Tom McLaury

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Tom McLaury
Thomas McLaury of Tombstone.jpg
Tom McLaury
Born Thomas McLaury
(1853-06-30)June 30, 1853
Meredith, New York, United States
Died October 26, 1881(1881-10-26) (aged 28)
Tombstone, Arizona Territory, United States
Cause of death
Nationality American
Occupation Ranch hand, miner, outlaw cattle rustler
Allegiance The Cowboys

Tom McLaury (June 30, 1853 – October 26, 1881) and his brother Frank owned a ranch outside Tombstone, Arizona, Arizona Territory during the 1880s. He is best known for being a member of group of outlaw Cowboys that had ongoing conflicts with lawmen Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp. The McLaury brothers repeatedly threatened the Earps because they interfered with the Cowboys' illegal activities. On October 26, 1881, Tom and Frank were both killed in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in the boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona Territory. The Tombstone shootout was his only gunfight. Tom stood 5' 3" and his brother Frank at 5'4"

Early life[edit]

Born Thomas McLaury in Meredith, New York,[1] he was only two years old when his family moved to Belle Plaine, Iowa. Both he and his older brother Frank McLaury studied pre-law, and their oldest brother William McLaury eventually became a judge in Fort Worth, Texas.

Move to Arizona[edit]

In 1878 he and Frank moved to Hereford, Arizona, where they first met Ike Clanton, and became associated with the Clanton family. At the time, the Clanton family owned one of the largest cattle operations in Arizona. By 1879 the two brothers were experiencing success in the cattle business, and they purchased land and built a house at Soldiers Holes, near Tombstone Arizona, which was just beginning to see its population explode due to the silver rush. They also, along this time, became associated with "Curly Bill" Brocius. While with Brocius, on October 27, 1880, the two brothers were briefly detained following Brocius accidentally shooting and killing Tombstone Marshall Fred White.

First confrontation with Earps[edit]

On July 25, 1880, U.S. Army Captain Joseph H. Hurst asked Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp to assist him in tracking Cowboys who had stolen six U.S. Army mules from Camp Rucker. Virgil requested the assistance of his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, along with Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams, and they found the mules at the McLaurys' ranch. McLaury was a Cowboy, which in that time and region was generally regarded as an outlaw. Legitimate cowmen were referred to as cattle herders or ranchers. They found the branding iron used to change the "U.S." brand to "D.8."[2] Stealing the mules was a federal offense because the animals were U.S. property.

Cowboy Frank Patterson "made some kind of a compromise" with Captain Hurst, who persuaded the posse to withdraw, with the understanding that the mules would be returned. The Cowboys showed up two days later without the mules and laughed at Captain Hurst and the Earps. In response, Capt. Hurst printed a handbill describing the theft, and specifically charged McLaury with assisting with hiding the mules. He also reproduced the flyer in The Tombstone Epitaph, on July 30, 1880. McLaury angrily printed a response in the Cowboy-friendly Nuggett, calling Hurst "unmanly," "a coward, a vagabond, a rascal, and a malicious liar," and accused Hurst of stealing the mules himself. Capt. Hurst later cautioned Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan that the cowboys had threatened their lives.[2] Virgil reported that Frank accosted him and warned him "If you ever again follow us as close as you did, then you will have to fight anyway."[3]:28 [3] A month later Earp ran into Frank and Tom McLaury in Charleston, and they told him if he ever followed them as he had done before, they would kill him.[2]

Tensions between the Earps and both the Clantons and McLaurys increased through 1881. On March 15, 1881 at 10:00 pm, three Cowboys attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying US$26,000 in silver bullion (about $635,386 in today's dollars) near Benson, during which the popular driver Eli "Budd" Philpot and passenger Peter Roerig were killed.[4]

Tensions further increased between the Earps and the McLaurys when a passenger stage on the Sandy Bob line headed for Bisbee was robbed in the Tombstone area on September 8. The masked robbers shook down the passengers and robbed the strongbox. They were recognized by their voices and language. They were identified as Pete Spence (an alias for Elliot Larkin Ferguson) and Frank Stilwell, a business partner of Spence who had shortly before been fired as a deputy of Sheriff Behan's (for county tax "accounting irregularities"). Spence and Stilwell, friends of the McLaury brothers, were arrested by sheriff's deputies Breakenridge and Nagel for the stage robbery, and later by Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp on the federal offense of mail robbery.[5]

Released on bail, Spence and Stilwell were re-arrested by Virgil for the Bisbee robbery a month later, October 13, on the new federal charge of interfering with a mail carrier. The newspapers, however, reported that they had been arrested for a different stage robbery that occurred (October 8) near Contention City. Occurring less than two weeks before the O.K. Corral shootout, this final incident may have been misunderstood by the McLaurys. While Wyatt and Virgil were still out of town for the Spence and Stilwell hearing, Frank McLaury confronted Morgan Earp, telling him that the McLaurys would kill the Earps if they tried to arrest Spence, Stilwell, or the McLaurys again.[6]:43

Shootout in Tombstone[edit]

By that point, the tension between the Earp and Cowboys had reached a boiling point. On October 26, 1881, the McLaury brothers took part in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and by accounts afterward it was his brother Frank along with Billy Clanton who first drew their weapons, although that has been disputed in other reports of the shootout.[7]

Graves of Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury in Boothill Cemetery, Tombstone, Arizona.

Earlier in the day, Ike Clanton had been arrested, after which Tom McLaury had arrived to get Ike. Wyatt Earp and McLaury had a heated exchange outside the courtroom that led to Wyatt hitting Tom over the head with his pistol as Tom stepped towards him. A short while later, Tom was found to have left a pistol in a nearby saloon, showing he was indeed carrying it in violation of city law at the time of his altercation with Wyatt. Both Frank and Tom McLaury were killed in the gunfight that followed, along with Billy Clanton. They were buried in Tombstone's Boot Hill cemetery. Their brother William McLaury spent most of his finances in pursuing charges against the Earp's and Doc Holliday.

During the trial that followed the shootout, emphasis was given to why Tom McLaury had $3,000 on his person when the gunfight took place. His brother William stated in a letter that his brothers had just sold off their cattle herd, and were planning on leaving Tombstone and coming to Fort Worth to be with him. Billy Clanton, according to William McLaury, was going to accompany them. He also claimed in his letter that the two brothers were in Tombstone that day on business. He further stated that his brothers had been working with rancher Edwin Frink, whose ranch was near them, to gather several head of cattle scattered after an Apache raid a few weeks before. It has been suggested since that the brothers were in business with the Bauer & Kehoe Market to drive several hundred head of cattle.

Was Tom McLaury armed?[edit]

When the gunfight ended, no gun was found near Tom McLaury or on his body. There is evidence to suggest the Cowboys lied in an effort to have the Earps convicted, but also evidence to support that the Earp faction and Doc Holliday lied to protect themselves from being convicted. At the time, there were two newspapers in Tombstone, the Epitaph and the Nuggett. The Epitaph was pro-Earp, while the Nugget was pro-"Cowboy", and their versions of the testimony during the trial varied greatly. During the Spicer hearing after the gunfight, she reported to the San Diego Union that only two of the Cowboys were armed. Saloon owner Andrew Mehan testified that an hour before the gunfight Tom McLaury had checked his pistol with him at Mehan’s Saloon.[8][9]

Wyatt Earp testified that Tom McLaury fired one or two rounds at them from behind a horse, and that if he was unarmed he did not know it. In an 1896 interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Earp further claimed that Tom McLaury had shot Morgan Earp from behind the horse. In two of Wyatt Earp's three biographies he indicated that Tom McLaury fired the first shots. However, some historians have suggested that Wyatt Earp's claims about his deeds were often flawed and could not be corroborated.

One eyewitness, Mrs. J.C. Colyer, was only a short distance away sitting in a buggy when the shootout took place. Although never called to testify at the subsequent inquest, her account of the shooting was published in the Epitaph a few weeks after the event. In her recount of the events she witnessed she said that it was in fact the Cowboys who fired first, and in that interview she said that one Cowboy used a horse as a barricade, firing from under the horses neck. It has since been confirmed that neither Billy Clanton nor Frank McLaury ever came near a horse during the shootout, so if her statement is to be believed, it could only have been Tom McLaury to which she was referring. She knew none of those involved, and was only in Tombstone to visit her sister, therefore making her an unbiased witness.

Another eye witness, laundryman Peter H. Fellehy, stated that he saw Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday shooting at a man who was using a horse to barricade himself, and once shot the man fell. During that statement, Fellehy claimed the man still held his pistol in his hand. Although he never said he saw him shoot, he does indicate that Tom McLaury was armed.


  1. ^ "The Robert Houston McLaury Family". Retrieved 22 April 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c "Testimony of Wyatt S. Earp in the Preliminary Hearing in the Earp Case". November 16, 1881. Retrieved January 13, 2011. From Turner, Alford (Ed.), The O. K. Corral Inquest (1992)
  3. ^ a b Lubet, Steven (2004). Murder in Tombstone: the Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 288. ISBN 978-0-300-11527-7. Retrieved November 29, 2011. 
  4. ^ "Tombstone, AZ". Retrieved 17 May 2011. 
  5. ^ "Tombstones Old West History". Retrieved April 2011. 
  6. ^ Woog, Adam (February 28, 2010). Wyatt Earp. Chelsea House Publications. p. 110. ISBN 1-60413-597-2. 
  7. ^ "Tom McLaury". Shaba. Retrieved December 19, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Tom McLaury (OK Coral)". Absolute Astronomy. Retrieved December 29, 2014. 
  9. ^ "Tom McLaury". Shaba. Retrieved December 29, 2014. 

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