Few lawmen in the Old West are as storied as Wyatt Earp. He became a character in fictionalized dime novels in the 1880s.

With movies and television his checkered law enforcement career was transformed into that of a iconic Western lawman. However, his start as a town constable in Lamar, Missouri, did not portend the notoriety associated with his name decades later.

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was the fourth child of Nicholas and Virginia Earp. He was born March 19, 1848, in Monmouth, Illinois. In 1850, the family headed west to California, but due to daughter Martha’s ill health, stopped at Pella, Iowa. She died, but the family stayed.

Brothers Newton, James and Virgil enlisted in the Union Army, while Nicholas recruited and drilled local companies. That left Wyatt, 13, and his two younger brothers, Morgan and Warren, to care for the family farm. Wyatt attempted to enlist several times but his father always found him.

In 1864 the family moved to San Bernardino, California. Wyatt worked as a teamster on an overland route to Salt Lake City, Utah, and later for the Union Pacific Railroad. He became skilled at gambling and boxing.

Lamar constable

In 1868 Nicholas Earp purchased 240 acres in the Nashville Township in Barton County. A Union veteran, he became Lamar’s constable as local government was reestablished.

Wyatt moved to Missouri in 1869. He met Orilla Sutherland, whose father operated the Lamar House. The couple married in January 1870. Nicholas Earp resigned to become a justice of the peace in March. Wyatt was appointed constable in his place.

He built a house just outside of town. But in August, Orilla, who was pregnant, contracted typhoid fever and died. Wyatt sold the place. In the November election, he ran against his brother Newton for constable. He won with 137 votes to Newton’s 108.

Orilla’s death derailed any steady course for his immediate future. He was tasked with collecting fees for county schools, but did not turn in the money. The next year he was charged with theft of two horses. He sold his property before arrest, broke through the roof of the frame jail and fled to Peoria, Illinois.

Peoria was a wide open town. Earp gambled and associated with Jane Haspel, who kept a brothel. He was twice arrested for keeping a house of ill fame. Arrested with him was Sally Heckell, Haspel’s 16-year-old daughter, who said she was his wife. The couple left Peoria for Wichita, Kansas, where brother James kept a brothel in 1874. After a year, the couple split up.

Wyatt had helped an officer find wagon thieves, which led to appointment as a deputy. The deputy job didn’t last long. A fight about using his influence to hire his brothers as lawmen, caused the city council to decline to rehire him.

Dodge City deputy marshal

With doors in Wichita closed, he decided to follow James once more, this time to Dodge City. He was appointed assistant marshal under Marshal Lawrence Deger in 1876. About the same time he met prostitute Mattie Blaylock who became his common-law wife. He briefly tried to get into mining at Deadwood, Dakota Territory, but found claims already staked out, so he returned to Dodge. Gambling was legal and provided income as he dealt faro in the famous Long Branch saloon.

In 1877 after a Santa Fe Railroad camp robbery, he was given a deputy marshal commission to hunt down outlaw Dave Rudabaugh. Earp trailed him to Fort Griffin, Texas. At the Bee Hive saloon, the owner suggested Doc Holliday might know Rudabaugh’s plans. Doc told Earp the outlaw was going back to Kansas. It marked the start of a long friendship.

The next year, Holliday moved to Dodge City. When a band of rowdy cowboys tried to shoot up the Long Branch, Earp burst through the front doors to find their guns trained on him. Holliday saved the day as he was in the back and had the drop on the lead cowboy and calmly told the cowboys to drop their guns. Earp always credited Doc with saving his life. Others who frequented the Long Branch included James and Bat Masterson.

the O.K. Corral

By 1879, Dodge City was in Earp’s words “beginning to lose much of the snap which had given it a charm to men of reckless blood, and I decided to move to Tombstone, which was just building up a reputation.”

Wyatt and Mattie along with Jim and Bessie Earp moved to Tombstone, Arizona, where his brother Virgil was a deputy U.S. marshal. The tent city didn’t offer much other than gambling, which suited Wyatt. He worked as a shotgun messenger on Wells Fargo stages when needed.

In July 1880, Earp was appointed deputy sheriff for Pima County. It led to a running series of confrontations with an outlaw cowboy gang that stole horses, changed the brands and resold them. Mixed in with these confrontations were political machinations as Earp tried unsuccessfully to get elected sheriff of the new Cochise County.

The final straw between the cowboy gang and Earp and his brothers was a stagecoach robbery near Tombstone. Wyatt and Virgil were in the posse that arrested the robbers. The cowboys vowed lethal revenge on the Earps.

On Oct. 26, 1881, the Earps and Holliday confronted the cowboys at the O.K. Corral in an attempt to disarm them. It led to a shootout. Three of the cowboys were killed. Virgil and Holliday were wounded, but Wyatt was unscathed. In December the cowboys disabled Virgil with a shotgun blast, whereupon Wyatt asked for and received a deputy U.S. marshal commission. Then in March, brother Morgan Earp was killed by an unknown assailant.

Wyatt, James and Warren Earp went on a vendetta against the cowboys. Over two weeks in March they killed four of the gang. But they did not return to Tombstone, and instead left for New Mexico, then Colorado. For a short while, Wyatt dealt faro for Bat Masterson’s saloon in Albuquerque, then worked a gold scam in Gunnison before leaving to San Francisco in 1882.

Mattie Blaylock kept house in Tombstone but Earp’s eye had fallen on prostitute Josephine Sara “Sadie” Marcus. When Wyatt reached San Francisco in 1882, Sadie was there. She became Earp’s common-law wife for 46 years.

Mattie Blaylock had taken up with another man who later abandoned her. She died of an opium overdose at Pinal City, Arizona, in 1888.

For the rest of his life, Earp followed mining booms in Idaho, Nevada, the Klondike and Nome, Alaska. He managed saloons and gambled on horse races and prize fights. He refereed a heavyweight championship fight in 1896 between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey in San Francisco. Fitzsimmons was heavily favored, but Earp awarded the fight to Sharkey after he called a Fitzsimmons foul. It led to a court battle that revealed fight fixing by boxing promoters. He became infamous among boxing fans as the “stage robber.”

The couple moved to Los Angeles 1910 where he worked for the Los Angeles police department doing work “outside the law” retrieving criminals from Mexico. The next year they bought a little house in Vidal, California, along the Arizona border where they worked small mine claims until his health failed in 1928.

He consulted for some movies and worked with a friend on an unpublished biography. He died of a kidney infection on Jan. 13, 1929, in Los Angeles at age 80.

In 1931, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal” by Stuart Lake polished his image, which led to movies that played up sanitized versions of his life. Having never been wounded in a gun fight overshadowed life’s less savory aspects, which could be overlooked. Though always a deputy, never a marshal, Wyatt Earp became the iconic lawman of the Old West.

Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to wcaldwell@joplinglobe.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.

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