- 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
In 1881 Josephine’s father sent her a letter, urging her to return to San Francisco. She stayed on till, probably, the early spring of 1882, most likely because of Wyatt Earp. We don’t know when or under what circumstances she first encountered him; the Allie of Earp Brothers recalls Wyatt “polishin’ his boots so he could prance into a fancy restaurant with Sadie,” but there’s no record of Wyatt and Josephine’s ever being seen together in Tombstone. The town was huge for a mining camp, but not big enough for Wyatt Earp to be out with a beautiful young woman without anyone’s noticing.
A good bet is that the high-spirited Josephine didn’t sit at home at night, as did most other frontier women, but that she frequented the same bars, gambling halls, music rooms, and theaters as John Behan. So did Wyatt, and whatever brief moments he and Josie had together they made good use of; a bond that would last nearly half a century was established.
But in the summer of 1881, Wyatt couldn’t have had much time for any kind of personal life. Stage robberies were increasing, and in one a driver was murdered in cold blood. A rumor surfaced, started by the Nugget , connecting Holliday with the robbery, although there is no evidence that he was ever involved in anything worse than a saloon brawl.
Wyatt resolved to catch the stage robbers, partly to clear Holliday’s name and also to get himself publicity for a sheriff’s election against Behan. He went to Ike Clanton with a deal: Wells, Fargo would pay thirty-six hundred dollars (or twelve hundred apiece) for the three stage robbers known to ride with the Clantons. According to Earp, Ike accepted the offer. What went wrong from there we’ll never know, but on the night of October 25 and the morning of the twenty-sixth Ike, apparently terrified that word of the deal was going to get to his Cowboy friends, wandered around Tombstone threatening the lives of Doc Holliday and anyone named Earp. At one point Virgil Earp clubbed him, brought him into court, and fined him. Later Tom McLaury showed up, had words with Wyatt, and got himself clubbed.
Most people in the cowboys’ places would have taken this as a good time to leave town, but when Frank McLaury (who Wyatt later said was in on the deal to turn over the stage robbers) and Billy Clanton showed up, the Clantons and McLaurys dawdled around town, making threats against the Earps, carrying guns in defiance of the local ordinance, and, finally, loitering in an empty lot in back of the O.K. Corral, next to Fly’s Photography Studio.
Which is where the most famous gunfight of the Old West took place. The Earps, a block and a half away, waited until it was obvious that they had to do something or “show the white feather”—retreat. Sheriff Behan apparently tried to disarm the Cowboys but was told by Frank McLaury that he wouldn’t give up his gun unless the Earps—the city police, after all—gave up theirs. At about 2:45 on the afternoon of October 26, the Earps and Holliday began their fateful walk to the lot, a scene that Hollywood would replicate some two dozen times.
A minute later the four swung to the left and entered the lot. Nine men and two horses were suddenly gathered in a space perhaps eighteen feet wide.
“You sons of bitches,” somebody in the Earp party said, “you have been looking for a fight and you can have it!” That, at any rate, is what witnesses friendly to the Cowboys later testified. More than likely this was fiction, as none of the participants had heard such a remark. But everyone heard Virgil’s order: “Throw up your hands.”
Nobody did. Instead there were two quick clicks—probably Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton pulling back the hammers on their single-action Colts—and Wyatt Earp, the most famous gunfighter in the Old West, drew his gun in a fight for the first and only time in his life.
Most witnesses say two shots were fired almost simultaneously, and then the fight became general. Almost thirty seconds later, Frank McLaury, a bullet in his stomach, staggered forward onto Fremont Street, aimed his pistol at Doc Holliday, and grunted, “I have you now, you son of a bitch.”
“Blaze away,” called Holliday. “You’re a daisy if you do.”
McLaury pulled his trigger, the bullet grazed Holliday’s hip, and Morgan and Doc returned the fire. Both shots hit McLaury; either one would have killed him.
It was over. Three men lay dead—the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton—and three others had been wounded—Virgil and Morgan Earp and Holliday. Only Ike Clanton, who ran, and Wyatt Earp, who had told Ike to “get to fighting or get away,” were unscathed. Who fired first? In the inquest that followed, Behan, Ike Clanton, and their friends said the Earp faction did; the Earps said the Cowboys did. The testimony of nonpartisan witnesses mostly agreed with Virgil and Wyatt; Judge Wells Spicer paid particular attention to them and ruled for the Earps.