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Nothing So Sacred As Honour: The Real Wyatt Earp

Updated on December 9, 2012
just look at that moustache.
just look at that moustache. | Source

There's nothing so sacred as honour, and nothing so loyal as love." - Earp's epitaph

When American authors spin tales of the Wild West, they are full to the brim with legendary heroes: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill, and Calamity Jane to name a few. One of the most famous men of the old west was branded into history by the Gunfight at the O.K. corral. Backed by his brothers and the wilily Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp successfully brought down the Brothers Clanton and McLowry, Billy Claiborne, and Sheriff Johnny Behan in less than 30 seconds. Two films have been made in the past ten years in attempt to truthfully depict Earp: Wyatt Earp (1994) andTombstone (1993). Though the general facts about Earp have been largely consistent in the silver screen portrayals of the man, there are a few embellishments and liberties that the film industry has taken in order to make his life more entertaining. This is a great betrayal to the memory of Wyatt Earp and Hollywood needs to get their facts straight.

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born to Nicholas and Virginia Earp in Monmouth, Illinois on May 19, 1848, the fourth and prodigal son. His father had sired two other children from his first marriage: Newton and an unspecified girl who died at the tender age of ten months. Though his older three brothers (Virgil, James, and Newton) fought perilously in the Civil War, Wyatt's father Nicholas did not allow him to run off and join the fight. Instead, Earp found himself delegating the family crops (of which there were tens of acres) and filling the patriarchal shoes in his household for his two younger brothers, Morgan and Warren (Earp also had three sisters, none of whom behaved unusually enough to be of much mention in history). Wyatt Earp shows all three of Earp’s brothers returning home at the same time from the war, when in actuality, Virgil returned home with Newton after James (a severe wound sent James home to his family before the war was over). It is easy to see why this liberty might be taken. In the interest of time that a film is allotted to give back-story, it would shrink the time needed to tell about the brothers’ return home.

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in "Tombstone" (1993)
Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in "Tombstone" (1993) | Source

When Manifest Destiny gripped the nation,

the Earp family joined a wagon train headed for the West Coast and the sweeping California land. Wyatt was now old enough to join a group of drivers with his brother Virgil. They helped drive Phineas Banning’s Stage Line until 1866 when Wyatt began to help Chris Taylor move wagon trains through California. A few years later, Wyatt refereed several boxing matches, including a fight between John Shanssey and Mike Donovan.

The Earp family made it as far as Missouri where Nicholas became constable, a position later assumed by Wyatt. Here Wyatt met his first wife Urilla Sutherland, with whom he had no children (with her untimely death mid-pregnancy, their union was short-lived). After a series of claims were made against Wyatt (of all he was acquitted), he fled Missouri in favor of his old home state, Illinois.

Several different accounts of Earp’s whereabouts have suggested the possibility of him living in a house of ill repute during this time, though there is no concrete evidence of any such dalliance. This is the period of time in which Earp is thought by historians to have met long-time friend Bat Masterson, but the location of their first encounter is a mystery. Though it is unclear what sort of shenanigans Earp may have been privy to in Illinois, he later turned up in Wichita, Kansas and became a marshal on August 21, 1875. This was Earp’s first recognition as any sort of officer of the law, though his actual position and duties as a marshal are unclear in the records from the period. The accounts of Earp during this time suggest he had (at least temporarily) renounced his party-boy ways and was now staunchly in support of the law.

After a scuffle with Bill Smith, former marshal of Wichita, Earp was arrested for ‘disturbing the peace’ and Earp skipped town in favor of another Kansas hot spot, Dodge City. For a short period of time, Earp served as Assistant Deputy in Dodge before taking a gambling hiatus in Fort Griffin, Texas where he is said to have met dentist and fellow gambler Doc Holliday. Earp returned to Dodge to become the assistant marshal; Holliday joined his friend in Kansas. Though Tombstone and Wyatt Earp both depict Earp as Marshal of Dodge City, he never officially held that office, only reaching the deputy and assistant positions.

Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp in "Wyatt Earp" (1994)
Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp in "Wyatt Earp" (1994) | Source

One of the many disputed events in Wyatt Earp’s life

is the shooting of George Hoy. Hoy sought to get back at Earp after a brief altercation that had left Hoy with a wounded pride. After shooting blindly into the Comique variety hall in Dodge (where Earp and Doc Holliday were enjoying a night on the town with friends), Earp and James Masterson (Bat’s brother) exited the hall to halt the onslaught. It is claimed by historical accounts that Hoy was shot from his horse. Though it is uncertain whether Earp or Masterson actually shot the man, Earp supposedly claimed the bullet as his own. This would account for the portrayal of the fight in Wyatt Earp where Earp shoots Hoy. Because Earp was outspoken about his triumphs, if Masterson did not claim the shot (even if he was in fact the shooter), it can be supposed that Earp would have proudly taken credit for it. The film also shows actress (and later Earp’s wife) Josephine Marcus present for Hoy’s shooting, when in reality Marcus was in Tombstone, Arizona and had yet to meet Earp.

It is speculated that Earp’s last companion in Dodge was Celia Anne 'Mattie' Blaylock, and she was with him until the early 1880s. As depicted in Tombstone, she was a prostitute and heavily reliant on the drug laudanum (also known as opium). Despite the fact that they never officially married, Earp allowed her to use his last name. Public records, though primitive, have confirmed these facts to be true. The pair was common-law married but Earp left her for good in order to actually marry Josephine Marcus. Mattie nursed the hope the Earp would some day return to her. After he failed to do so, she committed suicide in 1888 by overdosing on Laudanum.

Dana Delaney as Josephine Marcus in "Tombstone"
Dana Delaney as Josephine Marcus in "Tombstone" | Source

Earp was known to pistol-whip

the men that he arrested as an effective tool of restraint. Tombstone depicted this tendency as more of a means to control his attacker, rather then a show of force, or more than likely, a display of his power. Earp is said to have received a Colt Buntline Special army-grade long barreled revolver for helping track down the murderer of actress Dora Hand, a particularly effective tool when pistol-whipping is one’s prerogative.

The most that is known about Earp is his life in Tombstone, Arizona. James and Virgil moved with Wyatt to the little boomtown; Virgil had been named deputy U.S. marshal before their arrival, James worked as a bartender, and Wyatt worked for Wells Fargo guarding carrier stagecoaches. The other two brothers, Morgan and Warren, joined them by 1880. Doc Holliday arrived last, completing Earp’s posse. In July of that year, a group of ruffians called the ‘Cowboys’ began causing trouble in Tombstone. The emergence of the McLowry brothers in the town kept the citizens on their toes constantly. Around the same time, Wyatt Earp was named the deputy sheriff for Tombstone, though he only held this position for three months.

After the accidental death of the town marshal, Fred White, at the hands of Curly Bill Brocius, several different elections occurred in order to replace White. Though White is depicted in his late fifties or early sixties in both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, he was only 31 when he died. Though he held a particularly powerful position,Earp resigned as deputy sheriff in order to support a more controversial candidate for White’s position.

a sign in Tombstone, Arizona marking the place where Fred White was killed by Curly Bill Brocius.
a sign in Tombstone, Arizona marking the place where Fred White was killed by Curly Bill Brocius.

Despite his actions,

Earp really wasn’t well known until after the famous gunfight at the O.K. corral. According to his testimony printed in the Tombstone Nugget, Earp was 32 years old at the time of the trial, serving as saloonkeeper, deputy Sheriff and detective of Tombstone and having resided there since December 1, 1879. Earp states that the gunfight was the culminating event following a long investigation into Frank and Tom McLowry (or McLaury, historians disagree on the spelling) who had been accused of stealing six government mules and rebranding them. After tracing the robbery to the McLowry ranch, the brothers promised to return the mules to Tombstone, but soon reneged on the agreement. Earp and his brothers were cautioned that the McLowry brothers had threatened their lives. Wyatt Earp ran into the McLowry brothers again in Charleston soon after, and they again threatened to kill him if he ever tried to follow them again.

Not long after the confrontation, a man named Bud Philpot was killed by three men when they attempted to rob the Benson stagecoach. Earp suspected the robbers to be Billy Leonard, Harry Head and James Crane, friends and close associates of the McLowry brothers and the Clantons. As Wyatt Earp was seeking the county Sheriff position, he thought capturing the criminals who killed Philpot might aid his campaign, not to mention earn him a reward of $3,600.

Earp made a devil's bargain with Ike Clanton, Frank McLowry and Joe Hill the next time they came to town, promising to reward them anonymously for helping in the capture of Leonard, Head, and Crane. The plan was that Joe Hill would ride to the hide out in Eureka, New Mexico and lure the men back to the McLowry farm where Earp would be waiting to arrest them with a posse. When Hill rode to the hideout, he discovered that Leonard and Head were already dead, having been murdered by horse thieves the day before (later traced back to Clanton/McLowry associates). When Clanton, McLowry and Hill returned to Tombstone, they claimed that Earp had set them up and openly shunned the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, renewing their murderous promises.

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp, Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp in "Tombstone" (1993)
Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp, Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp in "Tombstone" (1993) | Source

A month later,

Wyatt and Morgan Earp arrested and Stilwell and Spencer for the Bisbee coach robbery, still more accomplices to the Clanton/McLowry robbery ring. When the Earp’s returned to Tombstone with Spencer and Stilwell, Frank McLowry, Ike Clanton, and a small group of ruffians including John Ringold and the Hick brothers confronted Morgan in the street. McLowry gave Morgan what for over the arrest of Stilwell and Spencer, adding: "If you ever come after me you will never take me;" Morgan stated that he would indeed arrest McLowry if he ever gave him cause, to which McLowry replied: "I have threatened you boys' lives, an a few days ago had taken it back, but since this arrest it now `goes;'" Morgan walked off without so much as a huff. The death threats against the Earp brothers had been previously reported by eight or nine Tombstone townsfolk. Ike Clanton, Frank McLowry, Tom McLowry, Joe Hill and John Ringgold, all of who were known robbers and outlaws and considered a dangerous group of men, made these threats on the Earp’s. The string of murders, robberies, and crimes by the Clanton/McLowry ring continued to terrorize the southwest for many months to follow.

The tensions between the Clanton/McLowry posse and the Earp’s came to a head on Wednesday, October 26, 1881. Virgil Earp was serving as city Marshal of Tombstone when he learned that the outlaws were waiting near the O.K. Corral, armed to the hilt. Virgil recruited Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday to help him disarm the men peacefully, if possible, promoting Wyatt to temporary assistant Marshal and deputizing Holliday. Around 3:00 pm, the Earp gang headed for Fremont Street where the outlaws had been seen. The two groups met in a skinny vacant lot next to the O.K. Corral's back entrance, initially only about eight feet apart. Immediately, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne (a newer recruit) deserted their compatriots. Both sides opened fire; when the dust cleared, Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLowry were dead. The Earp posse only suffered minor injuries, the worst being Virgil's bullet to the calf.

On October 30th, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earp’s and Holliday, but eventually the trial was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The backlash after the trial was brutal; a gang attacked Virgil one evening in Tombstone, though he was not killed. Though Ike Clanton's hat was found at that location, he was acquitted of the attempted murder when his lawyers produced seven witnesses who testified that he was in Charleston at the time of the crime. On March 18th, Morgan Earp was assassinated by unidentified by assassins as he played billiards. Without sufficient evidence to bring the assassin to justice, Wyatt decided to take matters into his own hands; thus began the Earp vendetta.

This photo was published pre-1923. From left to right, standing: W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon. Seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown
This photo was published pre-1923. From left to right, standing: W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon. Seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown | Source

In the vendetta ride,

the Earp party is credited with killing four men, but Wyatt claimed to have slain dozens of robbers, murderers and cattle thieves in his time. The Earp party fled Arizona for Colorado by way of New Mexico in 1882. There is speculation that they met up with Wyatt's friend Bat Masterson in Albuquerque and then rode north to Trinidad, CO, where Masterson owned a saloon. Earp and the rest of the party laid low in Gunnison, CO for a time until Wyatt rode to San Francisco with Virgil and Warren Earp to meet up with Josie Marcus in 1882. Wyatt proceeded to bounce around the country with Josie to meet the demands of the growing country and seek a more stable life. These places included Dodge City, mining in Eagle, Idaho, the housing boom in San Diego, back to San Francisco, Alaska, Nevada, and back to California for good. Eventually, Earp became a Hollywood consultant, aiding in replicating the historical conditions for western films.

On January 13, 1929, Wyatt Earp died of chronic cystis in Los Angeles (some speculate prostate cancer), the last surviving participant in the fight at the O.K. Corral. He was 80 years old. Wyatt Earp is buried next to his wife Josephine in the Jewish Hills of Eternity cemetery in Colma, California. The epitaph on the tombstone reads: "There is nothing so sacred as honour, and nothing so loyal as love." Though Earp was far from a saint, his life seems to have been governed by this very passionate principle; nothing in the world was more sacred to him than his honour and he fought with all he had to maintain it. The only people he trusted were his family and close friends, and that loyalty extended only so far as those that he loved. Men who he had fought for betrayed his trust and he brought them to justice. Wyatt Earp was so critical to the shaping of the American west, it is important to understand who he really was. Though Kevin Costner or Kurt Russell bring to life the ferocity of his convictions, we must strive to perpetuate the truth about his identity as, some might consider, a founding father of the American West.

"Wyatt Earp." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyatt_Earp>. - Further references and suggested texts accompany this article as wikipedia itself is a changeable and unreliable source without supporting text.

Gatto, Steve. "Wyatt Earp History Page." Wyatt Earp History Page. Steve Gatto, 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.wyattearp.net/>.

All photos obtained through Google images, respective websites are cited underneath. I don't own any of them and use them for a purely educational hub.

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    • MyGirlThursday profile image
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      Kate Herrell 5 years ago from Denver, CO

      Thank you very much! I appreciate that, and thank you for reading!

    • ThomasBaker profile image

      ThomasBaker 5 years ago from Florida

      This is an awesome piece. The pictures really helped in the presentation. Very, very well written..great grammer.

      I hope to read more articles from you.

      Tom

    • MyGirlThursday profile image
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      Kate Herrell 5 years ago from Denver, CO

      Thanks so much!

    • qeyler profile image

      qeyler 5 years ago

      This was a very interesting article.