Wyatt Earp’s very name conjures up images of the Wild West, with its narrow-eyed gunslingers and shameless saloons. And Earp was indeed involved in various events that shaped both the mythology and the reality of the Wild West – from the deadly shoot-out at the O.K. Corral to the desperate days of the Klondike gold rush. Here, we delve into 40 fascinating facts about the man himself.
40. Lots of little Earps
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp came into the world in Monmouth, Illinois, on March 19, 1848. He was in fact the fourth arrival in a family who went on to have eight children in total. His father was Nicholas Porter Earp, and his mother was Virginia Ann Cooksey. Earp also had an older half-brother, who was the product of his father’s first marriage.
39. Named after a military man
The infant Wyatt was named after a man whom his father must have admired: Captain Wyatt Berry Stapp. Captain Stapp was in command of the 2nd Company Illinois Mounted Volunteers – a unit that fought in the Mexican-American War. And during that time, Earp’s father served as a sergeant in Stapp’s regiment.
38. Running away
Three of Wyatt’s brothers joined the Union Army in November 1861 during the Civil War. Earp senior, on the other hand, busied himself with recruiting and training duties. And so Wyatt and two other brothers were left to look after the family farm. But the 13-year-old Wyatt seemed to like the idea of being a military man more than he did farming. In fact, Earp ran away multiple times in the hope of signing up. His dad, however, caught up with him every time and marched him back to the farm.
37. In the ring
Wyatt Earp was a keen aficionado of boxing. So much so, in fact, that he became a referee when he was working as a teamster on the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming Territory. Records show he officiated an 1869 fight between Professor Mike Donovan and John Shanssey – a bout that attracted 3,000 fans.
36. First job as a lawman
Earp’s family had a habit of moving around the country, and in 1868 they headed east to Lamar, Missouri. There, Earp’s father took a position as a constable. He resigned from the job in 1869 to become a justice of the peace. Earp, meanwhile, joined his family in Lamar and took over the reins as town constable – his first sortie into law enforcement.
35. A tragic marriage
Wyatt Earp met his first wife, Urilla Sutherland, towards the end of 1869. Her parents were the proprietors of Lamar’s Exchange Hotel. In January 1870 the couple tied the knot, with Earp’s justice of the peace father conducting the ceremony. Tragically, when Urilla was pregnant with their first child, she was stricken with typhoid and died.
34. Wrong end of a lawsuit
After Urilla’s untimely passing, Earp seems to have gone through a rough patch. The grieving widower now found himself on the wrong end of two lawsuits – one brought by Barton County and another by James Cromwell in 1871. Earp stood accused by both parties of misappropriating funds.
33. Horse theft
Earp’s legal troubles continued with an accusation of horse theft. And that wasn’t a good look for somebody who held the position of Lamar’s constable. Along with two others, Earp was charged for the theft of two horses from one William Keys in March 1871. The animals were said to be worth $100 apiece.
32. Jail break
Earp was duly arrested for the horse theft by Deputy United States Marshal J. G. Owens. But while one of Earp’s fellow-defendants was set free, the lawman and the other alleged miscreant were set to face trial. However, Earp elected to forgo the pleasure of his court appearance, breaking out of jail and hightailing it to Peoria, Illinois.
31. Fired in disgrace
In 1874 Earp, so often on the move, turned up in Wichita, Kansas, with his lady of the time, Sally Heckell. And the following year he was appointed as a deputy marshal. But in 1876 an ex-marshal accused Earp of abusing his post to give jobs to his brothers. The two ended up engaged in fisticuffs, with Earp emerging as the winner. Nonetheless, he was fined $30 and lost his position.
30. Making money
It seems that Earp was always on the lookout for ways to make some cash. And things were no different when he arrived in the Dakota Territory city of Deadwood with his brother Morgan in September 1876. The pair had been attracted by a gold rush, but all of the land was already accounted for. So instead, Earp bought a load of timber and sold it for firewood, turning a handsome profit of around $5,000.
29. Doc Holliday
Earp moved on again, and he was in Dodge City when Doc Holliday rode into town with his girl, Big Nose Kate. Not long after, a bunch of rambunctious cowboys, led by one Ed Morrison, also arrived. The hooligans fired off their guns on the main street and invaded a saloon. Hearing the racket, Earp went into the bar to be faced down by a bevy of drawn shooters. Sitting at the back, though, was Holliday, who grabbed Morrison and put his pistol to the man’s head. Morrison’s accomplices subsequently stood down, and Earp was off the hook. As a result, Earp and Holliday later became close buddies.
28. Another “wife”
Earp made another new friend in Dodge, Mattie Blaylock. In fact, she was rather more than a friend – since she became Earp’s common-law wife. Blaylock was said to have been a prostitute, and Earp’s relationship with her ended in 1881.
27. Deputy Sheriff Earp cashes in
In July 1880 County Sheriff Charles A. Shibell saw fit to make Earp deputy sheriff of a section of Pima County. Significantly, this district included the town of Tombstone – the location of the subsequent O.K. Corral shootout. Earp seems to have performed the duties of his new role with distinction too. And not only was this a respected position, but it was also an excellent money-making opportunity. Indeed, Earp was liable to make as much as $40,000 a year – not far off $1 million in today’s money.
26. The lawman halts a lynching
During Earp’s time in Pima County, a man named Michael O’Rourke killed Henry Schneider, the Tombstone Mining and Milling Company’s chief engineer. Schneider was by all accounts a popular man, and a group of people decided that O’Rourke should pay the ultimate price for the slaying. A lynch mob gathered as a result, but Earp played a central part in dissuading them from killing O’Rourke. After his intervention, Earp’s reputation as an effective lawman soared.
25. O.K. Corral or Fremont Street?
The famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone actually happened around the corner on Fremont Street. The showdown saw Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and Doc Holliday face off against various members of the Cochise County Cowboys gang. In the ensuing shootout, three of the Cochise gunmen were killed, while Morgan, Virgil and Holliday were all slightly wounded. Earp, however, remained untouched.
24. Murder charge
The O.K. Corral shootout was not without its consequences for the three Earp brothers and Holliday. Indeed, Ike Clanton, brother of one of the dead men, brought murder charges against all four. Clanton’s supporters alleged that the three dead men had been unarmed and surrendering. Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, insisted that he and his men had acted in self-defense. And a judge later ruled that there was insufficient evidence for an indictment. The Earps and Holliday were in the clear, then, but they’d made plenty of enemies as a result of the fight.
23. A dozen (or more) men dead
Wyatt Earp was never shy about his derring-do days as a lawman. And in 1888 he gave an interview to a historian called Hubert Howe Bancroft. According to the West Adams Heritage Association website, Earp told Bancroft that he had gunned down “over a dozen stage robbers, murderers and cattle thieves” during the years that he’d worked as a lawman.
22. The gold brick scam
Earp also had an eye for an easy dollar, but he surely overstepped the mark with one particular boondoggle. In 1882 Earp was in Gunnison, Colorado, with his brother Warren and a couple of other buddies. And here, the gang apparently tried to sell some gold bullion to a German called Ritchie. The catch, however, was that these seemingly valuable items were actually just stones painted gold.
21. Ending a “war” without firing a shot
Back in Kansas, the “Dodge City War” broke out when the city mayor tried to shut down Long Branch Saloon. The establishment was owned by Earp’s buddy Luke Short, who appealed to the lawman for help. As a result, Earp took a small posse along to see what could be done about the situation. The gang included Texas Jack Vermillion and Shotgun John Collins. And although the mayor tried to negotiate, Earp wouldn’t hear of it. The upshot was that Short was allowed to keep his bar open; the war had been settled without bloodshed.
20. Never wounded
For all his gunslinging, almost incredibly Earp never caught a bullet. However, he did have one extremely lucky escape. In a shootout with members of the Cochise County Cowboys – his previous adversaries at the O.K. Corral – he killed two and wounded a third. And after the dust had settled, Earp realized that a bullet had passed through his coat. Meanwhile, another slug had hit his saddle horn, and a third had left a hole in his boot heel. Yet Earp himself was unscathed.
19. An infamous referee
Nowadays, we might think of Earp’s fame as being all about the O.K. Corral and other exploits as a lawman. But during his own lifetime, he was probably best known for his controversial refereeing of a major boxing match. It was a world heavyweight championship fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey. Allegations were made that Earp had given the fight to Sharkey in a fixed outcome. The story became a press sensation and brought Earp to national attention.
18. Shopkeeper Earp
Mention Wyatt Earp to just about anyone today, and they’ll think of a gunslinging lawman from the days of the Wild West. Not many would say, “Yes, the famous shopkeeper.” But Earp did spend some time engaged in that decidedly unexciting pursuit. His brief flirtation with retail came in 1898 when he traveled to Alaska on the trail of the Klondike gold rush. And while in “The Last Frontier,” Earp managed a store selling booze and smokes for the Alaska Commercial Company.
17. The Dexter Saloon in Alaska
Still in Alaska, Earp gave up shopkeeping and moved to Nome. There, he partnered with one Charles E. Hoxie and built the first two-floor building in the town, the Dexter Saloon. In the context of Nome and Alaska during the Klondike gold rush, this establishment was actually the most luxurious in the region. And for the convenience of its patrons, the successful saloon’s upper floor housed a lavishly furnished brothel.
16. Early Earps in America
By the time Wyatt was born in 1848, there had been Earps in America for the best part of two centuries. Thomas Earp Junior, an indentured Irish servant, had first set foot in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County on July 6, 1674. So the Earps had a long history in the country before Wyatt came along and achieved notoriety.
15. Earp’s father
Wyatt wasn’t the only one of the Earps who could lay claim to having had a colorful life, either. His own father, Nicholas, turned his hand to being everything from a lawman to a bootlegger. He also found time to be a farmer, a teacher and a wagon-master. And on top of all that, in 1864 he led a wagon train to California.
14. An honest streak
Earp was supposedly involved in a variety of shady propositions, but he also had a healthy dose of honesty. When he was a deputy marshal in Wichita in 1875, he reportedly arrested a drunk with $500 in his pocket. Earp could easily have taken the cash, but he didn’t. As the Wichita Beacon put it, “[There] are but a few other places where that $500 bankroll would have been heard from.”
Wyatt Earp was by no means above taking the law into his own hands. When his brother Morgan was killed after the O.K. Corral episode, Earp had no faith in lawmen to track down the perpetrators. And so, leading a posse, he set off in pursuit of the Cochise County Cowboys whom he believed were responsible. Eventually, moreover, the gang killed four of the Cowboys, with Earp directly responsible for at least two of the deaths.
12. The tragedy of Mattie Blaylock
Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock was Earp’s common-law wife in Tombstone from 1878 to 1881. Why the couple parted in 1881 remains unclear. But in any case, Blaylock’s life took a turn for the worse, and she became addicted to opium. Indeed, her 1888 death certificate, issued in Pinal, Arizona, bluntly states, “Suicide by opium poisoning.”
11. Earp’s time as a teamster
Earp got his first taste of life as a teamster working with his older brother Virgil. A stagecoach service in Imperial Valley, California, employed Virgil, and he took on his 16-year-old sibling as an assistant. Then later, Earp spent a couple of years as a fully-fledged teamster, running a line from Wilmington, California, to Salt Lake City in Utah.
10. A penchant for brothels
Over the years, Earp seems to have spent a lot of his time in brothels and consorting with prostitutes. In fact, two of his common-law wives, Sally Heckell and Mattie Blaylock, were supposedly prostitutes. Earp was also arrested in a brothel in Peoria in 1872 and again later that year in a floating brothel – the Beardstown Gunboat. And on top of all that, Earp ran a brothel in Nome, Alaska, during the Klondike gold rush.
9. A man of property
In the later years of his life, Earp turned his attention to making money. He moved to San Diego in 1887 with another common-law wife, Josephine Marcus, who was to be his partner until he died. And over the next nine years he bought four saloons, at a time when the local real estate market was thriving. Indeed, it’s apparent that Earp became a substantial man of property.
8. A late return to the law
Just when everyone thought that Earp’s days as a lawman were long behind him, he decided to rejoin the forces of law and order at the age of 62. Yes, in 1910 he took a job with the Los Angeles Police Department on $10 a day. His duties were seemingly rather unorthodox and included traveling to Mexico to capture and return criminals to L.A.
7. The last gunfight
It was Earp’s revived career as a lawman with the LAPD that led to a final bout of gunfighting. Earp was ordered to form a posse to police a complicated mining claim dispute. At one point during this operation, Earp fired his Winchester rifle into the ground in front of a government official. And for this, Earp and his posse were all arrested. What’s more, his mission to end the dispute was unsuccessful.
6. Hollywood consultant
When Earp was living in Los Angeles, the silent movie industry was just beginning to boom. And as Earp had firsthand knowledge of the Wild West, various moviemakers rushed to consult him. Subsequently, two of the best-known Hollywood cowboys of the day, Tom Mix and William Hart, became Earp’s friends. The former lawman was also a regular visitor to director John Ford’s movie sets.
5. John Wayne
Another famous silver screen cowboy that Earp consorted with was none other than John Wayne – although when Earp met him, the movie star was going by his birth name of Marion Morrison. Wayne was actually working for director John Ford as an extra when he met Earp. And later, Wayne was to say that he even imitated Earp’s way of walking and talking in his portrayal of Wild West cowboys.
4. Pestered by the press
One thing that really got Earp’s dander up was the way he was treated by the press of his day. In a letter to a friend in 1925 he wrote, “Notoriety [has] been the bane of my life. I detest it, and I never have put forth any effort to check the tales that have been published in which my brothers and I are supposed to have been the principal participants. Not one of them is correct.”
3. A peaceful death
Despite all of the violence that he’d participated in throughout his life, Earp actually died peacefully in his bed in Los Angeles. Death came in 1929 at the age of 80. Of the men who’d shot it out in 1881 at the O.K. Corral, Earp was the last to die. He’d suffered from liver disease for some time, and chronic cystitis finished him off. Earp died childless.
2. A secret burial
It was left to his longtime common-law wife, Josephine Marcus, to attend to Earp’s funeral arrangements. After his cremation, Marcus buried Earp’s remains in the Jewish section of the Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma, California. She did this secretly, and after her 1944 death she was buried next to him.
1. Stolen gravestones
After Josephine’s death, the modest tombstone that she’d ordered was stolen. Then in 1957 ghoulish grave-robbers tried to dig up Earp’s remains. Unable to find them, though, the thieves stole the granite gravestone that had replaced the first marker. The missing memorial subsequently turned up in a flea market and was later repositioned – only to be stolen again. And eventually, Josephine’s descendants put in place the gravestone that stands today.