Wyatt Earp

Born on 19 March 1848, he was named Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp in honor of his father’s commanding officer during the Mexican American War.  He was the fourth child of Nicholas Porter Earp and his second wife, Virginia Ann Cooksey.  Altogether, Wyatt had seven siblings and a half-brother (Newton) from his father’s first marriage.

Sometime between 1849-1850, Nicholas joined with about a hundred others looking to relocate to San Bernardino County, California, where he intended to purchase farmland.  While not having a precise record of this, it is a reasonable assumption that Nicholas journeyed to California before deciding to risk any capital investment.  In any case, the Earps began their journey but were interrupted in their travels at Monmouth, Illinois when the child Martha became ill.  Ultimately, Nicholas bought a 160-acre plot of land just outside Pella, Iowa.  Martha eventually died there on 26 May 1856.

In November 1861, Newton, James, and Virgil enlisted in the Union Army.  At the time, their father was a provost marshal, recruiter, and drilling officer of local companies.  This left Wyatt, Morgan, and Warren behind to maintain the farm.  Before the end of the Civil War, Nicholas Earp organized a wagon train and headed off to San Bernardino, California.  The company arrived in mid-December of that year.  Virgil Earp arrived in the fall of 1865 and found work as a stagecoach driver and cargo-hauler.  Wyatt Earp became his older brother’s assistant.  Beginning in 1866, however, Wyatt drove cargo wagons between Wilmington-San Bernardino-Las Vegas-Salt Lake City.

In the spring of 1868, the Earp family moved east once more to Lamar, Missouri with Wyatt joining them the following year.  Nicholas Earp became the local constable, later being elected Justice of the Peace.  Wyatt replaced his father as the town constable.

Wyatt Earp c. 1869

Wyatt Earp c. 1869

Wyatt Earp began courting 20-year old Urilla Sutherland (1849-70), the daughter of a hotel owner in Lamar.  Wyatt and Urilla were married by Nicholas Earp on 10 January 1870.  Wyatt purchased a lot just outside town and by August of that year, Wyatt had built their home.  Urilla died of Typhoid fever while carrying their child, an event that caused Wyatt to enter a period of severe depression, exacerbated by too much drink.  Pouring gasoline on the fire, Barton County, Missouri sued Wyatt alleging that he’d skimmed money collected for tax revenues.  James Cromwell (a taxpayer) also sued Wyatt for similar reasons.

In 1871, Edward Kennedy and John Shown were charged with stealing two horses from William Keyes, the value of the horses set at $100.00 each.  Deputy US Marshal J. G. Owens arrested Earp for theft of horses and he was arraigned later that month; bail was set at $500.  Indictments were handed down against Earp, Kennedy, and Shown.  John Shown’s wife Anna claimed that Earp and Kennedy had gotten her husband drunk and threatened his life to get him to help them in the theft of the animals.  Edward Kennedy was acquitted, but the case against Earp and Shown remained.  Earp decided not to wait for trial and escaped from jail.

Accounts of his life are confused at this point; some claim that he went to Peoria, Illinois, where he lived in the home of Jane Haspel.  Another assertion is that he headed west to hunt buffalo in the winter of 1871-72.  Available evidence suggests he went to Peoria, because when police raided Haspel’s home, they arrested four women and Wyatt, Morgan, and a man named George Randall.  The Earps and Randall were charged with operating a house of ill-repute and upon conviction, were fined $20 each.  Wyatt and Morgan were again arrested for the same offense in May, this time being fined $44.55 each.  Finally, in September 1872, Wyatt was again arrested while aboard a floating brothel registered in his name, which he named the Beardstown Gunboat.  A young woman named Sally Heckell was arrested with him and charged with prostitution, but she claimed to be Mrs. Wyatt Earp.  Sally may have been the daughter of Jane Haspel.  In the view of most citizens in Peoria, Wyatt Earp was a “bummer,” a word used to describe a contemptible loafer.  It is likely that Wyatt Earp, at this time in his life, was little more than a pimp.

In early 1874, Wyatt and Sally moved to Wichita, Kansas where his brother James operated a brothel.  Police records reflect that from 1874-76, Sally and James’ wife Nellie (Bessie) Ketchum had a controlling hand in the whore house.  Some have suggested that Wyatt and James were pimps for their wives; others contend that Wyatt was probably a “bouncer,” paid to keep order in this place of entertainment.  There is no record of Sally after 1875.

Wichita, Kansas was a cow town.  Drunken armed cowboys would fill the town in celebration of the end to long and tedious cattle drives.  Drunken cowhands meant busy police officers.  Wyatt Earp was hired as a Wichita Deputy Marshal on 21 April 1875.  Of course, an absence of cowhands meant that the lawmen were idle and needed something else to do which may explain why lawmen such as Earp often found additional work as faro dealers in local saloons.  Earp’s employment as a lawman ended a year later when former lawman Bill Smith publicly accused Earp of trying to use his position to hire his brothers as city police officers.  Earp bested Smith in a fist fight but ended up paying a fine of $30.  On 2 April 1876, the Wichita city council voted against re-hiring Earp as a deputy marshal.  Earp moved on to Dodge City, where brother James had opened a new brothel.  In Dodge City, there was no such thing as too many brothels.

Deadwood C. 1876

Deadwood, Dakota Territory c. 1876

Dodge City, Kansas evolved into a major hub for cattle drives from Texas.  In May 1876, Earp was hired as Assistant Marshal under Lawrence Deger, but soon departed with brother Morgan for the boomtown of Deadwood in the Dakota territory.  Upon arrival, the Earps learned that all the land that might be suitable for mining or prospecting was already claimed.  Pictured left, Deadwood in 1876 was little more than a slum and it didn’t take the Earp brothers long to decide to return to “civilized” Dodge City.  Morgan returned alone, Wyatt hauled firewood to mining camps during the winter of 1876-77 (earning around $5,000); he returned to Dodge City in the spring of 1877.

Arriving back in Dodge City, Wyatt re-joined the police force.  In October, “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh [1] robbed a Santa Fe Railroad camp and fled to the south.  Wyatt received a temporary commission as a Deputy US Marshal to pursue him.  The search for Rudabaugh took Wyatt over 400 miles to Fort Clark and Fort Griffin in Texas.

At the frontier town of Clear Fork (along the Brazos River), Wyatt made inquiries at the Beehive Saloon, an establishment owned by John Shanssey [2], whom Wyatt had known for several years.  Shanssey informed Wyatt that Rudabaugh had passed through Clear Fork earlier that week but had no knowledge of where he’d gone.  Shanssey suggested that Earp check with a gambler by the name of John H. Holliday (known as Doc) since he might know something.  Holliday informed Wyatt that Rudabaugh had returned to Kansas.  Wyatt telegraphed this information to the Ford County Sheriff, Bat Masterson, and Rudabaugh was soon taken into custody.

After Wyatt returned to Dodge City, he was re-appointed as an assistant town marshal under Marshal Charlie Bassett.  “Doc” Holliday and his common-law wife, Mary Katherine Cummings (a.k.a. Big Nose Kate [3]) arrived in Dodge City during the summer of 1878.  This was the summer Ed Morrison and two dozen cowboys rode into Dodge City and shot up the town.  Morrison and several of his boys entered the Long Branch Saloon, vandalized the place, and bullied its customers.  Upon hearing the commotion, Wyatt Earp burst through the door to find numerous guns pointed in his direction.  Holliday was playing cards in the back of the saloon, unseen or ignored by Morrison.  Holliday put his pistol against Morrison’s head and forced him and his men to disarm.  Wyatt credited Doc Holliday with saving his life on that day and from that that point forward, the two men became close friends.

Mattie BlaylockAlso, while in Dodge City, Wyatt became acquainted with James and Bat Masterson, the gunman Luke Short, and a woman named Mattie Blaylock (shown right).  Mattie became Wyatt’s common law wife for about three years.  Manic-depressive, Mattie later killed herself by overdosing on laudanum (an opium derivative).

Early in the morning of 26 July, George Hoyt and other drunken cowhands began shooting their weapons wildly in the streets adjacent to the Comique Theater.  Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson (along with a few other citizens) responded by firing at the fleeing horsemen.  Hoyt and his boys crossed the Arkansas River south of town, but Hoyt fell from his horse wounded.  He later died from gangrene after his leg was amputated.  According to some stories, Hoyt was killed by Wyatt Earp, but in a situation where several men were firing their weapons at fleeing cowboys, it would be impossible to know which of the shootists hit Hoyt.

By 1879, Dodge City began to quiet down.  Virgil Earp, who was working as the town constable in Prescott, Arizona, wrote to his brothers in Kansas and told them about “opportunities” in a new boomtown called Tombstone.  Wyatt resigned from the police force in September 1879 and, with Mattie, James, and Bessie, traveled to Las Vegas, New Mexico.  There, Wyatt reunited with Doc Holliday and the three men (with their women) proceeded to Prescott, Arizona.  Three days before leaving for Tombstone (280 miles away), Virgil Earp received an appointment as Deputy US Marshal for the eastern district of Pima County.  Virgil, Wyatt, James and their wives finally arrived in Tombstone on 1 December 1879.  Doc Holliday remained in Prescott where he was making good money from gambling.

At the time of the Earp’s arrival in Tombstone, the population of the town was around 1,000 people.  The town had only been in existence for nine months, starting off with around 100 residents.  Initially, Wyatt had visions of starting a stagecoach line out of Tombstone, but upon arrival, he discovered that there were already two such businesses.  He turned to gambling as a faro dealer for his income.  Virgil, Wyatt, and James partnered with Robert J. Winders to establish the Mountain Maid Mine and purchased an interest in the Vizina Mine.  They also purchased water rights on Goose Flats.  None of these investments proved productive so the Earp brothers were forced to find other sources of income.  James became a barkeep; Wyatt found work with Wells Fargo and worked with Fred J. Dodge as a shotgun messenger.  Morgan and Warren arrived in Tombstone late in 1880.  When Doc Holliday arrived in September 1880 he was in possessions of winnings of around $40,000 (approximately 1.1 million dollars today).

For a summary of events leading up to confrontations with the Cochise County Cowboys, see The Cowboy Wars.

In late July 1880, Wyatt Earp was hired as a deputy sheriff for the eastern part of Pima County, Arizona —which, at the time, included Tombstone.  Morgan replaced Wyatt as a shotgun messenger with Wells Fargo.  Wyatt’s position was a good one because the deputy sheriff, in addition to earning a salary, was entitled to a around 10% of taxes and fees collected.  Scholars estimate that Wyatt was making around $40,000 annually in this position —and all Wyatt had to do to obtain this kind of income was to play along with the political infrastructure of southeast Arizona.

Late-night drunks, who for some reason enjoyed firing their weapons into the air inside the town limits, caused town Marshal Fred White to confront these cowhands.  On one particular night, Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp was in the Owens Saloon.  Although unarmed, he heard the discharge of firearms and, borrowing a pistol from Fred Dodge, ran to the scene.  Town Marshal White, in the process of trying to disarm Curly Bill Brocius, had been shot in the groin.  Arriving at the scene of the shooting, Earp clubbed Brocius with his borrowed pistol, knocking him to the ground.  Brocius appeared unaware of what had happened.  Nevertheless, Wyatt took him into custody.  According to Fred Dodge, who witnessed the incident, “Wyatt’s coolness and nerve never showed to a better advantage than they did that night.  When Morg[an] and I reached him, Wyatt was squatted on his heels beside Curly Bill and Fred White.  Curly Bill’s friends were pot-shooting at him in the dark.  The shooting was lively, and slugs were hitting the chimney and cabin.  In all that racket, Wyatt’s voice was even and quiet, as usual.”

Brocius, on the advice of counsel, waived his right to a preliminary hearing so that his case could be transferred to the Tucson District Court.  Virgil and Wyatt escorted Brocius to the Tucson court to stand trial.  Moving Brocius probably saved him from being lynched in Tombstone because Fred White was popular among the residents of Tombstone. White died two days later, aged 31 years.

In December 1880, Wyatt Earp testified that the shooting of Marshal White was accidental, a claim substantiated by a qualified gunsmith and the deathbed statement of Fred White.  Curly Bill Brocius, while released by the court, remained angry at Wyatt Earp for being pistol whipped.  This inscident made Wyatt Earp a sworn enemy of the gunman Curly Bill Brocius.

At the time, Wyatt’s boss was Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell, a Democrat who enjoyed the overwhelming support of The Cowboys.  In the election of 1880, Robert H. Paul announced his candidacy for sheriff as a Republican.  Paul had previously served as a county sheriff in California.  In the San Simon/Cienega voting precinct, Shibell won 103 votes.  What made this an interesting result was that there were only 15 registered voters living in that precinct.  Bob Paul suspected (with good reason) that there was some ballot-stuffing going on in the election; he contested Shibell’s victory.  In time, Shibell’s election was overturned.  But in the meantime, Wyatt Earp resigned as undersheriff as a protest to Shibell’s reelection.  The vacancy created by Earp’s resignation cause Sheriff Shibell to appoint fellow Democrat Johnny Behan as Earp’s replacement.

Three months later, the eastern section of Pima County was broken up to form Cochise County and Johnny Behan, with all his political connections (two terms in the Territorial Legislature) (friend and business partner of the well-connected John Dunbar) received the governor Fremont’s appointment as Cochise County Sheriff.  Wyatt Earp wanted the job but had no worthwhile political connections.  Behan’s appointment did nothing to improve his relationship with the Earp clan.

Events through 1881 increased tensions between the Earps and the Cowboys (Clanton’s and McLaury’s).  When Cowboys attempted to rob the Kinnear stage on 15 March, popular stage driver Bud Philpot was killed along with a passenger named Pete Roerig.  An Earp posse (which included Johnny Behan) tracked down Luther King, who admitted to participating in the robbery as a “horse holder.”  He identified Bill Leonard, Harry Head, and Jim Crain as his cohorts.  All three men were members of the Cowboys.  King was arrested and Behan escorted him to the Tombstone jail.  Within mere moments of King’s arrival in Tombstone, he escaped jail and fled to parts unknown.  The implication was that Behan “let him go.”  When the Earp posse finally returned from their manhunt on 1 April (empty handed), Behan informed them of King’s escape and, at the same time, refused to reimburse them for their trouble.  It was a incident that added to the already existing bad feelings between the Earps, Behan, and his Cowboy friends.

In September 1881, the Cowboys robbed the Sandy Bob stage.  The holdup men were identified as sheriff’s deputies Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence (who were also business partners).  When two of Behan’s deputies were implicated, Behan stated that he’d fired these men before the robbery.  Judge Wells Spicer set their bail at $7,000 each; both men arranged bail and were released.  In those days, $7,000. was a tremendous sum of money.

On 13 October, Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp rearrested Stilwell and Spence, charging them with violating a new law —that of interfering with a mail carrier.  The new arrest was mischaracterized in the local press, which reported that Stilwell and Spence were arrested and charged with another stagecoach robbery in nearby Contention on 8 October.  The erroneous press report convinced The Cowboys that the Earps were harassing them.  Frank McLaury approached Morgan Earp and warned him that the McLaury brothers would kill the Earps if they ever tried to arrest any of The Cowboys again.  This warning came two weeks before the gunfight at O.K. Corral.

Despite overwhelming evidence in court that Stilwell and Spence were the culprits behind the Sandy Bob robbery, the court found no direct tie connecting them to the September robbery.  Both men were released from pre-trial confinement.

For a summary of the gunfight at O.K. Corral, see The Cowboy War.

On 30 October, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday.  Judge Wells Spicer opened a preliminary inquiry the next day.  Lasting for well over a month, Spicer took written and oral testimony from 30 witnesses.  Sheriff Behan testified that The Cowboys had thrown up their hands and opened their coats to prove that they were unarmed.  He also claimed that the first two shots were fired by the Earp posse, and that the first of these were fired by Doc Holliday using his nickel platted revolver.  Other witnesses reported that Doc Holliday was carrying a messenger shotgun when the gunfight broke out.  Wyatt testified that he drew out his weapon only after Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury went for their pistols.  Judge Spicer eventually ruled that the Earp posse acted within the law and dismissed the case.  The Cowboys promised revenge for the killings of 26 October 1881.

After the assassination attempt on Virgil’s life (where he was seriously wounded), Wyatt Earp wired Territorial US Marshal Crawley Dake and requested an appointment as Deputy US Marshal, replacing Virgil, with authority to select his own deputies.  Dake granted the request in late January 1882 and provided Wyatt with funds borrowed from Wells Fargo.  By this time, the Earps were under considerable pressure from The Cowboys and their local sympathizers.  After consulting with Virgil, Wyatt Earp resigned as a Deputy US Marshal on 2 February.  Crawley Dake refused to accept Wyatt’s resignation, however, and ordered him instead to “arrest all parties committing crimes against the United States.”

Wyatt Earp sought and received arrest warrants from Judge William H. Stilwell (no relation to Frank Stilwell) for the arrest of the men he believed were responsible for the shooting of Virgil Earp.  Judge Stilwell was one among many Tombstone residents who were unhappy with Sheriff Behan’s failure to curtail the terrorism of the Cowboy organization.

On January 17, Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday traded threats.  Both men were arrested by James Flynn, then serving at Tombstone’s city marshal.  Both men were fined and released, but Ringo was rearrested and jailed for an outstanding warrant on a charge of robbery in Galeyville.

Less than a week later, Wyatt organized a posse consisting of brothers Morgan and Warren, Doc Holliday, “Texas Jack” Vermillion and four other men, and led them to Charleston, Arizona where Wyatt suspected that he might find Ike and Phin Clanton and the outlaw Pony Diehl [4].  Johnny Ringo, who was still in jail, learned of the posse and arranged with Sheriff Behan to post bail.  Behan released Ringo before the bail money was paid, and he headed straight for Charleston to warn his friends.

En route to Charleston, the Earp posse picked up an additional 30 riders from Tombstone.  Outside Charleston, the posse arrested known Cowboy associate Ben Maynard.  The posse soon took over the town and started a door-to-door search for the Clanton’s and Diehl, but Ringo had beat them to the punch and the three wanted men fled the town.  Ultimately, Earp re-arrested Ringo.  The next morning, Earp directed a search of the surrounding countryside.  The search was halted when a Tombstone deputy arrived with a warrant for the arrest of Sherman McMaster, alleging that he stole two horses from the Contention mining camp.  The posse returned to Tombstone where McMaster posted bail.

Ike and Phin Clanton surrendered to Wells Fargo agent Charley Bartholomew on 30 January and was placed in the Tombstone City Jail.  After being locked up, the Clanton’s were surprised to learn that the warrant was not for armed robbery, as they thought, but rather for the attempted murder of Virgil Earp.  Ike Clanton’s hat had been found at the scene of the shooting and Sherman McMaster testified that he had heard Ike talk about the shooting in Charleston.  According to McMaster, when Ike learned that Virgil had survived, he said that he would have to go back and do it again.  However, Ike and Phin’s lawyer produced seven witnesses who testified that the Clanton’s had been in Charleston the entire night.

After dismissing the charges for lack of evidence, Judge Stilwell called Wyatt aside and told him, “… you’ll never clean up this crowd this way; next time, you’d better leave your prisoners in the brush where alibis don’t count.”

Ike Clanton refiled murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday (who was then in Contention, Arizona) … but when he could not provide any new evidence, the charges were dismissed.  Meanwhile, Wyatt’s legal fees were adding up.  In mid-February, he mortgaged his home to pay his attorney, James G. Howard.

Morgan Earp was murdered on 18 March 1882.  Wyatt remembered the advice offered to him by Judge Stilwell and decided to take matters into his own hands.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp c. 1886

On 20 March, Deputy US Marshal Wyatt Earp formed a posse consisting of James and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMaster, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, Charlie Smith, Dan Tipton, and Texas Jack Vermillion to protect his family and pursue Morgan’s assassins.  Earp promised to pay these men $5.00 a day.  They escorted Morgan’s body to the railhead in Benson, Arizona where James would accompany the remains to the family home in Colton, California.  The posse then provided a guard for Virgil and Allie Earp to the passenger depot in Tucson.

Wyatt had been informed that Frank Stilwell and others were waiting to ambush Virgil in Tucson.  The next morning after Virgil’s departure, Stilwell’s body was discovered alongside the rail tracks riddled with buckshot and numerous gunshot wounds.  Wyatt and five other federal deputies were promptly indicted for murdering Stilwell.  Tucson Justice of the Peace Charlie Meyer issued arrest warrants.

The Earp posse returned to Tombstone where Sheriff Behan attempted to take them into custody, but Earp brushed him aside.  Warren Earp and Charlie Smith remained in Tombstone while the rest of the posse headed for Pete Spence’s wood camp in the Dragoon Mountain area.  Spence wasn’t present, but the posse located and killed Florentino “Indian Charlie” Cruz.  Two days later, the posse stumbled into the wood camp of Curly Bill Brocius, Pony Diehl, and several other Cowboys near Iron Springs in the Whetstone Mountains.

Both sides opened fire almost simultaneously.  The Earp posse withdrew to find cover … but Wyatt and Texas Jack advanced on the Cowboy’s positions.  Curly Bill fired at Wyatt with a shotgun but missed.  Wyatt returned fire with his own shotgun hitting Curly Bill in the chest from about 50 feet in distance, killing him instantly.  Wyatt then unholstered his revolver and shot Johnny Barnes and Milt Hicks.  Despite the intense gunfire, Wyatt who was not hit, added to his mystique as a western hero.

After the Iron Springs fight, the Earp posse rode north to the Percy Ranch, run by Hugh and Jim Percy.  Fearing retribution by the Cowboys, the Percy’s asked Wyatt to move on, which he did.  On 27 March, the Earp posse arrived at the Sierra Bonita Ranch, owned by Henry Hooker, who befriended Wyatt and provisioned him with fresh horses —refusing payment for them.  Meanwhile, Behan’s posse, acting on the Tucson indictments, searched for Earp and his group of federal deputies.  Hooker advised Wyatt to make a stand at his ranch, but Earp elected to move his men to a point three miles further on near Reilly Hill.  Behan never located Earp’s posse.  In mid-April, Earp left Arizona and headed into New Mexico and then to Colorado.

All told, Earp and his men killed Frank Stilwell, Curly Bill Brocius, Indian Charlie, and Johnny Barnes within a two-week period.  There may have been more assassination.  In 1888, Wyatt Earp gave an interview to historian Hubert Howe Bancroft and admitted to killing “over a dozen” stagecoach robbers, murderers, and cattle thievesc[5].

The gunfight at O.K. Corral lasted less than 30 seconds.  Virgil, not Wyatt, oversaw the posse in Tombstone.  Wyatt Earp’s vengeance ride lasted less than two weeks —and yet, these two events defined Wyatt Earp for the rest of his life.  After killing Stilwell in Tucson, Wyatt Earp received his fifteen minutes of fame in the press.  However, most of Wyatt’s fame came to him after his death in 1929 (a mere sixteen years before my birth).  During his life, he associated with some of the Old West’s greatest personalities: Luke Short, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Texas Jack Vermillion, Sherman McMaster, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, Shotgun John Collins, and Charlie Bassett.  None of these men were “wholesome” Americans, but they were part of the fabric of America’s western history.

What (most) people may not know about Wyatt Earp is that in 1910, aged 62-years, he and Arthur Moore King worked for the Los Angeles Police Department as bounty hunters, apprehending and returning to US jurisdiction, men wanted for crimes committed in Los Angeles.  In this endeavor, Earp and Moore were quite efficient.  It was also a position that led to Wyatt’s final armed confrontation.

In October 1910, Los Angeles Police Commissioner H. L. Lewis asked Wyatt to head up a posse to protect surveyors of the American Trona Company, who were attempting to gain control of mining claims of potash [6] on the edge of Searles Lake.  Wyatt and his posse were regarded as claim jumpers and found themselves facing armed representatives of the other company.  With guns pulled and ready to fire, Wyatt Earp emerged from his tent armed with a Winchester rifle and fired a round at the feet of Federal Receiver Stafford W. Austin.  “Back off, or I’ll blow you apart … or my name isn’t Wyatt Earp.”  Of course, this isn’t how S. Wallace Austin remembered it in 1929, after Earp’s death.  Well, he was there as the Acting Receiver of the Trona Company, so he ought to know.  The owners summoned the US Marshal, who arrested Earp and 27 others, holding them in “contempt of court.”  Earp’s involvement did not resolve the mining dispute, which eventually led to the potash wars of the Mojave Desert.

Wyatt Earp c. 1928

Wyatt Earp c. 1928

According to a letter Wyatt wrote to John Hays Hammond in 1925, “notoriety had been the bane of my life.”  This may be a true sentiment in the same sense that men having distinguished themselves in combat do not wish for people to refer to them as heroes.  Men like Wyatt Earp —rightly or wrongly— became the heroes of young boys, and this in turn without anyone ever being aware of it, may have been a catalyst for an interest in law enforcement when the boys grew into men.  Still, Mr. Earp may have been coy because according to writer Allen Barra [7], Wyatt had ambitions with the Hollywood cinema crowd.

At this late stage in his life, he and Josie Earp were financially stressed living in run-down apartments.  Among Wyatt’s long-term friends was the famous lawman Bill Tilghman.  Earp and Tilghman worked together in the Dodge City days and in 1915 Tilghman managed to obtain financial backing for a film that he both directed and starred in.  In 1920, Tilghman was back seeking support from Universal and dropped in to visit with Earp.

Another of Earps friends was William S. Hart —the Gary Cooper of his own day.  Wyatt infrequently functioned as an unpaid consultant for silent-film era western films and Hart was known as a stickler for realistic detail.  Wyatt also befriended Tom Mix and visited the movie sets of director John Ford whose primary film star (before John Wayne) was Harry Carey.  These associations cause one to wonder, if Earp shunned notoriety, why was he so interested in the film industry?

Earp's last home

Wyatt Earp’s last home still stands in Los Angeles, California

Wyatt was the last surviving Earp brother and last surviving participant of the Gunfight at O. K. Corral.  He died at his home at 4004 W. 17th Street, Los Angeles, California on January 13, 1929.  There is some debate as to the cause of his death, but he was 80 years old.  In 1887, the Los Angeles Herald described Earp as, “quiet, unassuming, broad-shouldered, with a large blonde mustache.  He is dignified, self-contained, game and fearless, and no man commands greater respect.”  That’s the way people remember him today, as well–including me.


  1. The Eastern Earps, Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun, 10 May 2005.
  2. Isenberg, A. C.Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.  Macmillan, 2013.
  3. Eppinga, J.  Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
  4. Guinn, J.The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at O.K. Corral and How it Change the American West.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011
  5. Marks, P.M.And Die in the West.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1996
  6. Johnson, D.John Ringo.  Stillwater, OK.  Barbed Wire Press, 1996.
  7. Tefertiller, C.Wyatt Earp: the Life behind the Legend.  New York, Wiley Press, 1999


[1] See They Were All Dirty.

[2] Shanssey (1848-1919) was a professional boxer, gambler, saloon owner, and a mayor of Yuma, Arizona.

[3] It is likely that Wyatt Earp knew Kate before she took up with Doc Holliday.  Born sometime in 1850 in Hungary, Kate’s father was a physician serving Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.  When Maximilian was deposed, the family moved to Davenport, Iowa.  In 1865, both her parents passed away leaving her and sister Wilhelmina orphans and the children were placed in a foster home.  Kate ran away with the help of a boat captain, later marrying Silas Melvin, a dentist with whom she had a child.  Kate lost her husband and child to yellow fever.  In 1869, she began working as a prostitute in St. Louis.  In 1874, she worked for Nellie “Bessie” Earp, James’ wife in Dodge City.  It is likely that Wyatt knew her in this capacity.

[4] Charles “Pony Diehl” Ray (b. 1848) was a ruthless outlaw known to affiliate with the John Kinney and Jesse Evans gangs.  Pony Diehl participated in the murder of (possibly) three soldiers in a saloon in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  In 1876 he participated in cattle rustling and armed robbery and supported the Murphy-Dolan faction in the Lincoln County War.  Arriving in Arizona in 1878, he joined The Cowboys and may have participated in several robberies and cattle rustling expeditions in the Arizona Territory.  Diehl was suspected of participating in the assassination attempt of Virgil Earp on the night of 28 December 1881.

[5] Setting aside the fact that Wyatt Earp relished his history as a lawman, and the likelihood that he embellished some of his exploits, there is plenty of reason to believe that he was capable of exacting violent retribution on those who destroyed his family.

[6] Mined salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form.

[7] Allen Barra, “Wyatt on the Set,” True West Magazine (May 7, 2012)

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in HISTORY. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Wyatt Earp

  1. Andy says:

    What a colorful gent he was!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Wouldn’t it have been neat in the extreme to spend an afternoon with Wyatt Earp? I can’t say he was over endowed with common sense, but he sure had sand in his younger days. Thanks for commenting, Andy.


  2. The stuff of legends.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: U.S. Marshal C. P. Dake | Old West Tales

  4. Pingback: Barney Kemp Riggs | Old West Tales

  5. Pingback: In Search of Justice | Old West Tales

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