American Western Lore: Wyatt Earp

The American West with its vast grandeurs and vistas, its ghost towns, deserts, buried treasure of silver and gold, myths and legends, Native Americans, lawmen and desperados, still fascinates people today.  In the mists of time all of these elements coalesce into the American Myth of the West.

Myths are important for a people.  The myths blend history, religion and culture into fabulous tales and daring adventures.  Myth connects one to one’s heritage.

Heritage is an essential ingredient in the tapestry of a nation.  Without heritage people have no moorings, like a rudderless sailboat driven by the capricious winds of fortune and fate.

One of the characters of the Old West who has always fascinated me was Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp.  He was born on March 19, 1848 in Monmouth, Illinois to Nicholas and Virginia Earp.  He was the middle son: Virgil, James, Wyatt, Morgan and Warren. He had an older half-brother, Newton, from his father’s first marriage to Abigail Sturm.  There were four sisters, Mariah Ann ( Abigail’s daughter ), Martha Elizabeth, Virginia Ann and Adelia.

From a very early age Wyatt had a restless spirit much like his father.  When Newton, Virgil and James went off to the Civil War, Wyatt desperately wanted to join them, but he was too young. He ran away from home anyway several times.  His father always brought him back to the family farm where he was needed to tend the corn crop.

The young man would become a stagecoach driver, a teamster, transporter of supplies to help build the Union Pacific Railroad, a boxing referee, a gambler, and a constable—all by the age of 21.  He traveled California, Nevada, Utah, the Wyoming Territory, and Missouri, also by the time he turned 21.

When he replaced his father as constable in Lamar, Missouri, he began a path in law enforcement which would follow him for years to come.  On January 10, 1870 he married Urillia Sullivan, daughter of William and Permelia Sutherland.  The New Yorker Sutherlands ran the hotel in Lamar.

History might have never heard of Wyatt Earp if Urillia had not contracted typhoid while pregnant. After her death Wyatt wandered and fell into trouble with the law.

He seemed to be a young man lost to his family and to himself.  Some tags used to describe this wanderer were horse thief, brothel bouncer, pimp, etc.  Shady and immoral badges which carried no honor in polite society were the albatross around his neck.

Hunting buffalo was a solitary existence for this young wanderer.   Eventually, he found his way to Wichita, Kansas where his history and destiny would meet.  He would become Deputy City Marshall under Mike Meager.

Between Wichita and Dodge City he would gain a common-law wife, Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock, daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Blaylock.  This farm girl from Iowa would abandon her Christian upbringing and become a prostitute.

The young woman was plagued with headaches which alcohol from the bar would deaden but eventually she sought solace in laudanum which resulted in her death at 38 when she took a lethal combination of alcohol and laudanum. This church chorister is buried in the ghost town of Pinal, Arizona where the roar of saloons and the clanging of silver ore are forever silent except in the whispers of the distant past.

Let’s not judge too harshly these women who did what they needed to do in order to survive in the Old West or even today.  In many ways they are victims of circumstance and fate which have dwelt them a bad poker hand, and their bodies are their only collateral.

Wyatt became friends with Bat Masterson and the notorious John Henry “Doc” Holiday. Doc Holiday and Wyatt would form a friendship which only death could break.

Long after Doc was gone Wyatt convinced a publisher to write the story of Doc.  The publisher wanted to do a story of Wyatt, but he felt his best friend would be the better story—the story of a Southern gentleman, dentist, gambler and gunfighter who met his end from tuberculosis at the age of 36, dying in a Colorado bed with his boots off and wondering if his late embrace of the Roman Catholic Church was too little too late to secure him a place in the world to come.

Doc was the one constant in Wyatt’s life from Dodge City to Tombstone to the infamous vengeance ride. What formed this strange, enduring friendship only the two of them knew—if even they knew why.

Friendship is not a standard formula.  Friends, true friends who would sacrifice all for you are rare indeed on this planet traversing the cosmos.

The restless spirit which Wyatt had inherited compelled him to pull up stakes and head West.  Tombstone was a silver boomtown which Wyatt believed would proffer business opportunities for him and his family.

It has been said that once you put on a badge, the sensation is always there over your heart whether the piece of metal hangs there or not.  Wyatt would again become a lawman along with his brothers.

Tombstone was different than Lamar, Wichita, and Dodge City.  The criminal element permeated all life from the dirtiest saloon to the judge behind the bench.

There was a viciousness about the Cowboys whose numbered about three hundred across the territory.  Desperados is a tame adjective to describe this bunch of outlaws who rustled cattle from the rich haciendas, robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches, stole horses, and carried on like ancient pillagers with no regard for life except for their own.

In Tombstone Wyatt would meet and fall in love with a young teenage woman named Josephine Sarah Marcus who would share Wyatt’s life for the rest of his days on earth.  Of course, Mattie and Josie became bitter enemies over the man.

The growing tension between the Earps and Holiday and the Cowboys escalated in the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral on October 26, 1881, where Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury were killed.  Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran from the fight, but on June 1, 1887 Ike was killed in a gunfight with Jonas Valentine Brighton who was attempting to arrest him.  On the night of November 14, 1882 Billy Claiborne got into a quarrel at the Oriental Saloon with Frank “Buckskin” Leslie who had no choice but to kill the young Billy, aged 22, who wanted to be called Billy the Kid.

Unfortunately, for the Earps the gunfight was only the beginning of their sorrows.  On December 28, 1881, as Virgil Earp made his rounds, he was ambushed.  Virgil was severely wounded and lost the use of his left arm.

On the night of March 18, 1882 Morgan Earp, aged 30, was shot in the back as he and Bob Hatch, owner of Campbell and Hatch Billiard Parlor, played.  Wyatt along with Deputies Sherman McMasters and Dan Tipton were watching the game.  One of the bullets just missed Wyatt’s head.

The lack of witnesses and evidence meant no one was charged officially with the murder.  This was the last straw for Wyatt who decided that since the courts could not bring in these men responsible for Virgil’s ambush and Morgan’s murder he would.

The vengeance ride of US Marshall Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Deputies Sherman McMasters, Dan Tipton, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, Texas Jack Vermillion, and Warren Earp was not for the purpose of arrest.  These federal officers became judge, jury and executioner of the Cowboys.  The bloody aftermath, where justice was served by the end of the Buntline Special, would become part of Western lore.

Dan Tipton died February 25, 1898 of chronic nephritis (kidney).  He was 54.

Sherman McMasters’ death is still a mystery.  It has been reported that he was killed by the Cowboys, died in the Spanish-American War or died in Colorado around age 40.

Turkey Creek Jack Johnson died in Salt Lake City of tuberculosis in 1887.  He was 35.

Texas Jack Vermillion’s death is clouded in mystery.  It is reported that he drowned in Lake Michigan near Chicago or died in his sleep in Virginia around 65 years of age.

Warren Earp was killed by Cowboy Johnny Boyett on July 6, 1900 in Willcox.  Warren was unarmed and 45 years of age.  It was rumored that Johnny Boyett was killed by Virgil or Wyatt for the murder of their brother because the case against Boyett was dismissed by the judge.

The rest of the Earp Brothers:

Newton died December 18, 1928 in Sacramento, California at the age of 91. James died of natural causes on January 25, 1926 in San Bernardino, California at the age of 84.  Virgil, age 62, died October 19, 1905 of pneumonia in Goldfield, Nevada where Wyatt and Josie were living.  He was the Deputy Sheriff.

Wyatt and Josie travelled and lived their lives.  Wyatt prospected in Colorado, worked for Wells Fargo, hunted and fished with Bat Masterson, returned to Dodge City as a member of the Dodge City Peace Commission along with Bat and Luke Short to put down corrupt officials, went to Texas and introduced Josie to Ben Thompson, then went to  Mexico, Idaho, Nevada, and California.

They would join the Klondike Gold Rush.  Eventually, they settled in Los Angeles where Wyatt became friends with Western film stars and sought to have his story told, unwrapped from the lore of the Old West.

On Sunday morning, January 13, 1929 Wyatt passed to his eternal rest.  The pallbearers were W. J. Hunsaker,  John Clum, Tom Mix, William Hart, Charlie Welsh and Wilson Mizner.

Wyatt’s ashes were placed in the Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma where Josie’s family was buried. Josie would carry on the fight for the world to know the true Wyatt Earp.

Wyatt Earp was many things to many people.  Who was he?  Perhaps, we will never know because of the western lore which Hollywood has created around the man.

For Josie,

Loneliness follows you wherever you go after you’re lost the love of your life.”

At the age of nineteen she fell madly in love with the tall stranger standing in the streets of Tombstone as she stepped off the stagecoach.  Josie died December 19, 1944 and is buried beside the love of her life.

G. D. Williams       © 2013


POST 512

American Experience


The Earp Brothers: Biography

Wyatt Earp: The Last Summer
by Don Crowley

Don Crowley Studio


Wyatt Earp

Urillia Sullivan Earp

Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock

John Henry “Doc” Holiday

Bat Masterson

Josephine Sarah Marcus

Buntline Special

Wyatt Earp In Films