- Historic Sites
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
This was the background of the budding legend who arrived in Tombstone in 1879 with three of his brothers, James, Virgil, and Morgan. They probably came with little or no intention of getting back into law enforcement. Wyatt wanted to start a passenger and freight-hauling business, but finding two stage lines already operating, he switched to real estate, mine speculation, and gambling, this last occupation still being generally regarded as one of the frontier’s more respectable professions. In her memoirs Josephine told a story of how Dr. Endicott Peabody, future mentor to Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Groton School, came to the Oriental Saloon seeking funds for the first Protestant church in Tombstone. Earp had been winning at cards and put a stack of bills from his pile in front of the minister. “Here’s my contribution, Mr. Peabody,” he said. Then he told the other players, “Now each of you has to give the same.” Peabody’s St. Paul’s Church stands in Tombstone to this day.
Almost immediately upon their arrival in Tombstone, the Earps found themselves pulled back into the only steady work they were good at. They were drawn partly by their connections with Wells, Fargo & Company, whose shipments were preyed on by local bandits, but also by their temperament: Wyatt had con men for friends his entire life, and he may have been involved in some of their schemes, but on duty he, like all the Earps, was a straight arrow. Wyatt once received public praise from a man who was carried drunk to a Wichita jail and awoke the next morning to find he still had his five-hundred-dollar roll. Virgil was such a stickler for law and order he once arrested Wyatt for disturbing the peace, and on another occasion he fined his own boss, Mayor Clum, for driving his horses too fast on the city streets.
Virgil was such a stickler for law and order he once arrested Wyatt for disturbing the peace.
As the only real law in southeast Arizona, the Earps repeatedly clashed with the local criminal element, a loose confederacy of perhaps fifty to sixty mostly former Texans, known collectively as the Cowboys, a term that denoted a degree of rascality. The Cowboys had no designated leader, but a local rancher and Confederate veteran, Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton, seemed to hold a position of authority. Later, after Clanton was killed in a cattle-stealing raid by Mexican soldiers, Curly Bill Brocius and the brooding and enigmatic John Ringo, described by one Tombstone chronicler as “a Hamlet among outlaws,” were held in especially high esteem by fellow cattle thieves. Clanton’s three sons, Ike, Phinn, and Billy, and the McLaury brothers, Frank and Tom, had ranches. Their chief occupation wasn’t ranching, though, but stealing from the cattle-rich haciendas just across the border in Sonora and selling cheaply to small ranchers around Tombstone. In the eyes of Arizona’s Anglo ranchers, most of whom were contemptuous of Mexicans, the Cowboys held the same high status as the James and Younger brothers held among hill folks in Missouri. Prosecution of them was virtually impossible because the U.S. government refused the Army permission to police the border with Mexico, and the county law, represented by Josephine’s new love John Behan, was in league with Brocius, the Clantons, and their friends (the Cowboys were useful as strong-arm men in town lot disputes and in rigging elections for the Democratic party, much the way New York street gangs served Tammany Hall). Behan looked the other way at Cowboy atrocities; some suspected stage robbers (such as his own deputy, Frank Stilwell) weren’t convicted, and others escaped from jail with impunity.
When Josephine Marcus got off the stagecoach in Tombstone, she had no idea of the maelstrom of violence that was approaching. The town itself was quiet enough, largely because Virgil Earp and his brothers had imposed a strict and unpopular gun-control law within its limits. But on the border the Cowboys were massacring Mexican nationals and being cut down in reprisals (one of which resulted in the death of Old Man Clanton). As the Mexican government beefed up its Sonoran garrisons, the Cowboys turned to prey on the few big ranchers on the American side and, finally, on Wells, Fargo silver shipments.
By 1881 the forces on each side were lined up for a major confrontation. Behan and the Cowboys had the backing of the Democratic, anti-Earp Daily Nugget ; the Earps had behind them the Tombstone Epitaph and another, less respectable ally, a Philadelphia dental-college graduate turned gambler named John Henry (“Doc”) Holliday. The blacksheep son of a former Confederate officer, Holliday had a lurid, if somewhat undeserved, reputation as a killer. In fact, he had behaved himself in Dodge City and, despite several embarrassing scrapes, had killed no one in Tombstone. Next to his irascible temper, Holliday’s most distinguishing characteristic was his fierce and unfathomable loyalty to Wyatt Earp.
In the fall of 1881, Earp’s homelife disintegrated. He had come to Tombstone with a woman named Celia Ann Blaylock, of whom we know almost nothing. Eighty years later the publication of Allie Earp’s alleged memoirs, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone , would create the image of Josephine Marcus as a flirtatious home wrecker, but in all likelihood Wyatt, by the time he met her, had very little home left to wreck. Josephine, for her part, had become disillusioned with Behan, and after catching him in bed with the wife of a friend of theirs, she moved out.