pete Spence and Frank Stilwell. Nothing about their history suggests they were looking for a showdown with the Earps. Had Frank and Billy not ridden in to town at that particular time, and had Virgil Earp been more responsible in representing his office, the whole thing would never have happened. The really sad thing was that the old-timers say that Frank and Tom were winding up business in the Tombstone area as they were planning on returning to their family. There was no need for the Earps to force the issue by provoking the ill will of these men. Billy Clanton had no prior trouble with the law. Of all the rustlers and bad men in the county, these three were the least dangerous and therefore the most unfairly dealt with. •

Joyce Aros ~


Click for Tombstone Arizona Forecast

Murdered on the Streets of Tombstone
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!

Cochise County Cowboys
from Joyce Aros
Who were the Cochise County Cowboys? This book fleshes out the peripheral characters of the Tombstone Saga!

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