The legend of Wyatt Earp helped define America's era of the Wild West. Not only did Earp live through the entire cowboy era, by the time he died at the age of 80, he had written a memoir and served as a technical advisor for the early western silent films.
In this role, Earp's reminiscences of the old west helped create early Hollywood cowboy heros: actors Tom MIx, Hoot Gibson, and John Wayne, and director John Ford. Having lived from 1848 to 1929, Earp was a boy at the time of the Civil War, and following the war, headed west to seek his fortune.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp is buried at the Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, California. Surprising? Perhaps, but the more one learns about Earp, the more it seems that the Wyatt Earp that is popularly known is a Hollywood legend, promulgated to tell a romantic story of heroes and villains, with Wyatt Earp emerging as the Forest Gump of the wild west-having been everywhere and changing things for the better.
So, who was Wyatt Earp? Many films have been made about him-all were partially or totally fictional. Earp was an officer of the law in various Western frontier towns, farmer, teamster, buffalo hunter, gambler, saloonkeeper, miner and boxing referee.
Earp was most known as a peace officer. Yet, although he served from time to time as an adjunct lawman, he was never a Marshall. Earp had several brothers. His brother, Virgil, was a Deputy U.S. Marshal.
Wyatt actually found himself more often on the receiving side than on the enforcement side of the law. In 1868, the Earp family moved to Lamar, Missouri. When his father, Nicholas, resigned as constable, Wyatt was appointed to the post, and later won election by defeating his half brother, Newton.
Soon, Wyatt was arrested first for falsifying court documents regarding town collections, and then for horse theft. While out on bail, he fled Missouri. In his biography, Earp claimed to have spent the time buffalo hunting where he met Wild Bill Hickok, but records indicate that during that period, he was running a brothel in Peoria, Illinois-where he was arrested three times for operating a house of ill repute.
In 1874, Earp arrived in Wichita, Kansas, a train terminal destination for cattle drives. He helped in the City Marshall's office, possibly in an unpaid capacity. He is credited with arresting a horse thief and a group of wagon thieves. During this period, while he was leaning back on a chair, a single-action revolver dropped out of his holster and discharged a bullet that went through his coat. That was the closest Earp ever came to being struck by a bullet.
After two years of service, described by a newspaper as "unexceptional," Earp got into a fist fight during the City Marshall election and was fired.
Earp ventured to Dodge City, Kansas, where the first records are of him being fined for slapping a prostitute who insulted him. He left Dodge City on a gambling tour, returning in 1878 to become Assistant City Marshall. Earp and Doc Holliday met during a brawl when Holiday was reported to have stopped a cowboy from shooting Earp in the back.
Earp, in his biography, reported several gunfights or potential gunfights during his time as Assistant City Marshall, with most of the details found to be at variance with the record.
In a murder where a woman was killed during an attempted assassination of the mayor of Dodge City, Earp was part of a posse and was credited with shooting the perpetrator's horse.
Wyatt moved to Tombstone, Arizona to be near his brothers James and Virgil, a U.S. Deputy Marshal. Wyatt went to work riding shotgun for Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Soon, brothers Morgan and Warren, and Doc Holliday joined them.
A complicated series of events led to what has become known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It pitted Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday against Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury. Sheriff Johnny Behan took the side of the cowboys in their battle against the Earps. Ike Clanton was known to have been unarmed and no weapon was found near Tom McLaury, who was killed by a shotgun blast from Doc Holliday-who fired the first shot.
The gunfight was followed by a lengthy trial that concluded that Virgil Earp and his deputies had acted as law officers, although Virgil Earp was criticized for his choice of Wyatt and Doc as deputies.
Following the trial, Virgil Earp was attacked and wounded. Then Morgan Earp was assassinated. Wyatt and Doc Holliday formed a vendetta posse, killing several he believed to be involved in the shootings.
Earp had three common law marriages: Urilla Sutherland a wife of just a few months, Celia Ann "Mattie" Blaylock, and Josephine "Josie' Sarah Marcus. Mattie worked as a prostitute for the Earp brothers. Wyatt left her when he left Tombstone in 1882. Josie was the common law wife of Sheriff Johnny Behan.
In 1882, Wyatt moved to San Francisco, struck up a romance with Josie, and they became a common law couple beginning in 1883.
In 1896, Earp was the referee for the Bob Fitzsimmons against Tom Sharkey boxing match. The fight was heralded as a prelude to the World Championship. Fitzsimmons knocked down Sharkey, but Earp awarded the match to Sharkey, claiming that Fitzsimmons committed a low blow. Earp was accused of committing fraud.
In 1896, Earp wrote his memoirs, and in the early 20th century, the Earps moved to Hollywood where Wyatt served as a technical advisor to the early western film industry.
He died in 1929 at the age of 80. Western actors William S. Hart and Tom Mix were pallbearers at his funeral. Earp's body was cremated and Earp's ashes were buried in the Marcus family plot at the Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery (Josie was Jewish) in Colma, California. When she died in 1944, Josie's ashes were buried next to Earp's. The original grave marker was stolen in 1944 but has since been replaced.
The legend of Wyatt Earp has inspired nearly a dozen feature films. The true story of Wyatt Earp is less about a hero and more about a man growing up at a time when the West was wild. His legend is part of Americana.