Wyatt Earp lived nearly 81 years, spent about six of those years as a lawman, and 30 seconds of those six in a gunfight near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. That half minute defined his long life and placed him in a rare list that includes Kit Carson, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, George Armstrong Custer, Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty, Jesse James, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo: the most universally recognizable names in Old West history. Until October 1881, when he was 33 years old, Earp had led a mildly interesting, unremarkable life, had attained no notoriety to speak of, and seemed destined to more success as a sporting man or Wells Fargo agent than as a frontier peacemaker.
Born in Monmouth, Ill., in 1848, he was the son of a father (Nicholas) who was a lawyer and farmer. Nicolas named Wyatt after Capt. Wyatt Berry Stapp of the Illinois Mounted Volunteers, father Earp’s commanding officer in the Mexican War. (Of Wyatt’s brothers, James was born in 1841, Virgil in 1843, Morgan in 1851, and Warren in 1855.)
The family moved often before and during Wyatt’s childhood—to Kentucky, Iowa, Illinois, and Colton, Calif., near San Bernardino, where teenaged Wyatt worked as a teamster and railroad roughneck. In Lamar, Mo., in 1869 he found his first law employment—as a constable—and married for the first time. The badge and marriage, however, were both short-lived. His wife, Urilla Sutherland, died in 1870, perhaps of tuberculosis, and soon thereafter he drifted into Indian Territory, where he made a living for a time as a buffalo hunter and stagecoach driver. (He also seems to have experimented with horse thievery—at least being arrested and charged with it in May 1871. However, he was never tried and appears to have skipped bail.)
By the time he served as city policeman in Wichita, Kan., in 1875, Earp was dapper, handsome, and impressive: 6 feet 2 inches in height with reddish- brown hair and sweeping moustache, soft-spoken, unflappable—the last characteristics remembered by all who knew him. John Clum, editor of the Tombstone Epitaph and a friend, said, “His habitual expression was serious with a gracious smile.” Bat Masterson, who knew Earp in Wichita and later in Dodge City, emphasized one other trait, writing that his friend “was one of the few men I personally knew in the West in the early days whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of fear.”
In Dodge City in 1876, Earp dealt faro at the Long Branch Saloon and in that capacity and as a $100-a-month assistant marshal of the town, came to know Masterson, Luke Short of Mississippi, a gambler, gunman, and somewhat of a dandy (as was Masterson), and Celia “Mattie” Blaylock, a sometime prostitute who traveled with him to New Mexico and later to Tombstone. In this period, either in Dodge, in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, or perhaps Fort Griffin, Texas, Wyatt also collected a special friend, a Georgia-born dentist, gambler, and consumptive named John Henry “Doc” Holliday.
At the end of 1879, after a brief stint as Wells Fargo agent in New Mexico, Wyatt and Mattie arrived in Tombstone, a silver mining boomtown isolated in southeastern Arizona. There he joined his brothers Virgil and James, and it was some months later that brothers Morgan and Warren, as well as Doc Holliday, arrived in town. Already a territorial deputy marshal, Virgil became Tombstone’s city marshal while Wyatt took over the faro layout at the town’s opulent Oriental Saloon, worked as a Wells Fargo stagecoach guard, and occasionally did duty as Virgil’s deputy.
And, not long after he and Mattie settled in Tombstone, Wyatt met and fell in love with Sarah Josephine “Josie” Marcus, lately from San Francisco, a pretty actress and dancer with a hazy past. She had ventured to Tombstone with a traveling stage troupe, was said to have worked as an on-again, off-again prostitute, and had been mistress to Cochise County Sheriff John H. “Johnny” Behan, a 37-year-old Missourian, former delegate to the Arizona legislature, and an experienced barkeep. (Meantime, poor Mattie drifted, sunk in her addictions to alcohol and opium, and with only a common-law marital status with Wyatt, eventually landed in another silver boomtown, Pinal City, east of Phoenix. There, in July 1888, she committed suicide with an overdose of laudanum.)
Leon C. Metz, in his Encyclopedia of Lawmen, Outlaws, and Gunfighters (2003), ranks the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” third in length and bloodiness among Old West gun battles. A fight between drunken Texas cowboys and drunken townspeople in Newton, Kan., in July 1871, resulted in five men dead, three wounded; and in El Paso, on April 14, 1881, just six months before the shootout in Tombstone, four men fell dead in five-seconds of gunfire, three of them (including an innocent bystander) killed by City Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire.
Even so the O.K. Corral melee—three dead and three wounded in 30 seconds— surpasses the other gunfights in both the caliber of hatred between the factions and the Western Valhalla status of two of its participants, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
Behind the shootout lay the boiling animosity between the Earps—with Virgil as Tombstone’s city marshal and Wyatt, Morgan, and Holliday as irregular deputies—and a gang of “Cowboys,” a name derisively attached to them by the local newspaper, the Tombstone Epitaph. Among these men, suspected of rustling, stagecoach robbery, and murder, were Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton, his brother Billy, and another set of brothers, Tom and Frank McLaury. (A minor actor in the drama was Sheriff Behan, the one-time lover of Josie Marcus. Before the fight he tried to convince the Clantons to surrender their arms and was told they would as soon as the Earps and Holliday surrendered theirs.)
Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury rode into Tombstone on October 25, 1881, and the next day were arrested by Virgil Earp for carrying firearms within the city limits. After being disarmed and released, the two were joined by their brothers, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury, and Virgil was determined that they would surrender their arms as well. By now the town’s saloons were buzzing with what the barflies felt sure was a showdown between the Earps and the “Cow-boys,” both factions known to have threatened to kill the other.
Virgil recruited Wyatt and Morgan as deputies in what he knew would be a dangerous arrest, and on that sunny Wednesday afternoon, as the Earps walked down Fremont Street, Doc Holliday jumped off the boardwalk, shotgun in hand, to join them. The four headed for the vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral where the Clantons, McLaurys, and a rustler and would-be gunslinger named Billy Claiborne, had gathered.
There are countless conflicting accounts of the “battle,” including several accusing the Earps of premeditated ambush and murder, but it appears that Wyatt and Billy Clanton “opened the ball” with wild gunshots after which Holliday shot Billy in the chest with his sidearm then cut Tom McLaury down with the shotgun.
Meantime, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne lit out for the hills and escaped while Frank McLaury got off a shot toward Holliday that creased the Georgian’s hip. Wyatt’s return shot (some say it was Holliday’s) was true: it struck McLaury in the head, killing him instantly. Virgil took a bullet in the leg, Morgan was shot in the shoulder; Wyatt was untouched.
About 30 shots were fired in about 30 seconds, leaving three men dead, three wounded.
Until the end of the century Wyatt and Josie wandered the West, Denver to Coeur d’Alene, San Diego to Nome, Alaska, with Wyatt gambling and speculating in mining and real estate. He kept a low profile, but in San Francisco in December 1896, he refereed a prizefight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey that got his name and his Old West history in the newspapers. He not only wore his sidearm in the ring but also disqualified Fitzsimmons for a low blow.
From 1906 until his death, Wyatt and Josie made their home in Los Angeles where his friends included the movie actors William S. Hart and Thomas Hezekiah “Tom” Mix and the celebrated trial lawyer Earl Rogers. Rogers’ daughter, Adela Rogers St. John, visited the Earps frequently at their Los Angeles home and wrote of him in magazines and in her 1969 book The Honeycomb. She remembered him as tall and straight as a pine tree at age 80. He had snow-white hair and moustache but did not seem old. What he did seem, she said, was “awesome.” Wyatt Earp died at age 80 on January 13, 1929, his ashes buried in the Marcus family plot in Colma, south of San Francisco. Tom Mix and William S. Hart were among his pallbearers. When Josie died in 1944 at the age of 75, she was buried beside him.