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?