Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (March 19, 1848 – January 13, 1929) is best known for his part in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral – the 30-second gunfight that defined the rest of his life.

He was a city policeman (“assistant city marshal”) in Wichita, Kansas and Dodge City, Kansas. He served as a deputy sheriff and deputy U.S. marshal in Tombstone, Arizona. He was also at various times a farmer, teamster, buffalo hunter, bouncer, saloon-keeper, gambler, miner, and on one occasion a boxing referee.

Earp’s modern-day reputation is that of the Old West’s “toughest and deadliest gunman of his day.”

In the 1990s, Hollywood gave us two contrasting views of the legendary lawman.

The first was 1993’s “Tombstone”, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp (video courtesy of YouTube):

The second was the epic “Wyatt Earp” (1994), with Kevin Costner in the title role (video courtesy of YouTube, also):

The historical truth may lie somewhere between the two visions.

Let’s see.

His Early Life

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, on March 19, 1848, to widower Nicholas Porter Earp and Virginia Ann Cooksey. From his father’s first marriage, Wyatt had an elder half-brother, Newton, and a half-sister Mariah Ann, who died at the age of ten months. Wyatt was named after his father’s commanding officer in the Mexican-American War, Captain Wyatt Berry Stapp, of the 2nd Company Illinois Mounted Volunteers.

In March 1849, the Earps left Monmouth for California but settled in Pella, Iowa.

On March 4, 1856, Earp’s father Nicholas sold his farm and returned to Turtle, Illinois, where he was elected the municipal constable, serving at this post for about three years. He was caught and convicted in 1859 for bootlegging. Nicholas was unable to pay the fines, and the family left again for Pella, Iowa.

During the family’s second stay in Pella, the American Civil War began.

Newton, James, and Virgil joined the Union Army on November 11, 1861. Wyatt, along with his two younger brothers, Morgan and Warren, were left in charge of tending their 80-acre (32 ha) corn crop.

Only 13 years old, Wyatt was too young to enlist, but he tried on several occasions to run away and join the army. Each time his father found him and brought him home.

James was severely wounded in Fredericktown, Missouri, and returned home in the summer of 1863. Newton and Virgil fought several battles in the east and later returned.

On May 12, 1864, the Earp family joined a wagon train heading to California.


In the spring of 1866, Wyatt became a teamster, transporting cargo for Chris Taylor. His assigned trail for 1866–1868 was from Wilmington, through San Bernardino then Las Vegas, Nevada, to Salt Lake City, Utah Territory.

In the spring of 1868, Earp was hired by Charles Chrisman to transport supplies for the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. He learned gambling and boxing while working on the railhead in the Wyoming Territory, and refereed a fight between John Shanssey and Mike Donovan.


In the spring of 1868, the Earps moved east again to Lamar, Missouri, where Wyatt’s father Nicholas became the local constable. When Nicholas resigned on November 17, 1869 to become the justice of the peace, Wyatt was appointed constable in his place.

The adult Wyatt was an imposing, handsome man: blonde, 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, weighed about 165 to 170 pounds (75 to 77 kg). He was broad-shouldered, long-armed, and muscular. He had been a boxer and was reputed to be an expert with a pistol. According to author Leo Silva, Earp showed no fear of any man.

His First Marriage

In late 1869, Wyatt met Urilla Sutherland (c.1849–1870), the daughter of hotel-keeper William and Permelia Sutherland, formerly of New York City. They married in Lamar on January 10, 1870. Urilla was pregnant and about to deliver their first child when she died from typhoid fever later that year.

After Urilla’s death, Wyatt experienced a series of legal problems.

On March 14, 1871, Barton County, Missouri filed a lawsuit against Earp and his sureties. Earp was in charge of collecting license fees for Lamar, which funded local schools, and he was accused of failing to turn in the fees.

On March 28, 1871 Earp, Edward Kennedy, and John Shown were charged with stealing two horses from William Keys while in the Indian Country. On April 6, Deputy United States Marshal J. G. Owens arrested Earp for the horse theft.

On June 5 Edward Kennedy was acquitted, while the case against Earp and John Shown remained.

Earp didn’t wait for the trial. He climbed out through the roof of his jail and headed for Peoria, Illinois.

Peoria, Illinois

Wyatt’s biographer Stuart Lake reported that Wyatt took to hunting buffalo during the winter of 1871-72, but Earp was arrested three times in the Peoria area during that period.

Earp is listed in the city directory for Peoria during 1872 as a resident in the house of Jane Haspel, who operated a brothel.

In February 1872, Peoria police raided the brothel, arresting four women and three men: Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, and George Randall. Wyatt and the others were charged with “Keeping and being found in a house of ill-fame.” He was arrested for the same crime in May 1872 and late September 1872.

It’s not known if Earp was a pimp, an enforcer or a bouncer for the brothel.

Wichita, Kansas

Wichita was a railroad terminal that was a destination for cattle drives from Texas. Such cattle boom towns on the frontier were raucous places filled with drunken, armed cowboys celebrating at the end of long drives.

Earp officially joined the Wichita marshal’s office on April 21, 1875, after the election of Mike Meagher as city marshal. He also dealt faro at the Long Branch Saloon.

Wyatt’s stint as Wichita deputy came to a sudden end on April 2, 1876, when Earp took too active an interest in the city marshal’s election. According to news accounts, former marshal Bill Smith accused Wyatt of using his office to help hire his brothers as lawmen. Wyatt got into a fistfight with Smith and beat him.

Meagher was forced to fire and arrest Earp for disturbing the peace, which ended a tour of duty that the papers called otherwise “unexceptionable.”

When his brother James opened a brothel in Dodge City, Kansas, Wyatt joined him there.

Dodge City, Kansas

After 1875, Dodge City, Kansas became a major terminal for cattle drives from Texas along the Chisholm Trail.

Earp was appointed assistant marshal in Dodge City under Marshal Larry Deger in 1876.

In October 1877, Earp left Dodge City to gamble throughout Texas. He stopped at Fort Griffin, Texas before returning to Dodge City in 1878 to become the assistant city marshal, serving under Charlie Bassett.

He may have met John Henry “Doc” Holliday while in Texas.

In the summer of 1878, Holliday assisted Earp during a bar room confrontation when Earp “was surrounded by desperadoes.” Earp credited Holliday with saving his life that day and they became lifelong friends.

While in Dodge City, Earp became acquainted with brothers James and Bat Masterson, Luke Short, and prostitute Celia Anne “Mattie” Blaylock.

Blaylock became Earp’s common-law wife until 1881. When Earp resigned from the Dodge City police force on September 9, 1879, she accompanied him to Las Vegas in the New Mexico Territory, and then Tombstone in Arizona Territory.

George Hoyt Shooting

At about 3:00 in the morning of July 26, 1878, George Hoyt (spelled in some accounts as “Hoy”) and other drunken cowboys shot their guns wildly, including three shots into Dodge City’s Comique Theater, causing comedian Eddie Foy to throw himself to the stage floor in the middle of his act. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Assistant Marshal Earp and policeman James Masterson responded and “…together with several citizens, turned their pistols loose in the direction of the fleeing horsemen.”

As the riders crossed the Arkansas river bridge south of town, George Hoyt fell from his horse from weakness caused by a wound in the arm he had received during the fracas. Hoyt developed gangrene and died on August 21.

Earp claimed to have sighted on Hoyt against the morning horizon and to have fired the fatal shot, but Hoyt could easily have been shot by Masterson or one of the citizens in the crowd.

Tombstone, Arizona

Wyatt’s older brother Virgil was in Prescott, Arizona Territory, in 1879 and wrote Wyatt about the opportunities in the nearby silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone. In the fall of 1879, Wyatt, his common-law wife Mattie Blaylock, his brother Jim and his wife, and Doc Holliday and his common-law wife Big Nose Kate, all left for Arizona.

They stopped in Las Vegas and at other locations, arriving in Prescott in November.

The three Earps moved with their wives to Tombstone while Doc remained in Prescott where the gambling afforded better opportunities.

There, the Earps clashed with a loose federation of outlaw cowboys.

It was in Tombstone that the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place.

Wyatt, Virgil, and their younger brother Morgan held various law enforcement positions that put them in conflict with Tom and Frank McLaury, and Ike and Billy Clanton, who threatened to kill the Earps. The conflict escalated over the next year, culminating on October 26, 1881 in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, during which the Earps and Holliday killed three of the Cowboys.

The Cowboys didn’t take their perceived “defeat” at the O.K. Corral lightly.

On December 28, while walking between saloons on Allen Street in Tombstone, Virgil was ambushed and maimed by a shotgun round that struck his left arm and shoulder. Ike Clanton’s hat was found in the back of the building across Allen Street from where the shots were fired.

After attending a theatre show on March 18 1882, Morgan Earp was assassinated by gunmen firing from a dark alley through a door window into a room where he was playing billiards. Another round narrowly missed Wyatt.

Wyatt Earp felt he could not rely on civil justice, and decided to take matters into his own hands. He concluded that the only way to deal with Morgan’s murderers was to kill them all.

Earp Vendetta Ride

The day after Morgan’s murder, Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt, his brother James, Doc Holliday, and a few others that Wyatt deputized took Morgan’s body to the railhead in Benson. They put Morgan’s body on the train with James, who accompanied it to the family home in Colton, California, where Morgan’s wife waited to bury him.

They guarded Virgil and Addie through to Tucson, where they had heard Frank Stilwell and other Cowboys were waiting to kill Virgil.

The next morning Frank Stilwell’s body was found alongside the tracks riddled with buckshot and gunshot wounds. Wyatt and five others were accused of murdering him and Tucson Justice of the Peace Charles Meyer issued warrants for their arrest.

The Earp posse briefly returned to Tombstone where Sheriff Behan tried to stop them. The heavily armed posse brushed him aside and set out for Pete Spence’s wood camp in the Dragoon Mountains.

They found and killed Florentino “Indian Charlie” Cruz.

Two days later, near Iron Springs (later Mescal Springs), in the Whetstone Mountains, they were seeking to rendezvous with a messenger. They unexpectedly stumbled onto the wood camp of Curly Bill Brocius, Pony Diehl, and other Cowboys.

According to reports from both sides, the two sides immediately exchanged fire. Except for Wyatt and Texas Jack Vermillion, whose horse was shot, the Earp party withdrew to find protection from the heavy gunfire.

Curly Bill fired at Wyatt with a shotgun but missed. Wyatt received bullet holes in both sides of his long coat and another struck his boot heel.

Wyatt returned Curly Bill’s gunfire with his own shotgun and shot Curly Bill in the chest from about 50 feet (15 m) away. Curly Bill fell into the water by the edge of the spring and died.

After emptying his shotgun, Wyatt fired his pistol, mortally wounding Johnny Barnes in the chest, and wounded Milt Hicks in the arm.

Vermillion tried to retrieve his rifle wedged in the scabbard under his fallen horse, exposing himself to the Cowboys’ gunfire. Doc Holliday helped him gain cover.

Wyatt had trouble remounting his horse because his cartridge belt had slipped down his legs. He was finally able to get on his horse and with the rest of the posse retreated.

The Earp Party rode north to the Percy Ranch, but were not welcomed by Hugh and Jim Percy, who feared the Cowboys.

The Earp party slipped into the area near Tombstone and met with supporters, including “Charlie” Smith and Warren Earp.

On March 27, the posse arrived at the Sierra Bonita ranch of Henry C. Hooker, a wealthy and prominent rancher. When Behan’s posse was observed in the distance, Hooker suggested Wyatt make his stand there, but Wyatt moved into the hills about three miles (5 km) away, near Reilly Hill.

The Earp posse did not meet with the posse, led by Cochise County Sheriff John Behan, searching for the Earps, and in the middle of April 1882 the Earp party fled the Arizona territory, heading east into New Mexico Territory and then into Colorado.

The coroner reports credited the Earp party with killing four men in their two-week long ride.

Life After Tombstone

The gunfight in Tombstone lasted only 30 seconds, but would end up defining Earp for the rest of his life. After Wyatt killed Frank Stilwell in Tucson, his movements received national press coverage and he became a part of Western folklore.

After Morgan Earp’s assassination, Wyatt’s former common-law wife, Celia Anne “Mattie” Blaylock, waited for him in Colton but eventually accepted that Wyatt was not coming back.

Wyatt left Mattie their house when he left Tombstone. She moved to Pinal City, Arizona and resumed life as a prostitute.
Mattie struggled with her addictions and committed “suicide by opium poisoning” on July 3, 1888.

Wyatt went to San Francisco and joined his lover, the Jewish actress Josephine Marcus, Warren and Virgil in late 1882.

Josie, or Sadie as he called her, was his common-law wife for the next forty-six years.

The Death of Wyatt Earp

The last surviving Earp brother and the last surviving participant of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp died at home in the Earps’ small apartment at 4004 W 17th Street, in Los Angeles, of chronic cystitis (some sources cite prostate cancer) on January 13, 1929 at the age of 80.

His pallbearers were prominent men: George W. Parsons, Charles Welch, Fred Dornberge, Los Angeles Examiner writer Jim Mitchell, Hollywood screenwriter Wilson Mizner, Earp’s good friend from his days in Tombstone, John Clum, and Western actors William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Mitchell wrote Wyatt’s obituary.

The newspapers reported that Tom Mix cried during his friend’s service. His wife Josie was too grief-stricken to attend.

Josie had Earp’s body cremated and buried Earp’s ashes in the Marcus family plot at the Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, California.

Although it never was incorporated as a town, the settlement formerly known as Drennan located near the site of some of his mining claims was renamed Earp, California in his honor when the post office was established there in 1930.

When she died in 1944, Josie’s ashes were buried next to Earp’s. The original gravemarker was stolen on July 8, 1957 but was later recovered. Their gravesite is the most visited resting place in the Jewish cemetery.

Quite a life.

I hope you’ll join me, for the next installment in this series.

Till then.