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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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