Morgan Earp didn’t create much of a stir, as did some of his other brothers. Was he overshadowed by them, as they created more headlines? Unfortunately his renowned newspaper fame came along at the end of his life.
Are you curious right now?
What about Morgan Earp?
Do You Wonder: Who Shot Him?
And So: How Did He Die?
You Might Also Want to Know:
- Was Morgan Earp in Deadwood?
- Who was Morgan Earp’s wife?
- Where is Morgan Earp buried?
- Who played Morgan Earp in the Movie Tombstone?
Morgan Earp was around the middle child of the Earp family. He was born April 24, 1851 and named Morgan Seth. His parents, Nicholas and Virginia Ann lived on a farm in Pella Iowa at that time.
He had an older half brother, Newton. His brother James was 10 years his senior. Virgil was 8 years older and Wyatt just about 3 years older. An older half sister, Mariah Ann, died in infancy before Morgan was born.
Three more siblings became part of the family after Morgan. Baxter Warren, called by his middle name, came along 4 years after Morgan. A baby sister in 1858, named Virginia Ann after their mother, but died when only 3 years old. His last sibling was sister Adelia, delivered when Morgan was 10.2
When Morgan was nearly 5, the family moved to Monmouth Illinois. His father became town constable for three years. He got into some legal problems, including a bootlegging conviction. Consequently, the family lost their home and property.
So in late 1859, they returned to Pella IA.1 There in Iowa they again settled into farming. Morgan was expected to help with the chores typical of agrarian life.
Then the Civil War began. Nicholas Earp worked recruiting soldiers for the Union. He drilled them before being sent to their stations. Morgan’s older brothers: Newton, James and Virgil were all expected to go fight. And they did.2
With the men off at war, the younger brothers worked the farm. Morgan did what he could at age of 10. Wyatt and Warren also helped farm the corn fields, 80 acres.2
James was wounded, returning home in 1863. Nicholas Earp joined the family with a wagon train in the spring of 1864, heading for California. James, Wyatt, Morgan, Warren and Adelia, along with wife, Virginia Ann were with Nicholas, who was leading the trek. They arrived in the San Bernardino area by year’s end. Nicholas rented a riverside farm about six miles East of town.
When in his mid teens, Morgan’s father moved them again, to Lamar Missouri. Only his brother Warren and sister Adelia went along. Nicholas Earp became that town’s Constable.3 Towards the end of 1869, Wyatt came back with the family. At that point their father resigned as Constable, becoming Justice of the Peace. Wyatt took his place as Constable.4 Morgan Earp was then 18 years old.
Morgan Earp’s Travels
In his teens Morgan Earp began looking to the life his brothers led. They roamed the West. They had adventures that seemed more exciting than his father’s farming life. When a teenager, he probably took a trip with James to Montana.16
According to his sister Adelia’s notes, in 1871 Morgan was with Wyatt roaming the plains hunting buffalo. They were gone a year.6 He also may have worked alongside Wyatt as Stagecoach line security.
Morgan in Peoria, Wichita, Dodge City, & Deadwood
In 1872 Morgan and Wyatt were in Peoria Illinois. Both were fined while in a brothel. Then jailed because they couldn’t pay their fine. As reported in the Peoria Daily Transcript on May 11 and on September 10.6
Next Morgan Earp surfaces in Wichita Kansas. We know unmistakably that Wyatt is there. Likely why Morgan came to town. While there, Morgan was fined $1 for some minor charge. An altercation between Wyatt and a man running for office hinted that Morgan was considered for a lawman position. Because of that fight, Wyatt lost local respect, so the Earps moved on. Next stop: Dodge City.6 Apparently Morgan went to Dodge first. There’s evidence he took a position as Ford County Deputy Sheriff in 1875.
Was Morgan in Deadwood?
Some say Morgan Earp went with Wyatt to Deadwood South Dakota, when gold fever erupted there. It’s thought Morgan only stayed about three months.16
It’s believed that Morgan Earp met Louisa Alice Houston soon after he left Deadwood. He met Louisa while in Dodge City, Kansas.6
Morgan Earp’s True Love
Louisa Houston worked in the Old West restaurants devised by Fred Harvey. Not exactly one of the famed Harvey Girls. That system of restaurants wasn’t set up until 1883.16 Louisa and Morgan Earp were possibly married, maybe in 1875.5
More likely it was around July 1877. When Louisa’s Harvey waitress life ended.7 Difficult to confirm, documentation is lacking. Their relationship was likely common law.6
The couple left Dodge City for Montana by early winter 1877, arriving in Miles City. They found a small log home. Soon thereafter Morgan and Louisa found a better place, which they purchased. A nice spot on the Tongue River.7
While there, Morgan checked out a nearby gold rush. The Black Hills Daily Pioneer July 18, 1878, reported troops were stationed nearby, since gold discovered was on Indian reservation land! A week later they printed: “Mr. Morgan Earpt [sic] arrived last evening from the Tongue River, which he left about three weeks ago.”6
By the way – often in news reports of the day, they don’t get the “Earp” name spelling correct!
Morgan and Louisa Earp left Miles City for an opportunity further West. Maybe by necessity? Morgan had a shoot-out with former city Marshal turned bad-guy, Billy Brooks.8 Morgan badly injured during the fray, they say. Shot in the shoulder. But really more legend than fact.6
Morgan headed for Butte early winter 1879. Louisa stayed behind selling their property, then went to be with Morgan.7 A Butte Montana historian has Morgan on their police force until March 1880.5
By 1880 the Earp’s family home was permanently in California. The 1880 census shows Morgan Earp was included in the household. His father was still listed a farmer. In 1880 they all lived in Temescal, an area in North Oakland.6
Louisa had been stricken with Rheumatoid arthritis. Making it difficult to tolerate cold conditions in Montana. No doubt that’s why they moved to the California family home.7 Now settled in, Morgan was open to options, knowing he needed to earn a living. He must have perked up his ears listening to his brothers talk about Tombstone AZ!
Morgan Moves on to Arizona
Louisa wrote her sister that Morgan started out for Tombstone Arizona on July 20, 1880.6 She stayed behind in California at that time. He reached Tombstone by month’s end. His brothers Wyatt, James and Virgil were already there. Morgan roomed with Wells Fargo employee, Fred Dodge.16
Virgil Earp was hired as deputy U.S. Marshal under Crawley Dake for Arizona Territory. To help the family, he’d use his brothers as deputies when needed. Morgan Earp was experienced for the job, from his law days in Montana. So he assisted Virgil often.
Glenn Boyer, Morgan Earp biographer, wrote that Morgan was “a pretty fair, and active, lawman in his own right in Tombstone….The cases in which Morgan was involved are largely routine in connection with working as a deputy for his brothers.”6
The County Sheriff, John Behan, was friendly to a group of local ranch-hands commonly known as Cochise County Cow-boys. Many town-folk also got along well with them. One local newspaper supported them. The Earps were at odds with this Cow-boy faction. Nerves went on edge when Virgil and his brother deputies enforced the law, as they saw it. When Morgan arrived in town, the Cowboys noted him as part of the Earp family. And in particular, when he acted in his deputy role.
In addition to that deputy work, Morgan worked riding shotgun for Wells Fargo stagecoach runs. A part time occupation from mid 1880 to early 1881. The pay wasn’t great considering dangers involved at times.6
In December 1880 Louisa joined Morgan in Tombstone. She stayed a few months, then returned to California. She told her sister that Morgan’s parents didn’t think she should go to Tombstone at all. She relented, returning to California early in the new year.9 Soon thereafter, Nicholas moved the family to Colton, California, just outside San Bernardino.
How Did Morgan Earp Anger Cowboys?
Morgan regularly made arrests that irritated the Cow-boy group. When Tombstone’s City Marshal, Fred White, was accidentally shot by Curly Bill Brocius, Morgan helped afterwards. Curly Bill was immediately pistol-whipped by Wyatt, and taken to jail.6 Morgan helped calm the situation, and guarded the jail. Lots of drunken cowboys were in the area. At Curly Bill’s trial date, he secured his court transport.6
Morgan got along well with Wyatt’s good friend, Doc Holliday. They often gambled together. A lot of times, gaming involved the Cow-boys, too! Sometimes, though, tempers flared. Especially when Doc felt wronged or insulted.
Stagecoach robberies in Cochise county increased during the late 1880s. Morgan was in the posse searching for Benson stage robbers on a March 15, 1881 hold-up. They didn’t find the culprits. But rumors spread implicating Doc Holliday. Some said the Earps were in on some stage robberies, too. The Earps didn’t take these accusations well! They were totally false.
The Clantons, McLaurys & the Earps
Two families ranching in Cochise County, and known as Cow-boys, were the Clantons and McLaurys.
“Old Man” Newman Haynes Clanton was father to five sons and two daughters. The sons primarily associated with Cow-boys of Tombstone AZ, were Ike and Billy. They had a ranch near the San Pedro River, at Lewis Springs.
The McLaury brothers were Tom and Frank. They came to Cochise County, moved to Hereford and met the Clantons. They worked the Clantons’ ranching outfit. They also worked diligently on their own place in the Babocomari Creek Valley. They raised cattle, grew hay and other crops. Their goal was buying their own ranch in the Sulpher Springs Valley.15
The Clantons and McLaurys were friends with John Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius, Pete Spence, Frank Stilwell and Billy Claiborne. The Clantons and McLaurys were discovered with suspicious cattle brands at times. The Earps confronted them on occasions, often with strong words for these Cow-boys. Then at times they all seemed cooperative when it was advantageous.
Bad blood reddened further in mid August 1881. Virgil Earp led a posse, chasing down cattle rustlers. At the Southeastern Arizona to Mexico border, Old Man Clanton was killed on August 13.6 The slayers were reported as Mexican ranchers, but others say it was the Earp posse. Led by Virgil, it included Warren Earp (who had come to town) and likely included Morgan.
Things simmered over the next month. Doc Holliday went to Tucson for awhile. In October, Morgan asked Doc to return to Tombstone. Wyatt wanted Doc to shore up a deal he’d made with Ike Clanton. It was a secret pact for Ike to inform Wyatt on those he knew were robbing stages. In return Ike would get the reward money and Wyatt would get the glory. The deal didn’t work out in the end.
Heading for the Gunfight
Ike Clanton was the Cow-boy who brought contentions to a head. Drinking heavily in Tombstone the evening of October 25th, people overheard him making threats against the Earps. In front of the Alhambra Saloon, he and Doc Holliday got into a shouting match. Wyatt and Morgan rushed to calm the situation and separate them.6
Later, check in at the poker game at the Occidental Saloon. Seated are Cow-boys Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury and their Sheriff friend Johnny Behan. Also in the game are Virgil Earp and another player, some think it was Morgan Earp.6 Quite a mix!
The game continues til early morning. About 6 a.m., Ike starts mouthing off to Virgil that he aims to take care of Doc Holliday. Virgil tells him to go home and sleep it off. But he doesn’t.
Ike drunkenly wandered Tombstone streets on October 26, 1881. He told everyone in earshot how he planned to get Doc and the Earps. He was armed, though not allowed in town! Virgil was home sleeping. He woke up to hear what Ike was doing. Virgil got Morgan, and they corralled Ike, taking his guns. Virgil clunked him on the head, took him to court, where he was fined.
When waiting for the judge in the courtroom, Ike continued his Earp tirade. Virgil and Morgan “fired” back! Morgan said he’d give Ike his six-gun so they could shoot it out now!16 Of course he was using sarcasm. But Ike certainly didn’t cool down.
The Cow-boys were supposed to leave town. Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury were also in town. They’d been getting supplies, making payments, etc. After Ike left court, he found his brother and the McLaury’s. They all met up at Spangenberg’s Gun Shop on 4th Street. Another altercation with Wyatt happened out front. Then they left, to get their horses and leave town.11
Why Was Morgan Earp at the O.K. Corral?
When the Cow-boy brothers left the gun shop, they walked over by the O.K. Corral. They saw friend, Billy Claiborne, talked about that day’s events. They were in a vacant lot, South of Fremont Street, just outside C.S. Fly’s Photo Gallery and boarding house. That’s just Northwest of the O.K. Corral.11
Virgil wasn’t convinced that the Clantons and McLaurys weren’t armed and planning to leave town. He heard that these Cowboys were behind the O.K. Corral. Virgil enlisted Wyatt, Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp to go with him, disarming them if necessary. When they approached, Virgil stated “Throw up your hands, I have come to disarm you.”12
Quite a difference in opinion as to subsequent events. At the trial Wyatt gave a different version from Ike, as you could imagine! Read More>
But in 30 seconds, 30 shots were fired, and it was over. Some say Morgan fired first.16
Billy Claiborne ran off right away. Instigator Ike Clanton soon ran off. Billy Clanton was killed, as was both McLaury brothers. Wyatt was unharmed. Virgil’s right leg was hit, Doc’s hip was slightly grazed.11
Morgan was shot across the top of his shoulders, along his back. The bullet broke his shoulder blades and grazed his spine. It’s pretty dependable that Morgan’s gunfire killed Frank McLaury.6 Morgan was almost certainly hit by bullets from Tom McLaury. Residents got a wagon transporting injured Morgan and Virgil to get care.16
OK Gunfight’s Immediate Consequences
The McLaurys and Billy Clanton burial was a large affair. Held the day after this shootout. A sign on front of the funeral cortege said “Murdered on the Streets of Tombstone.” It proceeded to the town’s cemetery, now called Boothill.11
Half the town, including the local Nugget newspaper, blamed the Earps. The other half, including the Tombstone Epitaph, supported the Earps. Virgil was relieved of his lawman’s position, and Ike Clanton filed charges. An arrest warrant for Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday was published. Wyatt and Doc were apprehended. Virgil and Morgan were recuperating from their gunshots, so their detainments were deferred.11
Wells Spicer heard the evidence for trial. After 31 days of witness statements Spicer gave his decision. He found the Earps and Holliday were lawful since it was required action to do their job. A Grand Jury about two weeks later had the same conclusion. But it wasn’t a popular decision with many in Southern Arizona.
An initial event forewarned what was coming. Epitaph editor John Clum gave full support to the Earps. He, Judge Spicer, and the defense lawyer for the Earps and Holliday all received a threatening letter from someone called “A Miner.” It warned each to leave town, and if not, hinted they may be shot.
The next day John Clum traveled by stagecoach. Someone attacked the stage. Clum managed to get away unharmed. But he felt it was part of this threat. He was determined not to succumb to it.11
The Earps realized their families were in danger. Virgil, Allie and Morgan moved into the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the North side of Allen Street, corner of 4th. Wyatt also took a room there, but his common-law wife, Mattie Blaylock, stayed behind at home. Probably because Wyatt had begun distancing himself from her at this point.17
On December 28, 1881, Virgil was in the Oriental Saloon. It was late, and he made his way out. Halfway between the Oriental and the Golden Eagle Brewery, Virgil was hit by shotgun fire. A witness heard four shots. Virgil’s left arm was hit, shattering most of his elbow. Another hit him in the back.
Back at his room in the Cosmopolitan, Dr. Goodfellow came to treat him. He removed lots of buckshot, plus bone fragments. The doctor stated he had an 80% chance of survival. Virgil survived, but his left arm was nearly useless for life.13
Wyatt telegraphed Marshal Dake, Virgil’s superior, notifying him. The Weekly Arizona Miner wrote “the Earps have received, almost daily, anonymous letters, warning them to leave town or suffer death…”16 The January 1882 city elections reemphasized to the Earps where they stood in town. Those candidates supported by The Nugget were almost all elected.
Regardless, the Earps got a Federal warrant to arrest suspects. Wyatt’s seven man posse included Morgan. They set out on January 25th.
30 were now in Wyatt’s posse, pursuing Virgil’s attackers. They nearly ransacked Charleston where the Cowboys hung out. Their local perception wasn’t improved!
A citizens’ committee insisted Wyatt and Virgil be removed from policing positions. U.S. Marshal Crawley Dake came to town, investigated, and agreed. He named Virgil’s replacement, but didn’t remove them from the Official roster. So by February 17, Wyatt gathered another posse. Morgan Earp was involved. This one was also frustratingly unsuccessful for the Earp brothers.11
How Did Morgan Earp Die?
Morgan Earp’s End: He’s Gunned Down
On March 18, 1882 Morgan took in a theater performance at Schieffelin Hall. Saturday evening out, along with Doc Holliday and Dan Tipton. Opening night of “Stolen Kisses” by the Lingard Company. Then Morgan and Dan walked to Campbell and Hatch’s Billiard Hall and Saloon to shoot some pool.
The billiard room was toward the back. Morgan walked to the table, started up a game with Bob Hatch. Wyatt was there with their friend Sherman McMasters, and George A. Berry.17 The back wall had two windowed doors situated on either side. An alleyway was outside those back doors.
Morgan lined up an angle on the pool table, to take his shot. Morgan’s back faced the rear wall. It was close to 11 p.m. Suddenly two gunshots were heard by all there! The bullets entered through the upper glass of one of the doors. The first shot hit Morgan. Getting him in the back, exiting his body at the front. The force of it still enough to enter Berry’s leg. The second bullet whizzed above Wyatt’s head and stuck into the wall.11
The bullets deployed in the assassination of Morgan Earp may have come from a Colt Single Action, believed to be the gun used, a circa 1873 revolver.18
McMasters and Hatch ran outside. They searched the alley behind the saloon, but didn’t find the culprits.17 Local physician Dr. Goodfellow was nearby. He ran to see what happened. They turned Morgan over. It didn’t look good!
Everyone tried standing him up, to bring him to the card room. As they did, he said his last words: “Don’t, I can’t stand it. This is the last game of pool I’ll ever play.”
Newspaper correspondent Clara Spalding Brown had stern words about the acrimonious divisions in Tombstone. Her San Diego Daily Union letter published on February 4, 1882 took a scolding tone. Her letter of March 26, 1882 to the same newspaper accounted what happened to Morgan Earp. She concluded with "Divided as the sentiment of the place has always been, there are many now who denounce the Earps....'good enough for them.' It is a bloody, wretched business throughout..."14
How Did Morgan Really Earp Die?
They got Morgan to a lounge in the card room. Dr. Goodfellow saw there was no hope. By now the family was there. Virgil and Allie, James and Bessie, and Wyatt were at his side as his life dwindled away. Before the hour since the bullet entered his body had ticked by, Morgan was gone.
Dr. Goodfellow’s report showed the bullet went from the left of the spine across to exit on the front right. Perforating his left kidney, damaging his spinal cord, gall bladder and vena cava (large major vein bringing the body’s blood back to his heart: this would cause lots of blood loss quickly).
A Sad Goodbye & Continued Vengeance
The next day was Sunday, March 19, 1882. Wyatt Earp turned 34 that day. A birthday seared in his memory, as he brought Morgan’s body in a coffin to the Contention City train station. His brother James supervised transport of the body. Morgan Earp was going home to their parents in Colton California, where they, and Louisa now resided.17
Morgan traveled from Contention to the connection in Tucson, going home for burial. The next day, Monday, more family members followed the route to the family home. Virgil and Allie took the train from Contention to Tucson, switching there to the California-bound train.
Who Shot Morgan Earp?
Wyatt heard of a possible ambush plan for the train stop in Tucson. Likely because Wyatt’s intention was revenge for Morgan’s death and Virgil’s attack. The prime suspects were Cow-boys Frank Stilwell and Ike Clanton.
Wyatt gathered a posse and boarded the train with Virgil. At the station in Tucson, it was dinner time. The Earp group warily exited to get a meal at a nearby hotel restaurant, before the California departure at 7:15 p.m.17
They ate their meal, and left. Virgil and Allie boarded the train. Wyatt spotted would-be assassins Ike Clanton and Frank Stilwell. He shot at them and Stilwell was found dead the next morning. Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride was in full force!
Morgan Earp: Rest in Peace
Morgan Earp didn’t reach his 31st birthday when he was murdered. Whatever role he played in the Cow-boy/Earp feud, that’s too young to die. The whole event was certainly a sad situation. He has now lived through the years: In Infamy. As did all others involved in the gunfight that day. In the life of Morgan Earp there were many unfulfilled days yet to experience.
Morgan was first buried in the original Colton town cemetery, near Mount Slover in California. This cemetery was relocated in 1892. Morgan Earp’s body was then re-interred in Colton’s Hermosa Cemetery.
1 Nicholas Earp (n.d.) Nicholas Earp’s 1859 Property. Retrieved from https://department.monm.edu/history/urban/wyatt_earp/1859_property_nicholas_earp.htm
2 Granstra, Pat (2010, July 25). Earps were shooting long before the OK Corral. Retrieved from http://www.civilwarprimer.com/2010/07/earps-were-shooting-long-before-the-ok-corral/
3 Paul, J. S. & Carlisle, G. (2006, June 12). Frontier lawman Virgil Earp. Wild West. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/frontier-lawman-virgil-earp.htm
4 Barra, A. (1998) Inventing Wyatt Earp: His life and many legends. New York, Carroll & Graf Publishers.
5 Gibson, R.I. (2015, February 25). Dusseau the photographer. Butte History and “Lost Butte” retrieved from http://buttehistory.blogspot.com/2015/02/dusseau-photographer.html
6 Silva, L.A. (2018, January 16). The mysterious Morgan Earp. Wild West Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/mysterious-morgan-earp.htm
7 Mazzeo, K. (2012). The stunning rose of the wild West. Tombstone Times. Retrieved from http://www.tombstonetimes.com/stories/louisa.html
8 King, R. (n.d.). Historical books and other writings. Retrieved from http://www.historicalbooksandothers.com/services
9 Monahan, S. (2014, January 6). The dedicated women behind the Earp men. True West. Retrieved from https://truewestmagazine.com/the-dedicated-women-behind-the-earp-men/
10 Aros, J. (2011). The Cochise County cowboys: Who were they? Goose Flats Graphics. ISBN 0982596340.
11 Bailey, L.R. (2004). Too tough to die: The rise and fall of a silver camp; 1878 to 1990. Tucson, AZ: Westernlore Press.
12 Linder, D.O. (1995-2018) Shoot-out scenarios. Retrieved from http://www.famous-trials.com/earp/507-scenarios
13 Arizona: Attempted assassination. (1881, December 30). The Record-Union. Friday, Page 3. Sacramento, California.
14 Brown, C.S. (2003). Tombstone from a woman’s point of view. Compiled & edited by L.R. Bailey. Second edition. Tucson AZ: Westernlore Press.
15 Johnson, P.L. (2012) The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O.K. Corral obituary. University of North Texas Press
16 Charles River Editors (n.d.) Legends of the West: Virgil Earp and Morgan Earp. Published by http://charlesre.wufoo.com/charles-river-editors/
17 Guinn, J. (2011). The last gunfight: The real story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral and how it changed the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster
18 McCracken, M (2015, April 20). The “gun that shot Morgan Earp” at auction for the first time this June. Press Release: Brian Lebel’s Old West Events. Retrieved from oldwestevents.com/press-releases/2015/5/11/the-gun-that-shot-morgan-earp-at-auction-for-the-first-time-this-june