Trouble in Tombstone

The Earps carried revolvers in their coat pockets or in their waistbands. Holliday was carrying a pistol in a holster, hidden with the shotgun under his coat. They walked west down Fremont Street towards the cowboy’s last reported location and saw them and Sheriff Behan, who left the group and came towards them looking nervously back over his shoulder several times. Virgil later testified that Behan said, “For God’s sake don’t go down there, they will murder you” and confirmed that he had disarmed the group. Behan later denied this and said he had only gone down “For the purpose of disarming them”.

When Behan said he had disarmed them, Virgil sought to avoid a fight, “I had a walking stick in my left hand and my right hand was on my pistol in my waistband and when he said he had disarmed them, I shoved it clean around to my left hip and changed the walking stick to my right hand”. Wyatt said, “I took my pistol that I had in my right hand and put it in my coat pocket”.

Approaching the cowboys Wyatt noted that, “Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were standing in a row against the east side of the building on the opposite side of the vacant space west of Fly’s Photographic Gallery. The McLaury’s had horses with them. Ike and Billy Claiborn and a man I don’t know (Wes Fuller) were standing in the vacant space about half way between the gallery and the next building west”. Conflicting versions of the gunfight were given by the surviving participants and witnesses. In the trial that followed, both sides blamed the other for starting the shooting.

Virgil Earp stated that he commanded the cowboys, “Throw up your arms, I want your guns”, but they reached for their guns. He shouted, “Hold it, I don’t mean that”.

Witnesses reported that Holliday then drew the shotgun from his coat and pointed it at Frank McLaury and at that point two shots were fired. Virgil’s testimony continued, “Two shots went off right together, Billy Clanton’s was one of them”. Wyatt’s version began, “Billy Clanton levelled his pistol at me, but I did not aim at him, I knew Frank McLaury had a reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man and I aimed at him”. He stated that he shot Frank McLaury after both he and Billy Clanton went for their guns.

Both Virgil and Wyatt assumed Tom McLaury was armed. When the shooting started, the horse that Tom held jumped to one side and Wyatt swore that he saw Tom throw his hand to his right hip. Virgil stated that Tom McLaury followed the horse’s movement, hiding behind it and fired once, if not twice, over the horse’s back. It was at this moment that Holliday stepped around the horse and shot Tom McLaury in the chest with the shotgun at close range. Witnesses saw Tom stumble away westward on Fremont Street while Frank and Billy were still shooting. Tom fell at the foot of a telegraph pole on the corner of Fremont and 3rd Street and lay there for the duration of the fight. Holliday tossed away the shotgun, pulled out a revolver and continued firing at Frank and Billy.

Despite all his bragging about killing Holliday and the Earps, Ike Clanton lost his nerve and ran up to Wyatt shouting that he was unarmed and did not want to fight, Wyatt responded, “Go to fighting or get away”. Ike Clanton ran through the front door of Fly’s boarding house and fled. Billy Claiborn also ran from the fight.

Wyatt shot Billy in the chest and Morgan hit him in the right wrist, Billy changed the gun to his left handed and continued firing, half leaning and half sitting against a windowsill and supporting his gun on his leg. One of his bullets hit Morgan and tore through both shoulder blades, knocking him down. Frank Mclaury was shot in the abdomen and taking his horse by the reins, struggled into the street. He tried to pull his rifle from its scabbard, but the startled horse made this impossible.

He continued firing his pistol with one of his shots going through Holliday’s coat and grazing his side and another hitting Virgil in the calf. Holliday followed him across Fremont Street exclaiming, “That son of a bitch has shot me and I’m going to kill him”. Morgan picked himself up and also fired at Frank who was trying to get away from them. He fired two more shots before being hit by a shot in the head, fired by either Holliday or Morgan Earp. Some bystanders attempted to help him, but he died where he fell before he could be moved. The badly wounded Billy continued to fire until he ran out of ammunition, he called out for more cartridges but the owner of the boarding house took his pistol as the shooting ended.

Tom was carried into the Harwood house on the corner of Fremont where he died without speaking. Bystanders also carried Billy Clanton to the house, he told them, “They have murdered me, Chase the crowd away and give me air”, He then said, “Go away and let me die”. The wounded lawmen were carried to their homes and as they passed the Sheriff’s office, Behan told Wyatt Earp he was under arrest. Earp replied, “I won’t be arrested by you today, I’m not going away”.

Both Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborn said they were unarmed when they fled the gunfight.. Billy Clanton was armed and a revolver was found in his hand. It was taken from him by C.S.Fly. Frank’s revolver was recovered on the street a few feet from his body with two rounds remaining in it.

There was much controversy over whether Tom McLaury was carrying a weapon, no revolver or rifle was found near his body and he was not wearing a cartridge belt. His personal revolver was at the Capital Saloon on 4th Street about a block away. The saloon keeper testified that Tom had deposited it sometime before the fight and after he had been pistol whipped by Wyatt Earp.

In their defence, the Earps could not know whether Tom McLaury was unarmed and that he had left his pistol at the saloon. Hotel owner Albert Billickie, testified that he saw Tom McLaury enter Evrerhardy’s butcher shop around 2.30 and noted that Tom’s right hand pants pocket was flat when he went in, but protruded (as if it contained a pistol), when he left. However, the bulge in Tom’s pants may have been the $3,300 in cash and receipts found on his body and could have been payment for stolen Mexican beef purchased by the butcher.

During the ensuing trial, both sides contended that the other started the shooting, opinions were so polarised in the town that it was difficult to get at the truth. Judge Spicer, presiding, concluded that, “If Tomas McLaury was one of a party who were thus armed and were making felonious resistance to an arrest, and in the melee that followed was shot, the fact of his being unarmed, if it be a fact, could not of itself criminate the defenders, (the Earps) if they were not otherwise criminated”.

Various books and films have been produced of the story of the gunfight; most paint the Earps as “the good guys” and the cowboys as the villains. There is sufficient evidence however to question the motives of the lawmen and it is quite possible that the Earps merely wanted their opponents out of the way.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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