Historian John Lukacs argued that often the past and the manner in which historians remember it form two distinct narratives. Just so, Paul [End Page 215] Lee Johnson seems to say, with the history of the O.K. Corral shootout. A fight firmly entrenched in American memory as a contest between order and lawlessness seems, upon second glance, much more complicated. And this complicated narrative gave existence to a monograph that centers on three brothers: two of them ranchers, the third a lawyer in Fort Worth. Drawing on familial histories, court documents, the appropriate contemporary print sources, and even relationships with McLaury descendants, the author seeks to revise conventional interpretations of the O.K. Corral shooting by fleshing out the humanity of its victims. Tom and Frank McLaury "were shot to death . . . shot down on a public street" in front of a multitude of bystanders (xii). Like so many others, the McLaurys went west with honest intentions, a purely American ambition, and a distinctly Scots-Irish, Protestant ethic.
Johnson offers an engaging story, but in attempting to write a history of the McLaury brothers he cannot divorce them entirely from more conventional narratives. Clearly the author possesses a wealth of knowledge on the McLaurys, the gunfight, and the memory of the O.K. Corral more generally. He employs a vast amount of it to good effect. But readers with more general curiosities may be overwhelmed by the many names and dates and much seemingly superfluous background information. To be sure, the author considers all this information critical to his story, but paragraphs that detail events quite removed from the brothers detract more than they add to the tale. This tendency to create a histoire totale of Frank, Tom, and Will McLaury often loses focus. Chapter nineteen, for instance, attempts to cover a massive amount of ground with astonishing brevity: Apache hostility in Arizona Territory, the discovery of coal, stage coach robberies, and a Cormac McCarthy-esque search for two valuable horses. Yet here the McLaury brothers receive very brief treatment. Johnson hits his stride in chapter twenty-one, where politics and civil unrest begin to crystalize in Tombstone. Legal scholars will likely appreciate the author's retelling of court proceedings following the shootout.
Biographies present many challenges to the historian. Johnson's research requires a staggering thirty-two chapters and an epilogue. Fit into 305 pages, this results in a ruptured and cacophonic story that, in sheer aesthetic quality, hearkens more to Beethoven than Tchaikovsky. Those who hold to romantic conceptualizations of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral may find less to be desired in this piece; the Earp brothers and even the dashing Doc Holliday cannot escape the author's attempt at leveling the playing field of historical memory. Johnson concludes, "Tom and Frank were not rootless drifters who committed crimes against people and property. They were two young men from a good family, ambitious and eager to make as big a profit as they could." "In the main," they were not bad people (301). Fair enough, but Johnson's effort to vindicate his subjects, which occasionally comes close conjecture, seems unlikely to [End Page 216] alter longstanding beliefs about the reality of O.K. Corral. Decent men who make decisions of questionable legality often end up on the wrong side of history. Criticisms aside, this entertaining book will serve to remind its readers that victors cannot lay total claim to history.