The Wild, Wild West

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It has been argued that professional gambling in the Wild West was honest. This is to impose on credulity. Obviously it was no more honest than professional gambling whenever and wherever—which is to say, no more honest than it had to be.

Earp was a professional gambler long before he got to Dodge; his reputation around Hays City, according to Dr. Floyd Streeter, a Kansas historian, was that of a card player who was “up to some dishonest trick every time he played.”

Masterson, who left Dodge in July, 1876, to follow the gold rush to Deadwood, got no further than Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he did so well as a faro banker that he stuck. But he was back in Dodge for the cattle season of 1877. On June 6 he was arrested, jugged, and fined $25 and costs for an act of hooliganism. Then he returned to his faro bank.

However, he badly wanted a star. Every professional gambler needed a star; the badge of office permitted its wearer to carry a gun, which in turn provided just the psychological advantage necessary in a game of chance played for high stakes. (Only peace officers were permitted to carry guns in Dodge City; all others were obliged to check their weapons in racks provided for the purpose.) And so Bat decided to run for sheriff of Ford County.

His electioneering technique was simplicity itself: he bought an interest in the Lone Star Dance Hall. Only thus could a candidate convince the bizarre electorate of Dodge City that he was a sound citizen and a responsible taxpayer. In November, 1877, Bat was elected by a three-vote margin. He took office in January, and what is more, he started off in high gear by catching some would-be train robbers. But as the months wore on, like Earp, and like Hickok before them both, he whiled away his evening hours as a professional gambler along with cronies like Doc Holliday, an alcoholic ex-dentist, and Luke Short, a dandiprat. Earp banked faro at the Long Branch Saloon for a percentage of the house’s gross. He and Bat and the others spent so many nights in Dodge’s brothels that they were nicknamed “the Fighting Pimps.”

 
 
 

There was justification for the slur. Earp lived with a girl called Mattie Blaylock; since no record of any marriage has ever been found, she is presumed to have been his common-law wife. And NyIe Miller, director of the Kansas State Historical Society, and an authority on the dossiers of Earp and Masterson, has established that, according to the census of 1880, Bat Masterson was living with Annie Ladue, nineteen, described as his “concubine,” whilst his younger brother, Jim Masterson, by then Dodge’s marshal in his turn, was living with Minnie Roberts, sixteen, also a concubine. As Mr. Miller has commented acidly, “Maybe that was the way some of the officers in those days kept watch over juvenile delinquents. They just lived with them.”

By that time Bat was no longer sheriff, having been walloped in his bid for re-election by George Hinkle, a bartender. Earp had also turned in his star. Dodge was not appreciably tamer, but the silver strike in the Arizona hills meant that there might be more money lying around loose in Tombstone ; he followed his brother Virgil there in December, 1879. With him came Mattie; with him too were other Earps, his brothers Jim and Morgan and their wives; and presently, tagging along after him, came Doc Holliday with his common-law wife, Big Nose Kate Fisher, a Dodge prostitute.

Tombstone, they soon found, was strangely unlike Dodge City. Four churches were going up. (Groton’s future headmaster, Endicott Peabody, was the young Episcopalian clergyman.) There were carpets in the saloons, forsooth, and French phrases on the menus in restaurants. No doubt about it, the Wild West was running out of steam.

Dogged traditionalists, Wyatt Earp got a job as a shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo and his brother Jim caught on as a faro banker.

Wyatt was not, as the legend has it, a United States marshal at this time. His brother Virgil was appointed a deputy marshal for southern Arizona in November, 1879, and was appointed an assistant town marshal of Tombstone in October, 1880; but Wyatt, after a brief term as civil deputy sheriff of Pima County, went back to gambling at the Oriental Saloon.

A word about Doc Holliday. He was, from every account but Wyatt’s, a mean and vicious man. He was Georgia-born, tubercular, and fond of killing. After killing two Negroes in Georgia, he fled ; after killing a man in Dallas, he fled ; after killing a soldier near Fort Richardson, he fled; after wounding a man in Denver, he fled. It was the pattern of his life. Then he met Earp. “Doc idolized him,” Masterson said later. And Earp, for his part, found much to admire in Holliday.

“With all of Doc’s shortcomings and his undeniably poor disposition,” Earp told Stuart Lake, “I found him a loyal friend and good company. …” to get hold of a gun, killed them both, and fled again, again a free man.