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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
In I Married Wyatt Earp , Josephine runs down to the lot as the echoes from the gunshots are fading. “I almost swooned,” she writes, “when I saw Wyatt’s tall figure very much alive, starting up Fremont Street with Doc and Fred Dodge [a friend of Earp’s and an agent for Wells, Fargo] on the opposite side of the street. He spotted me, and all three came across the street. Like a feather-brained girl my only thought was, ‘My God, I haven’t got a bonnet on. What will they think?’ But you can imagine my real relief at seeing my love alive. I was simply a little hysterical.” She had good reason to be. In the few months she would remain in Tombstone, the violence would only worsen.
Until recently Hollywood made the gunfight at the O.K. Corral the climax of the movie; in real life the street fight in Tombstone, as it was called for many years, was merely the first battle in a war that would claim many more lives. In December, Virgil Earp was shotgunned from ambush and lost the use of his left arm forever. Three months later Morgan was shot in the back while playing pool and died in Wyatt’s arms. Then began the truly controversial period of Wyatt Earp’s career as a lawman. He asked for and received Virgil’s deputy U.S. marshal’s badge, and surrounding himself with Doc Holliday and a handful of other trusted associates, he hunted down the men suspected of killing his brother.
The O.K. Corral fight was merely the first battle in a war that would claim many lives.
At the train depot in Tucson, where Morgan’s body was being shipped to the family in California, Wyatt encountered Behan’s former deputy Frank Stilwell, one of the prime suspects. Stilwell’s bullet- and buckshot-riddled body was discovered the next day. If Josephine had had anxious moments after the gunfight, then Wyatt’s Vendetta Ride, as it came to be known, must have been agony for her. For weeks his posse scoured the hills, looking for Cowboys implicated in Morgan’s murder. All the major papers in the West carried reports on Earp’s whereabouts; more than one reported him dead. In San Francisco, Josephine and her parents could read about every fresh outbreak of violence in the Examiner and other local papers.
On March 24, in the hills outside Tombstone, Earp’s party encountered several Cowboys led by Curly Bill Brocius. Wyatt would swear to his dying day that he singled out Brocius and cut him nearly in two with shots from a Wells, Fargo model shotgun. Cowboys adherents still claim that Brocius was never at the fight; he had reformed and moved away. But no one who wasn’t closely connected with the Cowboys ever claimed to see Brocius again.
Satisfied that Morgan’s death was avenged, and with a murder warrant on him for the killing of Stilwell, Earp rode out of Arizona, leaving friends and enemies to debate forever the question of federal versus local authority, of frontier justice versus the law. Wyatt himself engaged in no such discussions; he felt he had killed first in selfdefense and then in revenge for his brothers, and he excused himself for the former and accepted the blame for the latter. He let it go at that; his supporters and detractors would not.
John Behan pursued his own vendetta. He tried to extradite Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday from Colorado to Arizona only to be rebuffed publicly by the governors of both states. He may have been motivated partly by personal enmity. He made a trip to San Francisco early in 1882, probably to try to win Josephine back.
The territorial Democrats deserted Behan, and he failed to be re-elected sheriff. He later surfaced as warden of the Pima County prison, and he never saw Josephine Marcus again.
A few months after leaving Arizona, Earp was in San Francisco with Josephine. One can imagine the reaction of her parents, having read for a year about the violence in and around Tombstone and now finding their daughter attached to the man at the center of it all. Early in 1883 the couple left the Bay Area to embark on an odyssey of the mining camps and boomtowns of the West. In 1887 Earp had a meeting with Doc Holliday in Denver. Holliday, ravaged by tuberculosis, had only a short time to live. As they parted he threw his arm over Earp’s shoulder. “Good-bye, old friend,” he said. “It will be a long time before we meet again.” Josie said Wyatt cried, the only recorded instance of his doing so.
Wyatt and Josie went to San Diego in its boom years in the mid-1880s, back to San Francisco in the 189Os, then to Alaska during its gold rush, where they kept company with Jack London, Rex Beach (who wrote the most famous novel of the gold-rush era, The Spoilers ), the playwright Wilson Mizner, Jack Dempsey’s future promoter Tex Rickard, and a young mining engineer who hung out at Wyatt’s saloon, Herbert Hoover.
The pair went through several small fortunes and finally settled in Los Angeles, where they lived in genteel poverty. Earp never escaped the memory of the Cochise County war; no matter where he went in the West, every few years a national magazine, Harper’s Weekly, Police Gazette , or Scribner’s , or a newspaper in New York, Los Angeles, Denver, or San Francisco would resurrect the story of the shootout in Tombstone, usually mangling the facts beyond recognition.