Photo credit: Internet Photo
This month Officer.com kicks off a new column about Legendary Lawmen. Each month we'll present a short story about a different "legendary lawman" as accurate as we can make based on research information available. Some of these lawmen you will no doubt recognize by name - such as Wyatt Earp. Others may not be as well known to the general public but should be well known within the law enforcement profession. Either way, their history and accomplishments will be documented, at least in brief, so that our law enforcement professionals today can set their own goals accordingly. Wyatt Earp was chosen as our first subject simply because when ten random people were asked to name a famous lawman, eight said, "Wyatt Earp." For the record, the other two replied, "Eliott Ness" and "J. Edgar Hoover" respectively. Eliott Ness will be the topic of next month's column. For now, let's take a look at what is known about Wyatt Earp; what is true; what is fiction, and what made him a "legendary lawman."
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois on March 19, 1848. He was the third son of Nicholas and Victoria Ann Earp. Shortly after his birth, the Earp family moved to Iowa where they settled on 160 acres that Nicholas Earp received as a land grant for his service during the Mexican War. In fact, Wyatt was named after Nicholas' commanding officer in that war, Wyatt Berry Stapp.
Critical to the legends around Wyatt Earp are his brothers: the two older, James and Virgil, and the two younger, Morgan and Warren. Virgil and Morgan Earp also became well known lawmen in their own right, but little is ever said about the Earp SISTERS. Martha only lived to the age of ten. There was also Virginia and Adelia. Both James and Virgil Earp served with the Union Army during the Civil War and some believe that Wyatt was eager to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers.
November of 1869 found the Earp family living in Lamar, Missouri where Nicholas Earp served as Constable. On November 17, 1869 Nicholas tendered his resignation from the post of Contable and was appointed Justice of the Peace. On the same day, Wyatt Earp - just 21 years old at the time - was appointed as Lamar's Constable; his first law enforcement job and following in his father's footsteps.
Even with such a potentially illustrious start in the law enforcement profession, Wyatt hit a few stumbling blocks. In April of 1871 he was accused of horse theft in Indian Territory. He was actually arrested and captured with a bond set at $500. He escaped and the warrant was eventually dismissed for lack of service. Although few facts are known about the events surrounding these charges, one of Wyatt's accused accomplices was tried and acquitted of the charges. Research shows that during that same time frame a number of lawsuits were filed against Wyatt Earp in Lamar bringing into question the integrity and legality of his actions during the early years he was involved in law enforcement. This doesn't sound like the beginning of a legendary lawman's career, does it? It gets worse.
In 1872 Wyatt and his brother Morgan were arrested for "Keeping and Being Found In A House of Ill-Fame" in Peoria, Illinois. Virgil was working in that town as a saloonkeeper and it's a commonly accepted bit of trivia that at least two of the Earp brothers' wives were "working girls" that eventually settled down with Earp men. Wyatt and Morgan were both fined $20 for their involvement in the prostitution trade in Peoria.
With his luck being what it was in Peoria Wyatt headed out for Kansas getting there sometime before 1875. There he became friends with Bat Masterson. Wyatt's presence in Wichita in 1874 is documented by articles in the local papers at that time. On April 21, 1875 Wyatt Earp was appointed to the Wichita Police force. His salary was a whopping $60 per month and all indications are that he performed his duties well. Can you imagine? An accused horse-thief and convicted pimp becoming a police officer. Who would think?
On May 24, 1876 it was reported that Wyatt Earp had been put on the police force at Dodge City. In 1876 and 1877 Wyatt was listed as a deputy marshal in Dodge City, but by April, 1877 he was no longer listed as serving that police agency. There appears to be some thought that Wyatt went to South Dakota at that time, but in July of 1877 he was re-appointed to the Dodge City police force and newspaper reports reflect that he was both respected and effective at that time.
In January 1878 it was reported that Wyatt was in Ft. Clark, Texas, but then again in May 1878 he was back in Dodge City on the police force. One can only wonder what would have him traveling like that and then going back again. In today's world we all know that no police agency would hire, release, hire, release and then rehire a police officer again in such spurts.
In July 1878 Wyatt Earp was credited with killing his first man: a cowboy named George Hoy who had come into town and was shooting his revolver. Wyatt Earp responded with Officer Jim Masterson and they chased Hoy out of town. As he was on his way out Earp and Masterson fired at him and one of them hit him. He died a bit later from complications related to the gunshot wound. Whether it was Earp's or Masterson's bullet that hit him is unknown, but Earp is generally "credited" with the kill.
During the time Wyatt was with Dodge City, Bat Masterson was the Sheriff in Ford County. They sometimes worked together on posses and in solving crimes or tracking down criminals. Wyatt Earp worked as the Assistant Marshal in Dodge City until September of 1879. Records indicate that Earp was in Las Vegas, Nevada in October that year, but by November he was in Arizona.
July of 1880 found him being appointed as a deputy sheriff in Pima County, Arizona. Not far from the the famous Tombstone which is in Cochise County, Arizona, this is where Wyatt Earp began to truly build a name for himself; a name which included arguing with judges whom he thought weren't doing the right and/or legal thing.
October, 1880 showed the beginnings of the tale that led to the famous OK Corral shoot out. Just after midnight on October 28, 1880, William "Curly Bill" Brocius shot Sheriff Fred White and was promptly arrested by Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp. Curly Bill was part of the "Texas Cowboys" and his friends weren't at all too pleased with Wyatt's arrest of their friend. What does this have to do with the OK Corral? Apparently, the Clantons and McLaurys at least had a casual friendship with the Texas Cowboys and so weren't feeling very charitable toward Wyatt Earp either.
On October 26, 1881 the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral occurred. On the "law" side were Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp accompanied by Doc Holliday. On the "bad guy" side were Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Frank and Tom McLaury. Allegedly unarmed, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne escaped the fight uninjured. Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury were killed.
After his adventures in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp made his way to Colorado, then California and eventually Alaska. After a few years there he headed back to California - specifically to Los Angeles. While he was there he met a young extra and prop man who would eventually become well known as John Wayne. John Wayne once commented that he based much of his portrayal of western lawmen on his conversations with Wyatt Earp. Wyatt Earp died on January 13, 1929, was cremated and buried in Colma, California.
So far, have you read anything that would justify him being such a well known and highly revered lawman? He obviously spent quite a bit of time doing the work and was involved in some incidents that most of us would be happy not to walk into. However, what really propelled Wyatt Earp to Legendary Lawman status was what happened after he died.
From 1934 to 1994 there were twelve movies made about Wyatt Earp. Twenty-one other movies or television series refer to Wyatt Earp and comment on, or use as a basis for some action, his legendary lawman status.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to hurt the Wyatt Earp image. In fact, I've got a lot of respect for a man who can overcome those who acuse him of being less than perfect (God forbid a police officer or deputy actually be HUMAN) and continue to do the job with as much conviction as he actually carried. Having spent 80 years of life in this world, Wyatt Earp - either before or after his death - became an example of how some things should be done and how others shouldn't. His name has become synonymous with the image of a western sheriff or cattle town marshal. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral will live in infamy. Attached to that is the reality that the Texas Cowboys - as western and country as they could be - have come to represent the worst and perhaps first "gang" in our country's documented history.
We tip our hat to Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp - Officer.com's first legendary lawman.