I really enjoy writing about the Old West. When I stumble upon a little known fact of history, it makes me positively giddy! As I see it, the more obscure the topic, the more fun our time around the virtual campfire is going to be. Then, of course, there are the stories that are anything but hidden. . .stories that have been told and retold so many times that they can fill a bookshelf. Today’s edition of the Campfire Chronicle is about a man who has been the subject of enough books to fill a room and enough movies and television episodes to fill a Netflix queue! Today, we’re going to talk about Wyatt Earp.
In all honesty, I have repeatedly shoved this notable character to the back burner because . . . well, because he was Wyatt Earp and researching even a fraction of the available information is a daunting task. Folks, I have dilly-dallied for long enough, but I don’t mind telling you that this is more intimidating than . . . than coming up with the perfect example of something that’s really intimidating (which I must confess, I have been unable to do).
Since there is so much information about this man, and since so much of that information isn’t even true, we’re going to play a little game I am calling, “Wyatt Earp: True, False, or Your Guess Is As Good As Mine!”
The Early Years
Wyatt Earp was born in Kansas. False. The most famous Old West lawman was born in Illinois in 1848. He was the third of six children born to Nicholas and Virginia Earp. Those siblings were Virgil, Morgan, James, Martha and Adelia. Martha died in childhood. He also had a half brother, Newton, and a half sister who died as a baby. The family later moved to Iowa and Missouri.
Young Earp fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, or served as a drummer boy. False. It wasn’t for a lack of trying though! Earp was only 13-yrs-old at the beginning of the war. He made multiple attempts to run away and join his big brothers, Virgil and James, but he as repeatedly found and dragged back to the family farm.
Wyatt’s first job was working as a teamster. True. He transported cargo from the Los Angeles area to San Bernardino. Later, his route became Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. He was still a teenager.
He worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. True. He was barely 20-yrs-old when he was hired to grade track. While we don’t think of Earp as a railroad worker, this was the time in his life when he became a consummate gambler. It’s also when he developed a side career of officiating at boxing matches.
Some Defining Moments
Wyatt Earp’s first wife died during childbirth. False. Urilla Earp was pregnant when she died of typhus. They had been married for less than year. The period that followed was a dark one for the young widower. He sold his house in Missouri and made his way around Indian Territory. He eventually made it to Kansas. During this period, Earp had a string of legal problems.
He was arrested on more than one occasion. True. Boy howdy, that one is true! He was arrested for stealing two horses, but he broke out of jail and hightailed it to Illinois. In following years, he was arrested for slapping a smart-mouthed prostitute. There were multiple arrests for his close connection to a brothel—be he owner, bouncer, or pimp. In later years, he was arrested for crooked card games. And, he appeared in court for officiating a fixed boxing match.
Wyatt Earp was a teetotaler. Your guess is as good as mine, but this appears to be false. Or true. Oh, I don’t know anymore!
The man with the run-ins with the law became a police officer in Wichita, Kansas, and, eventually, the deputy town marshal of Dodge City. True. Of course he did!
Earp met Doc Holliday in Wichita. False. The pair met in Dodge City. It was a friendship for the Old West history books!
So You Think You Know Earp
Following the death of Urilla, Wyatt Earp swore off women. False. In fact, if you answered true to that one, I would like to interest you in some oceanfront property in Tombstone, Arizona! Wyatt Earp had a common law marriage to former prostitute, Mattie Blaylock. Blaylock later committed suicide. He also had a common law marriage to Josephine “Sadie” Marcus, who is sometimes said to have been an actress. (If by “actress,” people mean prostitute, then yes, she was likely an “actress.”) Earp and Marcus were together for 46 years. There was an earlier, serious relationship with Sally Heckell. It is possible that Sally was also Earp’s common law wife.
Wyatt Earp would have loved Ben & Jerry. I’m going with True. The man had a sweet tooth and was not lactose intolerant. He was perhaps the most loyal customer of the ice cream parlor in Tombstone, enjoying a scoop of ice cream every chance he got.
Wyatt Earp fired the first shot at the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Your guess is as good as mine. No one knows who fired the first shot. If you would like to brush up on the facts of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, check out this previous edition of the Campfire Chronicle.
He himself was never shot. True. The famous lawman was never shot in a gunfight. His closest call did not happen in a gunfight, however. Once, his own gun accidentally discharged and he shot a hole through the coat he was wearing at the time.
The Later Years
John Wayne was a personal friend of his. Your guess is as good as mine. Some sources claim that the two had a close friendship. Other sources claim that was nothing but a bunch of hooey and the two never actually met. All I can say is that I haven’t seen a picture of the two together. It seems like this is an urban legend. It is true that Wyatt Earp worked as an unpaid consultant on some silent cowboy movies, but that was before John Wayne was a Western star.
Tom Mix was a pallbearer at his funeral. True. Western actor, William S. Hart was also a pallbearer. Wyatt Earp died in 1929, at the age of 80. He was the last surviving participant of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Folks, I know I haven’t begun to pick the meat off the bones of this story. But, I surrender! I suggest you spend some time filling your Netflix queue with some Wyatt Earp classics. Might I suggest the Kevin Costner version?
Here’s a wonderful biography of Wyatt Earp from the PBS series “The American Experience.”