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Who Was Wyatt Earp?
From law officer to murderer to Hollywood consultant: the strange career of a man who became myth
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
By gambler and gunman , Allie would have meant her brother-inlaw Wyatt, whom she also disliked. Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, in 1848, of Scotch-Irish stock. His father, Nicholas Porter Earp, was a commanding figure, a sometimes frontier judge, whose other occupations included farmer, storekeeper, barrel maker, and still operator. Nick’s temperament was an odd mix of Unionist principles and loyalty to the Southern sympathies of his Virginian ancestors; his boys were all Union men: James, the eldest, Virgil, and their half-brother, Newton, all fought for the North, and Wyatt tried to enlist. Politically the Earp boys remained Lincoln Republicans all their lives, as did most of the great peace officers of the cattle-town era, including Wild Bill Hickok and the Masterson brothers, Bat, Ed, and Jim.
Nick was always restless, and he passed along the trait to his boys. Wyatt, by the time he was twenty, had lived in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and California and had worked as a stage driver and freight hauler, as a railroad spotter, and as a boxing referee. He married in his early twenties in Lamar, Missouri, and also wore his first badge there, with the title of constable. Then, without warning, his young wife, UrilIa, died, probably in childbirth. There followed a period of dissolution during which he left Missouri owing money to several people and became involved in a horse-stealing incident.
Earp never spoke to anyone of his wife’s death, but his character seemed to change dramatically afterward. His demeanor began to take on a dour, forbidding aspect (as Jack Crabb says of Earp in Thomas Berger’s great novel Little Big Man , “. . . when he looked at you as if you was garbage, you might not have agreed with him, but you had sufficient doubt to stay your gun hand a minute. . .”). For a year he supported himself as a buffalo hunter, and in the process he met Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Neal Brown, and other men with whom he would later become colleagues on the celebrated Dodge City police force. After a brief stint as a deputy marshal in Wichita, he found his calling as a peace officer during Dodge City’s glory years.
In two dozen movies and in a longrunning television series, Wyatt Earp was always depicted as the marshal of Dodge City or Tombstone, the archetypal frontier lawman. In a way he was the archetypal frontier lawman, but technically he was never the town marshal or county sheriff of anywhere. In Tombstone he served as a deputy county sheriff, deputy town marshal under his brother Virgil, and deputy U.S. marshal; in Dodge City, where town marshal was largely an administrative position, he was a highly effective street cop. But he undeniably regarded himself as a “city marshal"; he often padded his résumé with the title.
Earp was a new kind of Western cop, one who planned ahead and took no unnecessary chances. (He and Bat Masterson would plant shotguns at key buildings in town in case they were forced to make strategic retreats.) This meant working as part of a team and with other levels of law enforcement, such as the county sheriff’s office.
Dodge City began as a buffalo hunter’s camp and soon developed a ferocious reputation as a man-killing town. Things got only slightly better when the emphasis changed to cattle, particularly when swarms of tired, thirsty cowhands hit the end of the trail. For the most part the cowhands were rough, good-natured Southern youths letting off steam, but as the Greek proverb says, the boys throw stones in jest but the frogs die in earnest; a bullet through a bedroom window could kill as surely as a bullet aimed at a human.
The authorities first responded to the problem by hiring “shootists” or “pistoleers” such as Wild Bill Hickok, but this quickly turned sour after a few killings (on one memorable occasion Wild Bill even shot and killed a fellow officer). Since most of the cattle drivers were Texans, and many of them ex-Confederates, it seemed only a matter of time before the pre-Civil War memories of “Bloody Kansas” would be relived in the streets of Dodge City. Because the cowhands were the town’s economic lifeblood, the trick, from the city fathers’ perspective, was to keep them in line without chasing them away. The answer was policemen such as Wyatt Earp.
By the time tales of Wyatt’s Dodge City exploits saw print, they had been embellished and exaggerated to the level of folklore, but what inspired people in his own time was not his prowess as a gunfighter but his ability to keep order without firing a gun. In fact, the most famous gunfighter of the American West killed only one man in Dodge City, a rowdy Texan named George Hoyt who took some potshots at him in front of a music hall where the comedian Eddie Foy was playing. The real function of the long-barreled Colts carried by Earp and the other Kansas officers wasn’t duels but “buffaloing,” a relatively humane action that consisted of cracking the barrel of the revolver over the head of an offender and dragging him off to jail, where the arresting officer might be rewarded with as much as $2.50.
By 1878 Dodge had been, compared with its 1875 and 1876 standards, pretty much tamed. Still, the decline in street violence didn’t save Bat’s younger brother Ed, then the city marshal, from being shot to death by a drunken cowhand in April of that year. That event helped sour Earp on the dirty, dangerous profession of “lawing.”