Life In And Outside The Law: The Legend Of Wyatt Earp

A legend of the American West, Wyatt Earp was a man of many talents. Over his lifetime, he worked as a buffalo hunter, miner, saloon keeper, boxing referee, businessman, professional gambler, and lawman, although he is best remembered for the latter two. Earp made his name in history by participating in the notorious shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. See what else makes Earp notable in the history of the West and learn about his many adventurous exploits.

He Was Eager To Fight In The Civil War Despite His Age

Painting of Earp
Kean Collection/Getty Images
Kean Collection/Getty Images

Growing up in Pella, Illinois, Earp demonstrated his bravery at a young age. When the American Civil War consumed the nation, Wyatt Earp was too young to enlist, although that doesn’t mean he didn’t try. Several times, he lied about his age to recruiters of the Union Army and ran away from home to fight, to no avail.

In 1864, he traveled cross-country with a train of wagons his father had organized. They went all the way to San Bernadino, California. It was there Earp found work as a teamster, using his experience from traveling across the country.

He Had His Own Share Of Legal Troubles

GPicture of Wyatt Earp
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Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1869, Earp was appointed constable of Lamar, and he married his first wife the following year. After her sudden death from typhoid fever, his life and finances began to slip away. He would later be charged with embezzling funds for Lamar’s schools as well as sued for causing citizens to lose their property by influencing the town’s economy.

He was also accused of stealing horses in 1871, although he escaped jail by fleeing to Peoria, Illinois. He was arrested over the next few years on several more occasions for running brothels along with a woman claiming to be his new wife, Sally Heckell.

He Worked For The Law In The “Wickedest Little City In The West”

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Bettmann/Getty Images

Earp worked as a buffalo hunter before moving to Wichita, Kansas, in 1874 where he was hired as a policeman just a year later. However, he was forced to leave the city after he severely injured a man during a fistfight.

He then moved on to become an assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, otherwise known as the “Wickedest Little City in the West.” He would work there for a number of years during the cattle-trading season.

He Attempted To Make His Fortune As A Miner In Deadwood

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although he was a lawman in Dodge City, when it was announced that gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, Earp, along with thousands of others, traveled there in hopes of striking it rich.

Earp ended up in the boomtown of Deadwood, where he spent the winter months of 1876 to 1877. It was, however, too late in the rush to stake a claim. Rumors have it that he met Wild Bill Hickock when he was there, although it’s believed that Hickock died before Earp arrived at the mining camp.

He Met Doc Holliday Through Gambling

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American Stock/Getty Images

Earp was a professional gambler, and it’s through this one of his many professions that he met fellow gambler John Henry “Doc” Holliday in Texas, in 1878. Holliday was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1872 and was recommended to move to a drier climate, which he did, finding himself in Dallas in 1873.

Earp and Holiday would grow to become friends on a Texas gambling circuit during the 1870s. Little did either know that they would participate in one of the most renowned gunfights in the history of the West a few years later.

Earp Was A Boxing Referee

World Boxing Championship fight between Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson, Nevada, USA, Illustration from French newspaper Le Petit Parisien, April 11, 1897, Private Collection,
Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While working as a freighter in the late 1860s, Earp learned how to both gamble and referee boxing matches. He put his skills as a boxing referee to good use later in his life when he promoted prizefights in San Diego, California. There, he refereed a notorious fight on December 2, 1896, between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey in San Francisco.

During the fight, it was clear that Fitzsimmons was winning, especially after he knocked out Sharkey. Nevertheless, Earp ruled that the winning punch was illegal and disqualified Fitzsimmons. This resulted in a legal battle between the two fighters, and while Earp stayed out of it, it damaged his reputation permanently.

Doc Holliday Saved His Life

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Bettmann/Getty Images

In the summer of 1878, Doc Holliday arrived in Dodge City alongside his supposed wife, Big Nose Kate. During that time, a group of cowboys drunken cowboys was shooting in the street before coming into the Long Branch Saloon where Holliday was gambling.

As the town marshal, Earp entered the saloon to make his arrests when the group drew their weapons at him. Before Earp had a chance to draw his own, Holliday held his pistol to one of the cowboys’ heads, forcing them to all drop their weapons. Earp would later admit that Holliday saved his life.

Earp Admitted To Shooting A Drunken Cowboy

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John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images
John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images

In July of 1878, an intoxicated man by the name of George Hoyt was in Dodge City when he began shooting his pistol, with some of the bullets entering a nearby theater. Hoyt was with a posse, who all high-tailed it out of town, but Earp and his team were in pursuit.

Wyatt Earp and his group caught up to Hoyt near the Arkansas River, and Earp later admitted that he shot Hoyt to death. However, the Dodge City Times published that Hoyt died weeks later due to gangrene.

He Ended Up In Tombstone, Arizona, Thanks To His Brother

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By 1879, laws were set in place to make Dodge City a more civilized place to live. This didn’t sit well with Earp, who stated, “…Dodge was beginning to lose much of the snap which had given it a charm to men of reckless blood.” Around this time, his brother, Virgil, invited Earpt to join him in Arizona, which he did.

There, Wyatt earned his money as a gambler and a shotgun rider for Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Earp would later give his Wells Fargo job to his brother, Morgan, and become the deputy sheriff of eastern Pima County, including Tombstone.

Issues With “The Cowboys”

Picture of Brocius
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

In 1880, a gang of cattle thieves known as “The Cowboys” was drunk in Tombstone when the leader of the gang, Curly Bill Brocius, shot Fred White, a town deputy marshal. Curly Bill was then pistol-whipped and arrested by Earp, and he stood trial in Tuscon.

At the trial, Brocius claimed that he had a defective weapon and that he didn’t mean to shoot Fred White, with Earp corroborating his testimony. While Earp may have helped Brocius, the events resulted in a feud between the Cowboys the Earp brothers.

His Job As Deputy Sheriff Didn’t Last Long

Picture of Johnny Behan
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Wyatt may have been a lawman, but he was far from a politician. Because of this, he lost his bid for re-election in 1880, along with all of the money that came with it.

Earp lost the election to Johnny Behan, an experienced politician who was also friendly with several members of the Cowboy gang. This was just the beginning of what would end up becoming the powder keg that would ignite and become the O.K. Corral shootout.

Earp Was Involved With Several Women In Tombstone

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findagrave/pinterest
findagrave/pinterest

When Earp arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, he brought with him Mattie Blaylock, who has been cited as his wife at the time. Unfortunately, Mattie suffered from headaches which led her to use opiates such as laudanum, which was highly addictive.

With his wife basically out of the picture, Earp struck up a romantic relationship with Sadie Marcus, also known as Josephine, an employee of Behan’s before Earp arrived in Tombstone. This created a sort of romantic rivalry between the two men, further souring their relationship.

Tall Tales About Earp And A Mob

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one point, two miners got into a physical altercation that resulted in the death of one of the miners. With the goal of avenging their fallen friend, those close to the fallen miner formed a mob with the intent of capturing and hanging the other man.

Early biographies about Earp claim that he alone stopped the mob and had them disperse. History would prove that Earp was one of several law enforcement officers that managed to put down the mob.

Threatened By The Cowboys

Picture of Virgil
James Milson/Pinterest
James Milson/Pinterest

In 1881, there were a number of complications between the Earps and the Cowboys. Things came to a head when the Cowboys began talking around Tombstone and claiming that they were going to kill the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday.

So, when several members of the gang showed up on Fremont Street, all armed with pistols, which was illegal, Earp’s brother Virgil claimed that he was going to take their weapons if they didn’t leave town.

The Battle At The O.K. Corral

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John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images
John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images

On October 26, 1881, Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp, along with Doc Holliday, confronted the Cowboys, who were standing near the O.K. Corral. To this day, it’s unclear who shot first, but one of the most legendary gunfights of the West was underway.

Of the Cowboys, both Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran away from the fight, and the McLaurys and Billy Clanton died. All three Earp brothers and Holliday survived, but Virgil and Morgan were both wounded. The exchange took a total of about 30 seconds and the people involved were only.

The Fight Grew To Become A Legend In The West

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John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images
John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images

The infamous fight involved nine men, a variety of pistols, and thirty rounds fired. It left three dead and four injured, and the event quickly became a legend in the American West. It didn’t take long for the papers to get ahold of the story and word of the skirmish spread across the country.

By that time, Wyatt had already made a name for himself, so now he could add being a fierce gunslinger to his resume. However, according to the coroner’s report, none of the deaths were a result of Earp’s shooting, but two were attributed to Holliday.

Earp Was Arrested After The Fight

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findagrave/Pinterest

Following the fight, all three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday were arrested for homicide. Yet, all three were exonerated, although not everyone was happy with the result. A month later, an attempt on Virgil’s life was made outside of a Tombstone saloon, but he survived.

Earp then led a posse to go after the Clanton family with Ike and another brother surrendering to them, and the charges against them were dropped. However, when gunmen killed Morgan in 1882, Earp and his crew went and took revenge on several cowboys they believed to be involved. This upset the population, causing Earp to flee.

Earp Made A Fortune Off The Gambling And Real Estate Business In San Diego

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Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1887, Earp moved with his common-law wife, Josephine, to San Diego, California. He reached his destination before the railroad got there, so he had prime pickings of the real estate. Buying as much land as he could, he began to establish saloons, gambling halls, and other less respectable establishments.

Unfortunately for Earp, by the end of the 1880s, the San Diego real estate market hit some hard times, leading him to move yet again.

He Was Hired To Work For The Los Angeles Police Department

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Pictorial Parade/Getty Images
Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

At 62, Earp was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department to take care of things that were technically illegal for them to do. Such jobs included going to arrest people in Mexico and bring them back to Los Angeles.

While in Los Angeles, he became associates with some of Hollywood’s future stars, even providing advice on how to portray characters during the development of the Western genre. He even met Charlie Chaplin, who was said to be quite impressed with Earp.

He Was The Last Living Member Of The O.K. Corral Shootout

Portrait of Earp
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Wyatt Earp passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 80, on January 13, 1929. His remains were cremated by his longtime companion, Josephine, and buried in Colma, California. As it turned out, Earp was the last surviving participant in the legendary O.K. Corral gunfight.

A famous individual, his funeral was attended by numerous celebrities of the time. Although he may not have had any children, he left behind quite the legacy. Since his death, he has been depicted in countless novels, Hollywood films and is considered an icon of the Wild West.