The World of Wyatt Earp

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

The Tombstone Years

Wyatt and his older brothers James (Jim) and Virgil moved to silver-mining boomtown Tombstone, in the Arizona Territory, in December 1879. Wyatt brought a wagon that he planned to convert into a stagecoach, but on arrival he found two established stage lines already running. Jim worked as a barkeep. Virgil was appointed deputy U.S. marshal, just prior to arriving in Tombstone. The U.S. marshal for the Arizona Territory, C.P. Dake, was based in Prescott 280 miles (450 km) away, so the deputy U.S. Marshal job in Tombstone represented federal authority in the southeast area of the territory. In Tombstone the Earps staked mining claims. Wyatt also went to work for Wells Fargo, riding shotgun for their stagecoaches when they held strongboxes.

Eventually, in the summer of 1880, younger brothers Morgan and Warren Earp moved to Tombstone as well, and in September, Doc Holliday arrived.

On July 25, 1880, U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp accused Frank McLaury, a "Cowboy", (often capitalized in papers as a local term for a cattle-dealer that often was synonymous with rustler) of taking part in the stealing of six Army mules from Camp Rucker. This was a federal matter because the animals were federal property. The McLaurys were caught changing the "U.S." brand to "D.8." by the Army representative and Earp. However, to avoid a fight, the posse withdrew on the understanding that the mules would be returned. They were not. In response, the Army's representative published an account in the papers, damaging Frank McLaury's reputation. This incident marked the beginning of animosity between the McLaurys and the Earps.

About the same time, Wyatt was appointed deputy sheriff for the southern part of Pima County, which was at that time the county containing Tombstone. Wyatt served in the office only three months.

On October 28, 1880, as Tombstone town-marshal (police chief) Fred White was trying to break up a group of late revelers shooting at the moon on Allen Street in Tombstone, he was shot in the groin as he attempted to confiscate the pistol of "Curly Bill" William Brocius, who was apparently with the group. The pistol was later found to be loaded except for one expended cartridge. Morgan and Wyatt Earp, along with Wells Fargo agent Fred Dodge, came to White's aid. Wyatt hit Brocius over the head with a pistol borrowed from Dodge and disarmed Brocius, arresting him on a deadly weapon assault charge. (Virgil Earp was not present at White's shooting or Brocius' arrest.) Wyatt and a Deputy took Brocius in a wagon the next day to Tucson to stand trial, possibly saving him from being lynched. Brocius waived the preliminary hearing to get out of town faster, probably believing the same. White, age 31, died of his wound two days after his shooting, changing the charge to murder.

On December 27, 1880, Wyatt testified in Tucson court regarding the Brocius-White shooting. Partly because of Earp’s testimony (and also a statement given by White before he died) that the shooting had not been intentional, the judge ruled the shooting accidental and set Brocius free. Brocius, however, remained a friend of the McLaurys and an enemy of the Earps.

Wyatt Earp resigned as deputy sheriff of Pima County on November 9, 1880, just twelve days after the White shooting, because of an election vote-counting dispute. Wyatt favored the Republican challenger Bob Paul, rather than his current boss, Pima Sheriff Charlie Shibell. Democrat Shibell was initially determined to be the winner. He appointed Democrat Johnny Behan as the new undersheriff for the south Pima area to replace Earp. Subsequently, after Shibell's victory was found to be due to ballot-box stuffing by area cowboys, Paul was declared the winner of the Pima County sheriff election. By that time, however, it was too late for Paul to replace Behan with Earp as undersheriff, because the southern portion of Pima County had been split off into Cochise County and was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Pima County sheriff.

Both Earp and Behan were applicants to be appointed to fill the new position of Cochise County sheriff. Wyatt, as former undersheriff and a Republican in the same party as Territorial Governor Fremont, assumed he had a good chance at appointment, but Behan had political influence in Prescott. Earp later testified that he made a deal with Behan that if he (Earp) withdrew his application, Behan would name Earp as undersheriff if he was appointed sheriff. Behan testified there was no such deal, but acknowledged that he had indeed promised Wyatt the undersheriff job. When Behan did get the appointment in February 1881, however, he did not appoint Earp undersheriff, choosing Harry Woods, a prominent Democrat, instead. According to Behan, he broke his promise to appoint Earp because of an incident that occurred shortly before his appointment.

The incident arose after Wyatt heard that one of his branded horses, stolen more than a year earlier, was in the possession of Ike Clanton and Billy Clanton. Earp and Holliday rode to the Clanton ranch near Charleston to recover the horse. On the way, they overtook Behan, riding in a wagon. Behan was also heading for the ranch to serve an election-hearing subpoena on Ike Clanton. Accounts differ as to what happened next. Wyatt later testified that when he arrived at the Clanton ranch, Billy Clanton gave up the horse even before being presented with ownership papers. According to Behan's testimony, however, Earp and Holliday put a scare into the Clantons by telling them that Behan was on his way with an armed posse to arrest them for horse theft. Whatever the effect of the incident on Wyatt's relationship with Behan, it certainly damaged the Clantons' reputations and convinced the Earps that the Clantons were horse thieves.

Losing the undersheriff position left Wyatt Earp without a job in Tombstone; however, Wyatt and his brothers were beginning to make some money on their mining claims in the Tombstone area. In January 1881, Wyatt Earp became part owner, with Lou Rickabaugh and others, in the gambling concession at the Oriental Saloon. Shortly thereafter, in Earp's story, John Tyler was hired by a rival gambling operator to cause trouble at the Oriental to keep patrons away. Tyler became belligerent after losing a bet so Earp took him by the ear and threw him out of the saloon. It was around this time period that Earp is alleged to have saved gambler Mike O'Rourke, aka "Johnny Behind the Deuce", from being lynched after the latter was arrested for murdering a miner. This incident would later add to Earp's legend as a lawman.

Tensions between the Earps and both the Clantons and McLaurys increased through 1881. In March 1881, three cowboys attempted an unsuccessful stagecoach holdup near Benson, during which the driver and passenger were murdered in the gunfire. There were rumors that Doc Holliday, who was a known friend of one of the suspects, had been involved. The formal accusation of Doc's involvement was started by Doc's companion Mary Katherine "Big Nose Kate" Horony after a drunken quarrel, and she later recanted once sober. Wyatt later testified that in order to help clear Doc's name and to help himself win the next sheriff's election, he went to Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury and offered to give them all the reward money for information leading to capture of the robbers. According to Earp, both Frank McLaury and Ike Clanton agreed to provide information for the capture. Subsequently, all three cowboy suspects in the stage robbery were killed in unrelated violent incidents. Clanton then accused Earp of leaking their deal to either his brother Morgan, or to Holliday.

Meanwhile, tensions between the Earps and the McLaurys increased with the holdup of another stage in the Tombstone area (September 8), this one a passenger stage in the Sandy Bob line, bound for nearby Bisbee. The masked robbers shook down the passengers (the stage had no strongbox) and in the process were recognized from their voices and language as Pete Spence (an alias) and Frank Stilwell, a business partner of Spence who had shortly before been fired from his position as a deputy of Sheriff Behan's (for "accounting irregularities" in the matter of county tax collection). Spence and Stilwell were friends of the McLaurys. Wyatt and Virgil Earp rode with the sheriff's posse attempting to track the Bisbee stage robbers, and during the tracking, Wyatt discovered the unusual print of a custom repaired boot heel. Checking a shoe repair shop in Bisbee known to provide widened bootheels led to identification of Stilwell as a recent customer, and a check of a Bisbee corral turned up both Spence and Stilwell. Stilwell was found with a new set of wide custom boot heels matching the prints of the robber. Stilwell and Spence were arrested by sheriff's deputies Breakenridge and Nagel for the stage robbery, and later by Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp on the federal offense of mail robbery.

Released on bail, Spence and Stilwell were re-arrested by Virgil for the Bisbee robbery a month later, October 13, on the new federal charge of interfering with a mail carrier. The newspapers, however, reported that they had been arrested for a different stage robbery that occurred (October 8) near Contention City. Occurring less than two weeks before the O.K. Corral shootout, this final incident may have been misunderstood by the McLaurys. While Wyatt and Virgil were still out of town for the Spence and Stilwell hearing, Frank McLaury confronted Morgan Earp, telling him that the McLaurys would kill the Earps if they tried to arrest Spence, Stilwell, or the McLaurys again.

Wyatt Earp 19 months after the famous gunfight

On Wednesday, October 26, 1881, the tension between the Earps and the Cowboys came to a head. Virgil Earp requested that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday support him and Morgan Earp in preparation for the gunfight. They were both deputized for the occasion. Wyatt spoke of his brothers Virgil and Morgan as the "marshals" while he acted as "deputy." At approximately 3:00PM the Earps proceeded to the OK Corral where the Cowboys had been reported as having gathered, presumably with the intention of engaging the Earps.

Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and other Cowboys had been spoiling for a fight, and the Earps and Holliday were determined to give it.[4] Martha J. King, who was in Bauer's Butcher Shop on Fremont Street when the Earp party passed, testified to hearing one of the Earps [Morgan] on the outside of that party look around and say to Doc Holliday, "Let them have it!" to which Holliday grimly replied, "All right!"[5] When the Earp party reached the alley between the Harwood House and Fly's Boarding House, the Cowboys came out to meet them, so that both parties were drawn up in rough lines facing one another at extremely close range. According to one witness, Doc Holliday drew a concealed shotgun and shoved it into Frank McLaury's belly then took a couple of steps back.

Virgil Earp was not counting on a fight and indicated this fact by carrying Doc Holliday's cane in his right hand. He immediately commanded the Cowboys to "throw up your hands!" But as guns were drawn, he had to yell to his own men, "Hold! I don't mean that!"[6] Almost immediately, however, general firing commenced. Despite his ongoing bragging about town that he would kill the Earps or Doc Holiday at his first opportunity, Ike Clanton panicked once the shooting broke out and fell to the ground toward Wyatt Earp, declaring that he wasn't armed. Wyatt Earp immediately shoved him aside and returned his attention to the other cowboys, at which time Clanton ran into Fly's Photography Studio, which was adjacent to the alley. According to Tombstone old-timers, Doc Holliday fired first, hitting Frank McLaury in the belly, and Morgan Earp fired almost immediately after, hitting Billy Clanton, probably in the right wrist. Billy nonetheless kept his feet and shifted his pistol to his other hand, returning fire left-handed. The two shots were so close together that they were almost indistinguishable.[7] Almost immediately a shot was fired from behind the Earp party in ambush by Ike Clanton (from the studio building), Johnny Behan, or Behan's friend, Will Allen,[8] drawing the entire Earp party's attention to the unidentified assailant behind them. At this opportunity, Tom McLaury sneaked a shot over the horse he was hiding behind, hitting Morgan Earp in the back, but Doc Holliday stepped clear of McLaury's horse, and having holstered the pistol with which he had shot Frank McLaury, emptied both barrels of Virgil Earp's sawed-off shotgun into Tom at close range.[9] Mortally wounded, Tom McLaury then half-ran and half-staggered into Fremont Street, where he died.

The firing continued then, with Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury wounded. Either Billy or Frank hit Virgil Earp in the calf, and Virgil, though hit, fired his next shot at Billy Clanton.[10] Frank and Doc squared off and Frank hit Doc in the left hip, but the shot was deflected by Holliday's leather holster, and he suffered only a bruise.[10] Morgan Earp was back up and still firing, and he, Doc and Wyatt all attested to firing at Frank, with Morgan and Doc each thinking he had fired the killing shot.[10] General firing continued and did not end until Billy Clanton finally went down (probably from the bullet to his left breast). He thus lived up to his reputation as "one of the finest [gunfighters] in the land".[11]

According to Josie Marcus, the Earp brothers said what was necessary at the hearing to counter the lies of Sheriff Johnny Behan and the Cowboys. Wyatt's lover and later-to-be common-law wife minced no words in this regard, just as she confirmed the truth of Martha J. King's testimony about the exchange between Morgan and Doc on the way to the fight.[12] Wyatt's testimony at the Spicer indictment hearing was in writing (as was permitted by law, which allowed statements without cross-examination at pre-trial hearings) and Wyatt, therefore, was not cross-examined. Wyatt testified that he and Billy Clanton began the fight after Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols, and Wyatt shot Frank in the stomach while Billy shot at Wyatt and missed. No witnesses confuted the testimony of Wyatt Earp that Ike Clanton had run up to him and protested that he was unarmed. To this protest Wyatt had responded, "Go to fighting or get away!"[13] This incident proved that there was no intent on the part of the Earps to kill unarmed men. Thus, the unarmed Ike Clanton escaped the shooting unwounded, as did the unarmed Billy Claiborne. Wyatt was not hit in the fight, while Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp were hit. Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury were killed.

Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were openly armed with pistols in gunbelts and holsters, and used them to wound Virgil, Morgan and Doc Holliday. No gun was found on Tom McLaury after the gunfight. The Cowboys claimed he was unarmed, but some of the Earps believed he was armed and credited him with at least one shot over the back of the horse. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Sheriff Johnny Behan may have removed his gun from the scene. Josie Marcus said flatly that someone spirited Tom's pistol away after he dropped it, probably Johnny Behan.[14] Interestingly enough, Behan stated in his own testimony that his own search of Tom McLaury for a weapon prior to the gunfight was not thorough, and that McLaury might have had a pistol hidden in his waistband and covered by his long blouse and vest worn over his trousers, and not tucked in.[15] In his testimony, Wyatt stated that he believed Tom McLaury was armed with a pistol, but his language contains equivocation. The same is true of Virgil Earp's testimony. Both Earp brothers left themselves room for contradiction on this point, but neither one was equivocal about the fact that Tom had been killed by Holliday with a shotgun.

From heroes to defendants

On October 30, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday. Wyatt and Holliday were arrested and brought before Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer, while Morgan and Virgil were still recovering. Bail was set at $10,000 apiece. The hearing to determine if there was enough evidence to go to trial started November 1. The first witnesses were Billy Allen and Behan. Allen testified that Holliday fired the first shot and that the second one also came from the Earp party, while Billy Clanton had his hands in the air. Then Behan testified that he heard Billy Clanton say, "Don't shoot me. I don't want to fight." He also testified that Tom McLaury threw open his coat to show that he was not armed and that the first two shots were fired by the Earp party. Behan also said that he thought the next three shots also came from the Earp party. Behan's views turned public opinion against the Earps. His testimony portrayed a far different gunfight than had been first reported in the local papers.

Because of Allen's and Behan's testimony and the testimony of several other prosecution witnesses, Wyatt and Holliday's lawyers were presented with a writ of habeas corpus from the probate court and appeared before Judge John Henry Lucas. After arguments were given, the judge ordered them to be put in jail. By the time Ike Clanton took the stand on November 9, the prosecution had built an impressive case. Several prosecution witnesses had testified that Tom McLaury was unarmed, that Billy Clanton had his hands in the air and that neither of the McLaurys were troublemakers. They portrayed Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury as being unjustly bullied and beaten by the vengeful Earps on the day of the gunfight. The Earps and Holliday looked certain to be convicted until Ike Clanton inadvertently came to their rescue.

Clanton's testimony repeated the story of abuse that he had suffered at the hands of the Earps and Holliday the night before the gunfight. He reiterated that Holliday and Morgan Earp had fired the first two shots and that the next several shots also came from the Earp party. Then under cross-examination, Clanton told a story of the lead-up to the gunfight which did not make sense. It told of the Benson stage robbery conducted to cover up stolen money that was actually not missing. Ike also claimed that Doc Holliday and Morgan, Wyatt, and Virgil Earp had all separately confessed to him their role in either the pre-robbery of Benson stage money, the Benson stage holdup, or else the cover-up of the robbery by allowing the robbers' escape. By the time Ike finished his testimony, the entire prosecution case had become suspect.

The first witness for the defense was Wyatt Earp. He read a prepared statement detailing the Earps' previous troubles with the Clantons and McLaurys, and explaining why they were going to disarm the cowboys, and claiming that they fired on them in self defense. Because Arizona's territorial laws allowed a defendant in a preliminary hearing to make a statement in his behalf without facing cross-examination, the prosecution was not allowed to question Earp. After the defense had established doubts about the prosecution's case, the judge allowed Holliday and Earp to return to their homes in time for Thanksgiving.

Two witnesses, with ties to neither party, gave critical evidence that swayed Justice Spicer to acquit the Earps and Doc Holliday. One of these was the dressmaker, Addie Bourland, who observed the fight from her residence across Fremont Street from Fly's Boarding House.[16] She testified that from the start both sides were facing each other, that the firing was general, that no one had held his hands up, and that she saw no one fall. This testimony from a disinterested party confuted most of the testimony of Sheriff Johnny Behan, Ike Clanton and the other Cowboy witnesses. The other witness was Judge J.H. Lucas of the Probate Court of Cochise County, Arizona Territory, whose office was in the Mining Exchange Building, about 200 feet (61 m) from the shootout.[17] Lucas' testimony confirmed that of Addie Bourland, in that Billy Clanton was standing throughout the fight and firing. Only when he went down at the end did the general firing cease.[18]

Justice Spicer eventually ruled that the evidence indicated that the Earps and Holliday acted within the law (with Holliday and Wyatt effectively having been deputized temporarily by Virgil), and he invited the Cochise County grand jury to reevaluate his decision. Spicer did not condone all of the Earps' actions and he criticized Virgil Earp's choice of deputies Wyatt and Holliday, but he concluded that no laws were broken. He made special point of the fact that Ike Clanton, known to be unarmed, had been allowed to pass through the center of the fight without being shot.

Even though the Earps and Holliday were free, their reputation was tarnished. Supporters of the cowboys (a very small minority) in Tombstone looked upon the Earps as robbers and murderers. However, on December 16, the grand jury decided not to reverse Spicer's decision.

Cowboy revenge

In December, Clanton went before the Justice of the Peace J. B. Smith in Contention City and again filed charges against the Earps and Holliday for the murder of Billy Clanton and the McLaurys. A large posse escorted the Earps to Contention, fearing that the cowboys would try to ambush the Earps on the unprotected roadway. The charges were dismissed by Judge Lucas because of Smith's judicial ineptness. The prosecution immediately filed a new warrant for murder charges, issued by Justice Smith, but Judge Lucas quickly dismissed it, writing that new evidence would have to be submitted before a second hearing would be called. Because the November hearing before Spicer was not a trial, Clanton had the right to continue pushing for prosecution, but the prosecution would have to come up with new evidence of murder before the case could be considered.

On December 28, while walking between saloons on Allen Street in Tombstone, Virgil was attacked by shotgun fire. His left arm and shoulder took the brunt of the damage. Ike Clanton's hat was found in the back of the building across Allen street, from where the shots were fired. Wyatt wired U.S. Marshal Crawley Dake asking to be appointed deputy U.S. Marshal with authority to select his own deputies. Dake responded by granting the request. In mid-January, Wyatt sold his gambling concessions at the Oriental when Rickabaugh sold the saloon to Milt Joyce, an Earp adversary. On February 2, 1882, Wyatt and Virgil, tired of the criticism leveled against them, submitted their resignations to Dake, who refused to accept them. On the same day, Wyatt sent a message to Ike Clanton that said he wanted to reconcile their differences. Clanton refused. Also on the same day, Clanton was acquitted of the charges against him in the shooting of Virgil Earp, when the defense brought in seven witnesses that testified that Clanton was in Charleston at the time of the shooting.

After attending a theater show on March 18, Morgan Earp was assassinated by gunmen firing from a dark alley, through the door window into the lighted pool hall. Morgan was hit in the lower back while a second shot hit the wall just over Wyatt's head. The fatal shot fired at Morgan passed clean through and bedded in the thigh of a pool hall patron. A doctor was summoned to the hall and Morgan was moved from the floor to a nearby couch. The assassins escaped in the dark, and Morgan died forty minutes later.

Earp vendetta ride

Based on the testimony of Pete Spence's wife, Marietta, at the coroner’s inquest on the killing of Morgan, the coroners jury concluded that Spence, Stilwell, Frederick Bode, and Florentino "Indian Charlie" Cruz were the prime suspects in the assassination of Morgan Earp. Spence turned himself in so that he would be protected in Behan's jail.

On Sunday, March 19, the day after Morgan's murder, Wyatt, his brother James, and a group of friends took Morgan's body to the railhead in Benson. They put Morgan's body on the train with James, to accompany it to the family home in Colton, California. There, Morgan's wife waited to bury him.

The next day, it was Virgil and his wife Allie's turn to be escorted safely out of Tombstone. Wyatt had gotten word that trains leaving from Benson were being watched in Tucson, and getting the still invalid Virgil through Tucson to safety would be more difficult. Wyatt, Warren Earp, Holliday, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, and Sherman McMasters took Virgil and Allie in a wagon to the train in Benson, leaving their own horses in Contention City and boarding the train with Virgil. As the train pulled away from the Tucson station in the dark, gunfire was heard. Frank Stilwell's body was found on the tracks the next morning.

What Stilwell was doing on the tracks near the Earps' train has never been explained. Ike Clanton made his case worse by giving a newspaper interview claiming that he and Stilwell had been in Tucson for Stilwell's legal problems and heard that the Earps were coming in on a train to kill Stilwell. According to Clanton, Stilwell then disappeared from the hotel and was found later, blocks away, on the tracks. Wyatt, many years later, in the Flood biography, said that he and his party had seen Clanton and Stilwell on the tracks with weapons, and he had shot Stilwell.

After killing Stilwell in Tucson and sending their train on its way to California with Virgil, the Earp party was afoot. They hopped a freight train back to Benson and hired a wagon back to Contention, riding back into Tombstone by the middle of the next day (March 21). They were now wanted men, because once Stilwell's killing had been connected to the Earp party on the train, warrants had been issued for five of the Earp party. Ignoring Johnny Behan and now joined by Texas Jack Vermillion, the Earp posse rode out of town the same evening.

On March 22, the Earps rode to the woodcamp of Pete Spence at South Pass in the Dragoon Mountains, looking for Spence. They knew of the Morgan Earp inquest testimony. Spence was in jail, but at the woodcamp, the Earp posse found Florentino "Indian Charlie" Cruz. Earp said to his biographer Lake that he got Cruz to confess to being the lookout, while Stilwell, Hank Swilling, Curly Bill and Johnny Ringo killed Morgan. After the "confession", Wyatt and the others shot and killed Cruz.

Two days later, in Iron Springs, the Earp party, seeking a rendezvous with a messenger for them, stumbled upon a group of cowboys led by "Curley Bill" William Brocious. In Wyatt's account, he had jumped from his horse to fight, when he noticed the rest of his posse retreating, leaving him alone. Curley Bill was surprised in the act of cooking dinner at the edge of a spring, and he and Wyatt traded shotgun blasts. Curley Bill was hit in the chest by Wyatt's shotgun fire and died. Wyatt survived several near misses from Curley Bill's companions before he could remount his horse and was not hit. During the fight, another cowboy named Johnny Barnes received fatal wounds.

The Earp party survived unharmed and spent the next two weeks riding through the rough country near Tombstone. Ultimately, when it became clear to the Earps that Behan's posse would not fight them, nor could they return to town, they decided to ride out of the territory for good. In the middle of April 1882, Wyatt Earp left the Arizona Territory.