Wyatt Earp is a name heard often in Tombstone AZ. We all know him well from his law-man days, and mostly from the O.K. Corral Gunfight. That is today what the name Wyatt B. S. Earp is most famous for!
Yet, who was the real man? What is the real story of Wyatt Earp? What was he like? What did he do before he got to Tombstone? What did he do after he left?
In 1850 the family moved to Iowa and began farming. Morgan was born there in 1851 and Warren in 1855. They had another daughter, Adelia, in 1861. Sadly, Wyatt's sister Martha died there in 1856.
When Wyatt was 13 years old the Civil War began. Newton, James and Virgil joined the Union Army. Their father was busy supporting the war effort. Wyatt, Morgan and Warren had to take on the major part of farming responsibilities. Although Wyatt was too young, he didn't stop from trying to join the fight with his older brothers. He ran away from home a few times to enlist, but his father always returned him to the farm.
Nicholas Earp again relocated his family in 1864. They trekked West with a wagon-train group. Wyatt helped defend their band from native attack on a few occasions. Eventually they settled in San Bernardino California on December 17th.
Wyatt began working the next year at age 16. He helped his brother Virgil work for a Banning Stagecoach line. The following year he left home to work for different freight operations.
One of his jobs was with the Union Pacific Railroad. He moved rail supplies to the lines. During his off-hours he learning boxing skills and gambled. In those environments, he gathered abilities that served him later.
His boxing knowledge got him involved in refereeing matches. He officiated a match in Cheyenne Wyoming on July 4, 1869. Wyatt was only 21 years old at the time. 3000 viewers came to see the fight.
Novice contestant, John Shanssey challenged professional fighter, Mike Donovan. (Later Shanssey became mayor of Yuma AZ.)
Judge Wyatt and brother Virgil acted as bookies for bets on the fight. Donovan won, Shanssey beaten badly. Shanssey and Wyatt struck up a friendship. Later in life they met up again in Fort Griffin, Texas.
It was Shanssey who there introduced him to John Holliday - Doc Holliday. (More on that to come!)
Wyatt's parents had moved again. This time their home was in Lamar Missouri, near Nicholas's brother. Nicholas Earp became the town Constable. Wyatt decided to return to his parents' home, and moved to Lamar later in 1869. Soon afterwards, he met Urilla Sutherland and began a courtship.
At the turn of the new year, his father decided to resign as Constable. He was a very busy man with a grocery, a restaurant, and a small farm. Plus Nicholas was the Justice of the Peace!
Wyatt was appointed constable in his place. Lamar citizens were satisfied with this move. One expressed that outlaws should now be on guard and stay away.
With this security, Wyatt Earp must have been confident in asking for Urilla's hand. They were married on January 10, 1870. Wyatt was 22, Urilla was 20 or 21. Wyatt's father presided over the ceremony. The couple bought a place at the edge of town. They anticipated a family, since Urilla was immediately pregnant.
It was Urilla's due date, 9 months after their marriage. Suddenly she became deathly unwell. It's unsure if she died of typhus or in child-birth, or complications from both. Locate Urilla’s Grave at the cemetery in Milford, Missouri, a few miles northeast of Lamar.
His half-bother Newton ran against Wyatt for the Constable position in November 1870. Wyatt won by 29 votes, but he never did fulfill it. Devastated by the loss of his wife and his child, a downhill spin began.
Right away Wyatt sold his property and then left Missouri. He began to wander around. He hunted buffalo, and met and impressed some men he'd reconnect with later. One of his next stops was Arkansas.
He met with legal problems from his leaving:
At the end of October 1874 Wyatt Earp was in Wichita Kansas. M.R. Moser hired him to collect a debt he was owed. By the next year Marshal Mike Meagher appointed him to the town's police department. His work was satisfactory, until the next year when elections were due.
In April 1876 Wyatt started a fight with William Smith, an opponent for the job of Marshal Meagher. Smith made disparaging remarks about Wyatt's brothers. Wyatt received a fine. And again he had a problem with funds he was to collect, but weren't turned in.
He was subsequently let go as an officer. The incident became common knowledge - to Wyatt's detriment. They didn't want him back.
At the end of May 1876 he was in Dodge City, Kansas.
The Wichita Beacon reported: "Wyatt Earp has been put on the police force at Dodge City" on May 24, 1876. In 1877 there's a local news report citing Wyatt Earp as a Dodge City Marshal.
Wyatt was in and out of Dodge City for about seven years. While in Dodge City Wyatt became friends with Bat Masterson. He also took part in posse runs.
It's thought during this time he may have gone to Deadwood SD for a time. He rode shotgun for stage-coach companies on occasion.
A July 7, 1877 Dodge City Times article shows that Wyatt was rehired as an officer on his return to town. In January of 1878, he's reported in Fort Clark, Texas. On this trip, he is thought to have encountered Doc Holliday. Doc was in Texas around the same time. It's likely they met for the first time in Fort Griffin, while Wyatt was on his way to West Texas.
Wyatt returned to Dodge City in May and is again rehired as Assistant Marshal. Once again he left town in December 1878. He returned to Dodge City next year in May and is rehired to the Marshal force. In September of 1879 he finally says good-bye to Dodge City and ended up in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He remained there until he headed for Arizona.
On one last visit to town, a photo was taken in the Conkling Studio at Dodge City. The National Police Gazette published it on the 21st of July in 1883. He appears in the picture labeled as "The Dodge City Peace Commission."
Wyatt was in Las Vegas NM with Mattie Blaylock. They were together since he met her in that brothel in Illinois. He met up in Las Vegas with his friend Doc Holliday. Doc was there with his girlfriend, Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings - better known as Big Nose Kate. Wyatt's brother James and his wife Bessie were also there.
In November 1879, this group headed to Prescott Arizona. Wyatt's older brother Virgil Earp already lived there with his wife Allie. Virgil was Prescott's Constable.
Virgil had accepted the position of Tombstone's Deputy U.S. Marshal. Wyatt & Mattie and James & Bessie joined Virgil & Allie in moving to Tombstone. Virgil talked up the mining town opportunities there. Doc Holliday remained in Prescott at that time. He joined his friend Wyatt in Tombstone about three months later.
The Earps arrived in Tombstone the first part of December 1879. Wyatt cooperated with his brothers to find ways to earn a living. They filed mining claims, presided over gambling games, tended bar and sometimes rode shotgun for stagecoach lines. After he had money coming in, he was able to buy property for a house for him and Mattie to live in. Read About Their House>
Wyatt occasionally helped Virgil when he was tending to his law duties. That soon put him on opposite sides of local Ranch-hands Known as Cow-boys. Wyatt became a Tombstone area Deputy Sheriff on July 27, 1880. That caused him further problems. He held the position for about 4 months. It added to His Earnings>
Wyatt's law details and entanglements led to the famous shootout - The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The town was split over backing the Earps and Doc Holliday. Just because they were lawmen, didn't mean the citizens thought they were right. The Earps and Doc gunned down three Cow-boys - killing them.
Wyatt returned to Cochise County, enlisting six men, including his brother Warren. They hunted down others Wyatt felt were involved in Morgan's murder. For two weeks they roamed Southeast Arizona. A coroner's report faulted them with killing Curly Bill, Indian Charlie, and Johnny Barnes.
That report and years of rumor promoted the story that Wyatt killed Curly Bill during this Vendetta Ride. It's possible, but has never been proven. Wyatt himself, later promoted that version. Another tale that circulated was that the posse found Johnny Ringo, and Wyatt killed him. That one is highly unlikely.
During the Vendetta Ride, the posse ended up at John Hooker's Sierra Bonita Ranch, North of Wilcox AZ. Wyatt's group got fresh horses and meals before moving on to New Mexico. To avoid arrest, Wyatt then went to Colorado, and finally ended up in California.
While still in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp became acquainted with Josephine Marcus. She'd been associated with his political rival, John Behan.
It's difficult to track when Wyatt and Josephine's relationship began. Josephine claimed they got married, but there's no recorded documentation anywhere. She used the names Mrs. J. C. Earp or Mrs. Wyatt Earp in March 1882 during travels in California. There's evidence she joined Wyatt when he settled in Albuquerque in early 1882.
They were together from that point until Wyatt's death. She always protected his interests - from her own point of view. Even if she bent the truth and both had bad habits. Still they stayed together!
After leaving Arizona, Wyatt Earp moved around:
The Bob Fitzsimmons vs Tom Sharkey heavyweight title fight was set for December 2, 1896. Wyatt had prior boxing experience. They chose him as referee for this San Francisco match. The whole country was in anticipation!
Fitzsimmons was favored. Through 7 rounds, he had the upper hand. But in the eighth round Wyatt saw Sharkey take a hit. He rolled on the mat, grabbing his groin. Wyatt ruled it a foul: a punch below the belt. He stopped the fight and awarded the fight to Sharkey, per the foul.
Almost all the 15,000 fans in the arena booed, were up in arms! Most bet on Fitzsimmons to win. They thought it was fixed. They figured Wyatt had bet on Sharkey. And with the odds so high against him, Wyatt made out! News reports across the country denounced Wyatt Earp as a crooked judge. They brought up his prior "bad" reputation.
Fitzsimmons took the issue to court. The fight was ruled illegal. The court wouldn't rule on a winner. Sharkey kept the prize money. Wyatt Earp had another stain on his name. In fact, this publicity gave his name more notoriety than anything else had before.
At the end of December, Wyatt sold his remaining horse-racing interests. Then he and Josie left California and went to Yuma AZ - but not for long.
On August 5, 1897, Wyatt and Josie boarded a Northbound steamship. The Alaska/Yukon gold rush was on. They headed for Dawson in the Yukon to take advantage! They planned to open a gambling house.
But that October they returned to San Francisco. On their way back, they stayed over in Wrangell Alaska. Wyatt was recruited as their city Marshal. He stayed on there in that position for only 10 days.
They stuck with their original plan, and started for Dawson. But when they got to Rampart Alaska, everything was too frozen to move on. They rented a cabin in Rampart until the Spring of 1899. Then moved on to St. Michael on Alaska's West coast. There Wyatt managed a small store.
Wyatt felt the Yukon gold rush was dwindling. In September 1899 he & Josie set out for Nome instead. Wyatt partnered with Charles E. Hoxie. Together they built the Dexter Saloon. The upstairs had a brothel.
Nome's population was about 20,000. Wyatt's new acquaintances there included Jack London, playwright Wilson Mizner, and boxing promoter Tex Rickard. He had troubles with the local law - getting arrested twice.
Wyatt proved restless again. He left for Seattle late in 1899. He planned to open a gaming joint. Gambling was illegal in Washington. John Considine had a "blind-eye" agreement with the Police Chief. Considine owned many gambling clubs, and wasn't happy with Earp's business plan. Wyatt teamed with Seattle local, Thomas Urguhart. They opened a saloon & gambling hall: the Union Club.
It was quite successful, even with Considine's harrassment. But Washington state filed charges in the Spring of 1900. Their property was confiscated and destroyed.
Wyatt and Josie left Washington state and then within a few months, went back to Alaska. Along the way, they stopped in Juneau, before returning to Nome.
They stayed in Alaska until the end of 1901.
But that gun he'd left behind in Alaska, was it the gun he'd used at the O.K. Corral shoot-out? Difficult to say. It's even difficult to verify if the gun displayed there in Juneau was his.
A gun in the Arizona History Museum, near the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, also has a claim as belonging to Wyatt Earp. This is also difficult to authenticate. Tombstone historian Ben Traywick, as well as other old west historians, are definitely skeptical. They have their researched reasons.5
In December of 1901, Wyatt Earp and Josephine Marcus left Alaska's Frozen North. They returned to California, bringing all the money they'd made. Quite a huge sum. They checked into the Hollenbeck Hotel in Los Angeles on December 13, 1901.
They stayed in their LA hotel for a few months. Then Wyatt and Josie headed for Nevada. A gold and silver boom was happening in Tonopah. Arriving in February 1902, soon after they opened the Northern Saloon. Marshal J.F. Emmitt appointed Wyatt Deputy U.S. Marshal there.
Tonopah opportunities slowed down. The couple moved again.
Their choice is Goldfield Nevada, where brother Virgil lived. Wyatt's friend Tex Rickard was there, with a saloon also called the Northern. He hired Wyatt as pit boss for the gambling room.
During 1906 Wyatt did some gold mining himself. He had claims throughout the California desert. From 1911 until health problems began, the couple mined. Returning to Los Angeles in the summertime. They rented small places, breaking from desert heat.
It appears he scrambled for ways to earn money. Newsy items surfaced reporting his choices putting him over the line of lawful methods.
About this time he did some "off the books" work for the Los Angeles Police Department. This shady dealing again got him in some hot water. In October 1910 Wyatt led a posse protecting a mining company's surveyors.
The bankrupted California Trona Company viewed Wyatt's posse as claim jumpers. There was an armed confrontation. Wyatt Earp and others involved were arrested for contempt of court.
In 1925, Wyatt Earp purchased a small cottage in Vidal California. It's a small town a few miles West of the Colorado River and the Arizona border. It was the only home he and Josie owned together. Wyatt worked the "Happy Days" gold mine there. The mine was in the Whipple Mountains, a little North of the home.
Wyatt's friend, William Hart, tried to help. He submitted it to every publishing house he could think of. Rejections continued. He even tried the Saturday Evening Post, as a periodical. Nobody wanted it.
But a few copies were made and purchased. The original stayed with Josephine. It was placed with the Ford County Historical Society after her death.
In 1931 another Wyatt Earp biographical book was posthumously published. Written by Stuart Lake, it's entitled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Lake interviewed Wyatt eight times before writing his book. He also had discussions and correspondence with Josephine. She wanted the book to reflect their lives the way she wanted. Lake didn't cooperate with her.
The book is known as historical fiction, though. Lake uses made-up dialogue and doesn't mention either of Wyatt's long-time common-law wives. He glorifies Wyatt in all actions, as only a hero. But it's written in the style of the day. It's kind of a good read.
With Wyatt's varied, and occasionally harried and dangerous, or hair-raising career - did you think he would have an adventure filled death? But it wasn't that way. He lived a pretty long life, compared to many of his contemporaries. Yet, it was a substantially quiet move-along into the "after-life" that he was likely relatively prepared for.
Wyatt Earp passed away in their rented cottage in Los Angeles. He was 80 years old when he took his last breath on the morning of January 13, 1929. He and Josephine lived at 4004 West 17th Street. The Arizona Daily Star's January 14th death notice stated his health was in decline for some time.
All his brothers had already passed on. Of the Earp siblings, only sister Adelia survived him. He'd never had children. Grace Spolodori and her sister Alma made the funeral arrangements. Grace and Alma were daughters of his old friend Charlie Walsh, from Dodge City days.
Josephine didn't help with arrangements, or attend the funeral. She requested Wyatt be cremated. She also prepared a Jewish cemetery burial site, in The Hills of Eternity in Colma, California. She secretly took his ashes there for interment in her family plot.
The funeral was at the First Congregational Church, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles. The pallbearers included John Clum (Tombstone mayor & Epitaph editor), Tom Mix, William S. Hart, George W. Parsons (Tombstone diarist), and William Mizner (Alaska friend).
During his later adult lifetime, Wyatt Earp often felt he didn't get a fair shake from the public. He especially felt his actions weren't portrayed accurately.
There's definitely truth to that. Some books written have vast inaccuracies about Wyatt's life, and that of his brothers. Even newspaper articles sometimes have fantasized stories of his life.
An LA Times article from March 1922 was entitled "Lurid Trails Are Left by Olden-Day Bandits."4 It compared the Earp brothers in Tombstone to outlaw bank and train robbing gangs, such as the Daltons. Many facts in the story were wrong.
Josephine, and Wyatt's friend William Hart, were both outraged. They wrote letters to the Times, demanding they print a retraction of the story's errors. The newspaper complied.
It seems many take the extreme views. Like Josephine, they remember him as a law-abiding, heroic, saintly champion of the honest citizen. Others view him as a scoundrel who preyed on others to benefit himself, while trying to look innocent. There's probably some middle ground there that's the accurate assessment!
Whichever viewpoint you believe, reading about his life helps you make a judgment. Yet, there are many little details that shed light on his personality. The trouble is, sorting out fact from fiction - opinion from truth.
Visit the places he frequented. Put yourself in his shoes. That may help!
1 Murray, Tom G. (June 1968). "Wyatt Earp's Letters to Bill Hart". SCVHistory.com. True West. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
2 historynet.com/john-flood-and-wyatt-earp.htm. Wild West Magazine (January 29, 2008). Retrieved September 27, 2017
3 Hughes, Johnny (2012). Famous gamblers, poker history, and Texas stories. Iuniverse. ISBN 978-1-4759-4215-6
4 Boyer, Glenn G. (Autumn 1976). "Postscripts to Historical Fiction about Wyatt Earp in Tombstone". Arizona and the West. 18 (3): 217–236. JSTOR 40168503
5 Pleeter, Z. (2015, Oct. 8). What became of Wyatt Earp's guns? University of Arizona School of Journalism: Arizona Sonora News Service. Retrieved from arizonasonoranewsservice.com/mystery-wyatt-earps-guns/
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