Slain from O.K. Corral shootout getting new epitaphs


Cooler King
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TOMBSTONE, Ariz. — Past Boothill Graveyard, a larger-than-life statue of a man rises from a sandstone pedestal. Clad in a duster and broad-brimmed hat, a sawed-off shotgun over one shoulder, Wyatt Earp stands guard at the entrance to this dusty town that calls itself "too tough to die."

Since the Oct. 26, 1881, "gunfight at the O.K. Corral," the famed lawman has loomed large over this former boomtown. The silver deposits that gave birth to the city have long since been played out, but Tombstone has survived largely by mining the legend of the West's most infamous shootout.

And in popular culture, the Earps have always been the good guys; the McLaurys and Clantons, the bad guys.

"The stars of the gunfight were the winners," said Pam Potter of Mountain Center, Calif., the McLaury brothers' great-grandniece.

But something peculiar has happened at the O.K. Corral: The white hats and the black hats have gotten a bit grayer.

Hanging on the stucco wall surrounding the little amphitheater where the fusillade is re-enacted daily is a tiny bronze plaque. It is dedicated not to the badge-wearing Earps or their friend, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, but to the brothers Frank and Tom McLaury — two of the three men who died that day.

Beneath oval portraits of the McLaurys is a short epitaph: "One owes respect to the living, but to the dead, one owes nothing but the truth."

The shootout at the O.K. Corral lasted just 30 seconds. But its echoes continue to reverberate 130 years later.

"In no way did the shootout represent a clearly defined duel to the death between Good and Evil," said former journalist Jeff Guinn, author of the just-released "The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral — And How It Changed the American West." "But the poor McLaurys have gotten short shrift all these years, and they don't deserve it."

Paul Johnson agrees. "They weren't angels," said the New Yorker, who has written "The McLaury Brothers of Arizona: An O.K. Corral Obituary," a book currently being vetted by the University of North Texas Press. "Innocent's a hard word to apply, because they were complicit in the various illegal dealings going on. It's this nuance business."

The immediate cause of the gunfight was Police Chief Virgil Earp's attempt to enforce the local ordinance against carrying firearms. But Guinn's research reveals that tensions between the Earps and the cowboys had deep roots.

The McLaurys came to the San Pedro Valley from Iowa in 1877 for the promise of cheap and abundant grazing land. The Earps, particularly Wyatt, followed a couple of years later with dreams of cashing in on the silver boom.

In a series of movies — starting in 1934 with "Frontier Marshal," based on Stuart Lake's flattering and deeply flawed biography of the same title, continuing with John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" in 1946 and Kevin Costner's "Wyatt Earp" in 1994 — the Earps have come across as straight-shooting, law-and-order types. But Guinn says it wasn't that simple.

Less mentioned are Wyatt's own brushes with horse theft and misappropriation of funds, or his time working in the brothels of Peoria, Ill., Guinn said. Also frequently omitted is the fact that Wyatt's and at least one of his brothers' wives were convicted prostitutes.

Wyatt "broke jail on a charge of horse theft back in Indian territory as a young man," Guinn said. "Technically, he was a fugitive from the law his entire life. Nobody out in the West was completely pristine."

Wyatt had a well-earned reputation for toughness from his days as a deputy in the Kansas boomtowns of Dodge City and Wichita, preferring to pistol-whip adversaries rather than shooting them. But while those methods worked with the itinerant cow-town populations, they didn't sit well with the "much more permanent" residents of Tombstone, said Johnson.
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