Of all the men to pin on a lawman’s badge in the old West, none was as famous, as successful nor as controversial as Wyatt Earp (1848-1929). He is most famous today for his leading role in the “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, but in his day was as well known for other exploits - not all of them particularly law abiding or respectable. Born into a farming family in Illinois, Wyatt moved west to California with the rest of his family in 1864. He then spent three years as a teamster, driving freight wagons across the western territories and states of the USA. He began his career as a lawman in Missouri in 1870, but after his wife died Wyatt seems to have taken to drink and in 1871 was charged both with failing to fulfil his duties and with stealing a horse. Wyatt went on the run and his movements over the next three years are unclear.
In October 1874, however, he arrived in Wichita, Kansas, where he was hired as a law officer in the city marshal’s office. The main task of the marshal’s office was to keep order among the hard-drinking cowboys who were paid off in the town when they delivered cattle from Texas to the railroad yards. Wyatt proved to be expert at handling the drunken disputes and outbreaks of violence. By 1876 the cattle trade had moved on to Dodge City, so Wyatt moved with it to become Assistant Marshal. It was in Dodge City that he met the professional gambler “Doc” Holliday who would become a long term friend. Wyatt’s time in Dodge City was again a success, though it was marred when he was fined $1 for hitting a woman - a prostitute with whom he was having an altercation over public behaviour.
In 1879 he moved on to the silver mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona, where his younger brother Virgil was Marshal. Wyatt was hired as sheriff for the rural areas around the town. Two other brothers, Morgan and Warren, arrived in 1880 and so did Doc Holliday. In February 1881 Wyatt found a stolen horse in the possession of local cattle rancher and suspected rustler, Ike Clanton. Clanton handed over the horse saying he had bought it in good faith, but the incident began the ill feeling between the Earps and the Clantons plus their friends the McLaury brothers.
On 26 October 1881, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Claiborne, Ike Clanton and Billy Clanton met at the OK Corral in Tombstone to discuss unspecified business. They were armed, contrary to local laws. The Earps went to arrest them, being joined on the way by Holliday. Virgil Earp called on the cowboys to throw down their guns, but they did not so Holliday drew his gun and this caused the Clantons to open fire. Soon a general gunfight was in progress. It lasted barely 30 seconds, but cost the lives of Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury, while everyone else apart from Wyatt and Ike were injured.
After the gunfight, Morgan Earp was murdered by men loyal to the Clantons, causing Wyatt to begin the so-called “Earp Vendetta Ride”, during which time he and Holliday shot dead all those they thought were involved in the murder of Morgan. The gunfight and the killings that followed marked the end of Wyatt’s career as a law officer. He opened a saloon in San Diego, later moving to Alaska to run a series of saloons during the gold rush.
“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” Wyatt Earp when asked about the skills needed for gunfighting.
Wyatt Earp in Hollywood
In his old age, Wyatt Earp moved to Hollywood where he earned money advising film directors and actors on the old West. Movie legend John Wayne met Earp several times when he was a young actor and later said that he modelled his cowboy persona on Earp.
This is an extract from Heroes, Rascals and Rogues by Rupert Matthews