Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp.
Brave, courageous, and bold.
Long live his fame, and long live his glory,
And long may his story be told.
- Theme to the television show "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp"
"That fight didn't take but about 30 seconds, and it seems like, in my going on 80 years, we could find some other happenings to discuss."
- Wyatt Earp regarding The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
"I still have a clear vision of that dignified figure walking down Allen Street." -- John P. Clum, Tombstone Epitaph editor
The early years...
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born on March 19th, 1848 in Monmouth, Illinois, to mother Virginia Earp and father Nicholas Earp. They were a fairly large family. Of those who survived past childhood, Wyatt had a half brother Newton (From his father's previous marriage), older brothers James and Virgil, younger brothers Morgan and Warren, and a sister Adelia.
In 1850, the family headed out to farm in Pella, Iowa. They all stayed there until the American Civil War broke out in 1861, when James, Newton, and Virgil headed off to fight for the Union. Apparently Wyatt tried to sneak off to fight as well, but was stopped by his father. 13 is a bit young to be a soldier.
In 1864, Nicholas packed up the family, including James who had returned from the war with an injury which caused him a permanant disability, and headed off to Colton, California. Wyatt learned a lot on that trip, as he helped to hunt and fight off Indian raids. Once there he worked as a teamster.
Virgil caught up with them in California. Not so shockingly, they moved again. In 1868, they moved for a short time to Lamar, Missouri. After that, the next stop was somewhere in Wyoming, where Wyatt and Virgil worked on the railroads. And then again, in 1870, they moved back to Lamar.
A bad boy.
It was in Lamar that Wyatt had his first taste at keeping the peace. He ran against his older brother Newton for constable of the Lamar Police Force, winning by 35 votes. He also married for the first time. On January 10, 1870, he married Urilla Sutherland.
Unfortunately, she died later that year. Some doubt remains as to exactly how she died. Some accounts say she died in childbirth, some say the cause was a Typhoid epidemic. At one point, the Earp brothers and the Sutherland brothers got into a street fight. Apparently the Sutherland brothers blamed Wyatt for the death of her sister. Perhaps he had knocked her up before they had gotten married.
The Earp family was sued later by the county. According to the court records, Wyatt had collected $200 for the school fund, and had failed to turn the money over before he left town.
Wyatt later ran into the law again in 1871, being arrested in Fort Smith, Arkansas, for horse thievery in the Indian Nations. Someone paid his bail, and Wyatt skipped town.
In 1872, Wyatt and his brother Morgan were arrested in a "house of ill fame" in Peoria, Illinois. For various activities that go on in bordellos, they were fined $20.
After this, Wyatt seemed to straighten out a bit. He tried buffalo hunting for a while, earning quite a bit of money, and meeting a life-long friend, Bat Masterson. When he tired of that, he moved on to the small cattle towns scattered throughout Kansas. He worked for a time on the police force of Ellworth, Kansas.
He then moved on to Wichita, Kansas, which at the time was lawless. After being appointed city policeman, he served the city well. He was only there for a short while, being asked to leave after he got into a fistfight with a man who was running for office against a friend of his. Despite this, he was given the following letter of commendation from the citizens:
"We, the undersigned citizens of Wichita are well acquainted with Wyatt S. Earp and were intimately acquainted with him while he was on the Police Force here...We further certify that said Wyatt S. Earp was a good and efficient officer, and was well known for his honesty and integrity, that his character while here was of the best, and that no fault was ever found with him as an officer or as a man."
He then headed onwards to Dodge City, Kansas. His brother Morgan was working as Deputy Sheriff, and Wyatt was able to land himself a position on the police force. Much of Wyatt's reputation comes from his time in Dodge City. He laid down the law immediately, gaining a reputation as a capable lawman, who was a lot more likely to resort to pistol whipping someone than to shooting them.
He also gained a reputation as a suave gambler, a profession which would provide the bulk of his income for much of his life. He also met another gambler in Dodge City, Doc Holliday, and surprised many people by befriending the disreputable scoundrel. He had this to say of Doc:
"I found him a loyal friend and good company. He was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long, lean blonde fellow nearly dead with consumption and at the same time the most skilful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew."
While in Dodge City, Wyatt was only forced to kill one man, cowboy George Hoy. Hoy came riding into town, shooting the place up. Wyatt shot him, and Hoy later died from gangrene.
Soon after Clay Allison, one of the most feared gunfighters, and a friend of Hoy's, came into town looking to take out Wyatt. He literally ran into Wyatt as he was coming out of a saloon, and they talked for a few minutes. When the conversation was over, Allison got back on his horse and left town for good. While we're not sure what was said, Earp's reputation gained a lot from this event.
While in Dodge City, he also met his 2nd wife, Celia Ann Blaylock, who was usually called Mattie. Eventually, having driven most of the lawlessness out of Dodge City, they grow restless, and they left with Morgan, James, and Doc, and moved around a bit. They get a crazy idea to move to a town that had just found silver, where Virgil was keeping the law as a Deputy US Marshall, Tombstone, Arizona.
When he arrived in Tombstone, late in 1879, Wyatt became faro dealer, and part-owner at the Oriental Bar and Gambling Hall. His reputation as a gambler, and his ability to keep things orderly, brought a lot of business to the establishment. He also got a side-job as a shotgun rider for Wells Fargo.
The Earp brothers had arrived in force in Tombstone. Virgil was a marshal, Morgan became a city policeman, James ran a saloon, and Wyatt dealt at the most popular saloon in town, along with watching over shipments of the town's money.
In 1880, Pima County was split up, with Tombstone being in the newly created Cochise County. Both Wyatt and another man, Johnny Behan, wanted the position of Sheriff of Cochise County. To settle it, Wyatt and Johnny made a deal, Johnny would be the only one to ask the governor for the position, and he would make Wyatt his Under-Sheriff, splitting the pay ($40,000 in 1880!) and the responsibilities.
Earp agreed, but Behan reneged on the deal after being named Sheriff. Once he was appointed to the position, Behan made a deal with the Clanton clan, being bribed a fair amount of money to ignore a cattle rustling operation, herding cattle stolen from Mexico northward to their ranch, where they changed the brand on the cattle.
While they weren't rustling cattle, some members of the Clanton's association were also identified in connection with some stage coach robberies. Despite being identified, they were never brought to court, thanks to Behan.
Needless to say, Wyatt and his brothers were a bit less than pleased at the way this was working out. Virgil had tried to keep an eye on the Clanton's, but Behan had jurisdiction, and Virgil couldn't do a thing.
Things were getting tense around Tombstone. Wyatt once even had his horse stolen, and when he finally tracked it down, he found good ole' Billy Clanton. Wyatt got his horse back, after a bit of a standoff, however tensions were rising between the Earp faction and the Clantons. And then Wyatt met Josie Marcus...
Josie was a sweet innocent 18 year old actress, who had hooked up with Johnny Behan, and had decided to stay in Tombstone. However, when she met Wyatt the two of them fell in love. Josie seemed to provide Wyatt with an outlet for his relationship problems with his wife Mattie, who had developed a deep addiction to laudanum, and seemed to grow more and more bitter.
Josie would hang off of Wyatt's arm at nights at the faro table. This infuriated Behan, so he thought up a plan to get back at Wyatt.
Wyatt was offered a city deputy sheriff's position. He accepted it, but thought that it may have been a set up arranged by Behan. He came to the conclusion that the move was designed to distract him from guarding the Wells Fargo shipments, so to counter that, he convinced Wells Fargo to hire on his brother Morgan in his place.
Really pissed off that the plan didn't work, the Clantons then tried defamation. They set the rumour mill into overdrive about Wyatt's relationship with Josie, and his friendship with "that killer Holliday."
They tried framing Doc for a stage-coach robbery, by getting his girl, "Big Nose Kate" drunk, and having her sign a confession saying that Doc was one of the ones who committed the robbery. However, he was out of jail by the next day when she sobered up and said that Behan got her wasted and had her sign something she didn't understand.
In the meantime, Wyatt and his deputies had tracked down some of the people who actually murdered the stage coach drivers, and arrested Luther King, a henchman of the Clanton's who confessed to the crime.
Behan demanded that King be transferred into his custody, since the crime was territorial instead of municipal. Not so shockingly, King escaped from Behan's jail. The Earps were realizing that the whole thing was orchestrated to discredit Doc, and by association, Wyatt.
Things pretty much progressed this way, with both sides getting more and more pissed off. Rumours had been spreading that some of the Clantons were going to "get" those on the Earp's side. On Oct 25, 1881, Doc Holliday ran into an extremely intoxicated Ike Clanton, and said to him, "I heard you’re going to kill me, Ike. Get out your gun and commence."
Virgil was on the scene, and broke the two of them up. However, as Ike was spouting off profanities, he promised to "kill you tomorrow when the others come to town." Well, there's one thing we can say about Ike. At least he tried.
The next day Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury tried to kill Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc. They didn't. This was called the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, despite the fact that it was in the alley behind the O.K. Corral. I guess it just sounds better that way. Anyways, it lasted about 30 seconds, and at the end of it all, Billy, Tom, and Frank were dead. Wyatt didn't get a scratch. If you want to know more details, read Jet-Poop's excellent writeup.
Doc and the brothers were arrested, although Virgil and Morgan are put under house arrest, since they are recuperating from injuries sustained in the fight. Judge Wells Spicer was brought in to officiate. Both sides presented their cases, with each side saying that the other were a group of murderous psychopaths, bent on destruction. Wyatt received letters of support, attesting to his character, from the citizens of Wichita and Dodge City. The testimony that likely made the most difference was that of a railroad engineer, who didn't know anyone in either party, testifying that he heard the men gathering by the O.K. Corral saying they were going to kill Virgil Earp on sight.
Eventually they were all found not guilty, by reason of self defence or something along those lines. Soon after, John Clum, editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, which had supported the Earps, was shot at while riding in a stage coach on the way back to town. Not long after that, someone threatened the life of Judge Spicer.
On December 28, 1881, Virgil was fired upon as he was crossing the street. Struck with buckshot, his left arm was badly wounded, to the point where he was never able to use it again. A hat found from where the shots had come from had Ike's name on the inside brim, and a night watchman testified that he saw Ike, Frank Stilwell, and Hank Swilling racing down the street with shotguns.
Wyatt is sworn in as Deputy US Marshall to replace Virgil, and sets out to arrest Clanton, Stilwell, and Swilling. They give themselves in to Behan, and are cleared of wrongdoing at a hearing, when they have people saying they had alibis.
Morgan and Wyatt are playing billiards in the Campbell and Hatches Saloon. Morgan is lining up for a shot, when gunfire erupts from the window to the alley. Two bullets were fired, the first shot hit Morgan in the back, killing him, and the second narrowly misses Wyatt. By the time Wyatt gets out to the alley, it is empty.
Wyatt rounds up the rest of the family. Since he knows he can't protect the injured Virgil without Morgan's help, they all head onto a train to California.
"He was only man I ever had to kill." - Wyatt Earp about Frank Stilwell.
They get off the train for lunch when it stops in Tucson, Arizona. When they got off the train, Wyatt spotted Frank Stilwell crouching behind a train, who he was convinced was one of the men who killed Morgan. Wyatt runs down Frank, who tries to grab Wyatt's shotgun from him. Wyatt put his shotgun against Frank's chest and pulled the trigger. Boom.
Wyatt Earp goes a'huntin'
Wyatt heads back to Tombstone, to arrange a posse. This is likely the last time he ever saw Mattie. We're not sure quite what happened to her. Having organized a posse, he heads on out of town. Johnny Behan tells Wyatt that he wants to see him, likely to arrest him, on his way out. Wyatt replies, "If you're not careful, you'll see me once too often Johnny." He then rides out of town, hunting the men who he believed killed his brother, with his posse:
The first person they met up with who Wyatt thought participated in Morg's murder was "Indian Charlie." Wyatt forced Charlie into a showdown, and after drawing at the count of three, left Charlie mortally wounded on the ground.
Meanwhile, Behan was organizing his own posse, to go after Wyatt and friends. Included in the posse were two of the men that Wyatt wanted the most, Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo. The two posses eventually ran into each other near Iron Springs, and Wyatt's shotgun took Curly Bill at close range.
Johnny Ringo's body was found with a bullet through the head. Most sources say that it was ruled a suicide, but it's generally agreed that it was Wyatt's bullet that got him.
Wyatt was unable to find Ike Clanton or Peter Spence, the two other men he held responsible for the death of his favourite brother. Wyatt eventually gave up his vendetta, and was forced to leave Arizona for Colorado, due to the outstanding warrant for the killing of Stilwell.
When a request for extradition was put in for Earp and Holliday, the Colorado governor contacted people in Tombstone to get the facts. By this point, Behan had resigned in disgrace. Citing "faulty wording" in the application, the governor refuses. It is believed that the governor was convinced by Wyatt's long time friend Bat Masterson.
After the action
Wyatt contacts Josie, who comes to join him from California, and they get married soon after that, in late 1882. The two of them spend some time in Denver. They move to Dodge City for a time in 1883, to help out Bat Masterson. They don't stay long however, heading off to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. There they meet up with Wyatt's brother James. Wyatt serves for a while as Deputy Sheriff of Kootenai County.
The Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight
They then headed down to San Francisco. Wyatt still had his reputation as a gambler, and one time at a prize fight, Wyatt was asked to be the referee. This event launched him into the headlines more than anything else that happened during his lifetime.
December 2, 1896, Sharkey was fighting Fitzsimmons. Wyatt didn't want to ref, but he was the only person there who both competitors would agree on. The match started out bad when Earp took off his jacket, and people noticed that he was carrying a pistol. He was charged $50 for carrying a concealed weapon.
Fitzsimmons was very much the favourite for this fight. He threw a punch that knocked down Sharkey, however Wyatt called a foul, and gave the match to Sharkey. People were divided on this issue, with as many people seeing a groin shot as those who said there wasn't. People were saying that Wyatt fixed the match, and Fitzsimmons eventually sued him for loss of the prize purse. He claimed that Wyatt and Sharkey, who were friends, were involved in some sort of underhanded deal. The case was thrown out of court, however, because the judge didn't want to rule on what was an illegal fight.
The rest of it.
Wyatt and Josie Earp spent a fair amount of time travelling. They headed up to Alaska and the Yukon when the gold rush hit there, and amassed a fair amount of money. With it, they built themselves a saloon, the Dexter, in Nome, Alaska.
They moved back down south in 1901, spending summers prospecting in the mountains of Nevada, and the winters in their cottage in Vidal, California.
Wyatt spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles, advising Hollywood western producers at the height of the silent film era.
He passed away on January 13, 1929, with his wife Josie and his long time friend John Clum at his side. During his entire time as a lawman, and his many gunfights, he was not once hit by a bullet.
I now have the urge to go watch Tombstone.