The World of Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp: 03/19/1848 01/13/1929

The Kansas Years


In Frontier Marshal, Lake also claimed that while in Kansas, Earp met such notable figures as Wild Bill Hickok. Lake also identified Earp as the man who arrested gunman Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, Kansas, on August 15, 1873. However, Lake failed to identify his sources for these claims. Consequently, later researchers have expressed their doubt about Lake's account. Diligent search of the available records has uncovered no evidence that Wyatt Earp was in Ellsworth at the time of Thompson's trouble there. Proponents of Earp's arrest of Thompson, or even Earp's presence in Ellsworth in August of that year, point to unsubstantiated recollections that Earp registered at the Grand Central Hotel there. No research has shown that Earp checked into the hotel that summer.

In particular, the activities of Benjamin Thompson during the year of his arrest were covered in detail by the local press without ever mentioning Earp. Thompson published his own accounts for the events in 1874, and he did not report Earp as the man responsible for his arrest. Deputy Ed Hogue of Ellsworth actually made the arrest, after Billy Thompson accidentally shot and killed Sheriff Chauncey Whitney, a friend to the Thompson brothers. Billy Thompson was later acquitted in the case, which resulted in an increase of violence in Ellsworth against visiting Texas cowboys. John "Happy Jack" Morco, a corrupt Ellsworth police officer, was a central character in those events. Due to the violence erupting in Ellsworth during that time, had Earp been there, it would have been documented, but was not.[citation needed]

Wichita, Kansas

Like Ellsworth, Wichita was a train terminal which was a destination for cattle drives originating in Texas. Such cattle boomtowns on the frontier were raucous places filled with drunken, armed cowboys celebrating at the end of long drives. Earp officially joined the Wichita marshal's office on April 21, 1875, after the election of Mike Meagher as city marshal (the term causes confusion, since "city marshal" was then a synonym for police chief, a term also in use). One newspaper report exists referring to Earp as "Officer Erp" (sic) prior to his official hiring, making his exact role as an officer during 1874 unclear. He likely served in an unofficial paid role.

Earp received several public acclamations while in Wichita. He recognized and arrested a wanted horse thief (having to fire his weapon in warning but not hurting the man) and later a group of wagon thieves. He had a bit of public embarrassment in early 1876 when a loaded single action revolver dropped out of his holster while he was leaning back on a chair and discharged when the hammer hit the floor. The bullet went through his coat and out through the ceiling. It may be presumed from Earp's discussion of the problem in Lake's biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (published after Wyatt's death) that Wyatt never carried a single-action with six rounds again. In Lake's version, Earp did not admit he had first-hand knowledge of this error.

Earp also had his nerves tested in Wichita in a situation which was not reported by the newspapers but which occurs in the Lake biography and is substantiated in the memoirs of his deputy Jimmy Cairns. Wyatt angered drovers by acting to repossess an unpaid-for piano in a brothel and forcing the drovers to collect the money to keep the instrument in place. Later, a group of nearly fifty armed drovers gathered in Delano, preparing to "hoorah" Wichita across the river. ("Hoorah" was the Old West term for out-of-control drunken partying). Police and citizens in Wichita assembled to oppose the cowboys. Earp stood in the center of the line of defenders on the bridge from Delano to Wichita and held off the mob of armed men, speaking for the town. Eventually, the cowboys turned and withdrew, peace having been kept without a shot fired or a man killed.

Years later Cairns wrote of Earp: "Wyatt Earp was a wonderful officer. He was game to the last ditch and apparently afraid of nothing. The cowmen all respected him and seemed to recognize his superiority and authority at such times as he had to use it."

In late 1875, the local paper (Wichita Beacon) carried this item:

"On last Wednesday (December 8), policeman Earp found a stranger lying near the bridge in a drunken stupor. He took him to the 'cooler' and on searching him found in the neighborhood of $500 on his person. He was taken next morning, before his honor, the police judge, paid his fine for his fun like a little man and went on his way rejoicing. He may congratulate himself that his lines, while he was drunk, were cast in such a pleasant place as Wichita as there are but a few other places where that $500 bank roll would have been heard from. The integrity of our police force has never been seriously questioned."

Wyatt's stint as Wichita deputy came to a sudden end on April 2, 1876, when Earp took too active an interest in the city marshal's election. According to news accounts, former marshal Bill Smith accused Wyatt of wanting to use his office to help hire his brothers as lawmen. Wyatt responded by getting into a fistfight with Smith and beating him. Meagher was forced to fire and arrest Earp for disturbing the peace, the end of a tour of duty which the papers called otherwise "unexceptionable." When Meagher won the election, the city council was split evenly on re-hiring Earp. With the cattle trade diminishing in Wichita, however, Earp moved on to the next booming cow-town, Dodge City, Kansas.

Dodge City, Kansas

Bat Masterson (left) and Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, 1876. The scroll on Earp's chest is a cloth pin-on badge

After 1875, Dodge City, Kansas became a major terminal for cattle driven from Texas along the Chisholm Trail. Earp was appointed assistant marshal in Dodge City, under Marshal Larry Deger, in 1876. There is some indication that Earp traveled to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, during the winter of 1876–77. He was not on the police force in Dodge City in the later part of 1877, although he is listed as being on the force in the spring. His presence in Dodge as a private citizen is substantiated by a July notice in the newspaper that he was fined $1.00 for slapping a muscular prostitute named Frankie Bell, who (according to the papers) "...heaped epithets upon the unoffending head of Mr. Earp to such an extent as to provide a slap from the ex-officer..." Bell spent the night in jail and was fined $20.00, while Earp's fine was the legal minimum.

In October 1877, Earp left Dodge City for a short while to gamble throughout Texas. He stopped at Fort Griffin, Texas, where, according to Wyatt's recollection in the Stuart Lake biography, he met a young, card-playing dentist known as Doc Holliday.

Earp returned to Dodge City in 1878 to become the assistant city marshal under Charlie Bassett. Holliday moved to Dodge City in June 1878 and saved Earp's life in August. While Earp was trying to break up a bar-room brawl, a cowboy drew a gun and pointed it at Earp's back. Holliday yelled, "Look out, Wyatt", then drew his gun, scaring the cowboy enough to make him back off.

George Hoy shooting

In the summer of 1878, Texas cowboy George Hoy, after an altercation with Wyatt, returned with friends and fired into the Comique variety hall, outside of which stood police officers Wyatt Earp and Jim Masterson. Inside the theater, a great number of .45 bullets penetrated the plank building easily, sending Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, comedian Eddie Foy and many others instantly to the floor. Masterson, Foy, and the National Police Gazette later all gave accounts of the damage to the building and danger to those inside, but no one was hurt. (Foy noted that a new suit, which remained hanging up, had three bullet holes in it.) The lawmen, both inside and outside the building, returned fire, and Hoy was shot from his horse as he rode away, with a severe wound to the arm. A month later, he died of the wound. Whose bullet struck Hoy is unknown, but Earp claimed the shot. James Masterson, a gunman in his own right and the lesser known brother to Bat Masterson, was standing with Earp during the shootout, and many believed it was actually his shot that downed Hoy.

Alleged confrontation with Clay Allison

Earp claimed that Robert Wright then hired gunman Clay Allison to kill Earp, but Allison backed down when confronted by Earp and Bat Masterson. Allison was also a moderately famous character of the Old West, but current research cannot confirm the tale of Earp and Masterson confronting him. Bat Masterson was out of town when Allison tried to "tree" (scare) Dodge City. Stories from the day, both by accounts given through Earp's biographer and by Earp, state that Wyatt Earp and his friend Bat Masterson confronted Allison and his men in a saloon, and that Allison backed down. However, Masterson was not known to be in town at the time, the event taking place on September 19, 1878. There is no independent evidence that an altercation took place between Allison and Earp. Like Earp's unverified claim (as reported in the Lake biography) that he arrested gunman Ben Thompson, the claim that Earp outfaced Allison did not surface until after Allison's death.

Reports from the day reflect a cattleman named Dick McNulty and the owner of the Long Branch Saloon, Chalk Beeson, intervened on behalf of the town and convinced the cowboys to surrender their guns. In addition, Charlie Siringo, who was a cowboy at the time but who later became a well known Pinkerton Detective, gave a written account of the incident, as he had witnessed it. He also claimed it was actually McNulty and Beeson who ended the incident, and that Earp did not come into contact with Allison.[3]

Beeson also left a written recollection of the incident. Beeson said it was actually Texas cattleman Richard McNulty who faced down Allison, although others give Beeson more credit than he gave himself. According to Beeson, Earp was "working behind the lines". A distant cousin of Earp has speculated it may be that the incident both Siringo and Beeson remembered happened at another time, but no account of another incident has yet come to light.

Celia Anne "Mattie" Blaylock, a former prostitute, had arrived in Dodge City with Earp. She became Earp's companion until 1882. Earp resigned from the Dodge City police force on September 9, 1878 and headed to Las Vegas, New Mexico, with Blaylock.