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The Wild West
Anjali Abraham, Sally Benford, Martin Cizmar, Keridwen Cornelius, Tom Marcinko, M.V. Moorhead
December, 2012, Page 84
Photography Courtesy Of The Arizona Historical Society
Ranchers shipping cattle from Hackberry, Arizona in 1918
Forget every truth you hold to be self-evident: Arizona in the 1870s and 1880s was practically a Bizarro world version of our modern state. Back then, calling a man a “cowboy” wasn’t a compliment but fighting words. Mexico impatiently urged the United States to seal the porous border and stop Americans from stealing their property. And white males who disliked the federal government came to Arizona to get away from Republicans.
Ultimately, clashes between cattle-rustling cowboys and Mexican ranchers would trigger history’s most famous 30 seconds of gunplay – the gunfight at the O.K. Corral – and drive the U.S. and Mexico to the brink of war. But the economic origins of the conflict were much different from those of today. This was a beef about beef.
After the Civil War, demand for meat skyrocketed. Burgeoning cities – along with the U.S. Army and Native American tribes that were forced onto reservations – all needed to be fed. And just over the Mexican border were thousands of cows ripe for the dinner plate. Consumers weren’t finicky about where cattle came from, especially if it was cheap.
Enter a new breed of man: the “cow-boy.” They were mostly young, rootless fellows seeking adventure and easy money. Many were refugees from the defeated Confederacy who bridled under the victorious Union. They made money smuggling illicit alcohol and tobacco across the border, but their main business was bovines. And they had few qualms about stealing from Mexican cattle ranches, given lingering regional tensions stemming from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the Texas Revolution (1835-1836). “[Cattle rustlers] were horribly prejudiced against Mexicans,” says Fort Worth writer Jeff Guinn, author of The Last Gunfight, a 2011 look at Tombstone.
Arizona cowboys in 1918
Texas made a fine place to rustle cattle until about 1875. As Guinn tells it, a group of especially diligent Texas Rangers known as McNelly’s Raiders killed a dozen rustlers near Brownsville and stacked the corpses in the town square. The cowboys got the message and hightailed to Arizona.
Here, many of them became legends. There was trigger-happy practical joker Curly Bill Brocius, dangerous depressive Johnny Ringo, two Billy the Kids, and the incomparably-named Pony Deal. Some of the cowboys, like Newman “Old Man” Clanton and sons, blurred the line between rancher and criminal, helping the cowboys market stolen goods and often joining the raids.
But border crime was two-way. Mexican bandits smuggled gold and silver into the U.S., then spirited alcohol and tobacco back home, where such vices were heavily taxed. They and the cowboys routinely robbed and retaliated against one another, usually without interference from the law. “The Mexican smugglers weren’t going to report it,” Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble says.
But 1881 witnessed an affront Mexico could not ignore. That May near Fronteras in the state of Sonora, cowboys stole 500 head from rancher José Juan Vásquez, who was shot dead while leading a posse across the border to retrieve his stock – but not before the posse killed four cattle thieves. The cowboys struck again in July, killing four Mexicans laden with bullion.
Cowboys in Hackberry, Arizona in 1918
President Chester A. Arthur took Mexico’s protests seriously – after all, he needed Mexico’s permission to chase runaway Apaches across the border. And he wanted Mexico to sign a trade agreement. These issues were “never really resolved to anybody’s satisfaction,” Guinn says, and the prospect of another war was very real. “Things really were very tense. There were incursions by both sides, who didn’t observe the border as scrupulously as they might have.”
Meanwhile, residents of the Arizona boomtown of Tombstone and other border settlements grew ambivalent about the cowboys. On the one hand, a cowboy on payday was economic stimulus personified. According to Guinn, the income of a sheriff like Cochise County’s Johnny Behan hinged on his ability to collect taxes. When Behan demanded Curly Bill’s gang pay its fair share, he was astonished to collect $1,000. Some of the taxes paid for civic improvements like wetting down Tombstone’s dusty streets, or killing the rats that plagued the town’s buildings.
But eventually the cowboys went too far. They flouted Tombstone’s strict town-limits gun control. They brawled and shot up towns. They robbed stagecoaches and killed drivers, including an infamous incident at Benson. “‘He who calls the bulls has to take the horns,’” Trimble says, quoting an old Mexican proverb and summing up the predicament in Tombstone. Arizona had no death penalty for stagecoach robbery, but that didn’t stop Wells Fargo from posting dead-or-alive rewards.
Cowboys behaving badly was one root of the toxic feud between Tombstone’s factions. Though the law-scoffing Clanton clan resented town marshal Virgil Earp and his do-gooding brother Wyatt for interfering in their profit-making schemes, middle-son Ike Clanton secretly agreed to help Wyatt ambush the Benson stagecoach culprits – if only to take the reward money. After striking their agreement, Ike lived in fear that Wyatt would rat him out. The incendiary mix of politics, money, alcohol, and paranoia exploded in gunfire one cold October afternoon near the O.K. Corral.
Soon after, Wyatt’s younger brother Morgan was killed by a shot in the back from an unseen gunman during a game of billiards. When Wyatt went on a lawless vendetta, newspapers editorialized that he had become no better than the cowboys he chased, and sometimes killed. The violence got so bad that President Arthur threatened martial law. He asked Congress for an Arizona militia akin to the Texas Rangers. Impatient community leaders passed the Stetson to raise funds themselves.
In the end, the cowboys’ brand of semi-organized crime was disbanded not by an army but an icebox. Demand for their services dried up with the rollout of the refrigerated railroad car. Buyers and sellers could now ship and store beef. Rustling became pointless.
Turn-of-the-century nostalgia made the yesteryear of cowboys seem thrilling and glamorous. Dime novels and Hollywood mythologized them, glossing over their crimes, and the term that was once a grave insult became an ideal.
From left: Cavalry crossing the Mexican border to quell violence in 1881 • Cowboy outlaw William “Billy the Kid” Bonney
Succulent fillet d’ boeuf a la Financier. Tender lobster salad. Tricandeau of veal with vegetable glace. “The wonder of the world! A meal in Tombstone like this for 50 cents,” boasted an 1881 ad for the Occidental Restaurant, where the town’s most famous gunslingers dined the day before the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Given Tombstone’s badass portrayal in Western fiction and film, it’s hard to fathom outlaw cowboys dying with lobster salad in the belly. But the Town Too Tough to Die was far more sophisticated than the writers of the purple prose would have you believe.
The legendary town began inconspicuously thanks to a hapless prospector with 30 cents to his name. Ed Schieffelin’s friends told him he’d find nothing in southeastern Arizona but his tombstone. Instead, he found a silver belt that would reap millions of dollars. To spite his doubters, he named the settlement “Tombstone.”
No sooner was the townsite founded in 1879 than newspapers nationwide buzzed about the latest bonanza. By the end of the year, a thousand people had beelined to Tombstone. Two months later, that population doubled. By October 1881, at the time of the famous gunfight, it was a bustling burg of nearly 10,000. Most of these ambitious, adventurous settlers were in their 20s and 30s. Many had bounced from boomtown to boomtown, while others were fresh off the boat. Miners came from as far away as England and Ireland, businesspeople from Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and China.
When newspaper correspondent Clara Spalding Brown arrived in June 1880, she saw “an embryo city of canvas, frame and adobe… It is a place of more pretensions than I had imagined, and full of activity.” But the town developed at lightning speed: You could practically look out the window and see it grow, time-lapse-video-style, before your eyes. Soon, Tombstone boasted 100-plus saloons, beaucoup brothels, a gym, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, performance halls that attracted world-class entertainers, and lavish hotels furnished with “rare and costly paintings” and “the most expensive silk,” noted one advertisement.
Tombstone was also friendlier than its name suggested. “The glad hand extended made us feel home at once,” wrote rancher and miner John Plesent Gray, who arrived the same month as Brown. “I looked in vain for any guns or so-called gunmen. I learned later that it was one of the town’s first ordinances that no guns were to be permitted in any public place, and Tombstone was always a quiet, safe town for the man who minded his own business.”
Certainly there were murders, drunken brawls and trigger-happy cowboys, but Tombstone’s reputation as a place where “at least one dead man was provided for breakfast each morning” was unjustified, wrote former mayor and Tombstone Epitaph editor John Clum. “I could recall only one deadly street battle and one lynching during the entire 50 years of Tombstone’s existence.”
So was Tombstone really Mayberry in Gomorrah clothing? Hardly. Some of the most colorful characters in history were temporary Tombstoners. Clum came to Arizona as an Indian agent and was presented with a severed head his second day on the job; he later captured Geronimo. Endicott Peabody, a smooth-talking hunk of an Episcopal pastor, challenged the local Methodist minister and an outlaw cowboy to boxing matches, and won both. Bartender Frank Leslie paraded through town in head-to-toe fringed buckskin and enjoyed standing his sweethearts against a wall and “drawing” their silhouettes in bullet holes.
But the fun didn’t last long. Tombstone miners soon hit water, and by 1887, most of the mines closed due to flooding. By the 1890s the town was in its death throes, and many of its most famous citizens, including Wyatt Earp, had already moved on to the next big ore rush in Alaska.
— Keridwen Cornelius
THE GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL
It was a botched arrest canonized as a tale of justice. A suspicion-and-booze-fueled blunder that bestseller-seeking biographers fashioned into a good-guys-versus-bad-guys pulp classic. They even fudged on the location (it actually took place at a vacant lot and was referred to at the time as the Fight on Fremont Street), latching instead onto the nearest landmark with a Western-sounding twang to give it that authentic appeal. Perhaps no event better illustrates the wildness of the West, where the lines between lawman and criminal were as blurry as borders in desert sand. Today, it’s entertainment. But on that cold October day in 1881, it served as a chilling reminder that law must be kept in check as much as lawlessness, and order finally had to come to the frontier.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson • Wyatt Earp (middle) and John Clum (right) in 1900 • Billy Clanton • Ike Clanton
It began on March 15, 1881, when outlaws held up a Wells Fargo stagecoach heading from Tombstone to Benson, killing the driver and a passenger. To hunt down the criminals, the Sheriff of Cochise County, Johnny Behan, organized a posse that included Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp and his brothers Wyatt and Morgan. Wyatt was a former deputy sheriff who had lost his position in a political reshuffle, but he and Behan had made a deal that if Wyatt didn’t lobby for the position of sheriff and Behan won, he’d name Wyatt his undersheriff.
The Behan-Earp posse found a drifter named Luther King, who admitted to assisting the robbers – cowboy criminals Bill Leonard, Harry Head and Jim Crane. Behan arrested King and put him in the Tombstone jail. The Earps continued the manhunt till their horses collapsed, but when Virgil wired Behan to send replacements, he didn’t deliver. Wyatt walked to Tombstone to get fresh horses, only to discover Behan had broken his promise and named Tombstone Daily Nugget editor Harry Woods undersheriff. Then King escaped jail by simply walking out the back door. This cast suspicion on Woods and Behan, who were known cowboy sympathizers and rumored to be in cahoots with them. Why Behan doublecrossed Wyatt is unclear. Perhaps it was politics – Behan, Woods and the cowboys were Southern Democrats, while the Earps were pro-Union Republicans – but the rivalry would intensify when Behan’s fiancée left him for Wyatt.
Meanwhile, stagecoach operator Wells Fargo offered a reward of $3,600 for the capture of Leonard, Head and Crane – dead or alive. Wyatt, determined to beat Behan in the next election, approached ranchers-slash-cowboys Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury with a deal: Tell him where the fugitives were hiding, and they could have all the reward money. Wyatt wanted only the glory of the arrest – a virtual guarantee he’d be elected sheriff. Ike and Frank agreed and sent a friend to lure the fugitives to the McLaury ranch.
Not long after, Leonard, Head and Crane were shot in unrelated incidents, and the deal was off by default. But Ike became obsessed with the fear that if Wyatt revealed Ike’s traitorous intents, the cowboys would murder him. Suspicion ran like poison through the town. Because Wyatt’s pal Doc Holliday had been a friend of Leonard’s and possibly went to visit him on the day of the stagecoach robbery, many Tombstoners suspected him of involvement. Behan went so far as to ply Doc’s common-law wife, Big Nose Kate, with alcohol and get her to sign an affidavit accusing Doc; the charges were later thrown out. Some people suspected Behan of conspiracy with the cowboys, while others suspected the Earps.
Fear and Loathing
In September, another stagecoach was robbed, and the Earps arrested Deputy Sheriff Frank Stilwell and cowboy Pete Spence. They were released, but Frank McLaury and other cowboys threatened the Earps’ lives for arresting their friends. Despite regularly buying cattle stolen from Mexico, Frank saw himself as an upstanding rancher and resented the Earps’ meddling. Then, to stir up trouble, crooked Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams told Ike he heard about his deal with Wyatt. Ike sought out Wyatt, accusing him of telling Doc Holliday and others about the deal. Wyatt denied it.
On the night of October 25, fear gnawed away at Ike’s psyche as he drank at successive saloons. The thought obsessed him: If Wyatt and Doc were out of the picture, his secret would die. Doc confronted Ike in the Alhambra Saloon, denying Wyatt had told him anything. “Get out your gun and get to work,” Doc ordered, but Ike said he wasn’t armed. They got into such a spat that Morgan and Virgil Earp had to break them up. All night, Ike continued to drink and threaten to fight the Earps and Doc. “You must not think I won’t be after you all in the morning,” Ike blustered. “Fight is my racket. All I want is four feet of ground to fight on.” He was still drunk and at it the next morning, this time roaming the streets with rifle and pistol in hand, looking for the Earps and Doc.
Because Ike was a blowhard coward, the Earps didn’t take him seriously. It took numerous locals warning them before Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan reluctantly decided to act. Virgil disarmed Ike, pistol-whipped him and took him to court. But instead of seeking more serious charges, low-key Virgil merely accused him of possession of a weapon in town. The judge fined Ike, stowed his weapons and set him free, still dangerously pissed, in both senses of the word. Wyatt left the courthouse in a huff, exchanged threats with Frank McLaury’s brother, Tom, and buffaloed him.
That afternoon, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, Ike’s brother, arrived in town. After they heard what was happening, they decided to gather their brothers and leave, but not before loading up on ammunition at the gunsmith’s. Behan went to disarm the men, encountering them on Fremont Street. Frank said he’d only give up his guns if the Earps gave up theirs. Behan could have pressed the issue, but he walked away. Meanwhile, Virgil, who had previously deputized Morgan, Wyatt and Doc, asked them to go with him to disarm the cowboys. On the way, they passed Behan, who said, “For God’s sake don’t go down there or you will get murdered.” Virgil replied that they were going to disarm the men. Behan lied and said he had disarmed them, but the Earps apparently didn’t believe him. If the lawmen hadn’t been rivals, they could have worked together and avoided a fight. Perhaps Behan wanted the Earps and Doc to get killed; perhaps the Earps were really looking for a fight. Whatever the reason, they kept walking. Anger and bravado propelled them with inertia to the inevitable.
Photos - From left: Tom McLaury • Frank McLaury
The eight men – Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, Doc, Frank, Tom, Ike and Billy – met on an empty lot off Fremont Street. “Throw up your hands. I want your guns,” Virgil called out. In the heat of the moment, any movement could be interpreted as an attack. Tom opened his coat – either to show he wasn’t armed or to grab a gun – while Frank and Billy started to raise their hands – either to surrender or to prepare to fight. The Earps thought they heard Billy and Frank cock their pistols. “Hold on, I don’t want that!” Virgil said. But the sound was enough for Wyatt. He whipped out his pistol and shot Frank in the stomach, triggering a volley of 30 shots in 30 seconds. Morgan was shot across the shoulders and Virgil in the leg. Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury died.
Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton at their funeral
The incident divided the town, with some saying the Earps’ actions were justified, while others accused them of murder. Undeniably, it was a tragedy that could have been avoided multiple times, a cautionary tale of personal rivalries obstructing justice. Doc’s reaction sums it up best: After the shootout, he went back to his room, said, “That was awful – awful,” and wept.
— Keridwen Cornelius
Think of Doc Holliday as the 19th-century equivalent of TV’s loveable misanthrope Dr. House – with a six-shooter and a knife named Hell Bitch. Wyatt Earp said of his best friend, “Doc was a dentist, not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit.”
Born John Henry Holliday in 1851, Doc got his dapper sartorial sense and Southern gentility from a Georgia upbringing. A brilliant student, he graduated young from dentistry school. A respectable position in a family practice was in the cards. But then in his 20s, life dealt him a rotten hand: The love of his life rejected him to become a nun, and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given an indeterminately short time to live.
So, as he later joked, he coughed up his conscience along with his lungs and embarked on a reckless decade of gambling, drinking and gunfights. He shacked up with Big Nose Kate, and they vagabonded around the West, leaving a trail of blood and legend in their wake. It was rumored he disemboweled one man and quite possible he killed two in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But when he wasn’t drunk, he was known for his strong sense of loyalty, his kindness to children, and his sense of humor. He died of tuberculosis in Colorado at age 36. His last words: “This is funny.”
— Keridwen Cornelius
“Shoot first and ask questions later.” Somebody had to say it first, and legend attributes it to lawman, rancher and gambler John Horton Slaughter (1841-1922). He personified the quick-on-the-draw lawman, writes historian Bob Boze Bell in True West magazine.
Louisiana-born Slaughter fought for the Confederacy, relocating to Texas after the Civil War. Threatened by a cheater he unmasked at a San Antonio poker game, he plugged his opponent with one .45 shot to the heart.
After retiring from the Texas Rangers, “Texas John” settled in Arizona. Elected sheriff of Cochise County in 1887, he told cattle-rustling cowboys: “Get out or get killed.” They complied for Slaughter’s two terms in office.
Slaughter lived a peaceful last three decades at the San Bernardino Ranch near Douglas. He wagoned in 300-pound blocks from the new Douglas icehouse so his wife, Viola, could make ice cream. The Slaughter Ranch Museum is located along the trail where songwriter Stan Jones scared the hell out of music lovers with “Ghost Riders in the Sky” in 1948. Ultimately, he was immortalized in Disney’s 1958-61 series Texas John Slaughter, starring actor and future bestselling novelist Tom Tryon. Talk about moldy oldies: The show is available on videotape only.
— Tom Marcinko
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