40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp

Larry Holzwarth - June 14, 2019

Over the course of a long and often turbulent life, Wyatt Earp became a living legend. He was, at one time or another, a saloon keeper, a brothel owner, a lawman in different jurisdictions, a gambler, a miner of gold and silver, and a professional referee for boxing matches. Late in life, he was a consultant for western films in Hollywood. His detractors claimed that his reputation was inflated and that he was both a crooked referee and an unreliable source for stories of his exploits. His many admirers disagreed and support him as one of the toughest lawmen of the American West. Here are forty facts about an American legend, Wyatt Earp.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp (sitting second from left) as one of the Dodge City Peace Commission in 1883. Bat Masterson is standing at right. Wikimedia

1. He spent most of his early boyhood in Pella, Illinois

Wyatt Earp was too young to enlist when the American Civil War broke out, though he made several attempts to run away from home and lie about his age to recruiters, each thwarted by his father. His father was a veteran of the Mexican War and responsible for raising and training companies of troops for the Union war effort. In the spring of 1864 Nicholas Earp, Wyatt’s father, organized a train of wagons to move to San Bernardino in far-off California and Wyatt arrived there in mid-December, where he sought work using the experience he gained driving wagons on the cross-country trip. Before the Civil War was over he was employed as a teamster in California.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt supported the building of the Transcontinental Railroad by freighting supplies to the railhead, where he became adept at gambling. National Archives

2. He supported the building of the Transcontinental Railroad by freighting supplies

By 1868 Earp was known as an experienced freighter and he began freighting supplies to the railhead of the Union Pacific Railroad as it crept westward. While at the railhead he learned to both gamble at cards and to referee boxing matches, developing a reputation as a fair but tough official. In Cheyenne, Wyoming on the Fourth of July of 1869 he officiated a fight which featured “Professor” Mike Johnson, who later taught future American president Theodore Roosevelt how to defend himself at the New York Athletic Club. The fight took place before an estimated 3,000 spectators, a significant number of fans for a bare-knuckled boxing event.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
A Lamar, Missouri, summons served by Constable Wyatt Earp in 1870. Wikimedia

3. His first experience as a lawman was in Lamar, Missouri

The Earp family removed to Missouri in 1869, and Wyatt took over the job as town constable from his father. He married his first wife there, in 1870, but her sudden death from typhoid fever affected Wyatt badly, and his fortunes went into decline. He was charged with embezzling funds collected for Lamar’s schools (which it was his job to collect). He was also sued by citizens of the town for filing false amounts of money collected, deflating them and keeping the difference, which caused citizens to lose property. In 1871 he was charged with stealing horses. Earp was in jail awaiting trial when he escaped, fleeing to Peoria, Illinois, where Missouri law couldn’t touch him.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp as he appeared when he fled from Peoria and various civil and criminal charges. History.com

4. He was charged with running a brothel in Peoria

In 1872, Earp’s downward spiral continued when he was arrested, along with his brother Morgan and several women, under a charge of keeping a brothel. They were fined and released. That fall he was arrested yet again, for operating another brothel aboard a steamship he owned. A woman arrested with him by the name of Sally Heckell claimed to be his wife. Earp later claimed to spend the years 1873 and 1874 on a buffalo hunt, though there is no evidence of him actually doing so. With Peoria no longer hospitable to him he and Sally – who called herself Sarah Earp, traveled to Wichita, where his brother James Earp operated yet another brothel, arriving in the booming cattle town in 1874.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Cattle being driven to markets created boom towns along the railroads connected to Chicago and St. Louis. Library of Congress

5. He was a bouncer and a police officer in Wichita

Cattle drives to the Wichita railhead brought Texas steers to the railroad, and cowboys to the saloons and brothels of the town. Earp worked as a bouncer in his brother’s brothel, and later joined the town marshal’s office as a deputy. The only record of his firing his gun during the time in Wichita came when it fell from his holster and accidentally discharged upon hitting the floor. Wichita became too hot for Earp after he beat a former deputy in a fistfight after the latter complained that Wyatt was using his position to gain employment for his brothers. When James Earp opened another brothel in Dodge City, another boom town, Wyatt relocated there in the spring of 1876.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt spent time in Deadwood around the time this photo was taken there, but he arrived in the camp after Wild Bill Hickok had been killed. Wikimedia

6. He spent a winter in the mining camp of Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory

While in Dodge City Earp heard of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, and like many others, he traveled there to make his fortune. The winter months of 1876-1877 were spent there, though his late arrival to the booming camp prevented him from staking a claim. Instead, Earp hauled cut firewood cleared by the miners and prospectors into the town. At first, his brother Morgan was with him in Deadwood, but the absence of a gold strike induced him to return to Dodge City. It is sometimes reported that Earp knew Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, but the latter died a month before Wyatt’s arrival in the camp, It is possible though he sold firewood to Al Swearingen, owner of the Gem Saloon.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Dodge City, Kansas circa 1878, as it would have looked to Earp and his brothers. Wikimedia

7. He was a deputy marshal in Dodge City

Earp returned to Dodge City following his winter in the Black Hills, joining the town’s marshal office as a deputy in 1877. In the fall of that year, he was commissioned as a United States Deputy Marshal and dispatched in pursuit of a bank robber who had fled to Texas. In early 1878 he arrived at the Bee Hive Saloon in Clear Fork, Texas, where he met for the first time with Doc Holliday. He learned from the dentist and gambler that the subject of his pursuit had returned to Kansas, and Earp returned to Dodge City. By May of 1878 Earp was back in Dodge, serving as a town marshal, and supplementing his income by gambling in the saloons.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
A warm welcome awaited guests who entered Didge Cty’s Long Branch Saloon in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

8. Doc Holliday saved Wyatt’s life in Dodge City

In the summer of 1878, Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate, said to be his wife, arrived in Dodge City intent on relieving the cowboys who had recently arrived at the end of a cattle drive of their hard-earned wages. Kate was a prostitute and Holliday a gambler. That summer a group of drunken cowboys entered the Long Branch Saloon, where Holliday was gambling, after shooting up the street outside. When Earp, acting as town marshal entered the saloon to arrest the miscreants he found several guns already drawn and pointing at him. Before Earp could react, Holliday placed his own revolver at the head of one of the cowboys, inducing the others to lower their guns. Earp later credited Holliday with saving his life.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Bat Masterson as a New York sportswriter in the early 20th century. Library of Congress

9. Earp was well known to Bat Masterson during his tenure in Dodge City

While Wyatt Earp was in Dodge City, he became acquainted with fellow lawman and western legend Bat Masterson. One interest which they shared was the sport of boxing, Earp was by then an experienced referee, well-versed in the Marquess of Queensbury rules which governed conduct in the ring. Masterson’s level of interest in boxing and other sports, including horse racing, led him to become a sportswriter in New York later in life. As a journalist, Masterson was considered a leading authority on the sport of boxing in the early twentieth century, attending most of the most important fights of the early 1900s.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp (sitting) and Bat Masterson, circa 1876. Wikimedia

10. Earp and Masterson were involved in the shooting of a drunken cowboy

In July 1878, a drunken cowboy named George Hoyt shot up the street outside of the Comique Theater, including some shots into the theater which disrupted a performance. Hoyt was accompanied by several others, and they galloped out of the city, with Earp, Masterson (a town policeman at the time) and a posse in pursuit. Later in the morning Earp and Masterson ran down Hoyt just south of town near the Arkansas River, and according to his own account, Earp shot and killed the cowboy. Dodge City newspaper accounts of the incident report that Hoyt died several weeks later of gangrene, disputing Earp’s retelling to a biographer.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
This depiction of Tombstone’s Alhambra Saloon, published in the summer of 1880, would have been well known to the Earp brothers. Wikimedia

11. Dodge City became too civilized for Wyatt’s taste in 1879

When Wyatt Earp arrived in Dodge City the town was in the first throes of a growth boom, fueled by the cattle which arrived to take advantage of the railheads which shipped the beef, on the hoof, to the stockyards of Chicago. After weeks on the trail, the cowboys blew off steam drinking, gambling, and sometimes vandalizing the town. By 1879 the town had established ordinances restricting the carrying of firearms, and the trappings of civilization had taken hold. In Earp’s own words, “…Dodge was beginning to lose much of the snap which had given it a charm to men of reckless blood”. He began to consider other options.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt’s elder brother Virgil was instrumental in bringing the brothers to Tombstone and their clash with the Cowboys. Pinterest

12. Wyatt’s brother was a US Marshal in the Arizona Territory

Virgil Earp was the town constable of Prescott, Arizona in the summer of 1879, and his proximity made him aware of the mining operations in Tombstone. Wyatt decided to join him there along with his common-law wife Mattie, his brother James and his wife, and Doc Holliday, who was accompanied by Big Nose Kate. Before the party arrived in Prescott Virgil was appointed as deputy US Marshal for the Tombstone district. Aware that his brothers were on the way, Virgil waited until they arrived before heading to Tombstone, his brothers and their wives accompanied him. Doc Holliday remained in Prescott to see what he could accomplish at the gambling tables there.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
An 1889 map of Tombstone, Arizona Territory. The OK Corral was off Fremont Street. Wikimedia

13. Tombstone was a boom town when the Earps arrived that December

The population of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, doubled during the last nine months of 1879, and it was Wyatt’s intention to take advantage of the growth by establishing a stage line, connecting it to the outside world not served by the railroad. He discovered that two stagecoach companies were already serving the growing town. James found work as a bartender, Wyatt as a gambler and later riding shotgun on Wells Fargo stagecoaches. The brothers, with Virgil, invested in several mines and real estate, but their business interests did not flourish in the area. During the summer of 1880, they were joined by Warren and Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday, who arrived with about $40,000 in his pockets, gambling winnings from Prescott.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Sheriff Johnny Behan was in league with the Cowboys in opposition to the Earps and their supporters. Wikimedia

14. The Cowboys and the cattlemen

In the Tombstone region, there was a group of men, outside of the law, which were referred to locally as the Cowboys. Legitimate workers in ranching or driving cattle were called ranchers and cattlemen. Some of the Cowboys owned and operated ranches of their own, yet they were contemptuous of the law and its enforcers. In 1880, the United States Army requested the assistance of Marshal Virgil Earp in tracking down some Cowboys who had stolen Army mules from Fort Rucker. A Cowboy by the name of Frank Patterson negotiated a deal with the Army with Virgil’s posse being withdrawn based on a promise of a return of the mules.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
An image believed to be of Frank McLaury, one of the Cowboys who became enemies of the Earp brothers. Pinterest

15. The Cowboys first confrontation with the Earp brothers

The Cowboys’ refusal to return the mules led to the Army placing handbills about town, describing them as thieves and cowards. In response, Cowboy leader Frank McLaury called Army captain Joseph Hurst, who had negotiated the return of the mules, a “malicious liar” in an article published in the Tombstone Epitaph, a town newspaper. McLaury also confronted Virgil Earp on a Tombstone street and threatened him if the Earps ever followed him and his men under threat of arresting them again. The McLaury brothers, Frank and Tom, later found Virgil in nearby Charleston, and again threatened the Earp brothers should they cross the Cowboy’s path in the future.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
An image believed to be of Morgan Earp, wounded at the OK Corral and later brutally murdered. Pinterest

16. Wyatt gave his Wells Fargo job to his brother Morgan

In late July 1880, Wyatt Earp left his job riding shotgun for Wells Fargo, convincing the stagecoach company to hire his brother Morgan to replace him. He accepted the position of deputy sheriff for eastern Pima County, where the town of Tombstone was located. Wyatt rapidly developed the reputation of being a capable and reliable law officer, and was frequently mentioned in the Tombstone Epitaph. The position was also a lucrative one, allowing him to keep 10% of the taxes he collected as the town assessor. Wyatt realized about $40,000 per annum from his position, well over $1 million dollars in the 21st century.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Although Wyatt testified for Curly Bill Brocius, the latter never forgave him for the pistol-whipping he received at his hands. Pinterest

17. The war with the Cowboy’s breaks out.

Just before Halloween, 1880, a group of rowdy drunks were accosted in Tombstone by Fred White, a town deputy marshal. One of the men was Curly Bill Brocius, who drew his revolver and White was shot in the groin. Wyatt Earp heard the noise from inside a nearby saloon, approached Curly Bill, and pistol-whipped him in the street. Accounts of the aftermath differ (especially Wyatt’s own) but all claim that Wyatt pulled Brocius to his feet while under fire (from the other drunks), and with his brother Morgan later escorted Brocius to Tucson, where he would stand trial after Fred White died from his wounds.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp testified that when he struck Brocius with a borrowed pistol the latter’s gun was already lying on the ground. Biography

18. Wyatt Earp testified in favor of Curly Bill at trial

When Curly Bill Brocius stood trial in Tucson his attorney introduced evidence that the gun used to shoot Fred White was defective, and the weapon had been fired accidentally. Brocius claimed that he had dropped the pistol as ordered by White, which discharged when the hammer struck the ground. On the stand, Wyatt corroborated the testimony, stating that when he arrived at the scene Brocius’ pistol was lying in the street. The court accepted the testimony and released Brocius, finding that White’s demise was accidental. Despite the testimony friendly to Brocius (and hence to the Cowboys), Brocius nursed a grudge against Earp and his brothers as a result of his pistol-whipping and arrest.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
After Wyatt Earp lost his job as a deputy Behan is believed to have secretly hired Johnny Ringo to replace him. Tucson.com

19. Wyatt Earp lost his job as a deputy sheriff

In November 1880, Wyatt’s boss lost his bid for re-election, and with his ouster, Wyatt lost his appointment as deputy and the lucrative tax collection fees which came with it. There was (and there remains to this day) considerable debate whether the election had been stolen by the Cowboys, who ran the polls in some critical precincts. Earp was replaced as a deputy sheriff by Johnny Behan, a politician and sometime compatriot of several of the Cowboys, including the McLaury’s, the Clantons, and Curly Bill Brocius. Part of Pima County spun off, creating Cochise County, and Wyatt and Behan both placed themselves in line for the new position, which promised income similar to that of Pima County. Behan won.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Josephine Marcus – aka Sadie Earp – worked as a prostitute for Behan before leaving him to be Earp’s common law wife, remaining with him for 47 years. Reddit

20. Earp’s marital and extramarital relationships in Tombstone

When Wyatt Earp arrived in Tombstone he was accompanied by Mattie Blaylock, identified as Wyatt’s wife, and generally accepted to be his common-law wife. Mattie suffered from debilitating headaches for which she took laudanum, an over-the-counter medication based on opiates and alcohol, highly addictive and readily available. With his “wife” indisposed, Wyatt entered into a relationship with Sadie Marcus, who may have been a prostitute in the employ of Behan prior to Earp’s arrival in Tombstone. Behan and Earp had offices located above the Crystal Palace Saloon in Tombstone, and the shared interest in one woman aggravated the already tense relationship between the two men.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp dealing faro in Tombstone’s Oriental Saloon. Doc Holliday is watching, seated on Wyatt’s right. Pinterest

21. Wyatt made money in gambling and mining after losing his job as deputy

Although some of his later apologists, including Sadie Marcus, later claimed that Wyatt never made money through gambling and running prostitutes, the evidence is overwhelming that he did, especially after leaving the sheriff’s office. Gambling was a legal, if not wholly respectable profession, and Wyatt not only ran faro tables, he wrote to his friend Bat Masterson inviting him to come to Tombstone and work for him running table games. Masterson complied, remaining in Tombstone until the spring of 1881 when he returned to Dodge City. There is no evidence that Wyatt cheated; understanding the odds favored the house he had little need to do so.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Tombstone, Arizona Territory, circa 1881, where a group of lawmen faced down a lynch mob, with Wyatt Earp later gaining credit for doing so singlehanded. Pinterest

22. Wyatt faced down a lynch mob, though the tale is exaggerated

Following a fight between two miners which proved fatal to one of the combatants, friends of the dead man formed a mob which threatened to lynch the survivor. A tale arose among early biographers of Wyatt Earp that the lawman faced down the growing mob single-handed, ordering their dispersal. According to contemporaneous accounts in the Tombstone Epitaph, Earp was present, but only one of a group of several lawmen including Virgil Earp, Johnny Behan, and Ben Sippy, then serving as City Marshal for Tombstone, a job for which he had beaten out Virgil Earp the preceding autumn.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Stagecoach robberies are a staple of the American West mythology, though rare enough that their occurrence caused public outrage. Smithsonian

23. Tensions increased between the Earps and the Cowboys

In the spring of 1881, following a stage coach robbery in which two employees of the stage line were killed, the Earps organized a posse to catch the robbers. One of the alleged robbers was turned over to Behan and escorted to jail, where he promptly walked out the back door and fled. During subsequent testimony Ike Clanton claimed that the Earps had never wanted to capture anyone alive, preferring to deliver them dead and collecting the reward money. Another stagecoach robbery in September further increased the mutual enmity between Earps and Cowboys, as it became evident to the Earp brothers that the Cowboys were profiting from the robberies by sheltering their perpetrators.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Threats by Ike Clanton and others to kill the Earps led Virgil to attempt to disarm the Cowboys. Pinterest

24. The Cowboys threaten to kill the Earps

In October 1881, the series of confrontations between the Earps and the Cowboys had reached a flashpoint. Several of the Cowboys bragged in the streets of Tombstone and other communities that they were going to kill the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. By that time Tombstone had made it illegal for most individuals to carry firearms on the streets of the town, and when Virgil Earp learned of a gathering of Cowboys on Fremont Street, including Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne – all armed – Virgil announced that he intended to confiscate their weapons if they refused to leave town.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
From left, Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton, killed during the gun battle at the OK Corral. Getty

25. Battle of the OK Corral

Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp approached the Cowboys who were in a lot near the OK Corral during the midafternoon of October 26, 1881. Who fired the first shot is disputed. What is certain is Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran for their lives. The McLaury’s and Billy Clanton were killed. All of the Earp party were wounded except for Wyatt Earp. The famed gun battle lasted about 30 seconds (during which about 30 rounds were exchanged between the parties, who stood about six feet from each other when it began, in the open) and was the beginning, rather than the end, of a bloody vendetta between the Earps and the Cowboys.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
The Tombstone Epitaph reported the story, which was repeated in newspapers across the country, many embellishing on the fight. Tombstone Epitaph

26. The Battle of the OK Corral was immediately mythologized in newspapers and magazines

Despite the fact that nine men, armed with weapons including pistols, shotguns, and rifles, exchanged approximately thirty rounds on an open street in broad daylight, with three dead and another four slightly wounded, became a legendary gunfight goes a long way in explaining the myth of the American West. But the fight became legendary, reported in newspapers across the country, and Wyatt, already somewhat famous through exaggerated reports of his exploits, became the steely-eyed gunslinger with ice-water in his veins. In truth, the coroner’s report on the wounds of the dead men indicated that none of them were likely to have been inflicted by Wyatt Earp. Two were attributed to Holliday by the coroner.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Contrary to myth, Wyatt Earp did not carry the Buntline Special attributed to him, at OK Corral, or anywhere else. Wikimedia

27. The long-barreled Buntline Special was not present at the OK Corral

During the gunfight which became famous as the Battle of the OK Corral, there was no Colt Buntline Special with the extra-long barrel, a weapon forever connected with the legend of Wyatt Earp. Wyatt was armed with a Smith and Wesson 1869, in .44 caliber. It was not in a holster, Wyatt carried the weapon, as was his usual habit, in his waistband. In fact, there is no evidence that the long-barreled Buntline connected with Earp was ever in his possession, and it first appeared in the legend when biographer Stuart Lake wrote a book, dictated by Earp, entitled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, a highly fictionalized and sensationalized biography, mostly discounted by historians.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Writer of fictional western tales Ned Buntline created the myth of the Buntline Special, as well as many others. Wikimedia

28. The myth of the Buntline Special came from a writer of pulp fiction

The Buntline gained its alleged existence, and its name, from Ned Buntline, whose real name was Edward Zane Carroll Judson Jr. Using the name Buntline, he supposedly commissioned the famed pistol from Colt (which has no records of such an event) and traveled west to present them to several worthies, including Bill Cody, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp. He said he wanted to thank the westerners for the treasure trove of material they had provided for his stories, all of which were fiction. None of the dates and locations on which Buntline claimed to have presented the weapon line up with known facts, for instance at the time Buntline claimed to have delivered the weapon to Earp in Dodge City, Wyatt was in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Billy Clanton was most likely killed by Doc Holliday’s shotgun, but the Earps and Holliday were not formally indicted for murder. Wikipedia

29. The Earps were charged with murder, but not indicted

The Earps and Doc Holliday were charged with murder by Ike Clanton, who couldn’t seem to grasp the idea that his “eyewitness” descriptions were somewhat flawed since he spent most of the gun battle running for his life. At any rate, the judge refused to indict any of the Earp party, citing insufficient evidence following a hearing which lasted for just over a month, and included written and oral testimony from witnesses. All witnesses supporting the Cowboys claimed that either Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday fired the opening shot, though testimony as to what weapon Holliday fired (shotgun or pistol) was often in conflict with other witnesses.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
The Cowboys considered their companions to have been murdered, and set out upon exacting revenge. HistoryDaily

30. The Cowboy’s struck back by ambushing the Earps

Virgil Earp was ambushed in the streets of Tombstone just after Christmas, 1881, with a shotgun blast to the back. He survived, though crippled. In January Wyatt requested an appointment as a deputy US Marshal, which he received near the end of the month. Wyatt sold his gambling interests in Tombstone. After Ike Clanton was charged and acquitted for the ambush of Virgil, Wyatt sent him a request to meet, which the wary Clanton refused. Wyatt continued to raise money to hire deputies during the winter months of 1882, when in March, Morgan was killed while playing billiards by assassins who shot at him through a window and escaped.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Tintype believed to be of Johnny Ringo, one of the victims of the Earp Vendetta Ride. Pinterest

31. The Earp Vendetta Ride against the Cowboys

Wyatt’s ride to eradicate the Cowboys was performed by a posse which included Doc Holliday, Wyatt’s brothers James and Warren, and several supporters hired for the rate of $5 per day. The still recovering Virgil was escorted to Tucson by members of the group before they set out after the perceived murderers of Morgan Earp. Wyatt and his men rode from March 20 to April 15, and though Wyatt later claimed to have eliminated scores of thieves and murderers during the vendetta, coroner reports and newspaper accounts suggest a much lower number, likely less than a half-dozen. Sheriff Behan formed a posse to arrest Earp and his men, but they escaped to New Mexico Territory, where Behan could not follow.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Earp’s skill as a faro dealer gave him employment opportunities throughout the west, where the game was wildly popular. Utah Historical Society

32. A gambler once again

In New Mexico Earp reconnected with Masterson, who joined their party in traveling to Colorado, where Wyatt soon returned to dealing faro games in Trinidad, in a saloon Masterson owned. Later Earp went to Gunnison, to open another faro game there. In 1886 Earp saw his former friend Doc Holliday in Colorado when Doc was nearing the end of his battle with tuberculosis. Earp began a pattern of traveling and settling temporarily throughout the west, chasing dreams of silver mines, copper mines, and other ventures, frequently with brothers James and Warren accompanying him, as well as Josephine Marcus, his common-law wife. He continued to flirt with being a lawman from time to time, his reputation well known to his contemporaries.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
San Diego during its growth boom near the end of the nineteenth century. SDSU

33. Earp built a gambling empire in California

In 1887, Wyatt and Josephine moved to San Diego, California, arriving in that town before the railroad did, which gave him an opportunity to cash in on the real estate boom the railroad’s arrival created. Wyatt invested in San Diego real estate, building saloons and gambling halls, and while some were likely brothels as well, he maintained an air of respectability in his businesses. He returned to his former profession as a boxing referee, and began to invest in racehorses. By the end of the 1880s the San Diego real estate market collapsed, the town’s population began to dwindle, and Wyatt and Josephine moved to San Francisco.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Josephine “Sadie” Earp, the last of Wyatt’s several wives, remained with him for 47 years. Pinterest

34. From real estate magnate to stable manager

In San Francisco, Earp began to sell his various holdings in San Diego in order to obtain cash with which he could pay taxes on those he kept. As his real estate mini-empire dwindled, he began to manage a stable, training and running race horses for other owners, since he could no longer afford his own. During a six-year period in San Francisco, he and Josephine lived at four different addresses. Their relationship was often strained, and he called her “Sadie” rather than her preferred Josephine when he was trying to get under her skin, but they remained together despite his philandering and her excessive gambling (and losing).

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Earp’s career as a boxing referee came to an end when he was suspected of fixing a fight. PBS

35. He was accused of fixing a boxing match in 1896

In December 1896, a fight which was advertised as being for the heavyweight championship of the world (not yet an official title) was scheduled for the Mechanic’s Pavilion in San Francisco. Earp was a late choice to referee the fight, between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey, which was to be held under the Marquess of Queensberry rules. Although Earp had a long familiarity with the rules, the most recent fights he had refereed had used the older and less strict London Prize Ring Rules. After an alleged low blow, Earp stopped the fight and awarded it to Sharkey, and the outraged crowd responded with cries of the fight being fixed. The fight, reported nationally on sports pages and in magazines, brought about a renewed interest in Wyatt Earp.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Earp took steps to rehabilitate his reputation nationwide following the rigged fight. University of Nebraska

36. Earp defended himself against accusations of being an outlaw

The Sharkey decision and the controversy surrounding it led to newspapers and magazines dredging up old and for the most part forgotten news stories about Wyatt Earp and his brothers, in which many accused the Earps of being stage robbers, embezzlers of taxes, and in general criminals. Less than a decade after the fight a doctor involved in the deception admitted that the fight had been fixed and that he had been paid to treat Sharkey so as to make it appear the fighter had suffered a low blow, for which he received $1,000. By then Earp was known nationwide, and in response to the stories of his admittedly checkered career, he began to issue stories of his own to counter them.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Earp joined the Yukon Gold Rush, but arrived too late to stake a claim and ended up working in a cigar store. Wikimedia

37. The Yukon Gold Rush

In the aftermath of the Sharkey fight, Wyatt and Josephine traveled to Alaska to escape the general condemnation in San Francisco and to try their luck at striking gold. By 1899, Wyatt operated a store as an employee of the Alaska Commercial Company, selling cigars and beer to miners and prospectors. The following year Wyatt and a partner built the Dexter Saloon, a two-story saloon and brothel, in Nome, Alaska Territory. Among his customers was the novelist Jack London. During 1899 Wyatt was arrested at least twice in Nome, and late in the year he relocated yet again, this time to Seattle, where his presence drew the attention of local newspapers in November.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
By the time the Earps settled in Seattle the city featured electric streetcars and other modern conveniences. Wikimedia

38. Earp’s reputation both helped and hampered him in Seattle

While in Seattle, Earp found himself the subject of debate by the city’s newspapers, with some calling him a tough lawman and others little more than a desperado himself. His plan to develop a saloon and gambling house ran into considerable opposition from some local authorities, but he managed to obtain the support of others, and it opened toward the end of the century, and soon drew attention from the newspapers and local authorities for the large crowds it attracted and the often riotous behavior within. When prodding from newspapers and local groups did not move the city government to act, the state did, and Earp’s saloon, gambling house, and brothel were closed, with the furnishings seized.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
William Hart was an early silent film star and a friend of Wyatt Earp’s late in the latter’s life. Wikimedia

39. He was hired to work for the Los Angeles Police Department in 1910.

At the age of 62, Wyatt Earp was hired to perform tasks for the LAPD which were “outside the law”. These included, for example, crossing the Mexican border and capturing individuals who were wanted in California, returning them to Los Angeles. Wyatt continued in the role until his health began to wane. In Los Angeles, Wyatt met several stars of the budding film industry and provided advice to Douglas Fairbanks and William Hart on how to portray characters in the developing genre of the western. In 1916 he met with director and actor Charles Chaplin at the home of a mutual friend, and the man who created the Little Tramp later reported being impressed with the man who created a myth.

40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp beside a 1926 Packard limousine which belonged to his friend, film star William Hart. True West Magazine

40. He tried to control his own myth

In his lifetime, Wyatt Earp found tales of his exploits and miscreant deeds reported in newspapers and the pulp magazines and novels of the day. In his later years, he tried to reshape the record with exaggerated or simply made-up stories of his own. He was not a great marksman, he broke the law as he saw fit, and his sense of honor did not preclude him from fixing prizefights or absconding with tax dollars. The famed long-barreled Buntline associated with him only appeared at his side in movie and television portrayals of his myth. He remains famous and infamous, well-known and little understood, lawman and lawbreaker, a symbol of the American West of the late 19th century.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Wyatt Earp”. Complete Program Transcript, The American Experience. WGBH, November 2010

“Who Was Wyatt Earp?” Allen Barra, American Heritage Magazine. December 1998

“Wyatt Earp 1848-1880: The Untold Story”. Ed Bartholomew. 1963

“The Truth About Wyatt Earp”. Richard E. Irwin. 1993

“Wyatt Earp – The Peoria Bummer” Tom Correa, American Cowboy Chronicles. August 11, 2016

“Wyatt Earp Dropped from Wichita Police Force”. This Day in History (April 19) History.com online

“The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography”. Steve Gatto. 2000

“Wyatt Earp’s Tribute to Bat Masterson, the Hero of Dobe Wells”. Wyatt S. Earp, San Francisco Examiner. August 16, 1896

“Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier: Wyatt Earp”. W. B. “Bat” Masterson

“Why the West Was Wild”. Nyle H. Miller and Joseph W. Snell. 2003

“Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend. Volume 1: The Cowtown Years”. Lee A. Silva. 2002

“Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend. Volume 2: Tombstone Before the Earps”. Lee A. Silva. 2010

“The Earp Brothers of Tombstone”. Frank Waters. 1960

“Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Posse”. Peter Brand, HistoryNet.Com. March, 2007

“Tombstone: Wyatt Earp, The OK Corral, and The Vendetta Ride”. Sean McLachlan. 2013

“Mattie: Wyatt Earp’s Secret Second Wife”. Edward C. Meyers, Ted Meyers. 2010

“Murder in Tombstone. The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp”. Steven Lubet. 2004

“And Die in the West: The Story of the O. K. Corral Gunfight”. Paula Mitchell Marks. 1989

“Wyatt Earp and the Buntline Special Myth”. William B. Shillingberg. 1976

“The Earp-Holliday Trial”. Douglas Linder. Famous Trials. 2015

“The Earps: Josie and Wyatt’s 47 year odyssey”. Harriet Rochlin & Western Jewish History. Online

“10 Earp Vendetta Ride Myths”. Peter Brand. True West Magazine. 2018