And now, for the continuing drama of the life of Wyatt Earp...
When we last left Wyatt Earp it was in the fall of 1879 and Wyatt was in Dodge City, Kansas, receiving word from his brother, Virgil, about the riches-to-be-had in the silver town of Tombstone, Arizona. Virgil was working near Prescott, Arizona. Wyatt, his common law wife, Celie Anne "Mattie" Blaylock, a former prostitute from Dodge City, Jim Earp and his wife, and Doc Holliday and his common-law wife Big Nose Kate all packed their bags and headed for Arizona. (Although Big Nose Kate is often portrayed as a prostitute or former prostitute on film there is no historical evidence that she ever worked as a prostitute.)
The once-again-traveling Earp clan stopped in Las Vegas, New Mexico for a short time. Las Vegas in the 1800s was an exciting mecca of entertainment for cowboys in the 1800s. They eventually left Las Vegas and arrived in Prescott in November of 1879 where Doc Holliday decided to stay due to the unlimited gambling opportunities. James Earp and his wife, Nellie "Bessie" Ketchum, Wyatt, and Big Nose Kate all moved on to Tombstone to join Virgil.
Celia Anne "Mattie" Blaylock, Wyatt Earp's common law wife.
Tombstone was also an Old West boom town growing from 100 residents in March of 1879 to 1000 when the Earps arrived in November of that same year. When Wyatt arrived in Tombstone he learned that his brother, Virgil, was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Tombstone mining district.
Virgil Earp, Old West lawman.
You can almost see the wheels turning in Wyatt's mind. Do I start a business? Become a lawman? Open a brothel? By this time, there are certain patterns in the behavior of the Earp brothers that are becoming recognizable. First, they loved to travel and would pick up and move with a second's notice. Second, they were fiercely devoted to each other and tended to follow each other from town to town. And finally they would work on either side of the law--following the laws of the town was far less important than finding a job. Therefore, a job with the law was, well, just another job.
Wagons and Stagecoaches
When Wyatt arrived in Arizona he had horses and a buckboard that he planned to rebuild into a stagecoach. Now, we've already studied stagecoach design on this blog once before and will most likely discuss it again, so you can imagine how much of a challenge that would be for Wyatt because providing comfort for long-distance travel is a complicated matter! It wasn't the construction that discouraged Wyatt, though, it was the competition--Tombstone already had two stagecoach companies.
So, the Earps staked mining claims and purchased water rights to try and get in on the mining boom while it was still booming and Jim found a job as a bartender in town. They tried investing in various businesses, but nothing panned out (an old-timers mining cliche). In the spring of 1880, Wyatt was hired by Wells Fargo to work as a shotgun messenger for the transportation of strongboxes, which generally held payrolls or large sums of money for banks or other purposes.
Trouble Brewing in Tombstone
A few months later, the younger Earp brothers, Morgan and Warren, joined Wyatt, Jim and Virgil in Tombstone and Doc Holliday followed the family, as well. This was all typical behavior for the Earps who followed each other everywhere, but there was trouble brewing in Tombstone, and the Earps would soon face devastating family tragedy, so devastating that it would send Wyatt on a quest for revenge.
In July of 1880, U.S. Army Captain Joseph Hurst asked Virgil to assist him in tracking down a gang of cowboys (imagine thinking of cowboys as a gang?) who stole mules from Camp Rucker. Virgil suggested the captain hire Wyatt and Morgan for backup. They found the mules at the McLaury ranch, a family generally regarded as outlaws. McLaury was with another cowboy, Frank Patterson who made a deal with Captain Hurst to return the mules, even though the men admitted they had already altered the brand on the mules. This was an odd compromise, in my opinion, as mule and horse thievery was a serious offense in the Old West. Two days later the cowboys showed up without the mules and sat in their saddles, just out of range, laughing at Captain Hurst and the Earp brothers.
The situation, as it continued to worsen, is really a bit shocking. Hurst posted a description of the theft on flyers and in the local town-friendly paper, The Tombstone Epitaph, described the mules, explained that he believed they were hidden by McLaury, and asked the public for assistance. McLaury, in response, wrote an article for the cowboy newspaper, The Nugget, called Hurst "unmanly, a coward, a vagabond, a rascal, and a liar." He even accused the Army Captain of stealing the mules! Meanwhile, Hurst heard rumors that the cowboys had threatened to kill the Earp brothers. Frank McLaury's behavior was bordering on psychopathic. He started following the Earps and making loud, public threats against them, but everyone knew McLaury had stolen the mules, he had already admitted to the crime and even showed the branding irons and stolen mules to Captain Hurst! It really was a very odd situation.
Wyatt, Once Again, Becomes a Lawman
In July of 1880, Wyatt was also appointed Deputy Sheriff of the eastern section of Pima County, including Tombstone. This position paid very well, approximately $40,000 a year, which would be the equivalent of $950,000 a year according to a Wikipedia article. Wyatt was also the county assessor and tax collector and allowed to keep a percentage of money collected, but he only served in this position three months. Wyatt's quick temper would cost him a very lucrative job.
In October, Marshall Fred White tried to break up a drunken brawl. Wyatt Earp heard gunshots (the cowboys were shooting at the moon), but he was unarmed. He borrowed a gun and ran into the street to assist White. White grabbed one of the cowboys, Curly Bill Brocious, and his gun discharged, shooting the marshal in the groin. Wyatt grabbed Brocious, who was standing nearby, pistol-whipped him, then knocked him to the ground. The cowboy loudly protested his innocence, asking Wyatt what he had done. Meanwhile, Brocious's friends were shooting at him in the darkness, but when Morgan arrived on the scene he found his brother squatting beside the marshal, calm and cool. The marshal died two days later.
And to Make Matters Worse, There's a Love Triangle!
Oh yes, it's true. At 32 years old, Wyatt Earp, still living with his common law wife, Mattie Blaylock, fell madly in love with 18 year old Josephine Sarah Marcus. Marcus performed in Tombstone on various occasions, but she was romantically involved with the 35 year old sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, Johnny Behan. In 1881, Marcus returned from a performance in California and caught Behan in bed with a friend. She kicked him out of her home.
Johnny Behan, Sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona. Photo taken in 1871.
Meanwhile, back with the Earps, Wyatt was still involved with his common-law-wife, Mattie Blaylock, but she began to suffer from debilitating migraines, which were treated with laudanum at that time, and she became hopelessly addicted to the drug. It is unknown how Sarah Marcus and Wyatt Earp met or became involved, but what is known is that their relationship created instant turmoil in Tombstone
Wyatt Earp and Johnny Behan were competing for the same job as Deputy Sheriff of Cochise County. It was a well-paying job, and a fierce competition. The fact that they were both in love with the same woman certainly did not help matters. Wyatt was appointed by County Sheriff Charlie Shibell in 1880 and gave his job as Wells Fargo shotgun messenger to his brother, Morgan.
Wyatt was popular and mentioned weekly in the local newspapers. However, Wyatt favored Bob Paul, a Republican. Three months after his appointment, Bob Paul ran for Sheriff against Shibell and won. Wyatt resigned and Shibell appointed Behan as the new Deputy Sheriff of what was now called eastern Pima County. Bob Paul filed charges of ballot stuffing against quite a few cowboys, including Wyatt's sworn enemies Curly Bill Brocius and Frank McLaury. Paul was eventually declared the Sheriff, but he could not replace Behan with Wyatt due to the change in county boundaries--politics!
With the change in county boundaries, when the position opened, Wyatt Earp and Behan both applied to become the new Cochise County Sheriff. Both men had experience, influence, and friends in both high and low places. In a strangely apolitical move, Wyatt Earp and Behan made a deal that if Earp withdrew his application to the state legislature, Behan would appoint him as Undersheriff. Earp withdrew, Behan was elected, but Harry Woods was given the position of Undersheriff. During the trail over the shooting at the OK Corral, Behan originally denied the agreement, then admitted there was an agreement that he broke due to prejudice against Earp. One of Earp's favorite horses was stolen and found in the possession of Ike and Billy Clanton. Wyatt and Doc Holliday rode out to the Clanton ranch with Behan following behind in a wagon to serve an election hearing subpoena on Ike. Wyatt and Doc said the Clantons willingly returned the horse. Behan claimed Wyatt and Doc lied and told the Clantons that Behan was there to arrest them for horse theft--a hanging offense in the Old West. The complicated and confusing incident turned into an embarrassing situation for everyone involved.
Once again, Wyatt was out of the law business, but he still had mining claims with his brothers and these claims were paying well. In 1881, Lou Rickabaugh gave Wyatt 1/4 interest in the Faro (gambling game) concession at his Oriental Saloon in exchange for Wyatt's employment as manager and "enforcer," which was the Old West term for bar bouncer. The Oriental was a wild and crazy place and Wyatt hired Bat Masterson to help him keep the peace. He also asked a gambling friend, Luke Short, to join them. Wyatt was still viewed by the public as a lawman, even though his position as "enforcer" was very different in the eyes of the law.
Earps Versus Cowboys
When you study this situation it is almost as if you are reading about modern gangs--the Earps and their friends against the cowboys. The tension continued to build between these two groups. In March of 1881 three cowboys tried to rob a stagecoach carrying $26,000. The drive and a passenger were killed. The Earps and friends tracked the cowboys down and arrested Luther King who ratted out on Bill Leonard, Harry "The Kid" Head, and Jim Crane--more cowboys. Behan arrested King, but for some reason, allowed him to walk right back out of jail again.
Wyatt offered his arch rivals Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury $3600 for information leading to the arrest of the robbers--that's a huge bounty for 1881! The men agreed to lead Wyatt to the robbers. (Wyatt later admitted he offered the bounty hoping the arrest of the robbers would increase his chances toward election to the position of Cochise County Sheriff.) Before Wyatt could arrest the cowboys, though, they were all killed during another robbery! If you're getting the impression this was a scary place to live, you're probably right on target. There was a disagreement over whether or not the bounty was offered "dead or alive," and even more rumors that Wyatt had offered the same bounty to his brothers and Doc Holliday.
Come September, another stagecoach was robbed. The robbers took the strongbox and the possessions of all travelers, but there were no deaths. However, this time, one of the accused was a friend of the McLaury brothers. Wyatt and Virgil led a posse in search of the men, identified as Pete Spence and Frank Stilwell. Wyatt conducted some clever sleuthing here. He found a boot print in the mud, checked with a shoemaker in nearby Bisbee and matched the heel to that of Frank Stilwell. Spence and Stillwell were tracked to a local corral and arrested by Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp for mail robbery, released on bail, then re-arrested for the stagecoach robbery, then for a new Federal charge--interfering with a mail carrier. Meanwhile, back in town, the McLaurys were ready to explode over what they perceived as harassment of their friend. Wyatt and Earp were still at the Spence and Stilwell hearings when Frank McLaury approached Morgan Earp and told Morgan the McLaurys would kill the Earps if they ever tried to arrest Spence, Stillwell, or the McLaurys again--a death threat made against an officer of the law, and not the only one.
The only known photo of Ike Clanton taken in Tombstone, Arizona.
The Clantons, Billy Claiborne and the rest of the "cowboy gang" continued to spread the word in Tombstone that they intended to kill the Earps. On October 26, 1881, Virgil learned that the cowboys were gathering near the O.K. Corral, and they had guns. Virgil asked Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday to help him disarm the cowboys. Keep in mind that Virgil was Tombstone's City Marshal, Wyatt was acting as temporary Assistant Marshal, Morgan was Deputy City Marshal, and Virgil deputized Doc Holliday that day for assistance with the cowboys, so they were all, technically, law enforcement officers.
The Shootout at the...intersection of Third Street and Freemont
It was a cold, blustery afternoon, around 3 p.m. on October 26, 1881, when the Earps headed for Fremont Street where they were told the cowboys were waiting. They found five of the cowboys in a vacant lot next to the O.K. Corral's rear entrance to Fremont Street, and according to The History Channel, this is where the actual fight took place, and not in the O.K. Corral.
The tension was as thick as the mud beneath their boots. The two groups of men were only a few feet apart. They paused, briefly, staring each other down.
Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne realized what was about to happen and ran. Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton all began to fire. All three were killed. Morgan Earp was hit, and the shot clipped both shoulder blades and one of his vertebrae. Virgil took a bullet in his calf and Holliday was also grazed by a bullet. The shootout lasted 30 seconds.
Earps Face Murder Charges
Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday. Justice Spicer spent over a month taking written and oral testimony to determine if there was enough evidence for a trial. Sheriff Behan, not surprisingly considering the history between him and Wyatt, testified that the cowboys raised their hands in their air or opened their coats to show they were unarmed. He also claimed the Earps fired the first shots. He also claimed Holliday was carrying a revolver, even though the rest of the witnesses saw him with a messenger shotgun.
The Ambush of Virgil and Death of Morgan Earp
On December 28, 1881, Virgil was walking between saloons on Allen Street when he was shot in his left arm and shoulder with a shotgun. It's possible the not-so-bright Ike Clanton dropped his hat behind the building on Allen Street where the shots were fired. It's also possible that he left his hat intentionally to taunt the Earps and let them know he was the man responsible.
Virgil Earp was shot in his left arm and shoulder.
Nevertheless, witnesses claimed Clanton was in a nearby town at the time of the shooting. Wyatt wired U.S. Marshal Crowley Dake and asked to be appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal and requested the authority to appoint his own deputies. Dake granted both requests and provided the Earps with fund from Wells Fargo.
Wyatt had one option--hire extra deputies and continue the fight. He needed to raise more funds, so he mortgaged his home to lawyer James Howard who eventually foreclosed. Wyatt thought he was strengthening the security in Tombstone, then he received the shock of his life. On March 18, 1881, Morgan Earp was play pool when he was shot dead by multiple gunmen who fired from an alley through the door window. One bullet went through his right side, shattered his spine, and exited his body through the left then hit the thigh of a nearby pool player. Morgan was raised onto a nearby couch where he died 40 minutes later. The shooters escaped.
A Ride of Revenge
Wyatt decided he'd had enough. He was no longer willing to wait for deputies and funding and laws. He was ready to kill every last cowboy threatening his family. The death of Morgan changed him. He was no longer willing to compromise. He was out for revenge. Wyatt and James Earp, Doc Holliday and a few other deputies escorted Morgan's body to Benson, then James took Morgan home to Colton, California where Morgan's wife handled the burial.
Wyatt and Holliday then guarded Virgil and his wife to Tucson where they were told Frank Stilwell and the cowboys were waiting. The next day, Stilwell was found dead by the train tracks, his body filled with gunshots and buckshot. Once again, the Earps were charged with murder.
The Earps and their posse of friends (including Buckskin Frank Leslie pictured below) returned to Tombstone. Behan tried unsuccessfully to stop them. The Earps and their deputies rode to Pete Spence's camp in the Dragoon Mountains and killed one of the cowboys. They kept riding. They entered the Whetstone Mountains to meet with a messenger and discovered the camp of Curly Bill Brocius, the man Wyatt once saved from hanging, and another cowboy, Pony Diehl, along with others in the cowboy gang. Both parties started firing. This time, Wyatt shot Curly Bill Brocius in the chest. Curly Bill fell into the nearby river and died.
Buckskin Frank Leslie rode with the Earps on their ride of revenge to hunt down the cowboys.
Wyatt had bullet holes in both sides of his coat and in his boot heal. He was beginning to seem invincible. Wyatt also killed Johnny Barnes with a shot in the chest and wounded Milt Hicks, then the Earps and their posse retreated. They rode to the Percy Ranch, but were rejected--the Percy's were afraid the cowboys would show up and yet another shootout would take place on their land. They fed the Earps and allowed them to rest, but they let early in the morning of March 27 and rode in Tombstone to meet up with Warren Earp. The brothers and their deputies rode on with Behan and his posse behind them. Behan never confronted the Earps, so the brothers and their posse rode on. They traveled into Albuquerque, New Mexico and spent some time with Deputy U.S. Marshal Bat Masterson, then into Trinidad, Colorado territory where Masterson owned a saloon. Holliday moved on to Pueblo, Colorado.
Wyatt Gets the Girl
Mattie Blaylock, Wyatt's common law wife, joined the Earp family in Colton, then finally realized she was abandoned by Wyatt and returned to prostitution. She committed suicide with a laudanum overdose on July 3, 1888.
Wyatt Earp, date unknown.
Wyatt had, in fact, left for San Francisco years earlier. He joined Josephine Marcus, the woman involved in the love triangle--Wyatt, Josephine, and Sheriff Behan. Wyatt and Josephine (also called Josie or Sadie) lived together for 46 years as common-law husband and wife. Apparently, he was not much for ceremony.
Josephine Sarah Marcus, Wyatt Earps second common law wife. Photo taken in 1881.
Wyatt Earp died of prostate cancer on January 13, 1929 when he was 80 years old. Josephine was so heartbroken she could not attend his funeral. He was cremated and his ashes were buried at Josephine's family plot (the Marcus family plot) at Hills of Eternity cemetery in Colma, California.
Gravestone of Wyatt Earp and Josephine Sarah Marcus in Colma, California.
Josephine died in 1944 and her ashes were buried beside Wyatt's. The gravestone was stolen in 1957, but later recovered and is now the most visited gravesite in the cemetery.
- Hanes, Elizabeth. "10 Things you Didn't Know About the Old West." History in the Headlines. History Channel.com. Retrieved February 29, 2013.
- "Hot Lead to Scandal." The Real West. The History Channel. Aired August 6, 2012. Originally aired 1992. Running Time: 50 min.
- Trachtman, Paul. The Old West: The Gunfighters. Time Life Books. Canada: 1976.