40 Facts About the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
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

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