The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Wyatt Earp
1848 - 1929


The subject of a good deal of Western movies, Wyatt Earp attained a legendary aura. But the man was definitely real. One might consider the movies detailing him to embellish his character. However, it is known that Earp was a fearless law enforcer, a shrewd gambler and foremost in The Gunfight At The OK Corral and in avenging the death and serious injury of his brothers afterwards.

Wyatt berry Stapp Earp was born in March of 1848 at Monmouth, Illinois. At the age of two the family moved to Pella, Iowa, where Nicholas (the father) became Provost Marshal of Marion County. Young Wyatt was restricted to working on the farm. That somewhat boring existence was dramatically ended in 1863. Earp had had enough of the droll existence on the quiet farm, and, hearing tales of his father’s exploits as a captain of the Union Army in the Mexican War, and seeing his three older brothers leave to enrol, fled to join in the action. The young man was brought crashing down to earth when trying to enlist. He was spotted by his eagle-eyed father and sent back home immediately.

In 1864, the family was on their travels once more. Wyatt was given his first gun to protect himself from the dangers of being on the road. By 1869, he had arrived with his brother at Lamar, Missouri. They both ran for the post of Constable of the Lamar Police Force. Wyatt won the vote and so his long career in law enforcement began. A year later he fell in love with and married Urilla Sutherland. Unfortunately, that same year she died, possibly because of typhoid or due to complications in childbirth. This led to her family falling out with Wyatt Earp. They accused him of stealing horses and he was locked up in a Cherokee jail. As soon as his bail was paid though, he escaped the area.

It is thought that the young gunslinger then became a buffalo hunter, possibly to avoid the public eye and to clear his mind concerning the death of his first wife. Before long though, the call of the law caused him to travel to the unruly cattle town of Wichita. He became a law enforcement officer there in 1875, staying for approximately a year.

He moved on to Dodge City (that of fabled Western movies) and met Bat Masterson, who he became good friends with. He also became acquainted with John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday, the hard drinking sharpshooter and gambler. The prostitute Celia Ann ‘Mattie’ Baylock became his new partner. Although Wyatt Earp never became official Marshal of Dodge City he was at the forefront of police work. It is known that he killed at least one cowboy – George Hoy – who had entered the city looking for trouble. Judging from press cuttings of the time Earp was respected by the community for his bravery and ability to defuse awkward situations with malevolent characters, without excessive use of violence.

Earp made his living primarily from gambling, another area in which he was respected by fellow professionals. If one could cheat well in those days it was considered part of the game. Wyatt Earp was an expert and made his fair share of money.

In November of 1879 Earp, his three brothers (Morgan, Virgil and Warren) and ‘Doc’ Holliday entered Tombstone, Arizona lured there by the prospect of finding gold. Tombstone was a gold boomtown and therefore thriving. In 1880, Wyatt Earp was appointed Pima County Deputy Sheriff, although the reputation of him and his brethren as strict law enforcers had gone before them. It is alleged that cowboys such as the Clanton family, Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brocious, were controlling Tombstone. They performed robberies, cattle theft and other acts of terrorism at free will, but now that the Earps were in town they were on a collision course with the law.

The two factions squared up in the now famous Gunfight At The OK Corral. Wyatt Earp was the only person to avoid injury in the battle, but his brother Morgan was shot dead and Virgil was crippled. After the fight, Wyatt hunted down many of the cowboys responsible for his brothers’ misfortunes and summarily executed them.

He then returned to Dodge City for a while, teaming up again with Bat Masterson and other law enforcers in the famous peace commission. At the age of sixty he married again, to Josephine Marcus. The couple went prospecting to Alaska where Earp refereed boxing matches. Always the gambler, he bet on those fights and showed bias towards the fighter he backed! Later in life he advised Western movie producers on authenticity. Wyatt Earp died in his Los Angeles cottage in 1929, aged eighty years, but his legend will live on for many, many years.


Description: 6 ft. tall, a wiry 155 lb. Squarely chiseled jaw, blue eyes, a long, dark, droopy mustache. Cool demeanor. Usually wore black stetson, black high-heeled boots, long-skirted, square-cut black frock coat, white shirt, and black string tie.

Resume: Like many western heroes and antiheroes, Wyatt Earp belonged to a clan of brothers, named James, Virgil, Morgan, and Warren. Young Wyatt farmed with his father in several states, drove a stage in California, worked as a bartender, and eventually became a gambler. In 1871 he was indicted for horse stealing, but he raised $500 bail and skipped town.

As a policeman in Wichita, Kans., in 1874, Earp was caught pocketing the fines he collected. He made no important arrests and soon was dismissed from the force for fighting with a politician.

In Dodge City, Kans., Earp was a policeman and a deputy marshal from 1876 to 1879. Although he killed his first man in Dodge, a drunken cowboy named George Hoyt, he was a run-of-the-mill peace officer seldom mentioned in local newspapers.

Earp arrived in Tombstone, Ariz., in 1879 and quickly became involved in "Tombstone after dark." (The county register listed him as "saloonkeeper.") When his brother Virgil was appointed town marshal, Wyatt became his deputy. Their zealous enforcement of the law (due more to protecting their own casino interests than dedication) led to the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which blasted three cowboys into eternity and Wyatt Earp into the history books.

Later, friends of the men killed at the O.K. Corral crippled Virgil with a shotgun blast and killed Morgan with a sniper shot. In revenge, Earp gunned down Frank Stilwell and Indian Charlie. With a posse on his trail, he left Tombstone.

Plying his trade as saloonkeeper, Earp ventured to Nome, Alaska, during the Klondike gold rush, and eventually drifted to San Francisco in search of Josephine Sarah Marcus, a vaudevillian known in Tombstone as Sadie. They settled in Los Angeles, where Earp was charged with vagrancy and conducting a bunco operation. The last two years of his life he devoted to enhancing his reputation in conversation with Stuart Lake, author of Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, from which much of the legend of Wyatt Earp has been taken.

Favorite Weapon: The Buntline Special, made by Colt at the behest of Ned Buntline the famous dime novelist had five of the outsized pistols made for the peace officers he most admired: Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett, Neal Brown, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp. Earp found the 12-in. barrel perfect for "buffaloing" (his habit of subduing badmen with a whack across the forehead).

Speed on the Draw: No record, but considered quick and deadly accurate. Earp drew his gun from a leather-lined coat pocket heavily waxed for a fast draw.

Victims: George Hoyt; Frank McLaury, and/or Tom McLaury, and/or Billy Clanton; Frank Stilwell; Indian Charlie; and, according to Earp's account, Curly Bill Brocious and Johnny Ringo, although historians maintain Brocious was alive a decade later and Ringo committed suicide.

Leading Fight: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Earps and Doc Holliday attempted to disarm cowboys Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. Some accounts insist Ike and Tom were not armed. The shootout lasted 30 seconds, each side firing 17 shots. The McLaurys and Billy Clanton were killed. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne fled. Virgil was wounded in the calf, Morgan in the shoulder, and Holliday in the back. Wyatt, according to the Tombstone Epitaph, "stood up and fired in rapid succession, as cool as a cucumber, and was not hit."

Earnings: $250 a month as deputy marshal of Dodge, and $1,000 a month to keep order in Tombstone's Oriental Saloon.

How Died: Quietly in his sleep at his Los Angeles home.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008