No Individual Has Caused Greater Controversy In Western History
Because of highly conflicting versions of his career, no individual has caused greater controversy in Western history than Wyatt Earp. The son of a restless frontiersman (Wyatt's father named him after his Mexican War company commander, Captain Wyatt Berry Stapp), he moved with his clannish family from Missouri to Iowa to California. When Wyatt reached his early twenties, he worked his way back to Missouri as a section hand.
In 1870 Wyatt was married in Lamar, Missouri, where that same year he defeated his half brother, Newton Earp, for the post of town constable. His wife, however, died just three and one-half months after their marriage. Then, according to Jahns (Doc Holliday), Wyatt and three of his brothers, James, Morgan, and Virgil, "had a 20 minute street fight with her 2 brothers, Fred and Bert Sutherland and 3 Brummet boys, Granville, Loyd and Garden ..." The outcome, and whether or not this fight involved guns, is not known, but the Earps soon drifted into Kansas.
Wyatt spent a couple of years hunting buffalo, got himself arrested in Indian Territory for stealing horses, then increasingly turned to gambling, most frequently in Hays City. By 1875 he was a city policeman in Wichita, where he made routine arrests, nearly shot himself with his own gun, neglected to turn in fines he had collected from prostitutes, and was himself arrested for fighting. He was kicked off the force and out of town. Shortly thereafter, in May, 1876, Earp became a policeman in Dodge City, and after wandering around a bit in Texas, in 1878 he assumed the position of assistant marshal of Dodge, where he also acted as deacon of the Union Church. While in Dodge in 1876 he was beaten to a pulp by a huge cowboy named Red Sweeney in a fist fight over the affections of a dance hall girl.
In September, 1879, Earp left Dodge and went to Las Vegas, New Mexico, there joining other members of his family and Doc Holliday. En route to Las Vegas Wyatt stopped off in Mobeetie, Texas, long enough to be run out of town by Deputy Sheriff James Mclntire for trying to work a "gold brick" swindle with Mysterious Dave Mather.
Within a few months Wyatt, James, and Virgil Earp moved to Tombstone, accompanied by their families. (Wyatt recently had acquired a second wife, Mattie, whom he deserted in 1882. She became a prostitute and committed suicide in the Arizona mining town of Pinal on July 3, 1888, at the age of thirty.) Wyatt became a shotgun guard for Wells, Fargo, and soon Morgan and Warren Earp and Doc Holliday appeared in Tombstone.
Wyatt twice tried unsuccessfully to obtain appointment as Cochise County sheriff, but in July, 1880, he became deputy sheriff of Tombstone. He also managed to acquire an interest in the flourishing Oriental Saloon. Within a year a feud developed between the Earps and the Clanton and McLaury brothers, possibly, according to rumor, because the Earps were infringing on the rustling and stage robbing activities of the Clanton "ring," but more probably because the Earps, who held various law enforcement offices in and around Tombstone, tried to thwart the ring.
Another feud developed between Wyatt and Sheriff John Behan, reportedly over the favours of H.M.S. Pinafore dancer Josephine "Sadie" Marcus, later Earp's third wife. On October 26 Wyatt, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday killed Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton at the so-called OK Corral gunfight. The feuds were climaxed but not ended at the O.K. Corral. Following that famous gunfight, Virgil and Morgan were ambushed, and in revenge Wyatt, then a deputy U.S. marshal, and his cohorts killed two members of the Clanton faction. The following 18 March, Wyatt led a band of men (among them Doc Holliday) who killed Frank Stilwell two days later at Tucson, and on 22 March killed Florentino "Indian Charley" Cruz, suspected of killing Morgan. Wyatt was in another shootout near Contention with four unidentified men, one of them said to have been "Curly Bill" Brocius.
Wyatt then began to wander throughout the West. In 1882 he was in San Francisco, where he married his third wife, Josie. In 1883 he was in Colorado and twice visited Dodge City, where he backed up Luke Short as a member of the celebrated but short-lived "Dodge City Peace Commission." He spent most of 1884 in Idaho at the Coeur d'Alene gold rush, although he did journey to Colorado later that year, but the frontier was about played out. In Idaho, Wyatt owned a couple of saloons, speculated with his brother Jim in several mining claims, and became involved in a combine which specialized in claim jumping.
After jaunts to Wyoming and Texas, Wyatt returned to California, running a saloon in San Francisco from 1886 to 1890. He then moved to San Diego and began to raise thoroughbreds, with time out in 1896 to referee the Bob Fitzsimmons-Tom Sharkey prizefight (which Wyatt was widely accused of throwing to Sharkey).
Klondike! That was the magic word that drew Earp and his wife, Josephine, north in 1897. But the Earps never reached the Klondike. In fact, it took them two trips to the northland before they made it to Nome. The first voyage toward the gold fields ended in Wrangell, a rough and tough town in southeast Alaska. "Hell on wheels," was how Earp described rowdy Wrangell. The second, in the summer of 1898, found them bound for Dawson City. By the time they reached the Yukon town of Rampart, it was freeze-up time. They were forced to spend the winter of 1898-1899 there. It was in Rampart that Earp made friends with Tex Rickard, the fight promoter who would later build Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The following spring Earp took a job as manager of a small store in St. Michael, the Bering Sea pivot point for river travel to the Yukon. Rickard, already in Nome, urged Earp to join him in the new Nome gold camp instead of turning toward the Klondike. And so the Earps settled in Nome. The aging gunfighter found a partner and opened a fancy establishment called the Dexter Saloon. Before long, Earp was harvesting more gold than most of the miners around Nome. In the fall of 1901 the Earps were ready to move again.
He spent most of the time from 1897 until 1901 in the gold rush area of Alaska, where he operated a saloon in Nome. One night he brandished a revolver and was slapped and disarmed by U.S. Marshal Albert Lowe. He fared little better back in California, where, on a visit to San Francisco in May, 1900, he was knocked senseless in a fist fight with a local prizefighter named Mike Mulqueen, who was more than two decades younger than Wyatt.
Late in 1901 Wyatt returned to the Southwest, attracted by new mining discoveries. For five years he and his wife prospected widely in Nevada, and Wyatt also opened still another saloon in Tonopah. In 1905 he visited Virgil in the Nevada mining camp of Goldfield before settling permanently in Los Angeles. Aside from occasional prospecting trips to a mining claim near Parker, Arizona, Wyatt's primary activities seem to have been various confidence games. It was alleged that he and Virgil, shortly after his return from Alaska, murdered Peter Spence, believed to have been implicated in the murder of Morgan Earp.
After operating saloons in the 1905 Nevada goldrush, Wyatt moved to Los Angeles. Americas new boom came not from metals and minerals but from movies. It was only fitting that Wyatt Earp would find himself at least on the periphery of a burgeoning industry. Hollywood loved the West, and old frontiersmen of all stripes began drifting into southern California to work as extras on motion pictures.
Earp made other friends around the sets, including the young extra and prop man Marion Morrison, future director John Ford, who served Earp coffee on the sets, director Raoul Walsh, and actor Tom Mix. John Wayne would later tell Hugh O'Brian that he based his image of the Western lawman on his conversations with Wyatt Earp.
But the best friend Wyatt Earp made in Hollywood was William S. Hart, a Shakespearean actor who became the biggest cowboy star of his time. In 1920, Earp and Hart began a correspondence that would last the remaining years of the former marshal's life. Wyatt congratulated Hart on his triumphs and sympathized with his struggles. Earp's friends would later say that Earp tried to teach Hart the fast draw, practicing with him for several hours and laughing heartily at Hart's fumblings. Hart dropped his gun so often that a blanket was spread on the floor for padding. Hart paid tribute to Earp in a letter to the New York Telegraph under the headline "Bill Hart Introduces the Real - Not Reel - Hero":
Now, I am just an actor - a mere player - seeking to reproduce the lives of those great gunmen who molded a new country for us to live in and enjoy peace and prosperity. And we have today in America two of these men with us in the flesh ... One is Wyatt Earp, the other is William B. (Bat) Masterson.
The old marshal died on January 13, 1929, a victim of chronic cystitis, a prostate problem. He fell sick on the 12th, and Sadie called a doctor. Sadie Earp (Josephine Sarah Earp, who Wyatt called "Sadie") with a doctor and a nurse, stayed by Earp's bedside through the night. Wyatt awoke about five in the morning and asked for a glass of water, then went back to sleep. Sometime between seven and eight he said clearly, "Suppose, suppose." Sadie Earp leaned over and asked what Wyatt had said. He did not answer. A moment later he ceased breathing. Wyatt Earp, whose life had been scarred by controversies, died two months short of his 81st birthday in a cheap Los Angeles bungalow.
Never certain whether his legacy would be that of hero or villain, Wyatt would have preferred not to be remembered at all. Earp never really understood his own story. In life, he had been mostly a gambler, saloon man, and wanderer, always chasing a new opportunity. He was a man defined less by his character than by his courage. He had been reckless in his youth, but he seemed to find honor in the cowtowns. He had been honest and dependable, a standout among the unusual breed of frontier lawmen. He moved to Tombstone to make money, not to follow some higher calling. When the situation around him became desperate, he responded with unrelenting courage to avenge his brother's death and protect the lives of his townspeople. Through the years that he wandered the West, he could never really leave Tombstone behind. He was not a man of esteemed character or dedication to a noble cause. He was not a better man than those around him; be was a braver one.
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