Perhaps the most famous name from the “Old West,” and certainly a legendary figure from American folklore, Wyatt Earp lived a life that, by all accounts, was worthy of the legends that later rose up around him.
Born in rural northwestern Illinois in 1848 and named for his father’s commander in the Mexican-American War – which had just ended – Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp came into the world in a an era that is largely forgotten in American history. Perhaps the only event from the 1840’s that still floats in the public consciousness is the California Gold Rush, which is typically associated with 1849. It actually began in 1848, however, when gold was discovered near Sutter’s Mill in January of that year – two months before Wyatt Earp was born. By the summer of his infancy, it was in full swing.
Born into that gold rush environment, it is perhaps little wonder that Earp himself grew to be a man motivated by wanderlust, never able to settle in one place, and in fact frequently driven to new frontiers by the promise of gold and mineral riches.
Much of that tendency, however, must surely have come from his own erratic upbringing.
In 1849, when Wyatt was just a toddler, the family moved from Illinois to a large farm near Pella, Iowa. In 1856, they left the farm and returned to Monmouth. Wyatt’s father, Nicholas Earp, worked as a constable during this second stay in Monmouth, but was then forced to leave again after a conviction for bootlegging.
The family returned to Pella, Iowa, where they lived during the 1860’s and the Civil War. Wyatt’s two older brothers, James and Virgil, and his older half-brother, Newton, all went off to fight, with James (pictured below) returning wounded in 1863. Wyatt, old enough to want to fight, but too young to do it legally, was left to tend the farm in the absence of his older brothers.
Adelia was the only daughter of the Earp clan who survived childhood. Nicolas Earp had a daughter with his first wife who died at the age of ten months. A second daughter, two years old when Wyatt was born, died at age nine when the family was in Monmouth. A third daughter, born when Wyatt was about ten years old, died as a toddler in 1861.
One can’t help but wonder if daughters in the Earp family failed to receive the kind of love, care, and attention that was no doubt lavished on the boys – all of whom lived well into adulthood.
In any case, the Earp family stayed in California – as per the established pattern – for only a few years, returning eastward and settling in Lamar, Missouri in 1868. By now Wyatt was twenty years old. While in California, he had worked as a teamster, running cargo throughout southern California. Now in Missouri, Wyatt got work as a constable in Lamar, working close with his father, who had become the town’s justice of the peace.
This was Wyatt’s first job as a lawman.
The following year, in 1870, Wyatt Earp married Urilla Sutherland, a local girl from Lamar. They purchased a house in August of that year, but Urilla apparently died a short time later, though the cause of her death, as well as the exact date, is uncertain. What is known is that Wyatt sold the house in November, making a profit of twenty-five dollars. Urilla had presumably died shortly before Wyatt enacted this transaction.
Two weeks later, perhaps buoyed by the county’s lawsuit against Earp, a townsperson named James Cromwell filed his own suit against Earp. Cromwell had been involved in an earlier and unrelated lawsuit, which had resulted in a small judgment against him. The money he was required to pay to satisfy that judgment was collected by Wyatt Earp in his capacity as constable. The legal paperwork for this transaction, filed by Earp, showed that Cromwell still owed $38 dollars. The court, therefore, seized Cromwell’s lawn mower and sold it to satisfy the remainder of the judgment. Cromwell, however, insisted he had already paid the full amount and that Earp had falsified the documents and taken the extra money for himself. His suit, therefore, alleged not only that Earp had stolen money and falsified documents, but also demanded full repayment from Earp for the cost of the lawn mower.
From there, things continued to go downhill quickly for Earp. Only a few days later, in early April, Earp and two other men, Ed Kennedy and John Shown, were arrested for stealing horses from a local farmer. The wife of John Shown claimed that Earp and Kennedy had gotten her husband drunk and then coerced him into abetting them with the crime. Earp was jailed throughout much of April, but was released after posting a $500 bail.
A short time later, with two lawsuits and a serious criminal charge pending against him (horse theft in the 1870’s was similar to car theft today), Wyatt Earp fled Missouri. Though a warrant was issued for his arrest, it seems that no serious efforts were ever made to apprehend him. One of the men charged in the horse theft ring – Ed Kennedy – was acquitted of any wrongdoing in the case, and the charges against Earp and Shown were eventually dropped, though Earp’s disappearance may have been one of the reasons for that.
In any case, Earp never returned to Missouri. In fact, exactly what he did for the next three years has been the subject of much speculation by historians. It is known that Earp left Missouri sometime in the summer of 1871. It is also known that he began working as a constable in Wichita, Kansas, in late 1874. It’s the period between those dates that has puzzled historians.
Movies and books have frequently depicted Earp heading into the Kansas prairies during this time to gamble and hunt buffalo and generally keep a low profile. This was first suggested by historian Stuart Lake in his 1931 biography of Wyatt Earp. This biography, billed as the only “authorized” biography of the famous lawman, has been criticized almost since the day of its publication for taking great liberties with Earp’s life. Lake did, in fact, have Earp’s blessing to write the book, and Lake even met with Earp and interviewed him extensively as part of his research. Earp, however, conveniently died before the book was published, leaving Lake with more or less free reign to invent whatever he wanted. Lake, of course, denied this to his dying day, but most historians agree that at least some of Lake’s material consists of exaggeration at best, and outright fabrication at worst. Earp’s sister-in-law, Allie Earp, called the book “a pack of lies.”
In any case, while it may be true that Earp spent time hunting buffalo in Kansas, it is now known that he eventually found his way to Illinois, settling down in the town of Peoria, only forty miles from Monmouth, where he had spent much of his childhood. Records in Peoria show that Earp was there by February of 1872, at best a few months after leaving Lamar, Missouri. His reason for going to Peoria is easy to pinpoint – his older brother Virgil (seen below) was working there as a saloonkeeper.
Despite his conviction and fine, Earp was arrested two more times in 1872 on charges related to prostitution.
Wyatt Earp, apparently, was working as a pimp.
His third arrest came during a bust that actually made the local papers, and of the sixteen people arrested in that raid, Earp was given the largest fine. Newspaper reports of this bust referred to Earp by name and called him an “old offender” and dubbed him the “Peoria Bummer,” a reference to the fact that – aside from pimping – he didn’t have a real job.
After this third arrest, it appears that Earp may have finally started to get his life back in order. The unexpected death of his first wife, after only a few months of marriage, seems to have sent him spiraling into a phase of self-destruction that resulted first in professional misconduct and later much more serious criminal misconduct.
Be that as it may, in late 1872 after his third arrest for pimping, Earp left Peoria and the brothels behind, and this may be when he headed into the plains, taking up jobs hunting and skinning buffalo for the booming fur trade.
In late 1874, Wyatt Earp turned up in Wichita, Kansas, and was officially hired on as a police officer there in early 1875. It was there in Wichita that Earp began to make a name for himself. It seems apparent that whatever criminal misconduct he had been guilty of in the past, he now saw himself as a legitimate and honest officer of the law. In 1875, a local newspaper carried an article about Earp’s arrest of a drunk who was found to be carrying five hundred dollars. The man was kept in jail overnight, then paid his fine for public intoxication the next day and was sent on his way with his stash of money undisturbed. The newspaper commented that this illustrated the “integrity” of Wichita’s police force.
Clearly they had not heard of charges against Wyatt Earp for stealing money earmarked for schoolchildren, or falsifying documents related to civil judgments.
In 1876, Earp was fired from his job in Wichita after getting into a fistfight over a disagreement with a former marshal about hiring his brothers as police officers in town. Though the town council felt that the firing had been too hasty, and were prepared to discuss a new offer, Earp recognized that Wichita was losing prominence in the cattle trade and decided to move to Dodge City, which was a major hub of the Chisholm Trail.
It was in Dodge City, of course, where Wyatt Earp really made his name as a lawman. He served on the police force there off and on until 1878, though it appears that he spent much of 1876 and 1877 simply living there as a private citizen and traveling as a gambler. During those travels he may have gone as far north as the Dakotas and as far south as Texas. It was in Texas in 1877 that Earp briefly met Doc Holliday while gambling his way through the boomtowns.
By 1878, he was back on the police force in Dodge City and living with a woman named Mattie Blaylock, whom he appears to have met several years earlier.
When Wyatt and Mattie left Dodge City 1878, they traveled to Las Vegas, where Wyatt hoped to make money as a card dealer. They didn’t stay long. He soon learned that his brothers James and Virgil had moved to Tombstone, Arizona, where James was tending bar and Virgil was working as a deputy U.S. marshal. Tombstone was a thriving town in the late 1870’s, and Wyatt and Mattie joined his brothers there in late 1879.
It quickly became a family affair. A few months after Wyatt’s arrival, his younger brothers, Morgan and Warren, both arrived with their wives.
Later that same year, Doc Holliday showed up in town, though it is unclear whether he came because he knew the Earps were there, or if the Earps actually asked him to come.
In any case, by this time, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp had maintained and on-and-off friendship for some three years. After their first meeting in 1877, they had spent time together in both Dodge City and Las Vegas. One account from their time in Dodge City tells of Holliday saving Earp’s life during a barroom brawl when a cowboy pointed a gun at Earp’s back.
Holliday had grown up in the east, being given a classical education and earning a doctorate from a dental school in Pennsylvania (his dental school graduation picture is seen below).
Holliday took the doctor up on his advice. He set up a practice in Dallas, Texas, then later in nearby Denison, Texas. Within a few years, however, as his tubercular cough became more apparent, he found it difficult to keep patients. He began drinking whiskey to soothe his cough and gambling to help support himself financially. In time he found that he could make far more money playing cards than pulling teeth. He began traveling as a gambler and only doing dentistry on the side. His drinking increased. He began, by the necessity of his profession as a gambler, to carry guns. Because of his illness, he began developing a devil-may-care attitude about life, and this only fueled his movement away from his classical education and respectable career. By the time he arrived in Tombstone in 1879, his time has a dentist was already behind him and he was well-known as a gunman and gambler. His last known practice was in Dodge City in 1878 (where he advertised a money-back guarantee in the newspaper).
Contrary to popular assumption, Wyatt Earp did not spend much time working as a lawman in Tombstone. In the summer of 1880, he was named an “undersheriff” (essentially a sheriff’s deputy) to the Pima County sheriff, specifically in charge of Tombstone and the surrounding area. But that appointment did not last beyond the fall election of the same year.
Thus, outside of that roughly 3-month stint as undersheriff, Earp spent most of his time in Tombstone staking claims on silver mines and gambling for a living. His brother Virgil was the U.S. marshal assigned to the Tombstone area, and his younger brother Morgan worked as a deputy under Virgil, but Earp himself was primarily a professional gambler during this time, assisting his brothers only occasionally in a non-paid, temporarily-deputized capacity.
It was in this type of non-official capacity that he conducted himself during the so-called “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”
The story of this famous gunfight, and all the circumstances leading up to it, is quite lengthy and convoluted, as are the circumstances that followed it. In short, it occurred because of building animosity between the Earps and their friend Doc Holliday, and a group of local ranchers known collectively as the “cowboys.” There were accusations of cattle theft and horse theft, backdoor deals for betraying friends to the authorities, accusations of involvement in stagecoach robberies, and a lot of veiled and not-so-veiled threats. The “cowboys” came to feel like the Earps were out to get them, and the Earps felt that their lives were threatened by these cowboys who were itching for a fight with local lawmen trying to keep the peace. Ike Clanton, pictured below, was one of the prime players in the feud.
It culminated on October 26, 1881, when about 30 shots were fired at point-blank range in an alley between two buildings, backing up to the O.K. Corral. Virgil Earp took a gunshot to the leg, and Morgan (pictured below) was shot in the back.
Doc Holliday was hit in the hip, but his holster deflected the bullet, leaving only a bruise. Three cowboys – Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton – were killed. Wyatt Earp was the only person involved in the fight who was not hit by a bullet.
The bodies of the dead cowboys were prominently displayed in town before burial in Tombstone's Boothill Cemetery.
Virgil and Morgan were not charged in the case because they were working in their professional capacity as lawmen. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, however, working in only a spur-of-the-moment “deputized” fashion, were brought up on charges of murder. Public sentiment was initially against them, following the testimony of cowboy friend Sheriff Johnny Behan (pictured below).
However, after a number of non-biased eyewitnesses gave testimony, and after Wyatt Earp himself testified in his defense, the justice of the peace determined that there was not enough evidence to warrant a jury trial. A grand jury later agreed with that decision and all charges against Earp and Holliday were dropped.
The story, however, was far from over. First, Virgil Earp was shot in the arm by a hidden assailant, and then Morgan Earp was assassinated a few months later while playing pool. These events led the Earp family to flee Arizona for California, where their parents were now living. Wyatt, on the other hand, traveled into the desert to hunt down all the associates of the “cowboys” that he could find, in a situation that has come to be called “Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride.” He managed to kill two associates of the McLaurys and Clantons, then found and killed the veritable “leader” of the cowboy gang, a man named Curly Bill Brocious (pictured below).
He continued to live “on the move” for the rest of his life, traveling throughout all the states of the west and even spending time again in Dodge City. He worked primarily as a professional gambler and saloonkeeper in various places, including several years in Alaska during the gold rush there, and supplemented his lifestyle trying to strike it rich with various mineral claims.
In 1882, when Wyatt had sent the rest of the family on to California, he had sent his common law wife, Mattie, along with them. She remained with the Earp family in California for several months, expecting a telegram from Wyatt calling her to come join him. The awaited telegram never came, and Mattie returned to Arizona on her own, where she went back into the prostitution trade. She committed suicide by overdosing on opium in 1888, still using Earp’s last name.
Earp, on the other hand, had replaced Mattie with a woman he knew from Tombstone named Josie Marcus.
Third time proved to be a charm for Wyatt Earp. He and Josie, though probably never legally married, remained a couple for the rest of their lives, and Josie appears to have been his partner in a number of gambling/saloon ventures that they undertook throughout the west.
Unfortunately, there is very little history from this era to analyze. Following the events of Tombstone, Earp seems to have been primarily interested in settling down and striking it rich. He lived mostly under the radar, rarely giving interviews even after he became famous, and more or less staying out of the way as his name became a brand in the early 20th century. There is some evidence that Josie had worked for a time as a prostitute, which would come as no shock considering Earp’s apparent tendency toward women of the night, and according to Earp’s biographer, Stuart Lake, their relationship was frequently rocky and unhappy. Lake’s depiction of their relationship, in fact, led to Josie’s attempt to stop the book’s publication, though she was unsuccessful in this endeavor. A few years later, she also tried to stop the filming of a movie based on the book, but was only able to keep Wyatt Earp’s name out of the movie’s title.
Earp himself died in 1929 at the age of 80. He and his wife were living in their Los Angeles condo at the time. Josie lived another 15 years, dying in 1944. Of the Earps of Tombstone, Virgil’s wife Allie outlived everyone, living through World War II before dying at the age of 98 in 1947.
In the end, for all his fame and legendary status, Wyatt Earp does not seem like a very likeable person. By all accounts, he was a hard and uncompromising man who never had a problem blurring the ethical line between law and outlaw. He was arrested numerous times in his life for various crimes ranging from petty to very serious. He incurred dozens of fines for civic mischief throughout his life (disturbing the peace, slapping a hooker, etc.), and frequently found himself involved in major disputes and feuds. He was tried for murder. He fled from a second murder charge. During his life, there were two different states he couldn’t enter because of outstanding arrest warrants.
When considering the situation in Tombstone and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, including the later “Vendetta Ride,” it seems clear that the victims in that situation were definitely “bad men” who were doing bad things. But that does not excuse taking the law into one’s own hands. And that seems to have been Wyatt Earp’s modus operandi throughout much of his life. If necessary, he was willing to cross the line and be judge, jury, and executioner. That may make for a great movie, and in many people’s minds it may make for a great hero, but in my opinion, it makes Wyatt Earp little better than the criminals he was pursuing.