The Cowboy War

To say that Tombstone, Arizona was a violent place would be a gross understatement.  There were gunfights, fistfights, knifings, and people getting falling-down drunk.  This is what one might expect from a mining town that capitalized on saloons and houses of prostitution.  Beyond this, under the surface, there were other tensions.  Most of the Cowboys were either former Confederate soldiers or sympathizers; they were Democrats from southern states, many from Texas.  Mine and business owners, merchants, and honest lawmen (including the Earps) tended to vote for Republicans and they were mostly from northern states.  If this weren’t enough to sow the seeds of distrust and outright animosity, there were also conflicts over land and resources.  In the post-Civil War period, Democrats favored small, southern-styled government; Republicans wanted governments large enough to provide citizens with reliable community services.  In the minds of southern Democrats, the problem with Republicans was that they were all “carpetbaggers,” even if it wasn’t true.

Smuggling was another problem in Tombstone, mostly the result of the Mexican government’s high taxes on cross-border goods, such as alcohol and tobacco.  Finally, Mexican ranchers were targets of Cowboy rustlers and many innocent Mexican Vaqueros fell victim to hot lead fired from Cowboy revolvers.

How bad were the Cowboys?  According to the San Francisco (California) Examiner, they were “the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country—infinitely worse than the ordinary robber.”  Regular ranch hands, stockmen, and wranglers were insulted when anyone referred to them as a cowboy.  One wonders, if these Cowboys were so bad, why did the towns people put up with it?  The Cowboys were welcome in town because of their free-spending habits and, besides that, most of the people they killed probably deserved it.

Virgil Earp

Virgil W. Earp

Virgil Earp was the first of his family to migrate to Arizona, arriving in Prescott with his common-law wife Allie, whom he had met in Council Bluff, Iowa, in 1877.  He was not a carpetbagger, but rather someone (among thousands) looking for opportunities in the southwest.  And, he was not always a lawman.  He served in the Union Army during the Civil War, afterward working variously as a farm hand, grocery clerk, railroad construction worker, stagecoach driver, sawmill operator, mailman, and as a deputy town marshal.  He had previously worked in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and California.

In October 1877, Virgil Earp was asked to assist US Marshal Wiley Standifer, Yavapai County Sheriff Ed Bowers, and Prescott Constable Frank Murray in the apprehension of two men accused of murder whose names were Tallos and Wilson.  The lawmen closed in on the suspects at the edge of town and a gunfight broke out.  Virgil spotted one of the men at the base of a tree reloading his pistol.  Earp dispatched the fellow with a Henry rifle —a clean shot right through the man’s head.  Subsequently, Virgil worked as a driver for a local freight company.  In this capacity, he met John Gosper, who was serving as Secretary of State for the Arizona Territory.  Gosper introduced Virgil to the new appointed US Marshal, a fellow named Crawley Dake, and they became friends.  Dake was impressed with Earp’s skill with weapons.  Sometime later, with the assistance of those who respected him, Earp was elected as Constable for Prescott.  The position paid him a monthly salary and a percentage of fees collected for issuing licenses and serving court summons.

Apparently, Virgil wrote to his brothers James and Wyatt to tell them about business opportunities in the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone.  At that time, James and Wyatt were serving as assistant town marshals in Dodge City, Kansas.

In September 1879, Wyatt resigned his post in Dodge City and, with his common-law wife Mattie, his brother James and his wife, and his friend, John Henry Holliday (and his woman, who was known as Big Nose Kate), departed for Tombstone, Arizona.

When Virgil revealed to his friend Crawley that he intended to move to Tombstone, Dake offered him a commission as Deputy US Marshal for the Tombstone District of Pima County.  Virgil accepted the commission and was instructed by Dake to resolve the ongoing problems in Tombstone with the outlaws.  The job didn’t pay very much and, as a deputy, Virgil was mostly “on call” to help local and county lawmen.  By December 1879, Virgil, Wyatt, and James were reunited in Tombstone.  The Earp men found gainful employment as ferro dealers, bouncers, and part-time miners.  Holliday[1] made his living as a gambler and connoisseur of rotgut whiskey.

On 30 October 1880, Curly Bill Brocius “accidently” shot Town Marshal Fred White, who subsequently died of his wounds.  Virgil Earp was appointed interim marshal pending a special election during the following month.  This position, which would later become a permanent appointment, gave Virgil two badges of authority.  Local Cowboys did not resent Virgil Earp because he was a Republican (or carpetbagger); they resented him because he was a lawman who dared to stand up to Cowboy terrorism.

Who were these “Cowboys?”

McLaury Bros 001The Brothers McLaury

Frank McLaury was born Robert Findley McLaury on 3 March 1849 at Kortright, New York.  In his youth, everyone called him Rob to distinguish him from his father.  Tom McLaury was born in 1853.  The boys were two of eleven children born to Robert Houston McLaury and Margaret Rowland.

In 1878, Frank and Tom McLaury traveled to Fort Worth, Texas where they studied the law under the tutelage of their older brother Will.  It was at this time when Rob began calling himself Frank.  Both Frank and Tom gave up the study of law to join a cattle drive believed to have been assembled by John Slaughter[2].  The cattle drive took the boys to Arizona where, in time, they ended up working for Newman (Old Man) Clanton.  At the time, Clanton owned one of the largest cattle operations in Arizona.  Clanton sold his ranch to purchase another near the San Pedro River and Frank and Tom McLaury purchased land of their own and built a home at Soldier’s Hole near Babocomari Creek, a tributary of the San Pedro River.  There remains some question today whether the McLaury’s owned title to the land, or if it belonged to Frank Patterson.  In any case, after Old Man Clanton moved his spread, Ike Clanton remained behind with the McLaury brothers and formed a lasting friendship with them.

By 1879, the McLaury’s were experiencing some success in the cattle industry and this coincided with a population explosion in and around nearby Tombstone due to the discovery of silver.  For a brief time, when not stealing cattle from Mexican haciendas, Frank McLaury assisted town constable Melvin Jones in the apprehension of some soldiers who had stolen leather harnesses.

Frank StilwellFrank Stilwell

What we may be looking at when we view pictures of Frank C. Stilwell is a typical character of the American Southwest.  He was a son of William Henry Stilwell and Charlotte B. (Sarah) Winfrey … an Iowan by birth in 1856.  The Stilwell family soon moved to a small town called Palmyra in the Kansas territory near the Santa Fe Trail.  Then, in 1863, William and Sarah divorced; William took custody of his sons Simpson (Jack)[3], Millard, and Frank; Sarah took custody of the girls, Elizabeth and Mary.

Jack and Frank traveled from Oklahoma (Indian Territory) to Prescott, Arizona in 1877.  While in Prescott, Frank worked at Miller’s Ranch located just outside of Prescott.  On 18 October 1877, a newly hired Mexican cook by the name of Jesus (pronounced Hay-Soos) Bega brought Frank a cup of tea instead of coffee; an argument then ensued culminating in Frank drawing his side arm and shooting Jesus through the lung, killing him.  Stilwell was later acquitted of the charge of murder on grounds of self-defense.  The incident may have been the only time in US history that anyone was required to defend himself from a cup of tea.  When brother (Comanche) Jack left Arizona for Fort Davis, Texas, Frank remained behind in Arizona.

For a time, Frank Stilwell worked as a teamster, a miner, and a deputy sheriff under Johnny Behan—but one thing was abundantly clear: he was a thoroughly mean, foul human being.  On 9 November 1879, Frank entered a disagreement with Colonel John Van Houtan.  Houtan accused Stilwell of claim jumping.  When Van Houtan’s body was later found, his face had been brutally beaten in with a rock.  Frank Stilwell and James Cassidy were both charged with Van Houtan’s murder, but both men escaped Grand Jury indictment for lack of evidence linking either man to the murder.  This is the way the American judicial system is supposed to work, but on the other hand, the citizens of Tombstone deserved justice, too.

Pete SpencePete Spence

Elliot Larkin Ferguson (also known as Pete Spence) avoided a Goliad, Texas arrest warrant by fleeing to Arizona in 1878.  In Arizona, Spence was suspected of participating in several stagecoach robberies in and around Bisbee.  Pete Spence was a known associate of the McLaury’s and Clanton’s.  he was also a habitual liar, a thief, and no one any reasonable person would turn his back on.  In Tombstone, Spence was a neighbor of the Earps.

William BrociusWilliam “Curly Bill” Brocius

As with many of The Cowboys, Curly Bill’s past is sketchy.  Some claim that he was born in Crawfordsville, Indiana in 1845 and that his birth name was William B. Graham.  There is also a belief that he migrated to Arizona from Missouri.  Other researchers claim that he was William “Curly Bill” Bresnahan, who along with Robert Martin[4], was convicted of attempted robbery in Texas —during which attempt, a man was killed.  It is entirely possible that Brocius lived in Texas after migrating from Missouri.  Bresnahan and Martin escaped to Arizona before they could be transferred to a Texas prison.  Both Martin and Brocius were prominent members of the Cochise County Cowboys.

Most historians agree that Brocius arrived in the Arizona Territory around 1878.  For a time, he served as a deputy sheriff under Johnny Behan.  As one of Behan’s deputies, he was responsible for collecting taxes.  In this role, Brocius was more of an enforcer for Behan, who history remembers as thoroughly corrupt.  It was Deputy Brocius’ task to collect taxes (bribes) from other criminals on stolen Mexican cattle.  The money, of course, enriched Behan and added to Brocius’ salary.

Curly Bill Brocius was mean when sober, but far worse when drunk.  According to Wells Fargo Agent Fred Dodge, Brocius once forced Mexicans at a community dance take off their clothing and dance naked.  His orneriness may explain why he had numerous conflicts with lawmen.  Brocius was named as one of the individuals who participated in the murder of Morgan Earp.

Johnny BehanJohnny Behan

Behan moved to Prescott, Arizona in 1865.  He was a land speculator and prospector.  While prospecting, he and five other men were attacked by Indians.  Behan acquitted himself well enough to earn a good reputation for courage and tenacity in dire circumstances.  As a result of this “good reputation,” Yavapai County Sheriff John P. Bourke hired Behan as an undersheriff.  Before the end of 1866, Behan had developed feelings for Bourke’s 14-year old daughter, Victoria.  In 1868, Behan resigned his position in the Sheriff’s office to run for election as Yavapai County Recorder, which he won at the age of 23-years.  To supplement his income, Behan worked in various saloons and mines.

In 1871, Behan succeeded his father-in-law as Yavapai County Sheriff, serving until 1873.  He resigned this office to run for the Arizona legislative assembly, a position he won.  He was again nominated to serve as Yavapai County Sheriff in 1874.  He lost that election because it became known that Behan spent much of his time in saloons and brothels … a behavior that most folks condemned (even Democrats).  The Behan divorce was a nasty affair.  Victoria produced evidence of his infidelity with women of ill-repute and named Sadie Marcus as her husband’s paramour.  During the divorce hearing, Sadie was incorrectly referred to as Sada Mansfield.  Victoria also testified that her husband threatened her with violence and abused her good nature.

In August 1880, Behan sought another term as Yavapai County Recorder, but with a sullied reputation, he was soundly defeated.  He appeared in Tombstone on 15 September with his 8-year old son Albert.  Josephine Sarah (Sadie) Marcus soon joined Behan.  At first, Johnny Behan worked as a bar manager at the Grand Hotel, a favorite watering hole for the Cowboys and a good place to make political connections.  Behan then bought an interest in the Dexter Livery Stable, in partnership with John Orlando Dunbar[5].

At the time, Virgil Earp’s brother Wyatt served as the undersheriff for the eastern section of Pima County —Charles Shibell, a Democrat, serving as county sheriff.  As evidenced by the election of 1880, Shibell enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Cowboys.  In the San Simon/Cienega voting precinct, Shibell won 103 votes, which was an amazing feat since there were only 15 registered voters living in that precinct.  Shibell’s opponent in this election was Robert H. Paul, a Republican.  Paul contested the election results and after a careful review, Shibell’s election was overturned.

It was in protest to this rigged election that Wyatt Earp resigned as undersheriff.  Shibell appointed Johnny Behan to replace him.  When Cochise County was formed three months later, Behan (who, after two terms in the Territorial Legislature) used his considerable influence and that of his well-connected partner, John Dunbar, to secure his appointment as Cochise County Sheriff[6].  Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, his primary contender, had no political influence at all.

Marshal Fred WhiteThe War Begins

Both Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Claiborne were with Curly Bill when he shot and killed Tombstone City Marshal Fred White[7] on 30 October 1880.  Note: Fred White was not the old man depicted in the film Tombstone.  At the time of his death he was 30 or 31 years of age.  These men were detained after the shooting, but before he died, Marshal White acknowledged that the shooting was accidental.  The Cowboys were released from custody.

Ben SippyThe Tombstone town council[8] appointed Virgil Earp as interim town marshal pending a special election scheduled for 13 November 1880.  Tombstone police officers James Flynn and Ben Sippy announced their candidacy for the position.  Flynn dropped out of the race at the last minute and Sippy defeated Earp 311 votes to 259.  In a regular election held on 4 January 1881, Sippy defeated Earp again.  Marshal Sippy, however, was as corrupt as Behan.  Before this corruption was revealed, Sippy skipped town for parts unknown and the town council again appointed Virgil Earp to replace him.  This time, Earp’s appointment was permanent and placed into effect without an election.  The Cowboys claimed that Virgil’s appointment proved that the “fix was in.”

Three months earlier, in July 1880, Captain Joseph H. Hurst, commanding Fort Rucker, requested the assistance of Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp in the investigation of stolen government mules.  For some time, rumors persisted that the McLaury’s were involved in cattle rustling from Sonora, Mexico and then selling the animals to Old Man Clanton and local affiliated butchers.  When Virgil Earp began his investigation, he enlisted the assistance of brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and a Wells Fargo agent by the name of Marshall Williams.  During his investigation, Earp received a tip that the stolen animals could be found on the McLaury ranch.  Earp’s investigation discovered that the animals were at the McLaury ranch and that the brand on the animals had been changed from “US” to “D8.”

Marshal Earp and Captain Hurst confronted the McLaury’s.  Claiming that he wanted to avoid bloodshed with federal authorities, “ranch boss” Frank Patterson promised to return the animals if Captain Hurst and the federal posse withdrew —which they did.  Two days later the Cowboys appeared at Camp Rucker without the promised mules.  Instead, they went to Camp Rucker to ridicule Captain Hurst and the Earps for their naivete.  This was the brazen attitude of the red-sash-wearing Cowboys.

Captain Hurst printed out handbills offering rewards for the trial and conviction of the thieves.  The handbill read in part, “It is known that the stolen animals were secreted at or in the vicinity of the McLaury Brother’s ranch, and it is also believed they were branded on the left shoulder over the Government brand.”  Captain Hurst specifically charged Frank McLaury with assisting in the hiding of these mules —charges that were printed in the Tombstone Epitaph on July 30, 1880.

Frank McLaury made a countercharge in the Tombstone Daily Nugget [9].  McLaury called Captain Hurst unmanly, a coward, a vagabond, a rascal, a malicious liar, and then finally accused Hurst of stealing the mules himself.  Not content with ridiculing Captain Hurst, Frank McLaury approached Virgil Earp and warned him that if wanted to avoid a fight, he should refrain from following him around ever again.  This was not a wise move on Frank McLaury’s part.

In November 1879, someone stole a prized horse belonging to a recent arrival in Arizona —a man named Wyatt Earp.  More than a year later, Earp learned that this horse had been seen in Charleston, Arizona and was in fact in the possession of Ike Clanton and his brother Billy.  Earp and his friend John Henry Holliday (a.k.a. “Doc” Holliday) rode out to the Clanton ranch near Charleston to recover the animal.  On the way, they overtook Sheriff Johnny Behan, who was riding in a buckboard wagon.  Behan was also going to the Clanton ranch to serve an election-hearing subpoena on Ike.  Wyatt Earp later acknowledged that Billy Clanton gave up the horse without objections, but asked Wyatt if he had any more horses to lose.  Apparently, Billy was every bit as smart as his brother Ike and Wyatt knew that the Clanton’s were aware of who that horse belonged to before it was stolen.  The incident did nothing to endear the Earps to the Clanton’s.

After the Territorial Legislature created Cochise County out of a portion of Pima County in early 1881, the McLaury brothers moved their ranch operations to Sulphur Springs Valley in eastern Cochise County.  There they constructed a substantial adobe ranch house, a barn, corrals, and irrigation ditches for agriculture.  They are said to have owned eight horses, two mules, and 140-head of cattle.

In seeking ways to reduce crime inside the city, the Tombstone city council passed an ordinance in April 1881 prohibiting anyone from carrying a deadly weapon inside the Tombstone town limits.  The law required everyone to deposit their weapons at a livery or saloon soon after entering town.  This law set into motion a long-simmering animosity between the Earps and The Cowboys because it was Virgil Earp’s duty to enforce this ordinance.

Old West Stage 001Tensions between the Earp’s, Clanton’s, and McLaury’s increased throughout 1881.  On March 15, three road agents attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach near Benson, Arizona.  The Stage was carrying $26,000 in silver bullion[10] —roughly three quarters of a million dollars in today’s currency.

Eli “Bud” Philpot was a top-rated stagehand and well-thought of in that community.  Although assigned as the stage driver, Philpot became ill while en route; at the stop at Contention, he changed places with the shotgun guard, a man named Robert H. Paul.  Bob Paul had previously served as the sheriff in Calaveras County, California, had run for Pima County Sheriff but lost the rigged election to the incumbent, Charlie Shibell.  He was temporarily working for Wells Fargo pending the outcome of a review of the election.  In any case, after leaving Contention, the stage approached a rise a few hundred feet short of the Drew Station.  Shadowy figures stepped out from behind boulders and demanded, “Hold!”  Paul gruffly shouted back, “I hold for no man” and lashed the team of horses with the reigns.  The road agents opened fire, hitting Philpot (riding as shotgun) close to the heart and he fell from the box, taking the team’s reigns with him.  The horses had already stepped up their pace with Paul’s lashing, and the gunfire spooked them even more.  The horses were soon in a dead run, stagecoach careening along behind it.  Riding atop an out of control stage, Bob Paul returned his shotgun completely ineffective due to the ever-increasing distance.  The stagecoach blew by Drew’s Station and Paul had no choice but to jump down onto the tongue to capture the flailing lines with his free hand.  It took him a mile to bring the team to a full stop.

Aboard the stage were nine badly shaken passengers.  One of these, a miner named Peter Roerig, had taken one of the bullets fired by the road agents and was mortally wounded.  Taking the stage on to Benson, Bob Paul sent a telegram back to Tombstone with details of the attempted holdup.  Deputy Sheriff Billy Breckenridge was the first to suggest that one of the road agents might have been Wyatt Earp’s friend Doc Holliday.  Breckenridge knew the accusation was baseless when he made it, but it does serve as an example of the contempt that existed between The Cowboys (and friends of Cowboys) and the Yankee interlopers.  Breckenridge was later proved wrong, of course, and the claim was something that Doc Holliday would not soon forget.

Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp assembled a federal posse consisting of brothers Wyatt and Morgan, Wells Fargo Agent Marshall Williams, Bat Masterson, and Sheriff Johnny Behan.  Wells Fargo offered a $3,600 reward for the capture of the road agents, dead or alive.  Robbery of a mail carrying stagecoach was a territorial crime (which also meant a federal crime).  The Earp posse tracked the robbers to a nearby ranch, where the found a drifter named Luther King.  King was tricked into naming his cohorts: Bill Leonard, Harry Head, and Jim Crane … all of whom were Cowboys.  Behan and Williams escorted King back to Tombstone and placed him in a jail cell.

On 19 March, King “escaped” from jail while Undersheriff Harry Woods (who was also publisher of the Tombstone Nugget (a Cowboy-friendly newspaper) was selling a horse to John Dunbar, Behan’s partner in the Dexter Livery Stable.  When it was learned how easily King was able to escape, the citizens of Tombstone were outraged.  Sometime later, Wells Fargo Company learned that Marshall Williams was stealing from the company and fired him.

Meanwhile, the Earp posse (Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Bat Masterson) pursued the two remaining road agents for seventeen days.  After more than 400 miles in pursuit, the Earp posse was forced to give up the chase.  They were out of water and fresh horses.  The worn-out posse returned to Tombstone on 1 April 1881.  To add insult to injury, Sheriff Behan refused to reimburse the federal posse for their expenses, and while Wells Fargo did compensate Earp, the incident caused further friction and resentment between county and federal law enforcement officers, and more importantly, between Behan and the Earps.

A second stagecoach was robbed in September near Bisbee —this time, masked robbers shook down the passengers and robbed the stage of its strongbox.  The newspaper account of this robbery follows:

“The Bisbee Stage Robbed by Three Masked Men”

“Thursday night, about 10 o’clock, as the stage was nearing Bisbee, being some four miles or five miles this side in the broken ground, it was stopped by three (some say four) masked men who, with pistols leveled at the driver and passengers, demanded Wells, Fargo & Co’s treasure box.  The box was thrown out when they went through the passengers, getting eight dollars and a gold watch from one and about six hundred dollars from another.  From the treasure box they got a fat haul, there being $2,500 in it.  The report is that they also went through all the baggage and mail sacks, but this is rather doubtful.  About 9:30 yesterday morning two messengers rode into Tombstone with their horses on a lope, halting in front of the Well, Fargo & Co’s office, dismounted and went in.  Those seeing the men came in such hot haste, at once surmised something wrong, and in a short time the robbery was the talk of the street.  Marshall Williams, agent for W., F. & Co., immediately notified the Sheriff’s office, and in a few hours himself, Deputy Breckenridge, Wyatt and Morgan Earp were in the saddle or on the way to the place of the robbery, from whence they will take up the trail and do their best to overhaul the robbers.  This, we fear, is a hopeless task, as so much valuable time was lost by the messengers riding from Charleston into Tombstone, when they might better have telegraphed and had the whole thing managed in secrecy.”

Tombstone Epitaph, September 10, 1881

This mystery was solved when witnesses were able to recognize the voices of the road agents.  The holdup men were identified as Behan’s deputies, Pete Spence and Frank Stilwell, who were business partners in other interests.  After it was revealed that two of his deputies were criminals, Sheriff Behan claimed to have fired Spence before the robbery due to county tax collection irregularities.  Spence and Stilwell were close friends of the McLaury’s and other Cowboys.  No one in Tombstone was surprised when Sheriff Behan released Spence and Stilwell on bail.

A month later, Virgil Earp re-arrested Spence and Stilwell charging them with interfering with a mail carrier during the Bisbee holdup.  The Daily Nugget, however, claimed that Earp had arrested them for a different stage robbery occurring on October 8, 1881 near Contention City.  Whether an unfortunate misinterpretation in the press or an outright lie, the Cowboys were now convinced that the Earps were out to get them.

While Virgil and Wyatt Earp were still out of town for the Spence and Stilwell hearings, Frank McLaury approached Morgan Earp and gave him a warning: the McLaury’s would kill the Earps if they attempted to arrest Spence, Stilwell, or either of the McLaury’s ever again.  This was McLaury’s third threat of violence toward the Earps.

Ike Clanton 001Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton spent the afternoon and evening of 25 October 1881 drinking and gambling.  Both men were angry because they had been pistol-whipped by Virgil Earp earlier in the day mouthing off.  The more they drank, the angrier they became.  Early the next morning, Ike Clanton was still drunk and still making threats toward the Earps.

26 October was an unusually cold and windy day.  At first, Virgil avoided a confrontation with Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, who had arrived in town late in the morning and failed to deposit their weapons at a livery or saloon.  Around mid-morning, Virgil Earp observed Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury buying ammunition from Spangenberg’s gun shop.  At about 1 p.m., a miner named Ruben F. Coleman informed Virgil that the Cowboys had left the Dunbar and Dexter Stable for the O. K. Corral and were still armed.  It was then that Virgil Earp decided that if the men were armed and were not headed out of town, it was time to disarm them.

Earp went to the Wells Fargo office and picked up a double-barrel shotgun.  He was wearing a long overcoat.  To avoid alarming Tombstone citizens, Earp hid the shotgun under his overcoat when he returned to Hafford’s Saloon to solicit the assistance of Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday, whom he deputized.  Virgil then led his posse down Fremont Street where he confronted the Clanton’s and McLaury’s on a narrow front behind the O.K. Corral.  Virgil Earp was not expecting a gun fight, but he was prepared for one.  Somewhere along the way, Virgil traded his shotgun for Doc Holliday’s cane.  When he approached the six Cowboys, he commanded them, “Throw up your hands; I want your guns.”

The apprehended Cowboys were Frank and Tom McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller.  When these men saw the Earp’s and Holliday approaching, they stepped away from their horses.  The Cowboys were armed, but holstered.  Wyatt Earp had his weapon inside his overcoat pocket.

From most accounts, including the official one, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton cocked and drew their six-shooters.  It stands to reason that any man who does this sets into motion whatever follows.  Two shots rang out.  The first shot was officially attributed to Billy Clanton, who took aim at Virgil Earp but missed.  The second shot, heard within a split second, was fired by Virgil targeting Frank McLaury.  Earp apparently realized that Frank was the cooler head and more proficient with a side arm.  Earp’s bullet struck Frank in the stomach.

O K Corral - Bob Boze Bell

Artist’s depiction of the gunfight, by Bob Boze Bell, True West Magazine.

Tom McLaury, whose six-shooter was already drawn, stepped behind his horse and began spraying bullets around the vacant lot.  A focused Doc Holliday stepped around McLaury’s horse and shot Tom in the chest with both barrels.  Tom stumbled out of the vacant lot and collapsed at the base of a telegraph pole on Fremont Street.  Holliday dropped the shotgun and drew out his .38 revolver and began shooting at Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton.

Ike Clanton had been threatening to kill the Earps for several months—and as recently as the previous day.  But when the shooting started, Ike Clanton ran up to Wyatt Earp screaming that he was unarmed and did not want a fight.  Wyatt told him, “Go to fighting, or get away.”  Clanton ran through the front door of Fly’s boarding house to escape the gunfire, but one witness later testified that Ike Clanton drew out a hidden weapon and began firing at the Earp’s from inside Fly’s boarding house.  When he had expended all his ammunition, he ran off down the street.

Up until this moment in time, Wyatt Earp was a nobody.  What happened at the O. K. Corral made him famous, although not in his own lifetime.  Wyatt Earp passed away on 13 January 1929; he was 80 years old.  What made the American people take notice of him were the books and films produced after his death.  Historians began to wonder, “What really happened?”  They began to look carefully at the events that led up to the gunfight, and its aftermath.  The more Americans learned of it, the more they liked and respected the courage and tenacity of Wyatt Earp.  According to the Tombstone Epitaph, “Wyatt Earp stood up and fired in rapid succession, as cool as a cucumber, and was not hit.”

Morgan Earp drew his weapon and fired at Billy Clanton, hitting him in the wrist of his gun hand.  It forced Clanton to shift his weapon to the left hand and in that configuration, Clanton continued shooting at the Earps until his gun was empty.  Morgan tripped over an obstacle in the yard and fell.

Frank McLaury, shot in the stomach for the second time by Wyatt, grabbed the reigns of his horse and staggered toward Fremont Street.  He attempted to recover his rifle from its scabbard, but failed and lost control of his horse.  Frank continued shooting with his revolver, one bullet striking Doc Holliday in his holster, grazing him slightly.  While not physically wounded, the shot was enough to piss Holliday off.  He followed Frank into the street and is reported to have said, “That son of a bitch has shot me, and I am going to kill him.”

Morgan picked himself up and fired at Frank.  Frank McLaury continued to discharge his pistol until he was shot in the head.  He fell to the sidewalk on the east side of Fremont Street and died.  Though wounded, Billy Clanton is believed to have shot Morgan, the bullet grazing him across the back in a wound that struck both shoulder blades.  Morgan fell for the second time, but soon picked himself up.  Virgil Earp believed that he was shot in the calf by Billy Clanton.  Virgil turned and shot Billy Clanton, who slumped to the ground at the corner of the MacDonald house near his original position when the gunfight started.

All the above occurred within a span of 30 seconds.  The McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton lay dead; Virgil and Morgan Earp received gunshot wounds.  Doc Holliday was grazed but not wounded.  Of the Earps, only Wyatt stood unscathed.

Wyatt Earp c. 1879

Wyatt Earp c. 1879

As the wounded Earps were carried to their homes, they passed in front of Sheriff Behan’s office.  Behan approached Wyatt and said, “I’ll have to arrest you.”  Wyatt paused a moment and replied, “I won’t be arrested today, Behan.  You deceived me; you told me these men were unarmed.”  Behan wisely decided not to interfere further with the Earps.

An inquest of the shootout determined that Virgil Earp and his duly constituted posse were operating within the law in their attempt to disarm the Clanton’s and McLaury’s.  Notwithstanding this determination, Ike Clanton later filed charges against the Earps for the murder of his brother Billy.

After the gunfight at O. K. Corral, the Earps moved their families into the Cosmopolitan Hotel for safety and mutual protection.  At about 11:30 pm on 28 December 1881, Virgil Earp was ambushed while making his rounds through Tombstone, just as he exited the Oriental Saloon.  According to reports printed in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, he was fired upon by a double-barrel shotgun, loaded with buckshot, by three men concealed in an unfinished building across from Allen Street.  Virgil was hit in the back and left arm from about 50 feet.  One shot struck him above the groin, exiting near his spine.  Another shot broke his upper arm.  Witness George Parsons said that he heard four shots in quick succession.  Critically wounded, Earp staggered into the hotel.  His left arm was permanently crippled, but he did survive.

After the attempted murder, Virgil Earp spend the next three months recuperating; he was just starting to get back on his feet when the Cowboys attacked again.

At around 10:50 p.m. on Saturday, 18 March 1882, Morgan Earp was playing billiards at the Campbell & Hatch Billiard Parlor with owner Bob Hatch.  Also present were Dan Tipton, Sherman McMaster[11], and Wyatt Earp.  Morgan was in the process of lining up his next shot when an unknown assassin fired through the upper half of a four-pane windowed door (the bottom two windows had been painted over) that led to an alley separating Allen and Fremont Streets.  The bullet struck Morgan in his right side, shattered his spine, passed through his left side, and entered the thigh of mining foreman George A. B. Berry.  Another bullet lodged in the wall above Wyatt’s head.  Several men rushed into the alley, guns drawn, but by then the shooter had already fled.  In less than an hour, Morgan Earp was dead.

The next day, Coroner Dr. H. M. Mathews held an inquest in which Pete Spence’s wife, Marietta Duarte, testified that her husband, Frank Stilwell, Indian Charlie, Frederick Bode, and an unnamed half-breed had returned home one hour after the shooting and that her husband had threatened her with violence if she ever told what she knew.

Other witnesses testified that they saw former Cochise County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Stilwell in the alley, running away from the scene of the shooting.  The Coroner’s Jury concluded that Spence, Stilwell, Bode, Fries, and Cruz were suspects in Morgan Earp’s assassination.  Pete Spence promptly surrendered to Sheriff Johnny Behan happy to remain behind bars where he could be protected from the Earps.  It will be remembered that in 1880, Spence was charged with grand larceny, the illegal possession of stolen mules.  He was acquitted of these charges.  Moreover, Spence was the business partner of Frank Stilwell in the Franklin Mine and other ventures.  He also owned a share of a saloon in Bisbee.  Spence married Marietta on August 12, 1881.

Holliday-McMaster 1882

Purportedly a photograph of Doc Holliday and Sherman McMaster c. 1882

A coroner’s jury concluded that Morgan was murdered, and that Pete Spence was one of several persons who were likely involved in perpetrating that murder.  At Spence’s preliminary hearing, his attorney objected to the testimony of Marietta Duarte arguing that anything she said in court would be hearsay evidence.  Besides that, he argued, a spouse could not testify against her husband.  After the judge dismissed murder charges against Spence, Pete demonstrated his keen appreciation of his circumstances by leaving town[12].

On 20 March, Wyatt escorted Virgil, Allie, and Morgan Earp’s body to Contention, where they drove two wagons to the railroad terminal in Benson, 25-miles away.  Wyatt had been appointed Deputy US Marshal in his brother’s place.  Assisting Wyatt in the movement of Virgil Earp were deputies Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMaster, and “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson.  While in Contention, Wyatt received word that Ike Clanton, Frank Stilwell, and Hank Swilling were watching the passenger trains in Tucson with the intention of killing Virgil Earp.  With this information, Wyatt and his deputies decided to remain with Virgil and Allie to Tucson.

Wyatt’s deputies were well-armed.  McMaster wore two cartridge belts; Allie wore Virgil’s pistol belt.  No one was taking any chances.  Two months later in an interview, Virgil Earp told the press, “Almost the first men we met on the platform [in Tucson] were Stillwell and his friends, armed to the teeth.  They fell back into the crowd as soon as they saw I had an escort.”

As Virgil and Allie’s train was pulling out of Tucson station, gunfire was heard and there are contradictory accounts of the number of Cowboys seen near the tracks and the numbers of shot fired.  Witnesses said they saw men running with guns drawn, but in the dark could not identify anyone.  Wyatt later said that he and his deputies spotted Frank Stilwell and another man (whom he believed was Ike Clanton) armed with shotguns laying on a flatcar.

Wyatt and his men approached these two would-be assassins and they broke and ran.  Stilwell stumbled and fell, allowing Wyatt Earp to reach him. According to Wyatt[13], “I ran straight for Stilwell.  It was he who killed my brother.  What a coward he was!  He couldn’t shoot when I came near him.  He stood there trembling for his life.  As I rushed upon him, he put out his hands and clutched my shotgun.  I let go with both barrels and he tumbled down dead and mangled at my feet.”

Stilwell’s body was discovered the next morning near the railroad tracks.  He was riddled with buckshot from two shotgun rounds, one in his leg and another in his chest.  He also had four additional bullet wounds.  According to his own account, Ike Clanton was present with Frank Stilwell in Tucson, but he claimed that they were there for a different reason than killing Virgil Earp.  In any case, Ike Clanton got away.

The War was not yet over.

Next Week, Who Were the Earps?.


  1. Isenberg, A. C.Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.  Macmillan, 2013.
  2. Guinn, J.The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at O.K. Corral and How it Change the American West.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011
  3. Marks, P.M.And Die in the West.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1996
  4. Johnson, D.John Ringo.  Stillwater, OK.  Barbed Wire Press, 1996.
  5. Tefertiller, C.Wyatt Earp: the Life behind the Legend.  New York, Wiley Press, 1999


[1]  Doc Holliday was already suffering the effects of consumption (tuberculosis).  It would eventually kill him.

[2] Texas John Slaughter (1841-1922) was an American cowboy, gambler, lawman, and rancher.  In the 1870s, Slaughter established a ranch near Douglas, Arizona in Cochise County, Arizona Territory.

[3] Comanche Jack Stilwell was an Indian fighter, Army Scout, Deputy US Marshal, police judge, and a US Commissioner in the Oklahoma territory.

[4] Robert Martin was a member of the Jesse Evans gang in New Mexico in the mid 1870s.  It is possible that Curly Bill Brocius was also a member of the Evans gang and that he participated in the Lincoln County War.

[5] John Dunbar was born in 1853 in Maine, the son of a Scottish father and an Irish mother.  Dunbar traveled to Arizona in 1876 where he joined his brother Thomas on his cattle ranch along the San Pedro River at Tres Alamos, where they also ran a boarding house.  Thomas Dunbar was appointed postmaster and stage-stop operator in the area known as Dunbar Station and Cienega Station.  Thomas and John also operated a livery stable in Tombstone, which was called Dunbar Brothers Livery.  John Dunbar and Johnny Behan became good friends and business partners.  One of these business interests was Dexter Stables.  Sheriff Behan’s office was in the building that housed Dunbar Brothers.  In 1881, Governor John C. Fremont appointed John Dunbar to serve as the first Cochise County Treasurer.

[6] In 1881, Arizona sheriffs were responsible for collecting fees and taxes on such things as prostitution, gambling, liquor, and theaters.  Of these revenues, the sheriff retained ten percent of all proceeds.  Part of Behan’s corruption was his ability to cook the books.

[7] Fred White was born in New York City in 1849.  In the months before his killing, White formed a friendship with Wyatt Earp, who was at the time serving as undersheriff for the southern jurisdiction of Pima County (which included Tombstone).  He was known as a personable and professional lawman.  He was also cordial with Curly Bill Brocius, the man who killed him.

[8] Until 1881, Tombstone, Arizona was an unincorporated town within the framework of Pima County.  After 1881, Tombstone became an incorporated city, which gave city government greater authority over the affairs of the city while reducing the authority of county officials.

[9] The Tombstone Daily Nugget was sympathetic to the Cochise County Cowboys.  Also called the Daily Nugget, the paper was published by H. M. Woods & Company from 1880 to 1882 —it was the CNN of the old southwest and Woods was in cahoots with the Cowboys.

[10] In most cases, stagecoach companies avoided shipping large amounts of bullion because the vehicles were frequently the target of outlaw activity.  However, when the stagecoach route was the only way to ship valuable cargo, shippers had few shipping alternatives.  As railroad companies expanded their lines, trains became the preferred method of high-value shipments.

[11] In 1878, Sherman McMaster was a Texas Ranger.  It was also the first year that he met Curly Bill Brocius.  History remembers McMaster as a good lawman, respected for his honesty, his courage, and his talent with a six-shooter.  Two years later, McMaster was running with the Cowboys.  He was a suspect in the stealing of Army mules from Camp Rucker, and a suspect in the stagecoach robbery near Globe, Arizona.  Planning to arrest him, Marshal Virgil Earp received instructions from Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul to wait until an accomplice, Pony Diehl, had been taken into custody.  Virgil Earp attempted to arrest McMaster on 10 September 1881, but McMaster resisted, shots were exchanged, and McMaster escaped.  These unusual events have led some scholars to think that Sherman McMaster was, while running with the Cowboys, a Texas Ranger operating “under cover.”  Maybe/maybe not … but when the Earps clashed with the Cowboys, McMaster was firmly aligned with the Earps.

[12] In June 1883, Spence was working as a deputy sheriff in Georgetown, New Mexico when he severely pistol-whipped Rodney O’Hara, which resulted in O’Hara’s death.  A jury convicted Spence of manslaughter and he was sentenced to five years at the Yuma Territorial Penitentiary.  He received a pardon by the territorial governor 18-months later.  After his release from prison, Spence reverted to his birth name: Elliot L. Ferguson.  He subsequently operated a ranch south of Globe, Arizona with his old friend Phin Clanton.  They also ran mule teams that supplied the region with much needed cargo.  Phin Clanton died in 1906.  Four years later Spence/Ferguson married Phin’s widow.  Spence died in 1914.  He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave next to the remains of Phin Clanton.

[13] Reported in the Denver Republican.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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8 Responses to The Cowboy War

  1. kidme37 says:

    Great Read !

    No Johnny Ringo ?


  2. Andy8 says:

    This is quite a chronicle of good guys and bad guys, although it’s oftentimes difficult to tell the difference.

    A surprisingly good read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      You are right to observe that the line between good guy and bad guy was somewhat clouded … I only worry about your expression “suprising good read.” My ego, you see.


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