Facts About the Life of American Legend, Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp became a living legend over the course of a lengthy and eventful life. He worked several interesting jobs, including as a gambler, a lawman, a gold and silver miner and a boxing referee. Later in his life, he even became a consultant to Hollywood directors for Western films.
Stories involving Earp, especially the ones he repeated himself, are often said to be exaggerated. Here are the facts about Wyatt Earp, an American legend.
Growing Up in Illinois
Wyatt Earp wasn’t old enough to participate when the American Civil War broke out. This didn't stop him from trying, however. At 13, he made several attempts to lie about his age to recruiters after having run away from home. His father was responsible for stopping these attempts.
Transcontinental Railroad Supplies
As the Union Pacific Railroad progressed west, Earp began freighting supplies to the railhead. He’d become known as an experienced freighter by 1868, after having arrived in the area years earlier. Earp had also gained a reputation as a card gambler and picked up work refereeing boxing matches. He was thought to be a strict but ultimately fair official of the sport.
Town Constable in Lamar, Missouri
The Earps moved to Lamar, Missouri, in 1869. Wyatt Earp assumed the role of town constable, which had previously been his father's role. He married for the first time in 1870 but quickly lost his wife to typhoid fever. After her death, Earp's life and finances spiraled.
Running a Brothel in Peoria
After fleeing to Peoria, Illinois, it wasn’t long until Earp again came into trouble with the law. In 1872, Earp was arrested along with his brother, Morgan Earp, and charged with running a brothel. The brothers were fined and released. Later that year, Earp was again arrested for running a brothel, this one aboard a steamship.
A Bouncer and Police Officer in Wichita
When Earp arrived in Wichita, he began working as a bouncer in his brother's brothel and later became a town deputy. Earp only ended up firing his weapon on one occasion during his time in Wichita, and that was after his gun accidentally discharged after falling from his holster. This isn’t to say he didn't run into trouble while in town, however.
Doc Holliday in Dodge City
Earp set out for Dodge City, Kansas, where his brother was running another brothel. He joined the Dodge City town marshal's office as a deputy. In the summer of 1878, the famed Doc Holliday saved Earp’s life.
Getting Out of Dodge City
Dodge City was experiencing a period of growth when Earp arrived; this was mainly due to the frequent cattle drives that also brought a stream of drunken, rowdy cowboys to the town. While in Dodge City, Earp befriended journalist Bat Masterson, who, like Earp, was a big fan of the Marquess of Queensberry rules in boxing.
Arriving in Tombstone
The population of Tombstone, Arizona, doubled from April to December of 1879. Earp intended to take advantage of this fact. He sought to create a stageline that could connect the town to the outside world but found that other companies already had that market covered. Instead, he began to gamble and also picked up work on Wells Fargo stagecoaches riding shotgun.
The Building Feud With the Cowboys
In Tombstone, there was a group of men who operated outside the law referred to as "the cowboys." Cowboys often partook in legitimate cattle rides or ranching businesses, but this group did so with contempt toward the law. The Army hired Earp’s brother to track down a group of these cowboys who had stolen mules.
The Death of Fred White
In 1880, Tombstone town deputy marshal Fred White attempted to accost a group of cowboys. Cowboy Curly Bill Brocius drew his revolver and shot White in the groin. Earp was in a nearby saloon, heard the noise and proceeded to pistol-whip Curly Bill in the street. Curly Bill stood trial after White died from his injuries.
No Longer a Deputy Sheriff
The month after the incident with Fred White and the cowboys, Earp's boss lost his re-election bid. As a result, Earp also lost his job as a deputy and tax collector. There’s been some speculation since that the cowboys may have played a role in Earp's boss losing the election.
Relationship with Mattie Blaylock
Mattie Blaylock accompanied Earp in Tombstone, and many people considered her Wyatt's wife. Blaylock suffered from headaches, which she took over-the-counter medication to combat. She often took a drug called laudanum, which was an opiate-based medication that also contained alcohol. This left Mattie indisposed a large portion of the time.
Gambling and Mining Money
Earp made money from running prostitutes and from gambling. After being ousted from his positions in Tombstone, he’s believed to have moved even deeper into these fields. Earp wrote to his friend Bat Masterson, inviting him to come and work with Earp running table gambling games.
Facing Down a Lynch Mob
A popular tale told of Earp involves him facing down an entire lynch mob single-handedly. The tale goes that two miners had gotten into a fight, and as a result, one of the miners was killed. A lynch mob then formed with the goal of getting revenge on the surviving miner.
The Cowboy vs. Earp Feud Heats Up
The Earp and cowboy rivalry intensified in the spring of 1881. A stagecoach robbery had resulted in two dead employees, so the Earps decided to act. They organized a posse to catch the robbers. One robber was caught and turned over to Behan, but he promptly escaped prison.
The O.K. Corral
Wyatt Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil and Doc Holliday intended to confront the cowboys at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881. The famous armed conflict lasted all of 30 seconds but involved about 30 rounds getting fired. The two sides stood just a few feet apart from one another at the time.
Myths and Realities of the O.K. Corral
Three men died and four were left wounded at the O.K. Corral. Nine men exchanged gunfire over 30 seconds in what later became a legendary gunfight. Stories about what happened at the O.K. Corral dominated newspaper headlines, but fact and fiction blurred.
Myth of the Buntline Special
Earp is often associated with the Colt Buntline Special gun. The long-barreled weapon wasn’t present at the O.K. Corral, however. This runs contrary to popular belief about what happened during the gunfight. Earp is thought to have carried a Smith and Wesson .44 at the O.K. Corral. This was his usual choice of weapon at the time.
Following the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday were charged with murder. Ike Clanton, who had run away from the fight, provided eyewitness testimony against them. His testimony wasn’t viewed as credible, however, seeing as Clanton was fleeing for his life at the time.
Cowboys Striking Back
The cowboys struck back in 1881, ambushing Virgil Earp in Tombstone. Virgil was shot in the back with a shotgun. He survived but was left disabled. Ike Clanton, who had testified against the Earps at the O.K. Corral hearings, was charged with the attack. He was later acquitted, however. Wyatt Earp sent him a request to meet, but Clanton refused the request.
The Earp Vendetta Rides
Earp put together a posse to go after the cowboys. It included Doc Holliday, his brothers Warren and James and several others he hired in exchange for payment of $5 a day. The group set out on March 20. During this time, Earp claimed to have settled scores and eliminated murderers and thieves, but there’s little record of this beyond half a dozen or so men.
New Mexico and Back West
While in New Mexico, Earp reconnected with his old friend Bat Masterson. He then began running Faro games in a saloon Masterson owned. Earp also visited his friend Doc Holliday in Colorado in 1886. At the time, Doc Holliday was on his deathbed battling tuberculosis.
Life in California With Josephine
In 1887 Wyatt Earp arrived in San Diego, California, with his common-law wife Josephine. The move offered him an opportunity to cash in on the booming real estate market in the area. He put his money into real estate, brothels, saloons and gambling halls.
Collapsing Real Estate Empire
Earp’s real estate empire was collapsing due to the market in San Diego taking a downturn. While in San Francisco, he began managing a stable. He trained and ran racehorses but was no longer able to afford his own.
Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey fought for the world heavyweight championship of boxing (an unofficial title) in December of 1896. Wyatt Earp served as the referee for the fight. The recent fights he had officiated had used a more lenient set of rules than this particular match did.
Defense Against Outlaw Accusations
The decision from the Sharkey vs. Fitzsimmons fight thrust Wyatt Earp's name back into the media spotlight. Fewer than 10 years after the fight, the doctor assigned to the bout admitted to having been paid $1,000 as part of a fight-fixing conspiracy. The doctor said he was paid to treat Sharkey as if the fighter had been dealt a low blow.
Alaska Commercial Company and the Yukon Gold Rush
Following the fight-fixing scandal, Wyatt Earp fled with Josephine to Alaska to escape the public's condemnation. He started work with the Alaska Commercial Company, selling items such as beer and cigars to miners and prospectors who arrived in the region looking to strike gold.
Businesses Seized in Seattle
When Earp arrived in Seattle, his reputation was debated in the city's newspapers. Local opinions varied, stating Earp was either a tough lawman or an outlaw himself. His attempts to open a saloon and gambling house in the city were met with resistance, although he did have a fair share of supporters.
Working With the LAPD
When Wyatt Earp was 62, he began working for the Los Angeles Police Department. The organization hired him in 1910 to do work that was considered "outside the law." Earp was the man the LAPD turned to in order to do such things as catch criminals who were wanted in California but had escaped across the border to Mexico. Earp was tasked with returning these criminals to California.
Controlling His Own Legacy
Throughout his lifetime, Wyatt Earp read stories of his own deeds in newspapers, novels and pulp magazines. Earp didn’t shy away from adding to his own legacy with exaggerated or possibly completely made up stories, however.