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The Clantons, the McLaurys, and the OK Corral

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We are almost at the 125th Anniversary of the Shootout at the OK Corral. I am in Tombstone, at a location where, 125 years ago, the owner of the property heard the shots and stepped outside his door and watched much of the incident. That’s how close I am to the OK Corral right now.

So, let’s get with it.

In many ways the story of Tombstone is the story of three families: the Earps, the Clantons, and the McLaurys. They all grew up in the mid-west. They came from big, extended, loving families. They grew up cherished, with parents who truly loved and adored them. Of the three families, there is no doubt the McLaurys were the most stable. Perhaps that is the reason that to this day, McLaury decedents (not of Tom and Frank, though) still don’t believe their guys went bad.

Did they?

At the time of their deaths Frank was 32 and Tom was 28. They were men, not boys. They were free moral agents who knew exactly what they were doing. After their deaths Cochise County Coroner Henry Matthews discovered quite a bit of cash and bank notes totaling nearly $3,000. Today that amount of money would be worth about $60,000. There's a theory that they had ‘cashed out’ and were planning to move back to Iowa. Another theory is that they were heading back for a family celebration but would return.

Bad blood was brewing between Wyatt Earp and the McLaury brothers for quite some time. Mules belonging to the Army went missing from Camp Rucker. The Earps were part of a group of lawmen who went to the McLaury ranch to ‘request’ their prompt return. The “What mules? We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no mules” pros realize that Frank and Tom were deeply involved with the Cowboys and were close, personal friends of the Clantons, especially Ike and Billy. Is this enough to implicate them as outlaws? Or is this enough to implicate them as having very bad taste in friends? We will never know.

Maybe the problem was Ike Clanton.

Venerable Tombstone historian Ben Traywick describes Ike Clanton as a corrupter – the kind of person who corrupts everyone he comes in contact with. The more I know about Ike, the more I think Ben is right, once again. Fact is, until Rita Ackerman’s new biography of Ike Clanton is published, Ben Traywick is the only person thus far to publish a book about any of the Clantons.

The Burl Ives role in The Big Country would've been absolutely perfect for “Old Man” Newman H. Clanton, who was born in Tennessee, but grew up in Missouri. I’ve found anecdotal evidence that he rode with Quantrill’s Raiders, who terrorized the countryside in that region right before the Civil War, but can find absolutely no evidence to prove the information either way. We do know he packed his large family up and moved them across the Santa Fe Trail to California during the Civil War. There they remained, interestingly settling near the newly arrived Earp family, until Old Man Clanton packed everyone up again and moved them to the Arizona Territory.

Eventually they found their way to the Tombstone area. There, the family, which included brothers Joseph, Ike, Phineas and Billy, was involved in numerous business ventures, some of which were actually legal. With the exception of Phin and Joe, the family was involved with the Cowboys to the point where Old Man Clanton and a few other leading citizens of Cochise county were killed by Mexican soldiers along the main border route at Skeleton or Guadeloupe Canyon in late August of 1881.

Then on October 26, 1881, during the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Billy Clanton, the youngest member of the family, was killed. Ike did not handle it well. He immediately demanded murder warrants be taken against the Earps and Doc Holliday. Virgil and Morgan were too seriously injured to be jailed, but Wyatt and Doc languished in a damp, cold jail for several weeks. Wyatt caught a very bad cold while in jail, which completely shreds the image of the laconic lawman. Instead, he is hacking, coughing, and sneezing his way into history, poor thing.

Judge Wells Spicer found the Earps not guilty of murder. They were released. Ike was furious. He plotted to murder the Earps, going after Virgil first, on December 28. It was too bad Ike left his hat, with his name on it, at the site where the shots were fired, gunning down Virgil Earp. When the hat was found, Milton Clapp wanted to hang Ike on the spot. Perhaps if they had done so, Morgan might have survived. Unfortunately, because of this one incident, recent historians have a tendency to paint a picture of a bumbling fool of a man, which is not true. Endicott Peabody himself identified Ike as the leader of the Cowboys.

Two more times Ike’s plans to have the Earps lives legally terminated for his brother’s death were thwarted. So, once again Ike was forced to take the law into his own hands. On the evening of March 18, 1882 Morgan Earp was murdered, shot in the back while he was playing billiards. The following day, when his body was escorted by rail to the family home in Colton, California, Wyatt met up with Ike and Frank Stillwell at the depot in Tucson. Stillwell ended up dead and Ike ended up running away from Wyatt Earp, yet once again.

A few years later, Virgil Earp had the opportunity to arrest Ike in Colton, California where Virgil, was now the city marshal. In 1887 Ike was shot dead while trying to evade arrest for – would you believe – cattle rustling.

Phin, who managed to stay out of the family criminal activities did somehow manage to get himself arrested for grand larceny the same year Ike was killed. He spent ten years in the Yuma prison, then evidently saw the light and spent the rest of his life as a law abiding citizen.

Like the McLaurys, the Clantons have left a legacy of many law abiding descendents. They, too, are deeply involved in the process of trying to rehabilitate the family image.

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