Wyatt Earp – The Great American… Villain?

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The history books (and Hollywood) often describe the famous lawman, Wyatt Earp, as many things: brave, courageous, moral, law-abiding, and honorable. In the story of the “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” Earp is often portrayed as the hero, the good guy we all should be rooting for. In truth, Wyatt Earp was a much more complicated individual who, among other things, was arrested several times in his life for various offenses, involved in a few major scandals (sometimes on the “bad guy” side), and otherwise seemed to be an individual who balanced precariously on that line between a life as a criminal and a life as a lawman.

Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848 in Monmouth in western Illinois. The town had only been established seventeen years prior and was still very much a frontier town. Records are a bit scattered , but it seems the Earps had settled there prior to Wyatt’s birth and did what we now call “squatting” on someone else’s land.

In 1865, the Earp family made one of their many relocations, this time to Southern California, but the 17 year old Wyatt did not join them. He instead wandered across the west working as a freight handler and grading track for the Union Pacific Railroad. He also got a reputation for gambling, boxing, drinking, and engaging with the “ladies of the night.” A few years later, he caught up with his family, who were now in Lamar, Missouri. There he met a hotel-keeper’s daughter, Urilla Southerland, and quickly got married in 1870. She became pregnant, but passed away from typhus less than a year into their marriage. Wyatt once again hit the road, joining two of his brothers in Peoria, Illinois. This is when the legend of Wyatt Earp began taking shape, but not always in a good way.

His older brother Virgil was a bartender and worked in several brothels. He hired Wyatt to be a bouncer, protector, and possibly, a pimp. City records were found indicating that at a certain point Wyatt’s listed address was also the address for a well-known brothel. The evidence seems to point to Wyatt ultimately running his own brothel, which was illegal, and was a type of activity that often found him being placed behind bars.

Beyond arrests for activities associated with prostitution, Wyatt was arrested around this time with two others, Edward Kennedy and John Shown, for stealing two horses in 1871, valued at about $100 each (about $1900 each today). For whatever her testimony is worth, the wife of John Shown, Anna, claimed Kennedy and Wyatt threatened to kill her husband if he didn’t help them.  Whether true or not, Wyatt ultimately avoided the hand of the law by breaking himself out of jail (going through the roof) and fleeing town before the trial.

Around this period of his life, he also found himself getting sued twice. In one of the instances, while collecting license fees that helped fund local schools in Barton County, he was accused of not turning in the money he collected and was subsequently sued by Barton County for this discrepancy.   In another less than reputable incident, as outlined in the Peoria Journal Star, Wyatt accused a prostitute named Minnie Randell of turning him into the authorities. A little later, she was working at another brothel when she died suddenly from (apparently) ingesting morphine. Given Wyatt’s reputation, some have speculated that perhaps she was poisoned, but this is just pure speculation proposed by certain biographers; there is no direct evidence of it, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere. Randell may well have simply been one of many prostitutes who died of a self inflicted drug overdose.

By the mid-1870s, Wyatt again started wandering. He tried his hand at buffalo hunting, but that didn’t stick. His other brother, James, opened a brothel in Kansas and invited Wyatt to join him. He did and soon, like his father and uncles before him, Wyatt became a “protector of the law” as marshal and deputy of places like Dodge City and Wichita.

In Wichita, he was fired from his position and in turn arrested after getting in a fistfight with the former marshal, Bill Smith, over accusations that Wyatt had abused his position to the benefit of his brothers. In the end, the city council was divided on the issue, and considered rehiring Wyatt, but he skipped town to join his brother, James, in Dodge City where James had opened- you guessed it- a brothel.

In Dodge City, Wyatt also once got in trouble with the law after back handing a prostitute who’d had less than complimentary things to say about Wyatt.  He was fined $1 for the incident, while the prostitute, Frankie Bell, got a night in jail and a $20 fine for her trouble.

In his later years, Earp liked to tell a story of another confrontation while deputy of Dodge City that showed off his heroism, one that predated Tombstone. But like many of these tales, separating fact from fiction is nearly impossible. According to the Ford County Historical Society, “the most feared man in the west” Clay Allison arrived in town in the summer of 1878 itching to avenge his friend’s death.

It is not clear who actually had killed his friend, but Allison blamed the law enforcement of Dodge City, notably Wyatt Earp. This, perhaps, wasn’t an unfair accusation. Earp and his men had a reputation, deserved or not, for using their guns more often than their mouths to deal with conflict. The Globe (the area newspaper) often accused the police of using too much force. Either way, in 1896, Earp told a story of Allison approaching him and Earp standing his ground:

“So,’ said Allison truculently, ‘you’re the man that killed my friend Hoyt.

‘Yes, I guess I’m the man you’re looking for,’ said I. His right hand was stealing round to his pistol pocket, but I made no move. Only I watched him narrowly. With my own right hand I had a firm grip on my six-shooter, and with my left I was ready to grab Allison’s gun the moment he jerked it out.

He studied the situation in all its bearings for the space of a second or two. I saw the change in his face. ‘I guess I’ll go round the corner,’ he said abruptly.

‘I guess you’d better,’ I replied. And he went.”

The Ford County Historical Society disputes this rendition. They claim Allison called out Earp and Earp never appeared, nor any of the police officers, and that it was private citizens who asked Allison to leave the town. Earp, supposedly, was too busy gambling. The only such meeting between Earp and Allison that occurred, again according to Ford County historians, was at an underground gambling card game called faro. It seems that Allison did threaten Earp there, but Earp ignored him.

As for the legendary ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, once again Earp’s heroism in the matter is highly contentious. Tombstone was not nearly as dangerous, violent, or lawless as it is often made out to be in films. It was full of wealth at this point due to the mining of silver. With riches, comes the spoils — like the booming business of brothels, which is what attracted Wyatt and his brothers to the area.

Soon, Virgil Earp was marshal and Wyatt was his deputy. Doc Holiday, Wyatt’s good pal and personal card shark who once saved Watt’s life, came along to make money off of wealthy silver miners. The “cowboys” who came in and out of town had a habit of getting drunk and unruly, and soon this led to a bit of a feud between themselves and the Earps and Holliday.

This all came to a head one fateful morning when Ike Clanton (apparently) took to the streets and challenged Holiday and the Earps to a gunfight. And so came the Earps, as well as several cowboys. Less than a minute later, three men lay dead and several more wounded. No one knows for sure who shot first or exactly what happened.  Eye witness accounts are conflicting, as are the accounts by the Earps and Holliday and the cowboys.

In some accounts, the cowboys kept their hands raised and guns in their holsters when confronted, at which point the Earps opened fire. In others, it was the cowboys who acted aggressively and refused to disarm despite town ordinance. Ike Clanton himself, who claimed to have been unarmed in the gun fight and who had fled after it started, filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday, but the charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence.

wyatt_earp_in_cartoonAfter being cleared of murder charges and the messy fights that ensued between the Earps and the cowboys after, Wyatt skipped town in April of 1882 and moved further west to California where he made his living in “horse racing, gambling, and refereeing professional boxing matches.” Most notably, in 1896, Wyatt refereed a nationally publicized heavyweight title bout, Bob Fitzsimmons vs. Tom Sharkey. Besides controversially bringing a gun into the ring, Wyatt was also accused of fixing the fight.

Fitzsimmons was heavily favored in the match and, indeed, dominated it.  In the eighth round, however, Wyatt claimed Fitzsimmons delivered a blow below the belt, directly after dealing an uppercut under the heart of Sharkey.  The uppercut was seen by spectators, while the below the belt hit was not.  Whatever the case, Sharkey ended up on the ground, and claimed he was hit below the belt.  Wyatt declared Sharkey the winner, and the boos from the crowd reigned down. After calling the match in favor of the fighter who had clearly lost, newspapers across the nation had a field day, as you can see from the picture to the right published in the New York Herald in December of 1896.

It should be noted, though, that in the court battle and investigation that followed, it was discovered that Sharkey did have injuries consistent with taking a blow below the belt as Wyatt and Sharky had claimed.  However, there was evidence of a conspiracy among the promoters of the fight to fix the outcome, but whether Wyatt was involved isn’t clear.  Eight years later, Dr. B.Brookes Lee claimed,

I fixed Sharkey up to look as if he had been fouled. How? Well, that is something I do not care to reveal, but I will assert that it was done—that is enough. There is no doubt that Fitzsimmons was entitled to the decision and did not foul Sharkey. I got $1,000 for my part in the affair.

The court’s decision on the matter was that it had no jurisdiction over prize fighting. Because this did not clear Wyatt, and it was discovered he was deeply in debt, at least $2,121 (about $59,000 today) besides debts from his wife’s gambling addiction, this resulted in the public firmly believing he had helped fix the fight. This became the thing he was most well-known for, even more than the “O.K. Corral” controversy, for the rest of his life. There was even a somewhat common expression published in newspapers for the next few decades of “pulling an Earp” or “Earping the job” when referring to referee’s who were thought to be purposefully calling matches less than accurately.

In 1901, he moved to Southern California. Ten years later, he had another run-in with the law, being arrested for fixing a faro game in an attempt to fleece J.Y. Peterson of all his money. He got out of that one because the fix was discovered before money actually changed hands.  Instead, he was simply charged with vagrancy.

Later in Southern California, he became friends with a young actor by the name of Marion Morrison, or more famously, John Wayne. From there, he became a fixture on silent Western sets, telling stories of his younger years. His motivations in this, and the extremely exaggerated and whitewashed accounts, are one of the many subjects of debate about his life.  For instance, efforts were made to make it appear in the media that he never drank, despite all evidence to the contrary. There was also an attempt to hide his relationship with his former common-law wife, prostitute Mattie Blaylock. At the end of their relationship, Blaylock had traveled to Colton, California with members of Wyatt’s family where Wyatt was to later join her. He never did. Shortly thereafter, in 1888, she killed herself. Wyatt had left her for Josephine Marcus, who was formerly the common-law wife of Johnny Behan.

It was claimed by the Welsh family, who were very close to Wyatt, that it was not Wyatt who wanted things exaggerated or whitewashed, but Josephine.  Grace Spolidora, Wyatt’s good friend Charlie Welsh’s daughter, claimed that when watching the interviews with Wyatt as a teen, it was Josephine who “would always interfere whenever Wyatt would talk with Stuart Lake. She always interfered! She wanted him to look like a church-going saint and blow things up. Wyatt didn’t want that at all!”

Perhaps in support of this, after Wyatt’s death, Josephine did go to great lengths to continue cleaning up Wyatt’s image. However, it should be noted that the Welsh family were not at all fond of Josephine, who had a major gambling addiction that often negatively impacted Wyatt and herself. At one point in Alaska, her gambling problem became such an issue that Wyatt had the saloons around town, including his own, cut her off.  She then gambled on the boats traveling to and from the port. So, as with much of Wyatt’s life, the truth in this matter is difficult to discern.

As for Josephine, she stated about the controversy surrounding Wyatt’s life, “The falsehoods that were printed in some of the newspapers about him and the unjust accusations against him hurt Wyatt more deeply than anything that ever happened to him during my life with him, with the exception of his mother’s death and that of his father and brother, Warren.”

Perhaps further giving credence to the fact that it was not Wyatt who cared to promote himself, one San Francisco newspaper reporter in 1924 claimed that getting any information out of Wyatt Earp about his life was “like pulling teeth.”

John Clum, one time mayor of Tombstone, also claimed that, “during [Wyatt’s] last illness he told me that for many years he had hoped the public would weary of the narratives—distorted with fantastic and fictitious embellishments—that were published from time to time concerning him, and that his last years might be passed in undisturbed obscurity.”

Whatever the case, ultimately the aforementioned Stuart Lake published the, at the time, definitive biography on Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, that gave rise to most of the legends about him that have endured to today, painting him as the ultra-moral lawman who helped clean up the West.  In truth, Lake only managed to get eight interviews with Wyatt before he died, and Wyatt supposedly was just as closed mouthed about his life during those interviews as the San Francisco reporter had said.  It has also been noted that Wyatt frequently gave conflicting accounts of certain events, such as once claiming to a reporter in Denver in 1896 that he did not kill Johnny Ringo, and then later in an interview in 1918 telling Forrestine Hooker he did.

Needless to say, even with the eight interviews Wyatt gave to Lake, whether intentional or not, there is a reason that Lake’s biography on Wyatt Earp today is considered, “an imaginative hoax, a fabrication mixed with just enough fact to give it credibility.”

In the end, Wyatt Earp was most definitely not the whitewashed gun-slinging superhero he is so often depicted as today. He also wasn’t nearly the villain some biographers make him out to be.  Perhaps historian John Boessenecker said it best when he stated that Wyatt Earp was an “enigmatic figure… He always lived on the outer fringe of respectable society, and his closest companions were gamblers and sporting men… Wyatt never set down roots in any one place; when the money stopped coming in or his problems became too great, he would pull up stakes and move on to the next boomtown… For his entire life was a gamble, an effort to make money without working hard for it, to succeed quickly without ever settling in for the long haul.”

Wyatt Earp died on January 29, 1929 at the age of 80 in his Los Angeles home. To this day, the “Wyatt Earp the squeaky clean western hero” myth still lives.  While it may not be true, it makes one heck of a story. The 1993 film, Tombstone, is a particularly entertaining rendition.

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