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Monday, April 1, 2013

Wyatt Earp in fact and fiction, part 1/2: the fact

Fact or fiction?

Wyatt Earp lived with fact and fiction. Even in the period of his fame, especially in Tombstone, partisans and a very partisan press (the pro-Earp Tombstone Epitaph and the anti-Earp Nugget) were vociferous in their support or their condemnation of Wyatt and his brothers. Standards of probity and integrity in the media were, we like fondly now to assume, lower then. Politics (urban pro-Earp law-and-order Republicans versus good-ole-boy rancher Cowboy Democrats) were conducted on an inflammatory level that makes present-day controversy look tame. Innuendo had nothing to do with it. Downright falsehoods and libel were printed as truth. Most contemporary accounts of Wyatt Earp (newspaper articles, diaries, speeches, oral history) displayed a bias that to us today is quite shocking. Law officers and even courts were far from impartial.

Wyatt Earp
And controversy dogged Wyatt through his later life too, for example the claims, often made by those who had bet heavily on the losing side, that as referee of the Fitzsimmons/Starkey prize fight in San Francisco in 1896 he had fixed the result and been paid to award the fight to Starkey.

After Wyatt’s death in 1929, the situation became far worse. Anyone, it seemed, had license to present his (or her – Earp wives were especially unreliable) view of the famous frontiersman, no matter how extreme, as pure fact. Journalists, historians, family members, movie and TV producers, anyone indeed, had carte blanche to produce stories, articles, films or books which presented their particular ‘true’ Wyatt Earp as Gospel. Poor Wyatt is probably still revolving in his grave faster than a drawn Buntline Special on Main Street.

So it is very difficult now to sort out the fact from the fiction as far as Wyatt Earp is concerned.

We will do our best.

1          FACT: the real Wyatt Earp

Here is a 2500-odd word summary of the life of Wyatt Earp, as accurate and as neutral as I can make it.


Born in Illinois in 1848, he grew up in Iowa. He was too young to fight in the Civil War (although he tried), leaving enlistment on the Union side to his half-brother Newton (his father’s son by a previous marriage) and his older brothers James and Virgil. In 1864 the Earp family joined a California-bound wagon train. In the following period Wyatt was a stage driver and teamster in California, Nevada and Utah. He was hired to transport supplies for the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming Territory and acquired ‘sporting’ skills, notably in gambling and boxing. He refereed his first fight there.

Wyatt aged about 19 or 20
Wild years

The family moved back to Lamar, Missouri (the Earps were a peripatetic bunch) and Wyatt became constable there in 1869. The same year he married Urilla Sutherland but was widowed after less than a year when she died of typhoid. He seems to have then gone through a wild period when he was sued, arrested and escaped from jail. There were accusations of not handing over license fees he had collected as constable, and horse stealing. Wyatt’s (not always reliable) biographer Stuart Lake claimed that Earp hunted buffalo in 1871 - 72 but it appears that he was living in Peoria, Illinois at that time and was arrested three times there for either keeping, or more likely acting as an enforcer in “a house of ill fame”. He may have hunted buffalo 1873 – 74.

Lawman in Wichita

In the cattle boom town of Wichita he became first some kind of auxiliary lawman, then a deputy for about a year, 1875 – 76, and earned a reputation as a steady and brave keeper of the peace. He was also probably involved in gambling. Wyatt's brother James and his wife Bessie worked in the saloon and brothel business.

It was in Wichita that Wyatt Earp apparently faced down a bunch of Texas cowboys led by Mannen Clements (he used various names but this is the one that has stuck), a cousin of John Wesley Hardin. The drovers were at the bridge over the Arkansas, intent on entering the town and wreaking havoc when Earp told Clements to put up his guns. When the cowboy failed to comply, Earp repeated forcefully, "Mind me now, Mannen, put up those guns and go on home." There was enough steel in his voice to defuse the situation and the cowboys turned and retired.

Wyatt also arrested a drunk with $500 dollars on him and the drunk found he still had the money in the morning. Wyatt's was an unusually honest action for a Kansas lawman at that time.

However, Earp's time as a deputy came to a sudden end in April 1876 when he tried to settle an argument (possibly over Bessie and her prostitution business) with his fists and was fired from the force.
Jim Earp
In 1876 he followed his eldest brother James (often, for some odd reason, shown as the youngest in films) to the latest boomtown, Dodge City, Kansas (where James again ran a saloon and brothel). Wyatt became an assistant marshal there under Larry Deger and later under Charlie Bassett. His time in Dodge was punctuated by absences in the mining camp of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory in late 1876 and gambling in Texas in late ’77 (where he probably met Doc Holliday). It was while in Dodge that he became friends with Bat, Ed and Jim Masterson, Luke Short and others, and he also took Celia Blaylock, known as Mattie, a (probable) prostitute as his common law wife.

Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, Dodge
Dodge was a violent place at that time and gunfire was common (though there were far fewer deaths than Hollywood movies imagined). Doc Holliday saved Wyatt’s life in the Comique Theater: although hard evidence is lacking, it appears that while Wyatt was pistol-whipping a drover, another cowboy pulled a gun and aimed at Wyatt’s back. Holliday shouted, “Look out, Wyatt!” and fired, scaring the Texan to back off. However, Wyatt Earp himself rarely fired any gun in Dodge. The shooting of George Hoyt (or Hoy) in July 1878, for example, was most unusual, and Jim Masterson and others also fired at Hoyt so it is not certain that Wyatt killed the cowboy. Wyatt gained a reputation for courage and steely determination, and he always tried to defuse situations rather than inflame them with more violence. Where necessary he used his fists or ‘buffaloed’ offenders by hitting them over the head with a gun barrel. He did not drink alcohol.

Doc Holliday
Wyatt believed that known killer Clay Allison had come to town at the behest of Bob Wright, the town's leading merchant and a political boss who had threatened to throw Earp off the police force when Wyatt had arrested a cattleman that Wright wanted protected. It is commonly believed that with the aid of Bat Masterson with a shotgun (as it later turned out, and to Masterson's chagrin, only loaded with birdshot), Wyatt faced Allison in the street, Earp with his hand on a gun in his pocket. Allison saw that he was alone, the promised Texan support having melted away when Masterson threatened to shoot Wright first if it came to a fight, and said to Earp, "Well, I'm going to ride out of town and I wish you good luck." Once again, a potentially lethal situation had been defused with grit. It should be added, though, that Robert DeArment in his biography of Bat Masterson discounts the story and says that no confrontation happened at all.

In July 1878 Wyatt Earp arrested and fined Jim 'Spike' Kenedy for carrying a firearm. Kenedy seemed to think that being the son of a wealthy Texas cattle baron made him exempt from the law and complained to Mayor 'Dog' Kelley, who backed up Earp. Later, Kelley became ill and removed to Fort Dodge, allowing two noted and popular singers, Fannie Garretson and Dora Hand, to use his town house. There, at about 4 a.m. on October 4th, Kenedy fired four shots into the house, presumably imagining Kelley to be asleep there, and dashed off on a thoroughbred racehorse. Dora Hand was found to have been killed.

County Sheriff Bat Masterson raised and led a posse in pursuit of Spike which included Wyatt, Charlie Bassett and Bill Tilghman. They located Kenedy, more by luck than judgment, and Bat ordered Wyatt to shoot the horse while he, Bat, would shoot the man, which they did. They brought the badly hurt Kenedy back to Dodge where, however, Kenedy's father's wealth and smart lawyers had the case dismissed for lack of evidence and he went free back to Texas.

In September 1879 Wyatt and Mattie moved to a new end-of-track town, Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, where Wyatt had a part-interest in a saloon with Doc Holliday, then the Earps left for the new silver strike boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona.

Virgil was appointed deputy US marshal for the Tombstone mining district. Jim became a barkeep. Wyatt was hired as shotgun messenger by Wells, Fargo. All the Earps staked mining claims and water rights. In 1880 younger brothers Morgan and Warren joined them, as did Doc Holliday.

The Cowboys

Southern Arizona was infested with rustlers and outlaws who had become known as the Cowboys. Prominent among them were the Clanton and McLaury families, as well as Frank Stilwell, ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius and John Ringo. Marshal (Virgil) Earp was asked to investigate the theft of mules and recruited his brothers Wyatt and Morgan to help. They tracked the mules to the McLaury farm but an angry confrontation followed, with the McLaurys vowing to kill the Earps if they “followed too close”.

Ike Clanton
John Ringo
In October 1880 popular town marshal Fred White was shot (possibly accidentally) by ‘Curly Bill’. Wyatt was on the spot and pistol-whipped Brocius, taking him to jail. Marshal White died two days later. Wyatt and Virgil escorted Brocius to trial in Tucson, possibly saving him from a lynching, but after being acquitted, Brocius remained a steadfast enemy of the Earps.

Johnny Behan

Johnny Behan
County Sheriff John Behan was popular and charming but corrupt and ‘in the pocket of’ the Cowboys. Wyatt began an affair with Behan’s lover, Sarah (‘Sadie’) Marcus. Behan seems to have promised to make Wyatt under-sheriff (a lucrative post) if Wyatt did not stand in opposition when he ran for election as county sheriff of the newly-created Cochise County, but if there was such a deal Behan reneged on it. Furthermore, it is thought that Behan warned Ike Clanton that Earp was coming to reclaim a stolen racehorse. There were thus several causes of the antagonism between Earp and Behan.

Sarah 'Sadie' Marcus, later known as Josie
The Oriental

In January 1881, Wyatt acquired a one-quarter interest in the faro concession at the Oriental Saloon in exchange for his services as a manager and enforcer. Wyatt invited Bat Masterson and Luke Short to help him.

Johnny Behind the Deuce

Johnny Behind The Deuce
Around this time the Earp brothers saved gambler Mike O’Rourke, known as "Johnny Behind the Deuce", from being lynched after he was arrested for killing a miner (O'Rourke claimed in self-defense). The Earps stood down a large mob, adding to their reputation for courage and probity.

Stage hold-ups

The Mexican government having grown tired of the constant rustling raids by Americans, it reinforced the border with troops. The Cowboys turned to raiding Anglo ranches and other crime in Arizona itself. This was a period of several stagecoach robberies, shocking to the law-abiding community of Tombstone, of which the Cowboys were suspected but which they counter-claimed the Earps carried out. Wyatt is said to have made a secret deal with Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury that they could have the reward money if they turned over the guilty parties. This would give Wyatt a strong advantage in running for sheriff but it never happened because the guilty parties were killed in unrelated incidents elsewhere. Yet the dangerous secret remained. Ike knew that his life would be radically shortened if it were known that he had been ready to betray the other Cowboys. His extreme drinking fueled his determination to 'deal with' the Earps.

Gunfight at the OK Corral

On Wednesday October 26th, 1881, the tension between the Earps and the Cowboys came to a head when Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, accompanied by Doc Holliday, were involved in a gunfight on Fremont Street with leading Cowboys Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury (often written as McLowery) and Billy Clanton. This was the fight known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded and Holliday grazed by a bullet, Ike Clanton ran away (as was his habit) and Billy Clanton and the McLaurys were killed.

The thirty-second fight was followed by months of litigation and controversy. After an extensive hearing, Justice Spicer declared that there was not enough evidence to indict the Earps or Holliday. But the case had become a cause célèbre nationwide and opinion was divided as to whether the Earps were brave defenders of law and order or murderers using their badges to settle a private grudge. The balance of the evidence favors the former position.

The Cowboys’ revenge

In December, Virgil Earp was shot and badly wounded from ambush on Allen Street. Ike Clanton’s hat was found in the alley where the shots had come from but Clanton lined up a long list of alibis from Cowboys and was acquitted for lack of evidence. He walked laughing from the court. Wyatt wired US Marshal Cawley Dake asking to be appointed deputy US marshal with authority to select his own deputies. Dake granted the request in late January.

In March 1882, Morgan Earp was shot in the back while playing pool, again from ambush, and died painfully. A shot also narrowly missed Wyatt. No assailants were found on the spot. It was at this point that Wyatt must have concluded that the Cowboys would continue until all the Earps were killed, courts would not convict them and the only course of action was to kill the Cowboys himself.
The Earp Vendetta

After Morgan’s death, Wyatt sent his body with the wounded Virgil and his wife Allie, along with Mattie, by rail back to the family home in California. He, James, Doc Holliday and some others accompanied them as far as Tucson. They learned that Ike Clanton, Frank Stilwell and others were waiting in Tucson to kill Virgil. When confronted by Wyatt, Ike ran away again but Wyatt killed Stilwell with a shotgun. The next morning Stilwell’s body was found by the tracks. Warrants were issued for the Earps’ arrest.
Returning to Tombstone and brushing aside Behan’s feeble attempt to serve the warrants, Wyatt and his posse, joined by Warren, the youngest brother, headed into the mountains and there found and shot to death Florentino Cruz, known as Indian Charlie, who, Wyatt said, admitted being party to Morgan’s murder. They then ran into a bunch of Cowboys at Iron Springs and in a gunfight Wyatt shot and killed Curly Bill with a shotgun at close range.

Behan took the field with his posse, staffed by many known Cowboys such as John Ringo. There followed an absurd situation where rival posses toured Arizona, both wearing lawmen’s badges, but never came into direct conflict.

In April 1882, judging that the situation had become too hot to stay and perhaps that he had exacted the revenge he wanted, Wyatt left Arizona for Colorado. He still hoped for a pardon and to return, perhaps to run for county sheriff.

Life after Tombstone

Wyatt joined his friend Bat Masterson in Trinidad, where Masterson owned a saloon, then moved on to Gunnison where Wyatt took over a faro game and the Earps lived quietly. Back in Arizona, John Ringo died from a gunshot wound, possibly self-inflicted, in the summer of 1882. It is very doubtful that Wyatt or any of his party killed Ringo, though movies love to show this. Ike Clanton finally did not manage to run away fast enough and was killed by a lawman in June 1887.

Wyatt joined Sadie in San Francisco and they spent the rest of their life together. Doc Holliday went north for TB treatment and died in Glenwood Springs in 1887. Mattie resumed her life as a prostitute and died, probably from a deliberate overdose of laudanum, in 1888.

Back to Dodge

Luke Short
In 1883 Luke Short had been ‘run out of’ Dodge by the mayor and rival saloon owners. He appealed to his friends for help and Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and various other friends answered the call. The city council offered to allow Short back long enough to sell up but Wyatt refused to compromise and in the end Short was allowed back and resumed his gambling and prostitution business. The (bloodless) Dodge City War was over, chiefly due to Wyatt Earp’s grit, backed by tacit threats.

Saloons and real estate

Wyatt Earp spent the next decade running saloons and gambling concessions all over Colorado and Idaho, following each new strike or boom. In 1884 he was in Eagle City, Idaho (now a ghost town) and was named deputy sheriff of the new Kootenai County. There he and Jim Earp put a stop to a gunfight between two rival claimants to a property, incurring the enmity of one of the parties, a certain Bill Buzzard, who spread rumors about Wyatt’s being involved in lot-jumping and real estate fraud, tales which were picked up by later anti-Earp writers and resurfaced several times.

In 1885 Wyatt and Sadie were trying to cash in on a real estate boom in San Diego. He bought saloons and did well, earning, it is said, up to a thousand dollars a night. He began racing horses and refereeing fights. They moved back to San Francisco.

Boxing referee

In December 1896 Earp agreed to referee his biggest fight, a world title bout between favorite Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey. He awarded the fight to Sharkey because of a below-the-belt foul blow by Fitzsimmons. He always maintained he had acted properly but he was lampooned by San Francisco and indeed national papers and left the city for good.
Fitzsimmons                     Sharkey
North to Alaska

In the fall of 1897 Wyatt and Sadie headed to Nome, Alaska to profit from the gold rush. Wyatt opened the Dexter, the city’s first two-story building and its most luxurious saloon. There he met novelist Rex Beach (whose story The Spoilers is set there) and the young Jack London. Earp is said to have left Alaska in 1901 with $80,000.

Wyatt and old Arizona friend John Clum in Nome, Alaska at the end of the century
The new century

In 1902, Wyatt opened the Northern Saloon in Tonopah, Nevada and was named deputy US marshal under Marshal JF Emmitt. He also had extensive mining interests.  Afterwards he followed gold strikes and mining camps wherever the possibility might arise to make a buck. But there was a law of diminishing returns that gradually eroded the Earps’ wealth.

In 1910, aged 62, Wyatt was working as a $10-a-day detective for the LAPD.

Wyatt in his last years
In 1911 he was arrested for alleged participation in a con-trick with a fake faro game but the charge was thrown out because no game had actually started at the time of the arrest.


William S Hart
Tom Mix
In his last years, Wyatt took an interest in the Western movies that were being made in Hollywood. William S Hart, Tom Mix and the young John Ford and John Wayne were all greatly impressed by the grand old lawman. Wyatt wanted Hart to make a movie of his life. But though Hollywood brought him fame it did not bring in a revenue and Sadie - or Josie, as she preferred to be known in her later years - had become a compulsive (but incompetent) gambler, so that the last years were spent in penury.

Warren had died from a gunshot wound in a saloon argument in 1900, Virgil in 1905, James in 1925. In 1929, at the age of 80, the last of the brothers, Wyatt Earp, died, probably of prostate cancer.


The best biography of Wyatt Earp by far is:

Wyatt Earp: the life behind the legend by Casey Tefertiller, John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1997, and I would like to acknowledge the fact that I have based much of what I say in this post on that excellent book. Mr. Tefertiller’s account has an entire ring of truth and trustworthiness about it and is essential reading for anyone interested in Wyatt Earp.

I can also recommend:

*   Bat Masterson: the man and the legend by Robert K DeArment, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979 and

*   John Ringo: the gunfighter who never was by Jack Burrows, University of Arizona Press, 1987.

I have also read and enjoyed (though you will need a large pinch of salt when reading):

*   Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest by Walter Noble Burns, University of New Mexico Press, 1999 (first edition 1927);

*   Helldorado, Bringing Law to the Mesquite by William M Breakenridge, Rio Grande Press, 1970 (first edition 1928);

*   Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal by Stuart N Lake, Houghton Mifflin, 1931;

*   Triggernometry, a Gallery of Gunfighters by Eugene Cunningham, foreword by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Introduction by Joseph G Rosa, 1996 (first edition 1941);

*   The Biographical Album of Western Gunfighters by Ed Bartholomew, Frontier Press of Texas, 1958;

*   The Earp brothers of Tombstone by Frank Waters, University of Nebraska Press, 1960.

There's a good 50-odd minute American Experience documentary written and directed by Rob Rapley which aired on PBS in 2010. Among the talking heads is Casey Tefertiller. It's well done, balanced and interesting, and well worth a look.

In part 2 of this post we'll look at how these facts became twisted and distorted to create the legendary Wyatt Earp of today.